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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Reasons for the withholding of the third cheer

In my last post, I stated that I had "two cheers" for the Supreme Court based on its marriage equality decisions.  My principal reason at the time for only two cheers and not three was more or less because I had wished the court had found the wherewithal to declare a constitutional right to marriage equality.  I understand the reasons why the court couldn't or wouldn't do that, and I even have some reservations about the "standing" aspect of the case that struck down section 3 of DOMA (I'm not convinced that the court shouldn't have granted standing, but I'm also not convinced that the court was right to do so).

But there are other reasons to posit only two cheers for the court.

The first is that the court was, in my view, just doing its job.  I recognize that the court is a political institution, and that its decisions can go one way or another, and my preference is that it go one way than another, so I'm happy it went (mostly) my way and not that other way.  I also recognize that there are different modes of constitutional interpretation and different ways to approach civil rights issues, etc.  But at the end of the day, the court's job is to issue decisions, and it and its members deserve no special praise for doing so.  The justices get paid their salary and are free to retire if they don't like the job.

The second, more pressing reason, is some of the court's other decisions of this term, particularly in the Salinas case and the Voting Rights Act (VRA) case.  In Salinas v. Texas, the court decided, if understand correctly, that prosecutors could use a defendant's refusal to speak to police officers against him when the defendant hadn't been formally in custody at the time of the interrogation.  This seems to be one step toward limiting or curbing our fifth amendment right against self-incrimination.   [See Orin Kerr's commentary here.]

Some have suggested that because the basic holding was from a plurality decision--only 3 of the 5 justice majority signed on to the part of the decision that limited the defendant's rights--the decision is limited to this specific case and therefore is not established precedent in the way that a 5-4 decision would have been.  I'm not so confident.  People will cite what they want to cite, and subsequent justices will ignore or entertain the plurality opinion, and those who choose to entertain it will use it as one authority to curb fifth amendment rights even further. 

The VRA case, Shelby County v. Holder, invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  This provision named certain states and certain counties of other states to be subject to what is called a "pre-clearance" requirement, which means that the U.S. Attorney General or a panel of three federal judges had to approve any attempts to revise state (or county) election laws or revise the boundaries of certain electoral districts.  The named states and counties were largely the same as those named in the original 1965 act (which has been renewed several times since, and the current challenge is to the latest renewal in 2006), and the court said that the 1965 formula the Congress used was outdated and reflected an unfair treatment of the subject states.

I'm willing to concede that the 2006 formula might not have been ideal, although I also strongly suspect that those states and counties are still subject to attempts by a majority, or at least a strong and influential plurality, of people to enact measures that will have the effect of limiting access to the polls by persons of color, and (incidentally or not), by poorer persons. 

I have a pragmatic objection and a more principled one.  The pragmatic objection is that, as I've just said, there may be attempts in the near future to enact measures that will have the effect of disfranchising a lot of people.  It's true that other states not covered by the VRA have taken or proposed such measures, and in a perfect world I would like all such attempts to be subject to pre-clearance requirements.  I find it exceedingly unlikely, however, that the current Congress, or one we might have in the foreseeable future, would pass a revised formula (or make the pre-clearance requirements national in scope).  (I'll note in passing that Molly Ball at The Atlantic seems to disagree with this view, but her argument is difficult to understand and contradictory, saying that it was hard enough to pass the renewal in 2006, and therefore people are wrong to think it would be easy now......which seems to me to support my view more than opposing it.)

My more principled objection is that the fifteenth amendment grants Congress the power to enforce its prohibition "by appropriate legislation" against denying the right to vote on the basis of color, race, or previous condition of servitude.  I actually believe Congress would have the power anyway, through inferences provided by the "necessary and proper" clause of the Constitution, but it's stated clearly in the fifteenth amendment so as to, in my mind, leave no doubt as to Congress's competence.

I don't believe the amendment immunizes Congress from any review whatsoever.  I can imagine some potentially arbitrary laws that might be passed by Congress simply in the name of enforcing the fifteenth amendment.  But I do believe the amendment grants a lot of deference to Congress's determination here, and the testimony and other studies the Congress undertook during the 2006 renewal process--even if it was an instance (I actually don't think it was) of just going through the motions--suggests to me something far from, and not even in the same ball park as, arbitrary.  The singling out of certain states and counties might have something of an inequitable effect (and again, I would support a national pre-clearance requirement, at least for electoral laws, but perhaps not for redistricting).  But the named localities are sites of historic abuses and current attempts at new restrictions.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Two cheers for the Supreme Court!

All I really have to say is that when I logged on to scotusblog at work, shortly after 9am Chicago time, and saw that DOMA was held unconstitutional, I felt elated.  A little while later I discovered that gay marriage in California had been effectively legalized, through the Court's dismissal of the Prop 8 case.

After reading Russell Saunders's post at the League and the comments [click here], it was hard not to tear up a little.

There's a lot to be done--and there are still unanswered questions--but there's a time to address those and a time to celebrate.  Congratulations to those who have the benefits conferred by these decisions, and congratulations to those who may not have the benefits yet, but now have stronger reason to hope.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Release of the ego

About a year and a half ago, I finished a BIG PROJECT at the library/archive at which I was working (and still work, incidentally).  This project involved organizing the papers of n organization that had donated them to the library.  The project itself was a three-year one, and I had worked on it for the last 2 1/2 years of the 3 years.  I was not the only one to work on it, and as a graduate research assistant, I was not even the one who was in charge of the project.

At the time, I said the following:
I do feel that I and my colleagues have accomplished something. However, this accomplished thing will not endure forever, even if we can assume that the collection is a static "thing" that has been created.
Now, I learn that a very small number of items in the papers that had originally been donated might belong to another organization.  And that organization has requested that those items be "repatriated" to its own records.

Something that I didn't know until I heard about this issue is that repatriating (perhaps not the best word...."de-accessioning" is probably a better one) parts of a collection to the creator organization is not particularly unheard of.  It might not be common, but it is apparently something that's done, and it's certainly not scandalous or even necessarily an adversarial process.  It probably has something to do with whether the donor organization actually had the rights to the material and with whether we can all something the "so-and-so-of-so-and-so records" if it contains items that are not actually the records of "so-and-so-of-so-and-so."

But I notice that I tend to feel a bit territorial about the whole thing.  I have somehow acquired the sense that this collection is "mine" because I processed it.  The fact that patrons are referred to me when they have a question about the collection helps reinforce that sense that it's "my" collection.

I should know better.  I got out of that collection what was promised me--a 2 1/2 year job with a tuition and fee waiver that helped me pay for grad school.  And I got even more:  subsequent employment at the same library, current (albeit temporary) employment at that library, a cv credit, and professional contacts.  There was no representation made to me that I had a special "proprietary" interest in the collection, and because I work at a public institution, the collection really is public property.

Still, I note a sense of wanting to advocate for "my" collection and point out reasons why I think these items, which are in fact pretty inconsequential to the collection itself, ought to remain.  On the merits, I might even be right, but it's not my call.

Pensions! Pensions! Pensions!

Pension reform for public employees in Illinois is an unfortunate probability, but I think it is necessary. I currently work in a quasi-temporary position at a public institution in Illinois--it's actually the same job I had as a graduate research assistant--and most of my non-student coworkers are classed as state employees and are subject to the pending pension reform. (Technically, I am a state employee, too, but I am not directly affected by any pending reforms because I'm not included in any retirement scheme, and if I were to become a full-blown employee today, I would already have been grandsonned out of the system.) My coworkers are upset about the possibility that the state legislature might, and probably will, eventually reduce their pension benefits significantly

They have reason to be upset. They have worked for years under the promise of a pension and free health care in retirement (which, I understand, was part of the promise for state workers). They are not eligible for social security benefits. They are not to blame for the pension crisis, either: state lawmakers refused to fund the pensions during good times. And they believe "the media" and state politicians demonizes them as lazy, greedy persons. According to one of them, Governor Pat Quinn recently gave a speech to a high school graduating class in which he said something to the effect that the money the state owes on pension obligations could pay for each Illinois high school graduate to go to college. If he really did say that, that's a strikingly disingenuous statement. Even if the numbers match up, I find it hard to believe that if the state were suddenly to be absolved of its obligations, it would spend all the savings on higher ed for all. 

If I were them, I would be upset, too. And I realize that what I am about to say is easy for me to say because I was not the one to whom promises were made. But.....I think some sort of reform and reduction of benefits is probably necessary for the state's fiscal health. I buy the claim that the state cannot afford to pay its bills, and that its bond rating stands to suffer. A lower bond rating might not seem like a big deal--and I confess I don't understand all of the economics behind it--but I imagine it makes paying for basic services very difficult and at some point someone is going to have to pay, and I suspect the people who will have to pay are going to be those least able to afford it: the poor who receive state-provided welfare benefits like food stamps and poorer taxpayers, who in Illinois's flat-tax scheme, stand to pay more and more of what they cannot afford. (Illinois does have an earned income credit, which "progressivizes" the state flat tax a bit, but on balance, it remains a flat tax.) I also suspect that some sort of sustainable reform is necessary to save the pensions. It does little good to get a pension now and then find that in 10 years, the pension be reduced even more dramatically than is now proposed or be abrogated altogether. 90 percent of a loaf is better than half a loaf, or no loaf at all. 

Now, there's a lot I don't know. As much as I buy the claim that there is a real problem, I don't know how big or imminent the problem is. The message "we need to reform pensions" is very congenial to the message that "we need to break public employees unions," and although I'm on the fence about how much or whether I support public employee unions, I also need to acknowledge there is this other interest at play. Perhaps I am buying too readily into the right-of-center (but not, I insist, "right wing"'s more credible than that) messaging, but my impression is that the spokespersons for the public employees don't question the basic premise that there is a problem, and these same spokespersons vow to challenge in court any reform that actually passes that in any way reduces benefits. (They're not necessarily wrong to do so. My understanding is that the Illinois constitution guarantees these pension obligations, and I imagine there might be federal issues involved, say, under the contracts clause, and their spokespersons' job is to promote the interests of the workers, not of the public.)

Also, perhaps there are reasonable opportunities to fix the "crisis" that are unexplored. A friend of mine, for example, believes that Illinois could just raise the corporate income tax. I'm skeptical for a lot of reasons--I have a lot of practical reservations about the utility of corporate income taxes in general, and I strongly suspect my friend doesn't even know how much tax receipts would increase--but maybe he's right. This isn't fair to public employees. But it might be necessary.

 UPDATE, 7-2-2013:  I've updated this post, primarily by adding in a few paragraph breaks and one or two qualifications to what I've written.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The game of lifeboat: reflections on a dissertation defense

About 48 hours before my scheduled dissertation defense, I received word from my adviser and committee chair (the same person) that a couple of the other committee members had some "complex issues" with my dissertation draft.  I didn't/don't have a full grasp on what those "complex issues" were, but over the next few hours, I came to believe that there was a real (small, perhaps, but real) possibility that I would fail the defense.

As it turned out, I passed the defense, with a (not uncommon for dissertation defendees) requirement that I revise my introduction and conclusion.  The revisions were not particularly extensive, and they amounted to adding some relatively easy-to-add items rather than completely re-conceptualizing my approach to the project.  (For the record, I wrote all my dissertation chapters before I had a strong idea of how I would bring them all together in my introduction and conclusion.  That might not be the best way to go about it, but that's what I did.  In a sense, the intro and conclusion--and especially the intro--had been the hardest part of the dissertation to write.)

Now, when I write "I didn't/don't have a full grasp of what those 'complex issues' were," I mean that there were probably a lot of conversations among my committee members--the three who were ready to pass it and the two hedgers who had reservations--and I wasn't privy to those conversations.  I got a sense, during the actual defense itself, of what those "complex issues" were, but I strongly suspect that the revisions I eventually had to do probably reflected a compromise between the committee members who thought the dissertation pass-worthy and the two who had reservations.

Now, before I turn to what probably motivated the two professors with reservations, I will say a word about my dissertation and a few words about the three pro-"pass" people.  About my dissertation.  It had some real problems, and it wasn't a slam dunk dissertation.  It was a bit clumsy and had way too much detail:  two chapters were over 100 pages long and another was almost 100 pages.  I didn't define my analytical categories very clearly, and I didn't define my historical actors very well, either.  In short, had I taken more time to fine-tune the dissertation, "complex issues" wouldn't have been, err, issues.

As for the three pro-pass people, they all recognized that these difficulties with my arguments, but they were on board with passing me because they saw potential in the project.  My advisor would never have let it go to a defense if he had not thought it worthy of passing.  And the other two had worked with me in a greater capacity on the project than the two hedgers had.  My dissertation was also written in a  historiogrpahic tradition that these three professors were familiar with and the two hedgers were not as familiar with. 

Now, what were the motivations for the two hedgers to raise objections, and why would they have waited until 48 hours before the defense when I had given them the defense draft to read about six weeks before?  I'll answer the second question first and say I don't know, but they probably simply didn't begin reading it until a short while before the defense.  I don't particularly blame them for reading later than earlier.  I, too, delay reading things before, say, a conference where a paper is pre-circulated, in large part so the paper is still fresh in my mind when I go to the conference.

Is it fair to raise serious objections 48 hours before the defense?  At first glance, it seems unfair.  And the apparent unfairness likely provided one procedural argument for going on with the defense rather than, say, postponing it until the fall.  I will have to confess, however, that if the objections had been raised, say, four weeks before the defense, with ample time to meet the relevant objections, I might have still been quite disconcerted and mopey and probably not fully able or willing to rise to the occasion.  So whatever the purpose or the fairness, the late notice functioned as something on balance that was beneficial.  Finally, as I said in the preceding paragraph, one cannot object to something one has not read, and the two hedgers had other things to do in the six weeks leading up to the defense in addition to reading a 500+ page dissertation draft.  I'm not sure it's right for me to say that procrastination necessarily disqualifies one from raising objections.

In some ways, this all implicates the first question:  what motivated the hedgers?  I think some variant of one, two, or all, of the following three factors may have been at play:
  1. Professional conscience. They had/have real concerns for the state of their profession, for the reputation of their department and university, and for my own personal reputation as a scholar.  If they passed a dissertation that in their view had certain weaknesses, they probably believed that I would have a harder time as an aspiring scholar if I were to try to shop myself off on the academic market.  And even if (as seems likely but is not yet definite) I don't pursue such a career, they probably want me to be proud of what I've written.
  2. A course in academic give-and-take 101.  All scholars who present their work to a public, even when that "public" is the other two co-presenters and moderator at an otherwise empty Saturday-morning conference session, have to face reasoned objections and challenges from others.  One hopes such challenges are raised in the spirit of conviviality and helpful suggestions, but at any rate scholarship entails (ideally) discussion, and discussion has to be more than the in-person equivalent of a blog commenter's "+1."  By raising objections, the two hedgers were participating in this tradition.  They had serious reservations about what I had written and wanted to challenge me to rise to the occasion and meet their objections.  I suspect (but I don't know) that they would each have preferred to see me postpone the defense and revise for a later date, but this was part of the process of scholarly negotiation.
  3. The Seul dieu est parfait approach.  I had a professor of French once who said he never gave "perfect" scores on exams or papers because "seul dieu est parfait" (Only God is perfect).  He also intimated that this was the practice in the educational system enjoyed by the French patrician elite, to which he belonged.   I wouldn't say that these two hedgers would always raise objections--or last-minute objections--but I do suspect that their default is to object to any dissertation that doesn't reach some very high standard, the goal being to make what is already good even better, and what is not so good at least a little stronger.  (A less charitable way to put this can be found in my idea for a headline in The Onion:  "Area Professors Suspended for Hazing.")
Again, I don't think these three possible motivations are mutually exclusive.  Also--and despite my parenthetical about "hazing" for point number 3--I think all three motivations bespeak these two professors' good faith.  (One of them devoted what must have been several hours finding typos in my defense draft, an act of generosity that helped me tremendously in revising my submission draft of the dissertation.)  The late notice (48 hours!) is harder to justify, and suggests to me a certain cluelessness and perhaps even disregard about procedural fairness.  But as I said above, I would have found even timely notice hard to deal with, so I ought to lower my dudgeon a few notches.

Putting aside dudgeon, however well- or ill-justified, I was very distraught at the news about the "complex issues," and I did what is my wont:  I foresaw the worst possible outcome.  I told my advisor that I would prefer to drop out rather than postpone and that if I failed the defense, I would not opt to schedule a second one.  This stance wasn't a bluff.  I really was prepared to pull the temple down upon myself.  I also adopted a very dramatic posture--not a bluff either, but an exercise in self-pity--when I told my advisor something like the following:
Things have worked out pretty well for me so far in life, and if this bad thing happens, then it's not the end of the world.
That sentiment, of course, expresses a very important truth (and as my wife's friend told her before the defense, regardless of the outcome the sun would still rise the following day).  But the maudlin height of my statement--made to my advisor who was trying to help me navigate the upcoming defense--was inappropriate and, as I said, self-pitying.  It was an expression of Pride:  an idolatry of the self, in the name of accepting martyrdom in an anti-Pierre Corneille world, and a defiant statement that I would rather reign as an ABD than serve as a "doctor."

The Pride didn't stop there.  I was too savvy to say any of this out loud, but I repeated over and over in my head the reasons why these professors--and not just those professors, but the entire department--were "betraying" me.  Hadn't I given them years of service as a Teaching Assistant?  Hadn't I been one of these professor's research assistants?  Hadn't I volunteered to teach a class a few years ago when the professor for that course had suddenly become unable to teach that semester due to illness?  Hadn't I been to innumerable department events?  This list could, and probably did (although I don't remember all the specifics) run on.

Of course, in my hot fury, I probably didn't acknowledge the following.  My stints as a TA gave me a tuition-and-fee waiver worth, at least in nominal terms, about $20,000, as well as a stipend I could live on in an expensive city.  Being the one professor's research assistant has been a feather in my CV cap, and I also got paid for it.  The class I "volunteered" to teach was also good for my cv--it was outside my area of expertise and having taught it gave me some street cred for that particular subject.  I was also paid a generous stipend for "volunteering," and the position came quite auspiciously within about a week of my having been laid off from a part-time job.  (Oh, by the way,  one of the professors who eventually expressed reservations about my dissertation did a generous amount of work helping me prepare for that class, and he didn't get paid anything extra.)  I got a lot from attending the departmental events--networking opportunities, a break from the academic drudgery, and free food, for examples.  Finally,the department had given me plenty of free money.  It gave me two fellowships--each about $5,000, and for a couple of years, it gave me what amounted to an extra amount of money in addition to the regular TA stipend.

None of this is to deny that there may be a "there" there.  Academic departments in general have a sometimes deserved reputation for abusing their graduate employees.  Even when what happens can't actually count as "abuse," academia is in many ways an exploitative industry, and some departments are happy to take on new grad students, use their labor, and say "it's been good to know you" when the students drop out.  (In fact, even the "good" departments do this because they are part of the system.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm no Marxist and I believe a lot of the pay raise agitation pursued by my own graduate student union is misguided and, frankly, selfish, entitled, and tone-death.  But academia does have a labor problem, and I'd advise anyone considering going to think once, twice, and thrice before taking the plunge.)  Still, there's no denying I got a benefit from all my alleged "sacrifices" and "service."

And further, even if I adopt the most severe construction of how the department might have "betrayed" me, I'd have to admit the following:  none of what the department did or didn't do necessarily means that my dissertation was well-written, well-argued, or pass-worthy.

And still further (and to repeat), I passed the defense with what turned out to be minimal revisions.  The actual defense was cordial, focusing much more on where I needed to improve and how I might go about doing so.  I'll confess that despite the cordiality, it wasn't a particularly pleasant experience.  And when it was over, I was ready for it to be over.  But I passed.

Now what lessons can I take from the process?

I said in an aside above that I probably don't intend to pursue a career in academia, but if I do, I have at least one lesson ready at hand. Namely, it's to remember how it feels to go through what I went through.  And this lesson is particularly useful when it comes to teaching.

Counting my time as a masters student and as a PHD student I have TA'd for what must be at least a dozen classes, and I have taught as an adjunct three classes.  Occasionally, I've had to fail students.  The most common reasons are plagiarism or a refusal to do enough of the work.  I don't think I've ever failed someone who tried and just didn't get it (or at least, I hope I haven't).

I will say I never enjoy failing people, but when I have failed students, at the back of my head are some of the same reasons my two professors with reservations had:  there are certain standards that need to be enforced and certain hoops that need to be jumped through.  I'll add to this and say that for some students, the minimal passing grade (a D) or the "acceptable" passing grade (a C) might not be a good grade for what they need.  Maybe they need to keep their GPA up to get off academic probation.  Maybe, again, they just don't get history (in a similar way that I didn't get physics). 

My point is not to lower standards.  I'm not sure exactly what I think of grading systems.  I personally did well as an undergraduate student under the traditional grading, but I've come to question how useful they are overall in what a good education should be.  But as long was we work in that system, they need to serve to at least some extent as proxies for standards.

My point, rather, is to remember not to be cavalier about it.  It's easy for TA's or instructors to, when they're alone with other TA's or instructors, talk poorly of specific students or students in general, and sometimes to make fun of particularly infelicitous things they may have written in their papers or on exams.  I know at least two people who occasionally post such things on Facebook, which, even if we leave aside the very real legal and privacy concerns (I don't believe they anonymize their Facebook posts enough for a discerning student to recognize him- or herself in them), is usually at least a questionable thing to do.

There is room, I think, for some degree of gallows humor and for venting when it comes to student writing and the challenges of teaching.  But there's even more room to remember that students, even if they're seeking education for the "wrong" reasons like a credential, are human beings.  There is also room to remember that I already have what these students presumably want:  a bachelor's degree (and more).  From their point of view, I had already "arrived" even before my dissertation passed (and when I was an MA student, even before I had a masters), in the same way that my committee members had already "arrived" by having their dissertations completed and having--I believe all of them--obtained tenure.

That's at least one lesson.  Another is to be wary of a creeping "lifeboat" syndrome.  After flailing in the water for ten years in a doctoral program, I've been extended a hand--five pairs of hands, and many more, to be accurate--to land safely on board.  Now that I am there, I ought to guard against the temptation to be hyper-vigilant about who's qualified to be my future boat mates.  I ought to remember that even if I am a diamond, I was once (and probably still am) in the rough myself (sorry for the cliche).  I ought to remember where I was.