June 25, 2005

Bloody search committees

While I'm in a mental fog after donating blood today, I'll engage in some speculation. (Proof of my post-donation daftness is the bloody bad pun in the title.) Over the past few years, some thoughtful academics have argued that universities need greater intellectual diversity. I'm not going to comment on the David Horowitz-like or Lynne Cheney-like arguments about curricula (which includes deep textual analysis of course descriptions and counting the names in standards documents: Suffice it to say that calling for curriculum quotas is a wee bit inconsistent for political conservatives who would rail against quotas based on race). Instead, let me refer to Brooklyn College historian KC Johnson (examples 1, 2, and 3), NYU historian of education Jon Zimmerman (in the end of Whose America?), and Atlanta historian Ralph Luker. Let me represent their best argument: the failure to take some adequate care about the intellectual diversity of a department or broader unit results in more shallow teaching and research and endangers the intellectual mission of higher education. One component claim is that an intellectually-monolithic unit acts as an echo chamber that impedes dialogue and intellectual challenge.

While I think such a claim deserves some serious study rather than cavalier approval (where's the anthropologist studying higher ed?), it makes some sense to ask what some legitimate, non-politicized ways of encouraging intellectual diversity might consist of. A few months ago, I noted the UIC chemistry department's having part of a faculty search proceed after blinding the name and institutional identity of candidates. I suppose the idea is to eliminate the chances that name- or institution-based biases would intrude on the decision-making process. At my institution, that's feasible in an early step of a search: deciding which candidates have met the minimum qualifications as posted in the job announcement.

Sitting on the donation couch in a donation coach a mile away from home, the following uncouth thoughts slipped from my brain:

  1. What about an external review of assistant-professor candidate pools? We have external reviews of tenure candidates, and the original hiring decision is a far more open process. Why not an occasional appointment of two or three external experts in the field to review the candidate pool in a streamlined fashion—say, picking those invited to campus interviews, adding an equal number of those close to the campus-interview list, and then a third portion of randomly-chosen candidates who passed the first sniff test? It would have to be a post-mortem process, and it couldn't replicate the discussion of a department's needs that often play into the search process. And to attract the external reviewers, provosts and deans would have to cough up the honorarium equivalent of one additional campus-interview in costs. Nonetheless, it might be an interesting, occasional comparison of a search committee's perspective with those in the field but not in the same institution.
  2. What about using the target-of-opportunity program structure to expand the type of subfields included in a department? Currently, target-of-opportunity programs focus on gender and race/ethnicity as diversity concerns. But there's a plausible argument that departments narrow their focus on specific fields and exclude some based on various predilections, including academic trends, a perception that a field is thin in candidate pools, or experiences and expectations of available lines and funding. There are a number of risks with target-of-opportunity hiring programs (including the usual perceptions associated with affirmative action programs, the risks of going around standard hiring processes, questions about outyear budget obligations for departments, and resentment among some faculty about the inevitably higher salaries paid to new faculty in such programs). Nevertheless, they are attractive opportunities to departments who are willing to seize them.

Slings and arrows welcome... (and we'll see who really reads my blog entries when I'm in the mental stratosphere from lack of iron)

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Posted in Random comments at 2:56 PM (Permalink) |

June 24, 2005

Blog research

At MIT, Cameron Marlow is working on a social-network dissertation with blog authors as the target population. Want to help?

Take the MIT Weblog Survey

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Posted in Random comments at 9:05 PM (Permalink) |

More on Hosty v. Carter

There is more on the Seventh Circuit opinion on Hosty v. Carter (about the censorship of a student newspaper at Governors State University) from Greg Lukianoff, John K. Wilson, and the Student Press Law Center (which has a resource page on the case). The primary concerns appear to be that the decision, which nominally was about the qualified immunity of a college official from a §1983 lawsuit, has ramifications far beyond the decision about potential damages for censorship. (Thanks to Charles Mitchell at FIRE for an e-mail pointing out the first item, which led me to most of the others.)

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Posted in Academic freedom at 9:45 AM (Permalink) |

June 21, 2005

Censoring students? IHE makes mistake

Today, there is a story at Inside Higher Education reporting (or misreporting) the majority opinion in Hosty v. Carter. In the Inside Higher Ed story, Doug Lederman said that the opinion applied to colleges the 1988 Hazelwood decision that allows high school administrators to censor student newspapers:

The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled on Monday that a controversial 1988 Supreme Court decision restricting the free speech rights of high school newspapers applies to student newspapers subsidized by public colleges and universities, too.

However, Lederman misreads the majority opinion about a case from Governors State University. The Dean of Student Affairs and Services, Patricia Carter, ordered the paper's printer to stop printing any newspaper that didn't have her explicit approval after a series of articles criticizing the administration for firing the newspaper's faculty advisor. The students sued for damages from the college's officials, asking the courts to assume that they did not have immunity. The district court and a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit had decided in favor of the students in the case of Carter (but not the other officials), and the whole court agreed to hear an appeal from the university.

Yes, the majority opinion overturned the district court and the 3-judge opinion before the en banc hearing, but it wasn't on the basis of whether Hazelwood applied in toto to colleges. In Part II of the majority opinion, the judges came down on the side of the students in making a preliminary, favoring-plaintiffs judgment of whether a student newspaper is a qualified public forum (i.e., whether censorship is forbidden). It was only in Part III that the majority overturned the earlier opinions, which had to do with whether the college official had immunity. In that part, the majority opinion ruled that the inapplicability of Hazelwood was not clear, and that a competent official could have decided that it might apply. But the majority never said that public officials automatically have a right to censor college publications; the ruling hinges entirely on the second part of a two-prong test on immunity of public officials accused of violating constitutional rights.

I think it's pretty clear that a student newspaper is a qualified public forum, at the very least, but let's not be hasty in criticizing this opinion. More importantly, I hope that the Student Press Law Center does not appeal the case. While it may harm so-called §1983 cases in the circuit, there could be much greater harm from appealing it and opening up the whole censorship can of worms right now, especially since we don't know who will be on the court next term. The Seventh Circuit Court did not prevent lawsuits designed to change the behavior of public colleges and universities, and in fact their ruling came down slightly on the side of student freedom of expression (though not nearly as clearly as other circuit courts, as the dissenting opinion noted). All this ruling appears to do is to bar lawsuits against public-college officials for damages. Yes, in theory it would be nice to extract monetary revenge for censorship, but I think the greater damage is opening up the larger question. I am not a lawyer (yada, yada, yada), but I don't think it takes a lawyer to understand the difference between §1983 suits and other legal tools to prevent censorship.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 9:13 AM (Permalink) |

June 19, 2005

Bits and pieces of academic freedom this week

Three academic-freedom controversies floating in the blogosphere:

The first two are deeply troubling, and I assume no one is going to question that they are violations of academic freedom if the factual claims are true. (Sadly, relatively few organizations have raised questions about sponsored research and academic freedom, whether at FIRE or the AAUP.) The issue at OSU is more complicated. I've previously commented on it and was taken a bit aback at the FIRE blog argument, that the criticism of the dissertation constituted an assault on research because of its content. As explained in the Panda's Thumb rebuttal, the relatively narrow claims at OSU are about the evasion of the dissertation policies (i.e., that the committee members did not have relevant expertise). And the delay was at the behest of Bryan Leonard's advisor. Furthermore, a dissertation defense is generally an open process at most campuses, and as Alon Leavy notes in a comment on Pharyngula (comment 5), it is supposed to introduce at least the possibility that someone might challenge the student's ideas.

Yet the argument is not absolute. OSU faculty-senate secretary Susan Fisher is wrong to claim that there is no academic freedom for students, and (in an entry otherwise filled with factual errors and distortions) David Heddle has a point that graduate students are at the mercy of their program faculty in terms of the plausibility of their projects. Where those projects strike into new territory, I'm sure there are the occasional dissertation members and advisors who block the research. A friend's sociology dissertation was stuck in the pre-proposal phase for about a year because several dissertation members did not approve of it, and I'm certain similar barriers appeared occasionally for those opening up social history in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ideally, the interaction between a student and her or his advisor (and committee) should be a dialogue, with the student getting the benefit of expert perspectives in the area the student is working in. But life is not always ideal. Swapping out committee members is the usual option for students whose projects are blocked inappropriately or, more prosaically, in situations where personalities clash or someone just isn't the best mentor for a particular student. This pragmatic need for committee fluidity is why doctoral programs need a critical mass of faculty. In the case of Bryan Leonard, OSU has five science-ed faculty with Ph.D.s in its math, science, and technology education program. For him not to have a science-ed advisor or even committee member is curious indeed.

The back-up practical solution is to have faculty who are not precisely in the area on the committee. I'm confident that's what Leonard might say (as Heddle claimed): only these faculty would give him a fair shot. And, if the relevant administrator had seen the committee's makeup in advance and approved it, I would be far more sympathetic. But I suspect that's not what happened, and the consequences show the fact that academic life does not follow the usual rule: On a campus, apologizing after the fact is not generally easier than securing permission first. In this case, advance permission would have been far easier than what happened after the graduate school discovered the makeup of the committee. Leonard's non-science-ed advisor, Paul Post, also takes blame for not having run the committee membership up the line before Leonard started the dissertation in earnest.

Side note: In a comment, Richard Hoppe points to a lesson plan on evolution that explores an active scientific controversy about evolution.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 7:15 AM (Permalink) |

June 18, 2005

Klocek defamation suit

Former Depaul University adjunct Thomas Klocek has filed a defamation lawsuit against DePaul. Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's David French comments on the lawsuit on FIRE's blog. As I've noted before, the key issue here is not that DePaul fired Klocek without due process (since adjuncts have few procedural rights at universities—whether they should is a different issue) but that they did so for illegitimate reasons. When the administration said they had fired him for what he said (and then covered that with a flimsy pretext), they were damaging his reputation in the most stupid way possible. From the Washington Post report, Klocek isn't suing them for the dismissal per se but defamation. This is lawyer-speak for, "I can't sue you for your core sin, but I will sue your heinie off for the associated sins that are actionable."

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Posted in Academic freedom at 11:05 AM (Permalink) |

Another professor's plagiarism response

Mel, of In Favor of Thinking, has feelings very much like mine in response to plagiarism.

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Posted in Teaching at 10:53 AM (Permalink) |

June 12, 2005

Data labeling trick in Excel

If you've wanted to label individual labels in Excel charts with extra data, there have typically been the option to create bubble charts, where the diameter of the bubble corresponds with a third variable. But what if the extra data is text (e.g., states in a national analysis). Check out Microsoft's macro to label data points in a scatter plot with a third column of data. In general, I am wary of Excel charts because you have to reformat much of any plot to be readable, and because of the tricks one has to pull with VBA to get the type of labeling that standard statistical packages can easily produce. But, if one knows Excel, there are ways to improve the output. (I like much of Edward Tufte's advice on presenting information visually; see his web site's discussion thread on graphing software for professional alternatives to Excel.) Incidentally, please let me know if this information is helpful for authors, before I commit editorial advice of this nature again. (The next advice entry planned: how to format tables in Word.)

Florida school grades

Last week, the Florida Department of Education released its assignment of letter grades to Florida schools. There's plenty of discussion in Florida's newspapers about various things, but I don't think anyone has looked at the grades vis-a-vis the hardest-hit counties from last fall's hurricanes. Here's what I noticed:

And yes, for some reason, you have to scroll down...

In Escambia, Polk, or St. Lucie county? Maintained or improved school grade Decreased school grade Proportion decreased
All schools
Escambia, Polk, or St. Lucie 154 43 22%
Other counties 1967 460 19%
Elementary schools
Escambia, Polk, or St. Lucie 87 34 28%
Other counties 1185 296 20%
Middle schools
Escambia, Polk, or St. Lucie 33 4 11%
Other counties 393 75 16%
High schools
Escambia, Polk, or St. Lucie 25 3 11%
Other counties 275 61 18%

Note: The analysis excludes schools that are missing grades for either 2004 or 2005. The top part of the table includes schools with other grade configurations. (Thanks to my spouse for pointing out I had the numbers reversed the first time I put this up.)
Source: Florida School Grades web site

This is rather curious indeed, and I'm not sure what to make of it.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:19 PM (Permalink) |

Acceptance statistics

In the six and a half months since I've been editor of Education Policy Analysis Archives, I've received 90 manuscripts (excluding a few withdrawals from authors who decided to resubmit a MS in Spanish to the journal). Here is the disposition:

  • 7 accepted
  • 9 revise-and-resubmit requests
  • 14 rejected after reviews
  • 37 manuscripts rejected before reviews (generally manuscripts that are aimed at the general public rather than an academic journal, manuscripts that fall outside the scope of the journal, and manuscripts that are really early drafts)
  • 18 manuscripts in review
  • 4 manuscripts received but not in review yet
  • 1 manuscript that I returned to the author for resubmission after one technical detail is changed

Technically, if one excludes revision requests, that's a 12-percent acceptance rate. But that is misleading. Because Education Policy Analysis Archives is online, it receives a greater proportion of manuscripts that get a quick no. If I excluded the submissions that are clearly intended for a general audience, the acceptance rate would be higher. In addition, I wonder if people submit what really are drafts to me because it's easy to e-mail a submission. I've been a little tougher in the last few months with these because I've been processing a long manuscript queue, but it's a judgment call. How much does someone need a review for a paper because they're a new scholar and need some outside perspective? But is it a wise use of reviewer resources to send someone a manuscript that is not well prepared?

June 10, 2005

Got a postcard!

I received a postcard from profgrrrrl from her trip to Taiwan yesterday and, as promised in the sign-up, I've scanned both sides. Here they are:

Front.jpg

Back.jpg

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Posted in Random comments at 8:06 AM (Permalink) |

June 8, 2005

Kudos to Manuel Gomez

Pointed out today by Minnie Quach (of FIRE) is a fine short description of protected speech on campuses by Manuel Gomez, vice chancellor of student affairs at UC Irvine.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 2:55 PM (Permalink) |

Rigor mortician on dissertation committees

The Panda's Thumb evolution blog reports an object lesson in dissertation duplicity with an aborted thesis defense of Bryan Leonard's "intelligent design" curriculum dissertation because, well, there was no evolutionary biologist or science education faculty on the committee! The money quote comes from the comment of Andrea Bottaro who wrote,

A graduate student has the right to a thesis committee that will provide expert critical feed-back and guidance on his/her thesis work of the same kind and academic/scientific rigor that the student is likely to encounter in their independent future career. Whether the student wants it or not, it is the duty of faculty members on the committee to provide such guidance and criticism, or recuse themselves. Rubber-stamping a thesis, or even worse leading it in directions that fulfill exceedingly minoritary philosophical preferences of committee members (as opposed to the mentor’s and student’s, who are free to pursue whatever idea they wish) is primarily a disservice to the student, in addition to being a stain on the academic process and the Institution involved.

Right on!

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Posted in Teaching at 7:58 AM (Permalink) |

June 7, 2005

Chairs and speech

Kudos to David French of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) for acknowledging today the gray areas involved in the speech of department chairs, who act both as faculty and as administrators. The immediate occasion is the controversy over Timothy Shortell, recently elected as chair of Brooklyn College's sociology department. As the New York Daily News and New York Sun reported, Shortell had published an article in which he called religious adherents "moral retards," sparking outrage on campus and in the New York metro area. Brooklyn College historian KC Johnson explained his concerns about Shortell as chair (pretty much calling for his removal) and compared the possible removal of Shortell with the pressure on Ward Churchill to resign from his position as head of his department earlier this year and the removal of Leonard Jeffries from his position as a CUNY chair for anti-Semitic comments.

Jeffries sued on his removal as chair (he wasn't fired from his faculty position), and after various legal maneuvers, Jeffries' initial victory, and a Supreme Court decision in another public-employee speech case, the U.S. Second Circuit Court ruled that the CUNY chancellor and trustees did not need to prove actual harm from his speech to remove him from his administrative post. The crucial part of the decision for academic freedom is the distinction between a chair's role and a professor's. The court noted, "Jeffries is still a tenured professor at CUNY, and the defendants have not sought to silence him, or otherwise limit his access to the "marketplace of ideas" in the classroom." Therein lies the arguments about the authority of universities to remove chairs (see Eugene Volokh's comments on this vis-a-vis Ward Churchill).

Last Friday (June 3), French argued from this perspective that Shortell's views created a liability problem for Brooklyn College in case he ever was involved in a tenure or promotion denial for a colleague with professed religious views. Since then, a FIRE supporter e-mailed French, arguing that one could on that basis bar virtually anyone with strong views about the nature of religion from any administrative post, whether the person was atheist, Catholic, evangelical, Muslim, etc. David French responded with the following arguments (I am paraphrasing):

  1. Shortell's essay was more than an abstract discussion of theology; instead, it constituted specific ad hominem denigration of a class of individuals on the basis of religion.
  2. Shortell's position as a hiring authority (and someone equivalent to a law firm's hiring partner or someone in an HR department with hiring authority) put the university at substantial risk, given the current state of employment law.

I don't think this is a substantive answer to the concerns, as it restates the argument, perhaps with the variant that Shortell's writings are more severe and prejudicial than the views of most faculty on faith. Nonetheless, French gets credit for responding to his correspondent.

Part of the difficulty here is that there is a difference between the legal situation (where administrators and governing boards can remove department chairs) and the practical life of universities. French suggests that universities take much greater care in screening potential administrators, especially for this type of embarrassing flaw. Would that universities had such luxury! For some positions, there is an underwhelming dearth of applicants (or even nominally qualified applicants).

But let's assume that we can identify employment-law-foolhardy faculty and ban them from administrative posts. The fact is that faculty still have enormous power to wreak havoc in personnel matters, from screwing up searches to playing politics with tenure decisions. The reason why the Supreme Court stripped union organizing rights from private-university faculty in the Yeshiva case is because they share management authority in many matters, from curriculum to personnel. Ask any administrator supervising searches what the greatest fears are these days, and one of the top ones will be a faculty member who screws it up by not following written procedures, by asking a legally impermissible one in an interview (e.g., about the marital status of a candidate), or by something worse.

I don't think administrators have the authority to bar faculty from all personnel authority, including the shared power involved in searches and tenure/promotion decisions, for their written comments. In the real life of campuses, administrators fear all sorts of actions but live with the risk, in the same way that real corporations live with the same risk involving managers.

In reality, the removal of departmental chairs based on their speech is a cover-your-rear maneuver to stem public embarrassment. The personnel-hiring argument of Johnson and French is a fig-leaf cover for that reality. There is no comfortable resolution of this: Jeffries, Churchill, and Shortell are not the brightest stars in academe's firmament. But the removal of department chairs based on public embarrassment is dangerously close to allowing a heckler's veto on campus, and telling faculty that they shouldn't be worried because administrative posts are not the same as faculty posts is cold comfort when a campus has been under siege.

ADDENDUM 1 (8:45 pm): On second thought, I'm not so sure that the relevance of the Jeffries decision revolves around the distinction between chairs and faculty. The heart of that short decision was the question of whether harm to an agency needed to be actual or plausible for a public employee to be fired based on speech. The Second Circuit Court tossed off the line about distinguishing administrative posts from faculty positions, but that was not at issue in the case (as Jeffries was not fired), and so it not relevant to that case, and I am doubtful whether it would be precedential in another case.

ADDENDUM 2 (10:45 pm): The obvious parallel I missed was with Larry Summers's controversy (du jour). Stanley Fish has opined that Summers's remarks about women and science violated the job requirements of being a Harvard president, with the snide aside, Whenever the phrase "academic freedom" is invoked, you know you're hearing cant. In essence, French and Fish here are on the same side (which has got to be a first), arguing that one can lose an administrative job from one's speech.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 5:02 PM (Permalink) |

June 5, 2005

Educational Reform in Florida

Educational Reform in Florida: Diversity and Equity in Public Policy, a collection of essays edited by Kathy Borman and me, has been accepted for publication by SUNY Press. The collaborative work was supported for several years by the Spencer Foundation, and with sociologists and historians as the authors, it covers a broad range of perspectives on the last six years or so of school reform in Florida. The chapters:

  1. Issues in Florida Educational Reform (Kathryn Borman and Sherman Dorn)
  2. The Legacy of Desegregation in Florida (Deidre Cobb-Roberts and Barbara Shircliffe)
  3. The Legacy of Educational Finance Reform in Florida (Sherman Dorn and Deanna Michael)
  4. Accountability as a Means of Improvement: A Continuity of Themes (Deanna Michael and Sherman Dorn)
  5. Diversity, Desegregation, and Accountability in Florida Districts (Tamela McNulty Eitle)
  6. Equity, Disorder, and Discipline in Florida Schools (David Eitle and Tamela McNulty Eitle)
  7. Competing Agendas for University Governance: Placing the Conflict between Jeb Bush and Bob Graham in Context (Larry Johnson and Kathryn Borman)
  8. One Florida, the Politics of Educational Opportunity, and the Language of White Advantage (Larry Johnson and Deidre Cobb-Roberts)
  9. Florida’s A+ Plan: Education Reform Policies and Student Outcomes (Reginald Lee, Kathryn Borman, and William Tyson)

The book does not cover every possible topic, and I wish we had a chapter covering vouchers, among other things. But I'm happy to have this accepted, and I look forward to its publication (I assume towards the end of the year or, more probably, early in 2006).

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Posted in Education policy at 2:30 PM (Permalink) |

June 4, 2005

Accepting manuscripts

Now that I've been the editor at Education Policy Analysis Archives for six months, I'm starting to settle into the job. Some things are quick but don't give too much joy. Easily and without guilt, I can reject manuscripts that are clearly inappropriate (stuff that might belong in a popular magazine or course papers that were sent to me because the professor requires that one paper be submitted to a refereed journal). In a few cases, I've been able to accept a submission right off the bat. Most of my letters are rejections based on reviewers' comments and requests for authors to revise and resubmit manuscripts.

And I have had two things that have given me great joy thus far. One is the creation of the graduate-student editorial board, twenty new scholars from around North American who bring an energy and fresh preparation to the journal. The second include the acceptances of revised manuscripts. It is especially in revisions where I feel I am making some direct mark on a journal, not just in making decisions but in shaping specific articles.

I am still climbing the next learning curve, the post-acceptance process...

What's fair in love and academe

Noted by Erin O'Connor today is the first article in a Rocky Mountain News series this week on Ward Churchill. The reporters have been looking into the allegations that are now part of the internal research-misconduct investigation at Boulder. The allegations that are most troubling to an historian are the charges that Churchill plagiarized several other works and that he repeatedly mischaracterized the causes of a run of smallpox at Fort Clarke in 1837. I don't care whether you call the latter fabrication or willful incompetence, but it's serious misconduct if it repeatedly misconstrues the scholarship. (You're allowed to disagree with other scholars, but it's not kosher to claim that your colleagues support your argument when they don't.)

The question that may spring up from the series this week is whether the newspaper is trying to pressure the University of Colorado to fire Churchill. That's the wrong question. Is it proper for a newspaper to report on controversial events on campus and try to conduct an independent investigation? Absolutely. We call this a free press. Much to their credit, the article today focuses on the factual questions, and from the overview piece the reporters look to have contacted as many relevant sources as they could. (We'll see about the details in the rest of the series.) Several years ago, the local newspapers in the Tampa area had a field day with an ophthalmologist then at USF who had reportedly experimented with a new optical surgery device without either filing the correct paperwork to declare that he was doing so or to ask patients for informed consent to use the experimental device. They could not have replicated a professional investigation by medical researchers, but the story was legitimately newsworthy.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 12:35 PM (Permalink) |

June 1, 2005

Redemption

So the news today is filled with the revelation that former FBI No. 2 Mark Felt was Woodward and Bernstein's Deep Throat, the anonymous source for much of their Watergate coverage. I expect that we'll first see the lionization of Felt for being a whistleblower. Regardless of the putative motivation (in one version, revenge at Nixon for having targeted the FBI), Felt helped unravel a conspiracy to suppress an investigation of a political crime. I wonder how soon will come discussion of the rest of Felt's record—his work as J. Edgar Hoover's right-hand man, the person in charge of internal inspections who raised no ethical questions about COINTELPRO, his conviction related to one COINTELPRO operation (against the Weathermen), and the pardon by Reagan. Does his service as Deep Throat mitigate his undermining of American democracy through COINTELPRO? But Felt's record isn't the only story of redemption in popular consciousness this month. There's Anakin Skywalker, after all, ...

Discovering that my children don't remember anything about the original Star Wars (you know, "Episode IV," originally released in 1977), I showed the DVD to them last week and discovered a few uncomfortable things, like Princess Leia's complete failure to mourn the deaths of millions on the planet where she grew up. But let's skip the fairy-tale elements here and get to the myth of the broader Star Wars story-arc (see Alex Soojung-Kim Pang's commentary for the best critique of Lucas's general movie-making): The six films together are far more about Anakin than about either Luke, Obi-Wan, or the political struggle in the SW universe. As many others have noted, Anakin is a tragic figure, falling into the depths of savagery before being redeemed at the last minute, quite literally, in Return of the Jedi.

But is it really the saving of his soul or whatever is akin to that? Anakin's redemption in SW VI: RotJ consists primarily of his heaving Palpatine to his death to save Luke. Given his role in millions of deaths in the prior twenty years or so, seeing Anakin as redeemed would be like the celebration of Lavrenti Beria if he had killed Stalin in the early 50s. (Please, don't tell me in comments that he really did! I'm not a Soviet historian and don't wish to be swamped with various conspiracy theories. The question would still remain.) Without having seen SWIII, I think I can safely say that Anakin/Vader was responsible for much of the harm of the Empire in Lucas's mythical long-ago, far-away galaxy. One good moment doesn't wipe out hundreds of crimes.

In history, though, there is a broader question: is redemption individual or collective? I recall more than twenty years ago a similar storyline about redemption when George Wallace was elected Alabama's governor one last time in 1982, after announcing he had become born-again and apologized to civil rights leaders for his recalcitrant segregationist stance in the 1960s. Yes, it is true that Wallace turned himself around in many ways. But the redemption story ignored in 1982 was that the American political system had been redeemed in significant ways with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Facing newly-enfranchised Black voters, a whole bunch of white segregationists suddenly discovered religion (or at least civil rights). Some of them were heartfelt. Some, like Strom Thurmond, you really couldn't quite believe. Some, like Jesse Helms, betrayed the lip service to civil rights with their actions (the "white hands" ads in Helms' first campaign against Harvey Gantt). But the true story of George Wallace's election in 1982 was the redemption of a region (and a country), not just of one individual.

Whether Mark Felt's whistleblowing as Deep Throat is a similarly broad redemption is much more questionable. But we're taken with stories of individual redemption—thus the appeal of the SW movies and what I expect will be an eventual journalistic judgment that Felt really was redeemed by his maybe-not-so-well-intentioned semi-whistleblowing.

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Posted in Random comments at 3:35 PM (Permalink) |