Thursday, June 28, 2007

I apologize

But it's too damn hot to blog.

Here is how my life may be summarized:

1. Mary finished her final exams for vet school. She finds out next week if she passed or not.
2. I have a lot to get done before I leave for her graduation. And not enough time to do it in. Perhaps seeing lots of movies and drinking too much will help me accomplish my goals.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Saturday Night with a Robot

Against the responsible advice of my mother, girlfriend, and several in the blogosphere, I bought Delicious Library and have been having a cheerful time scanning in my books. It goes very quickly, I promise I couldn't have written a dissertation chapter in the time it will take to do them all! In the last forty minutes I just scanned three shelves, or 129 books. I estimate I have about 1100 more to go. It's kind of fun to go through all of my books one by one, remembering all the courses I bought textbooks for and the fun used bookstores in which I found gems.

The best part is that when the software recognizes your book, a robotic women's voice reads the title. That's fine when it's something like "Leo Tolstoy, war-and-peace," but my queer theory books almost killed her: "Judith Butler, excitable-Speech-a-politics-of-the-performative...Judith Butler, gender-trouble-feminism-and-the-subersion-of-identity...Judith Butler, bodies-that-matter-on-the-discursive-limits-of-sex."

Then, however, I got to my philosophy shelf. Plato, fine, Derrida, fine, Berkeley, fine. But Descartes?

"Rene Descartes, Meditations-on-First-Philosophy-In-Which-the-Existence-of-God-and-the-Distinction-of-the-Soul-from-the-Body-Are-Demonstrated."

It's a wild Saturday night here in Los Angeles.

Public Lives

I am very fond of my undergraduate institution, Wesleyan University. It's a great school, with an amazing intellectual culture that produces more than its fair share of interesting academics, activists, and artists. The incoming president, Michael Roth, is a fairly young alumnus who is an academic himself, the former president of an art school, and seems like a cool guy. (Unlike the previous president, who was an anti-intellectual jerk who made no secret of his general dislike for the student body.) I'm excited about the school's future, and will be a happy (small) donor some day when I have more money.

However, I just noticed something. We got this press release that Robert and Elena Allbritton, young but apparently wealthy alumni, gave $5 million to the school to create a "Center for the Study of Public Life."
The Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life is a response to significant changes across the social sciences, which include the creation of new interdisciplinary ventures, the use of multiple methodologies in research, and the rethinking of the idea of the public in a variety of intellectual and social movements. The Allbritton Center will build on evolving relationships between scholarly research and both the political process and the greater public. It will host courses taught by people who have had distinguished careers in public service, including law, business, government, the non-profit sector, and media. It also will house a Quantitative Analysis Center to educate students in the analysis and interpretation of large bodies of data

Sounded laudable enough to me. The press release goes on to point out that Robert Allbritton founded Politico, a political web site with a Republican slant I find generally annoying, but whatever, it's all good. We left wing types are open-minded about who we associate with.

But do you know what else Robert Allbritton has done in his short career? Well, he was President and CEO of Riggs Bank, a local financial institution in Washington, DC, owned by the Allbritton family. And why does the Allbritton name sound vaguely familiar? Well, in March he resigned as president in disgrace. Why? Let's ask the Washington Post!
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which has closely monitored Riggs since early last year and must approve any senior executive appointments, was informed of Allbritton's replacements, the company said. Riggs was fined a record $25 million by the OCC last spring for failing to comply with anti-money-laundering laws, and in January the bank pleaded guilty and paid a $16 million fine for failing to prevent possible money laundering by former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and officials of the West African nation of Equatorial Guinea.

That's right. It's turn out that the Allbritton family is widely believed to have personally assisted Certified Evil Dictator Augusto Pinochet in hiding his assets from the various courts that are trying to seize them. Want more? Read another Post article. Robert's father Joe seems to have been the major culprit--although some random low-level employees took the legal fall--but it's hard to believe my illustrious brother in Wesleyan alumdom was not part of some very bad things.

And this guy wants to start a "Center for the Study of Public Life"? Well, I suppose it is true that Pinochet did pioneer a certain "rethinking of the idea of the public in a variety of intellectual and social movements," in that, you know, he had most of his public secretly executed.

I guess whatever, Wesleyan can use the Allbritton money. But I respectfully suggest that it might make a fitting tribute to the institutions of democracy if it were renamed the Salvador Allende Memorial Center for the Study of Public Life. After all, 2008 marks the centennial of Allende's birth, and if Robert Allbritton is really looking for a way to assuage some guilt with his gift, he might as well go all the way.

Friday, June 22, 2007

How To Be a Grad Student

Summer "vacation" is seemingly awfully busy. Yuck. But I wanted to leave everyone with a quick link to a compendium of blog posts about graduate student life put together by Horace over at To Delight and Instruct. Check it out!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Okay, fine.

I might be an Obama supporter, I might dislike the Clinton family individually and as a unit, but...I have to admit, the new Hillary campaign video is brilliant.

That said, her official campaign song is a sappy French-Canadian ballad? Clearly somebody did not, as all campaigns should, hire an in-house musicologist.

Monday, June 18, 2007

How To Do Things With Teaching

My favorite teacher as an undergraduate was a professor who had been denied tenure at the beginning of his career. There were a lot of reasons for it--institutional homophobia for one--but he was also very upfront with that he hadn't published very much early on. He hadn't, he once told me, because it took him almost ten years of teaching before he learned "how to teach." It worked out fine for him; he had been denied tenure in the history department, and unusually, the more liberal English department offered him a position. Twenty-five years later, he's a world-famous scholar and one of the most popular teachers at the university.

I've always been struck by his comment though, especially as I've become an academic myself and experienced what he was talking about. I finished grading the final papers for the class I have been a teaching assistant for. There's some paperwork left to, but basically, this was hopefully my last day ever as a TA. I'm not going to miss it. Once you've had the taste of leading your own class, with your own syllabus, your own standards, your own personality, it's hard to go back to the status of minion. I have enjoyed TAing this year more than most; I've had the same thirty students, all majors finishing up the history sequence, all year now, and it has been wonderful to actually get to know some undergraduates in the bureaucratic morass that is my university. I get to lead my own discussion section once a week, and do occasional guest lectures, and that has been very fulfilling.

But best of all, I do feel like this year I finally figured out how to teach. I've always felt like a bit of a fraud as a teacher. Not in terms of subject matter, but in terms of pedagogical authority in the classroom. I have often felt that I rely too much upon my own subject position: essentially, I am a tall white guy, and therefore my students automatically listen to me more than they do to others. I've seen the proof of this year after year. My very first experience teaching in a college-level situation was when I was a TA as an undergraduate, for a bunch of frosh taking a Mozart course. My co-TA and I lead Friday listening sessions; she was a short white woman, and I was, well, me. 6'2" and WASPy as all hell. And I most definitely do not have an aggressive personality, or even a very loud voice, and as a junior in college I sure didn't know what I was talking about. Nevertheless, the students were visibly more respectful of me than my counterpart.

So as I was saying, I feel like my first couple years teaching as a graduate student, I kind of coasted on my subject position. I didn't have to worry about what I wore, I didn't have to be concerned that I would be viewed as "bitchy" if I asserted myself. I could talk about race without the white kids tuning out. I did have to work on learning how to project my voice better. (Aside: at one of the first academic papers I ever gave, a very famous scholar who chaired my panel took me aside and told me, nicely, that I would never make it in academia if I didn't learn to speak louder. That was some very effective advice!) But that's no big deal. Yes, I occupy a slightly minoritarian subject position when it comes to sexual orientation, but honestly, that can carry its own sort of privilege in academia, especially if your everyday performance reads, as I think mine does, as mostly straight.

This is all to say that because I try to be fairly self-reflexive, it was hard for me to take much pleasure in my teaching abilities. But I do think I made some progress this year in figuring out how to use the reality of my own self for more effective teaching:
  • Rather than fight it, I have in some ways become more formal. When I taught my own class I almost always wore a jacket. (This might seem obvious to readers from elsewhere, but in Southern California seeing professors at all dressed up is very uncommon.) When I am actually gainfully employed as a professor, I can really see myself being the sort who wears a tie every day. I also rather enjoy lecturing my students in a rather haranguing fashion. Oddly, they seem to enjoy it too. Part of it is no doubt because my formality is paired with the fact that I am a big softie when it comes to grades and late papers, but I think it is more than that. Although I really appreciate pedagogical approaches that try to break down authority in the classroom, I don't think progressive teaching has to necessarily go that route. As any member in good standing of the queer community knows, authoritarianism doesn't have to be a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with a little dominance and submission, as long as everyone knows the safe word.

  • Which also means treating students with a degree of formality and respect. My favorite undergrad professor who I talked about above, ran a very tight ship. He didn't allow any questions at all while he was lecturing, but saved twenty minutes at the end of class for questions. Students addressed him as Professor X, but in return he addressed them as Mr. and Ms. Y.

  • I talked about myself a lot. This does two good things. One is that the students find it amusing. But it also introduces self-reflection. This is a good thing for college students. One of my typical sermons is about privilege. I have a lot of privilege, I tell them, and I list everything about me that makes me privileged. But the upshot is, everyone who is in a college classroom also has privilege. Privilege is not an on/off situation, it's a continuum. Everyone has at least some, and you've got to know how to deal with it.

  • More than anything, I've tried so hard to listen to my students. I always hate it when students, or even audience members at a conference or participants in a seminar, ask a speaker a question, and the speaker is so wrapped up in his or her own thoughts they don't actually listen to what the questioners are saying. Listening to what someone is saying isn't always easy, and it means thinking on your feet and often spouting stupid things in response, but I think listening is the single most important tool for getting students to stay engaged.

Obviously much of this won't work for everyone. And I hope I can keep self-reflective about my own teaching, just like everyone should. But I think I am finally at a point where I've learned how to teach. Watch out, world!

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Time This Blog Saved My Career

The listserv of the American Musicological Society is currently embroiled in an extremely frustrating discussion of the "disco sucks" movement. Obviously this listserv is not the place one goes for intellectual stimulation--a usual discussion thread will be something like, "Hey, let's list every piece of music we can think of that is about trains!"--but you know, I wish it didn't want to make me tear my eyeballs out. I can deal with boredom, but this...

Anyways, my friends and I joke that one's cultural capital in musicology is inversely proportional to the number of emails one sends to the AMS-l. But because I need to vent steam, this is what I would email in were I more careless. It is apropos of several emails from various scholars assuming that we all agree disco music is shallow and dishonest. My response is the boiler plate response anyone who has remotely studied popular music would give.
I myself was not born until after the famous Disco Demolition night in Chicago, so disco is purely a historical phenomenon for me, as it is for the undergraduates I teach--their knowledge, and mine before graduate school, largely comes from doing the "YMCA" at middle school dances.

So given that most of us historians of a sort, it seems important to emphasize that it might not be so productive to reproduce a historical debate as if we are now unaware of its ramifications. If the music was shallow, then the implicit argument is that those who found meaning in it were themselves shallow. Rejecting an entire genre of music wholesale is also to be rejecting those people who listened to it. Perhaps not everyone in the 1970s was aware of disco's original fan base in urban communities of gay black men, but presumably everyone on this list is now aware of this.

See, blogs make everything seem much more civilized. If I sent this to the list, people would think I am accusing them of homophobia (and they would be right), flames would ensue, my enemies would end up on a search committee someday, bad bad bad. Here, I can post this, maybe a few people will respond, and it's all good.

Incidentally, many congratulations to my two friends who received their doctoral hoods today! May we all live to see such a day for ourselves.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Total Book Organization

So, my fellow academics and other people who regularly move large quantities of books: do we think that it would a valuable use of my time to catalog all my books with a program like this, and then further keep track of which book goes into which box when I move this summer?

Pluses: keeping the right books with me is the bane of my existence. I'm not a good note-taker, I tend to either remember something or have to look it up on the spot. So, when I'm immersed in writing, I like to have the appropriate books with me. If I'm going to get writing done during this hectic summer*, total book organization will be necessary.

Also, I like gadgets. Being able to use a web cam as a bar code scanner? Awesome.

Minuses: I could probably write a dissertation chapter in the time it would take me to catalog my books, thus freeing me from the need to write this summer. Plus, I would be embarrassed to tell people how nerdy I am.

In other news, many thanks to the illustrious Professor Ford at Dial M for thinking I'm a thinking blogger. Cheers! If it's a four-way tie, though, do I get to nominate five thinking bloggers myself, or just one and a quarter?

Speaking of musicology blogs, I have to warn you: rumor is, there might be yet another musicology group blog starting up by this fall. Can the blogosphere handle three such unnatural beasts?

Incidentally, for all of you bloggers lounging around sipping your coffee and contemplating a day of writing and snood, I just today gave a final exam. I will not miss the quarter system.

*This summer I am spending a chunk of July watching the ol' ball in chain graduate in England, and then coming back to LA to pack up my apartment to move before August 1. The best part is, I don't know where I'm moving to yet. Haha, fun!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Weird and Distasteful Things in a Forest

'Tis the season of dilated pupils in West Hollywood.

The gig went well enough yesterday. It was fun to play on an actual stage, with real sound system and a living, breathing sound man fiddling with knobs. The crowd was enthusiastic, and if the nearby karaoke tent drowned out the last chord of "Father Figure," well, that's all in the spirit of things.

As for LA Pride overall, I hate myself when I say things like this, doesn't quite compare to SF Pride. It's not that one is more or less commercial than the other, or that there is any real substantial difference between the rainbow tchotchke stands and Budweiser booths in LA or SF. The biggest difference is raw numbers: LA Pride gets about 300,000 people. In San Francisco, attendance has topped out above one million people. That means that population of SF actually more than doubles for one day. You really feel the numbers in every aspect of the parade and festival. A few dozen dozen dykes on bikes roaring down Santa Monica Blvd? Amusing. Hundreds of dykes on bikes hurtling down Market Street? Awe-inspiring.

Still, pride parades are what they are, and are usually fun. I've been to prides in NYC (very hot and crowded), Hartford (low-key and cute), DC (low-key and boring) and of course San Francisco. When I was in high school, in about 1997 or so, I was actually a safety monitor for SF Pride, meaning that I got a t-shirt and my own 20 feet of the parade route to keep safe. My main memory is that I was wearing incredibly dorky shorts with my orange safety shirt. But I think my twenty feet's worth of crowd enjoyed having a 17-year old teenage boy looking after them. My parents and sister marched with PFLAG that year, and when they came to my section and broke away to give me a hug, the crowd went wild.

Speaking of men doing things, those of you who know me or my family will find this article extraordinarily amusing.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Smell of Paparazzi in the Morning

Both yesterday and today, I was woken up at 7:00 am by the sound of helicopters. Not helicopter singular; any Los Angeleno worth his or her salt is used to the drone of a police helicopter prowling around the skies. This was the heavy thunderous sound of multiple helicopters, some sort of weird consumer culture version of Apocalypse Now.

Yesterday I didn't know what it was, but as I walked to the bus this morning, I looked up and saw that there five helicopters circling around my neighborhood. Or rather, not quite my block, but a few blocks up the hill from me, above Sunset Blvd. That's where West Hollywood's orderly rows of apartment buildings turn into the grotesque disorder of Disneyfied modernism that is the Hollywood Hills.

"What important celebrity event has happened in the past few days?" I asked myself. Ah yes, Paris Hilton's release from jail! Paris short-lived house arrest took place just a few blocks north of me, and apparently the world's paparazzi was staking out her new "jail" even from above.

Hearing about Paris's screaming and crying in the courtroom gives me a twinge of sympathy, but I think I have to stay pretty resolutely in favor of jail for her. A friend of mine once got a DUI, had a second offense, and had to spend 30 days in jail. It wasn't fun, I'm sure he was having daily nervous breakdowns and not sleeping, and I'm sure I would too, but you know...he survived. And he wasn't in a special celebrity section of a woman's jail.

Photo: Paris at LA Pride in I think 2005, with Tinkerbell and her mother. She was, I believe, the celebrity grand marshal. She was surrounded by really intense police security that pushed everyone back rather roughly. More than a few boos from my section of the crowd.

Monday, June 04, 2007


What should you do this weekend?

Well, if you are in Los Angeles, you know that this weekend is Pride. And on Sunday, there is the big festival after the parade. And at that festival, there is a small stage known as the "Empowerment Zone," where they sequester the people of color and trans performers. And on that stage, from 2:00-4:00 pm, will be a set organized by the good people at Transcend. And in that set, probably towards the end, a certain blogger, though neither trans nor a person of color himself, might be playing backup guitar in the best transgender black Elvis cover band you'll ever see.

Unfortunately, to pay for all the white and non-trans performers on the main stage, tickets to the festival cost $15 if you buy before Saturday, $20 at the door. I'm sure it goes to a good cause. Or maybe it goes to a secret fund to evict impoverished seniors from West Hollywood, I dunno.

On the other side of the country, if you are in Philadelphia (which, according to my sitemeter widget, some of you are!) this Friday, you should go hear my friend Joel do a reading (with some other writers) at the Chapterhouse Cafe. See his blog for more details. There will probably be less Elvis involved, but they can't help it, they're born that way.

And if you are in neither of those places, you're flat out of luck.

Update: According to my mother, that last statement is not strictly true, at least in Ashland, OR. There is some pretty rockin' Shakespeare happening in Ashland this weekend.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


In lieu of an actual post, I direct you to Dr. Crazy's recent thoughtful post about the process of becoming an "academic" in the psychological sense. I always enjoy Crazy's writing on the ethics of advising undergraduates to continue on to graduate school, the essential question being, "given how unfulfilling and ultimately unsuccessful academia will be for the majority of those who choose this route, why do we encourage our students to go on to graduate school?" Entering graduate school because you want to be like your tenured advisor at a fancy pants school, who seems to spend all of his or her time thinking great thoughts and enjoying long summer vacations, is a recipe for disaster.

I have a number of students, graduating seniors, who plan to apply to doctoral programs in musicology next fall, so I've been thinking about this a lot. I think I know these particular students well enough to tell myself that they are indeed suited for academia, and will do well both intellectually and emotionally. But with any of my students who ask me about graduate school, I try hard to be both encouraging ("Yay, you like musicology and are really smart!") and realistic ("Just so you know, all of your TAs have been living below the poverty line for the last five years"). Not that I kid myself that the advice I hand out is that important. Honestly, I didn't listen too closely to my professors about such things when I was an undergraduate, and I know perfectly well that they probably aren't either.

For me, there is also another aspect of this ethical question too. I, for one, believe that musicology would be a much better discipline if its members came from more diverse backgrounds. Therefore, when I have a student who is a student of color, or the first in their family to attend college, or is even from some interesting musical subculture, there is a part of my brain that thinks, "I should encourage this person to enter academia, so that academia will be better." And then, the other part of my brain responds, "Okay, so academia will be better off for having this kid, but will this kid be better off for being an academic?" Obviously I can't really answer this second question for another person, but I think it is an important internal dialogue to have with yourself.

Hmm, so much for "in lieu of an actual post." Back to work, Barnet Bound!