Lazy Sunday Beats and Links

Oh, hey. General Reader here. These are some texts we liked reading that you would probably also like to read. There are things to listen to as well. Enjoy them on this lovely Mother’s Day.

  • For many pundits, Barack Obama’s refusal to ignore the electorate and get the USA involved in reputation-killing trillion-dollar military disasters is a sign of weakness. As John Cassidy observes at the New Yorker, this line of criticism ignores the arrogance and waste of the Bush regime: Obama is only a foreign-policy bungler if you think that the Iraq War went well and that things will work out in Afghanistan somehow. Otherwise the President is a realist who operates according to historical precedent and geopolitical fact, not foolish proclamations about shocking and awing our way around the world. Obama has, remarks Cassidy, remembered his Machiavelli—it is strength, not weakness, to avoid fights that can, at best, end in Pyrrhic victories (and at worst, end in Iraq).
  • We all need Shakespeare. I know that he often suffers the Gatsby fate: assigned so much in English courses that people end up thinking he’s perfunctory and boring, “classic” mainly through cultural inertia or pedagogical convention. “Yeah, yeah, Hamlet is great, got it”—most educated individuals acknowledge that he’s Very Important and thus, ironically, end up not reading him beyond school. Which is a shame, because as with The Great Gatsby, most of Shakespeare’s work (not Coriolanus, oh god not Coriolanus) is shockingly beautiful and repays multiple readings. Go ahead. Open up Hamlet or Macbeth or the Sonnets or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, flip to a random page, and experience one of those “Holy shit, how did a human being think to say it that way?” moments Shakespeare provokes. You’ll never get to the end of his wonders. With that in mind, here is one of my favorite sonnets, #29:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

  • Hey, parents and students, here is the narrative that will bond you with contingent faculty in the fight to save higher education: The adjunct system exploits teachers and wastes your money, because your tuition dollars end up going mostly to redundant deans and resplendent landscaping, not undergraduate education. Susan McNamara, a professor in Boston, has written a bang-up explanation of this for the Globe. (Plus the professor in the article image is wearing jeans and a navy blazer, which I can totally get behind.) Read it now.
  • Some tenured and tenure-track professors have long been part of the effort to improve the working conditions of adjuncts (and thus the learning conditions of students), and many more have recently climbed aboard. Some of the staunchest labor allies I’ve met are tenured full professors in the University of California. But in the UK and the US, too many TT faculty have been complicit in the forty-year ascension of a managerial class that now controls most colleges and universities despite having little experience or interest in education. Some faculty saw a way to profit, in terms of money and/or prestige, from neoliberal “reforms” that weakened the professoriate as a whole; too many others stood idle while this happened. Like I said, if they haven’t already, most TT profs are coming around to a more enlightened, pro-labor view of things, but Tarak Barkawi (himself a tenured scholar) implores us to remember our institutional past in order to salvage the future. Power has many ways to recruit relatively powerless enablers. Barkawi’s editorial focuses on the UK, but its lesson is transatlantic.
  • My friend Jarret, who has introduced me to probably 60-65% of the music I love, played Arthur Russell for me about ten years ago while we were chillin’ in a post-college basement, and I’ve been a fan since. Russell was a classically trained cellist, and during his largely unremunerative career as a musician and producer in New York, he worked with Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg, and David Byrne, among others. An enormous influence on fellow artists, he died broke, of AIDS, in 1992, leaving behind a lot of fragmentary or uncollected work. One of my favorite pieces, “A Little Lost,” is a spacey, droned-out, heartbreaking composition where Russell’s voice and lyrics blend with the shuffling strings, forming a sonic component of the track as much as a rhetorical accompaniment. It’s about love. Also death, I think. Songs usually are. Enjoy.
  • When you stare into the douche abyss, the abyss stares back. When it comes to cultural matters this pressing, yes, I will link to Buzzfeed. Just don’t look directly into Billy Ray Cyrus.
  • Allen Iverson was so cool. If I had a time machine, I’d zip back to 2001, kidnap dude, bring him back to 2014, and turn him loose on the NBA. Reminding us that sports are not just about the games, Jay Caspian Kang examines the continuing role of AI’s famous arm sleeve in his overall cultural cachet.

End of the Week Links

Hello, everyone. This evening, as always, the Internet holds forth its treasures, and TGR is gathering some in a big net. May they stimulate you intensely.

  • Why did God systematically ruin a decent, faithful man’s life after someone dared him to? This is the inflammatory question raised by the Book of Job, and as Joan Acocella demonstrates in the New Yorker, Judeo-Christian commentators have spent millennia trying to explain how a benevolent deity could also have a sadistic streak. Spoiler alert: Nobody has done much better than David Hume’s common-sense observation that God sounds like an asshole. Makes sense. Guy did let his only kid get crucified.
  • Whether you’re talking kindergarten or college, teachers who are good at their jobs believe fervently in the existential importance of education for its own sake—whatever economic benefits it also carries. Teachers are some of the last real humanists. But can any occupation that exists in the actual world be considered a manifestation of a radiant, quasi-spiritual impulse? Many teachers would snort at that. In a post called “Hanging Up on a Calling,” Rebecca Schuman explains that the “joy of teaching/I’d do it for free!” narrative has long been a way to justify paying teachers as though their high-skill jobs weren’t extremely complicated and difficult. Teaching is an enjoyable, salutary occupation; I’m good at it; and I hope I can keep doing it until I’m old. But fuck any calling that doesn’t come with decent wages. Educators live right where everybody else does, and you can’t pay medical bills and student-loan invoices with a Love of Knowledge. The day I can’t earn middle-class money working full-time as a teacher is the day I stop being one.
  • The premise of Bad Lip Reading shouldn’t be funny for more than 15 seconds; the actual practice of BLR, in the right hands, is sometimes transcendent. The weirdly articulate quality of the nonsensical “readings” is what cracks this blogger so consistently up. Here, after another shitty whimsical GEICO ad, is a tour of the contemporary National Football League and its gladiators. “Kill Dracula at once, that’s what I would do immediately.”
  • About 90% of the content on Jezebel strikes me as lazy, tedious, and brittle (JUDGMENT BY MALE ALERT), but this anti-profile of the perpetually slim and greasy Adam Levine, whom the author compares to “an outspoken yoga enthusiast who won’t stop trying to talk you into anal,” is vital to our culture.
  • Every now and then, the novelist/blogger/sports pundit/pseudo-advice columnist Drew Magary guest-edits Jezebel for like a day, but usually (thankfully) he does most of his web work for Deadspin, and his weekly “NFL Dick Joke Jamboroo” is fantastic. This week’s edition, “On Softness,” offers a representative mix of half-ironic quippery about football, masculine panic, television, fecal matters, children, and Gregg Easterbrook’s undying pomposity. Hot takes, highly recommended.
  • As a cultural staph infection, the, uh, rapper Macklemore is making cold hard cash (from braindead teenagers and undergraduates) and some vicious enemies (among humans who have liked hip-hop for more than six months). Given the former, I’m not sure how much Macklemore cares about the latter, but Jack Hamilton’s cruel, brilliant assessment of Seattle’s most famous white MC is required reading. Some Alexander Pope-grade knife work going on here.

Shall we end with some music? Sort of. See the next post, y’all. A YouTube video link would look wonky on this page. Preview: This week’s jam involves sex-themed R&B.

Tales From the Industrial University

Adam Weinstein posted a gripping essay on Deadspin today. The title is sort of clunky (“Jameis Winston Isn’t [t]he Only Problem Here: An FSU Teacher’s Lament”), but it does encapsulate Weinstein’s main idea, which is that upper-echelon “college” football, as institutionally structured in the contemporary United States, does terrible things to colleges, especially to student-athletes and the people who teach them.

We love football, and we really love winning, and while we might be pseudo-intellectuals who idolize tweedy, critical theory-spouting professors, we hate it when they denigrate the game’s presence on campus. We want to do right by these players. One of mine was from a sugarfield shantytown best known as the AIDS capital of the state. I hope he never goes back. “You’re like, ‘Fucking A, man, this is awesome,'” my co-worker Derek says of teaching big-name players. “You’re part mentor and part fanboy.” (The names of the FSU instructors in this story have been changed to protect their identities and the identities of their students.)

But we’re increasingly flummoxed by the football culture surrounding Tallahassee, one that’s grown malignant with the wins and the scrutiny, like a traditional Islamic country turned radical and defensive, its craziest pilgrims whirling around Doak Campbell Stadium, the black cube at the center of their Mecca. It’s a culture that tells these adolescents that their highest calling is to sacrifice their bodies in the grassy shrine, that all else is distraction. It’s the same culture that’s now undergoing paroxysms of wild paranoia to spin Benghazi- and Trayvon-style conspiracy theories that might explain these obviously baseless allegations against Jameis Winston, the teenager whose prophetic power can reduce old white men to joyful sobbing.

As a football fan who teaches college, I found Weinstein’s narrative chilling, though not very surprising.

I should note that my experience teaching NCAA athletes has been much different, although granted I teach at a school that doesn’t have a football program and isn’t particularly sports-crazy despite being generally obsessed with fitness. The athletes whom I’ve taught have displayed the same wide range of talent, civility, interests, and work ethic as the overall student population; often I don’t even realize who plays sports. That is probably a good thing.

Sporting Chances

In light of Dan’s perspicacious post about the societal burdens of big-time sports, here is some reading to help you intellectualize your version of the general human love of watching young men chase rounded objects and/or injure one another. This afternoon mine entailed watching the Miami Dolphins on the ole flatscreen, as my beloved rotating cast of gladiators, employed by a billionaire from Detroit (postindustrial-dystopia Detroit), did televised battle with the Cleveland (postindustrial-dystopia Cleveland) Browns, who are also owned by a billionaire (one facing federal charges because his company stole money from its customers). Like Dan said: FOOTBALL!

  • The Legend of Jadeveon Clowney,” from the New York Times. Jadeveon Clowney is going to make a Scrooge-McDuck pile of money playing pro football because he is almost unfathomably talented at aspects of that sport. That’s awesome for him and his family; it’s the opposite of what happens when Meghan McCain or Chelsea Clinton or some other potentate’s child graduates from Stanford then takes a job at the UN. I’m happy that his grandchildren are set for life, provided he obtains sound financial advice. His game is beautiful, an otherworldly blend of spatial intuition, bison strength, ballet-dancer grace, and vicious concentration. Kid is a football genius who makes football aesthetes’ eyes pop out of their heads. But still you wonder what would have happened to Clowney if he weren’t an athletic marvel, if he had a gift for math or writing or painting; or if he were “merely” a reasonably intelligent, average human being; or if he wasn’t all that talented or ambitious and just wanted to manage a hardware store or something. He grew up poor and black in North Carolina. What happens if he isn’t a brilliant entertainment provider? What happens to that kid? The US (especially the South) has developed a superb system for producing football and basketball players.  Imagine if they (we) put that much effort into the academic side of the schools that students like Clowney have to attend whether or not they’re rare athletes.
  • Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” also from the NY Times. Somewhere in his published Letters, Kingsley Amis remarks that anyone who denies that Shakespeare is the greatest of all English poets can be ignored because they have a second-rate mind. I feel the same way about anybody who claims that David Foster Wallace, who wrote this essay, wasn’t all that good, especially if they dredge up the stupid gripe about how it’s a corny stereotype for young people, especially young (or not-so-young) males, to love his work. DFW isn’t Shakespeare, but nonetheless, fuck you if you aren’t amazed by his nonfiction. You probably don’t like Dr. Johnson, Hazlitt, Didion, Sontag, Edmund Wilson, Lester Bangs, or James Baldwin either. Yeah, I said it: amazed.
  • Baseball Card Vandals is a website you shouldn’t look at if you dislike laughing for extended periods of time.
  • I rode hard for Wright Thompson’s “When the Beautiful Game Turns Ugly” earlier this summer. I ride for it again here. Fantastic pop-ethnography for sports dorks who appreciate history, politics, and the utility of long clauses.

So stop watching sports!

Just kidding. Don’t ever do that.

Topical Verse: The Dog Days

Ryan and I have long argued that Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season should be a federal holiday. But baseball’s popularity isn’t what it was even thirty years ago. There are many reasons for this: the steroid scandal, the strike of 1994, new technologies that have made watching other sports on television a lot more exciting, as well a general ratcheting up of our need to be “entertained” every second of every day. Baseball isn’t “entertaining” like basketball or football, though I’d argue both of those sports are less wildly exciting than people claim. How many two-yard runs up the middle can one watch? And how many Milwaukee Bucks games get the adrenaline raging?

Baseball is now seen by many as something past its prime, especially as football games are the most-viewed programs of any kind each week. But this way of valuing a sport misses the point. Football’s season is only 16 games, whereas the baseball season stretches out for 180, if you include the playoffs. Its rhythms are more like our own lives: we must get up, go to work, go home, and find joy where we can. Maybe people look to sports for something other than dailiness, but I have always loved the slow pacing of baseball. It fits into my life perfectly. I can duck in and duck out, have it on in the background while I do other things, give it my full attention as the bases load and anticipation builds. I don’t want to sound like a D-list academic in a Ken Burns documentary, waxing poetic about a game in 1912 I never saw, but the folks who talk almost gleefully about baseball’s “demise” are missing out on something important, and something uniquely American.

In honor of August baseball, here’s the A.E. Housman poem “To An Athlete Dying Young.” Maybe baseball needed to die in the 1960s for people to really appreciate its virtues. I’m glad it’s still going out there every day though.

To An Athlete Dying Young

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.


Can You Fly, Higher Ed?

We’ve written a lot in this space about both higher education and sports, but there’s a great new article up at the Chronicle that brings the two together in a pretty unexpected way. No, I am not talking about the amazing story of Ohio State President and football booster extraordinaire Gordon Gee’s rapid fall from semi-respectability. Any chump who spends $64,000 of public funds on bow ties (and bow-tie-related goodies) deserves this kind of humiliation. Pieces that highlight the arrogance and corruption of athletic departments at many of America’s top universities (usually aided by college administrators with alumni dollar signs for irises) are a dime a gross. What’s less talked about is how the academic division of labor at most universities tends to replicate itself in athletic departments.

Meet Elwyn McRoy, the visiting adjunct lecturer of college basketball coaches. After I read Brad Wolverton’s account of McRoy’s journey up to this point, I realized that I hadn’t thought much about all those guys on the sidelines or benches who aren’t head coaches. Like the thousands of freshly minted (or long since chewed up) PhD’s who wander the country lusting after the tenure that they’ll never get, coaches without high-level connections drift back and forth across the country, and sometimes across the globe, chasing a ring that only appears to be made of brass. More often than not it’s thin air. The few that get lucky and latch onto the right coattails at the right time might become head coaches, but even this is tenuous, as small schools that have no business demanding that their teams compete with the big boys think that they are just the right coaching staff away from being the next Gonzaga basketball or Boise State football. And so most coaches just drift.

Like a lot of adjuncts, McRoy gets tastes of success, even the big time, that keep him coming back for more when it’s probably in his best interest (to say nothing of the best interest of his family) to give up the ghost. I won’t recap Wolverton’s whole piece because I think you should read it for yourself. I do have to quibble with one thing he writes though:

The NCAA limits Division I programs to three assistant coaches, which means that there are roughly 1,000 positions at the top level. Few professions have such a scarcity of jobs, and with so little staying power.

The rest of higher education is hardly so volatile. The history department doesn’t turn over every two years, nor do librarians. Even presidents, whose positions are some of the most transient, usually get five or 10 years to prove themselves.

A guy writing a piece in the Chronicle should know that the rest of higher education is this volatile. His own publication reports that 70% of the people teaching at American universities could be in different positions next year. While some schools treat their non-tenure-track faculty better than others do (I’ve been lucky to work at such places), the fact remains that there are thousands of Elwyn McRoy’s who teach math, composition, French, and physics. A lot of them do it at five schools at a time (if they’re lucky to find that many gigs), not knowing if any of those schools will rehire them at the end of the term. And most of their students have no idea that the people standing in front of them aren’t well compensated members of academia every bit a part of their campuses as department chairs. So while I completely sympathize with McRoy, and wish him luck at his latest gig, his story should make us think about what can be done to fix all facets of higher education before it races off the cliff it’s rapidly approaching.

Saturday Links

It’s Saturday and the weather here in LA is weird, so here are some ways to avoid having to go outside if you simply can’t bear it.

  • This short but sweet piece by Christopher Hitchens about the tyranny of waiters insisting on pouring your wine for you in restaurants is always worth revisiting.
  • Every year Bill Simmons ranks the top 50 assets in the NBA using a simple, but sensible metric: how likely the player’s current team would be to trade him. This year’s list is broken up into three installments, so prepare to lose  at least half an hour of your life.
  • Are you convinced that there’s no way someone could make a movie that successfully twins a meditation on the cosmos with testimonials about the atrocities committed by the Pinochet regime? You’re wrong. Nostalgia for the Light is a gorgeous documentary about just that, and it’s streaming on Netflix. I swear, it won’t make you feel nearly as bad as you’re assuming it will.
  • Kathryn Schulz has written a piece worth reading on why she hates The Great Gatsby. Not Luhrmann’s trite film version, mind you, but Fitzgerald’s novel. Obviously, I don’t agree with her assessment of the novel’s value. Virtually all of the reasons she gives for disliking the book are the precise reasons I love it. If there’s one excerpt from this article that sums up Schulz’s failure to actually engage the book on its own terms, it’s this one: “As readers, we revel in the glamorous dissipation of the rich, and then we revel in the cheap satisfaction of seeing them fall. At no point are we made to feel uncomfortable about either pleasure, let alone their conjunction. At no point are we given cause, or room, to feel complicit.” If you don’t feel uncomfortable or complicit (as Nick does) when reading about a culture that encourages people to use others up like natural resources, you have led a very moral, cloistered life that includes never having seen a rap video. Kudos to you for that, Ms. Schulz.