Archives for November 2011

What others are saying about recent events at UC Davis

I’ve been following pretty closely the response to the pepper spraying at UC Davis, and I’ve been hoping to find time to blog about it.  Unfortunately, between grant writing and grant reviewing and end-of-semester craziness, I haven’t had time to share or comment on the 75 or so tabs I have open in Firefox at the moment.  Those tabs are really beginning to slow down my laptop, so I thought I’d clear out some of them by sharing some of the more interesting tidbits.

Close readings

Lambert Strether offers a play-by-play description and transcription of the most popularized video of the incident.

Lili Loufbourow undertakes a close reading of one of the videos of the pepper spraying.  Here’s an excerpt:

It’s transcendently brilliant, this tactic–the students offer an alternative in a high-pressure situation, a situation that no one wants, but which seems inevitable in the heat of the moment. It’s an act of mercy which, like all acts of mercy, is entirely undeserved. Watch the other officers’ surprise at this turn in the students’ rhetoric, after they had (rightfully) been chanting “Shame on you!” Watch the officers seriously consider (and eventually accept) the students’ offer.

As the officer in the left foreground teeters back and forth, nervous, braced, thinking, watch the power-drunk cop on the right (who I think is the one who pepper-sprayed the crowd earlier) brandish not one but TWO bottles of pepper-spray, shaking them, not just in preparation, but in anticipation. He’s seconds away from spraying the students again. His mask is up, you can see his face, but it’s a nonexperience: it’s blank, immobile. It would be inaccurate to say that he’s immune to the students’ appeal; he’s not even bothering to listen. All he hears are sounds. No signals, all noise.

Megan Garber suggests that the image of the pepper-spraying cop could change the trajectory of the Occupy movement:

The image itself, I think — as a singular artifact that took different shapes — contributed to that transition, in large part because the photo’s narrative is built into its imagery. It depicts not just a scene, but a story. It requires of viewers very little background knowledge; even more significantly, it requires of them very few political convictions, save for the blanket assumption that justice, somehow, means fairness. The human drama the photo lays bare — the powerless being exploited by the powerful — has a universality that makes its particularities (geographical location, political context) all but irrelevant. There’s video of the scene, too, and it is horrific in its own way — but it’s the still image, so easily readable, so easily Photoshoppable, that’s become the overnight icon. It’s the image that offers, in trending topic terms, a spike — a rupture, an irregularity, a breach of normalcy. It’s the image that demands, in trending topic terms, attention.

And it also demands participation.

Hence we have an entire blog devoted to the meme of the Pepper-Spraying Cop.  Here’s a sample image:

(Speaking of memes, check out the reviews on a pepper-spray canister at Amazon. This one is my favorite.)

Gen Y on Occupy UC Davis

BoingBoing has an interview with one of the students who was pepper sprayed. The student provides a concise summary of what the students are protesting at Davis:

We’d been protesting at UC Davis for the last week. On Tuesday there was a rally organized by some faculty members in response to the brutality on the UC Berkeley campus, and in response to the proposed 81% tuition hike.

One of the reasons I am involved with #OWS, and advocating for an occupy movement on the UC campus, is to fight privatization and austerity in the UC system, and fight rising tuition costs. I think that citizens have the right to get an education regardless of economic condition. Most people are not going to get a job where they can afford to pay off student loans. But to exclude people from knowledge is unconscionable.

Zack Whittaker comments on UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza’s explanation for the pepper spraying—“Officers were forced to use pepper spray when students surrounded them. . .There was no way out of the circle.” Yet everyone who had seen the videos of the pepper spraying could see that Lt. John Pike stepped over the protestors to spray them in the face. Whittaker uses this failure of police department and university spin as emblematic of the new era of citizen journalism. While I hesitate to call most of the witness-created media from the UC Davis protest “citizen journalism”—much as I’m loath to call this round-up of UC Davis links “curation”—Whittaker does have a point about how Generation Y experiences flashpoints:

What we see in any modern event, no matter how off the cuff or sporadic, is a sea of cameras. One report likened it to a panopticon society.

It is not 911 or 999 we call in an emergency. We do not think to engage with the situation. But what we do, as the Generation Y, is pull out our phones and start recording; documenting every second of the event for history’s benefit.

Responses from UC Davis faculty

As far as I know, the first letter-length response from a faculty member at UC Davis came from Nathan Brown, an assistant professor in the English department, who called for UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi’s resignation.

Because it’s been well publicized, if you’ve been following this event at all, you’ve probably already seen music and technocultural studies professor Bob Ostertag’s editorial on the militarization of campus police. (I was Bob’s TA when I started the original Clutter Museum, and if you ever have a chance to hear him speak, I recommend you seize it.) I want to highlight a couple of passages.  First, Ostertag considers the use of pepper spray as both a health concern and disciplinary measure:

I just spoke with a doctor who works for the California Department of Corrections, who participated in a recent review of the medical literature on pepper spray for the CDC. They concluded that the medical consequences of pepper spray are poorly understood but involve serious health risk. As with chili peppers, some people tolerate pepper spray well, while others have extreme reactions. It is not known why this is the case. As a result, if a doctor sees pepper spray used in a prison, he or she is required to file a written report. And regulations prohibit the use of pepper spray on inmates in all circumstances other than the immediate threat of violence. If a prisoner is seated, by definition the use of pepper spray is prohibited. Any prison guard who used pepper spray on a seated prisoner would face immediate disciplinary review for the use of excessive force. Even in the case of a prison riot in which inmates use extreme violence, once a prisoner sits down he or she is not considered to be an imminent threat. And if prison guards go into a situation where the use of pepper spray is considered likely, they are required to have medical personnel nearby to treat the victims of the chemical agent.

(How hot is the pepper spray UC Davis police used?  Check out Deborah Blum’s post for the science of pepper spray.)

Ostertag also provides, very briefly, a history of linked arms in civil rights protests in the United States. He then explains how the meaning of linked arms has shifted:

Throughout my life I have seen, and sometimes participated in, peaceful civil disobedience in which sitting and linking arms was understood by citizens as a posture that indicates, in the clearest possible way available, protestors’ intent to be non-violent. . . .  Likewise, for over 30 years I have seen police universally understand this gesture. . . .

No more.

The UC Davis English department is calling for the resignation of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehion the department’s home page. The department also asks for the disbanding of the University of California police department.  The Physics faculty also has released a letter calling for Katehi’s resignation.

Professor Emeritus Jon Wagner offers a flyer for “UCD Omni-Spray: A Broad Spectrum Democraticide” (PDF).

Cynthia Carter Ching has issued an apology to students and encouraged her fellow faculty to recommit themselves to administrivia, even though such work is neither interesting nor fulfilling:

And in many cases that power wasn’t just taken from us, we gave it away, all too gladly.

You know, it wasn’t malicious.  We thought it would be fine, better even.  We’d handle the teaching and the research, and we’d have administrators in charge of administrative things.  But it’s not fine.  It’s so completely not fine.  There’s a sickening sort of clarity that comes from seeing, on the chemically burned faces of our students, how obviously it’s not fine.

So, to all of you, my students, I’m so sorry.  I’m sorry we didn’t protect you.  And I’m sorry we left the wrong people in charge.

On the Monday following the Friday pepper spraying, the UC Davis community held a rally that attracted a couple thousand people (pic).  The Sacramento Bee covered the events, and the Davis Enterprise reported on faculty who participated in the rally.

This week, UC Davis faculty are offering classes in a week-long teach-in. Were I still at UC Davis, I’d definitely be attending several of them.

Yudof has appointed former Los Angeles Police Department Chief William Bratton to lead the investigation of the pepper spraying incident.  The women and gender studies faculty at UC Davis has launched a petition protesting that decision, with a very thorough and, I think, convincing explanation of why Bratton is not a good choice in this case.  You can read their letter, and sign the petition if you’d like, at

The bigger context

Kate Bowles at Music for Deckchairs suggests we need to look beyond Lt. Pike and investigate instead the forces that allowed his actions to emerge:

The world’s attention has been focused on the face and demeanour (and now the salary) of Officer Pike, wielding the pepper spray like a bug gun, but what brought each of his colleagues to that point where their collective and individual efforts in that awful situation felt appropriate, inevitable, even wise?  How did each of them get caught up in this profound miscalculation, suddenly and so decisively on the wrong side of our global, chanting crowd?

Several columnists at The Atlantic chimed in as well. Alexis Madrigal picked up on Bowles’s theme with her post “Why I Feel Bad for the Pepper-Spraying Policeman, Lt. John Pike”:

Structures, in the sociological sense, constrain human agency. And for that reason, I see John Pike as a casualty of the system, too. Our police forces have enshrined a paradigm of protest policing that turns local cops into paramilitary forces. Let’s not pretend that Pike is an independent bad actor. Too many incidents around the country attest to the widespread deployment of these tactics. If we vilify Pike, we let the institutions off way too easy.

James Fallows considers the moral power of images emerging from the UC Davis protests and in another post highlights the callousness of the pepper spraying:

Watch that first minute and think how we’d react if we saw it coming from some riot-control unit in China, or in Syria. The calm of the officer who walks up and in a leisurely way pepper-sprays unarmed and passive people right in the face? We’d think: this is what happens when authority is unaccountable and has lost any sense of human connection to a subject population. That’s what I think here.

Also at The Atlantic, Garance Franke-Ruta offers a round-up of videos of violent police crackdowns against the Occupy protests. Ta-Nehisi Coates asks us to place the pepper spraying in a broader cultural context:

Not to diminish what happened at UC Davis, but it’s worth considering what happens in poor  neighborhoods and prisons, far from the cameras. I’m not saying that to diminish this video in anyway. But I’d like people to see this a part of a broad systemic attitude we’ve adopted as a country toward law enforcement. There’s a direct line from this officer invoking his privilege to brutalize these students, and an officer invoking his privilege to detain Henry Louis Gates for sassing him.


Cathy Davidson calls the pepper spraying a “Gettysburg Address moment,” in that “moral authority and moral force needs to be eloquently articulated before this historical moment devolves into violence and polarization.” She asks college presidents nationwide to demonstrate wisdom, passion, and moral vision.

University of California system President Mark Yudof issued a response to the pepper spraying. In response to his letter, Lili Loufbourow offers what is, in my opinion, the best-titled post on the whole clusterfuck: “Dear Mark Yudof: The Cemetery You Manage Can Hear You.”  (The reference is to Yudof’s quip to the New York Times that “being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you, but no one is listening.”) Loufbourow gives us a blow-by-blow analysis of UC administration response to incidents at Berkeley and Davis–it’s worth a read, but if you work for the UC or a similar system, be sure you take your blood pressure meds first.  See also the e-mail messages from UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau et. al. to see in even more detail how the rhetorical sausage gets made.

Sherry Lansing, the chair of the UC Regents, released a carefully scripted and unpersuasive video statement.  In a complete monotone, she declares, “We Regents share your passion and your conviction for the University of California.” To demonstrate the Regents’ dedication to the UC community, they’re opening up their next teleconference meeting to public comment for a whole hour. How generous!


It ends up UC Davis Chancellor Katehi is one of the authors of a recent report recommending the end of university asylum in Greece. Niiiiice.

Here’s Katehi leaving a press conference and being greeted by a phalanx of students, faculty, and staff that was, by some estimates, 1,000 people strong:

She is accompanied by the campus chaplain, Rev. Kristin Stoneking, who wrote a moving post on why she walked Chancellor Katehi from the press conference.

I’m so proud of UC Davis students right now. For once I say this without sarcasm: Stay classy.

“A community that embraces civility”

In case you missed it, here’s what’s going on at my alma mater this week:

. . .and here’s a screenshot of the campus’s home page:


As you can see from the video, many students recorded these events, so if you’re interested in raising your blood pressure and righteous indignation, you can watch several of them on YouTube.  Here are a few:

And some international coverage:

Media sources are reporting that the officer who sprayed the students is Lt. John Pike.  (His LinkedIn page says he’s open to “job inquiries” and “expertise requests.”  I’m sure law enforcement departments across the U.S. will be knocking on his door, eh?)

Nathan Brown, an assistant professor of English at UC Davis, has asked for the chancellor’s resignation.  Here’s an excerpt from his open letter:

Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-sprayed directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.

Hey, look–you can leave a note for UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi.  You can bet I did.  I believe I used the words “Clark Kerr must be spinning in his grave.”

Update: The UC Davis administration has representatives infiltrate protests.

How are things in your corner of academe?

Another memelicious monologue

Historiann has thrown down the gauntlet in response to Tony Grafton’s round-up of a spate of recent books about higher ed.

Near the end of his review, Grafton muses,

Best of all would be for enterprising publishers to find curious writers and have them describe some universities and colleges, in detail, with all their defects. The polemical books, even those that have some substance, end up slinging mud—which, as Huckleberry Finn pointed out to Tom Sawyer, isn’t argument—more often than laying out the evidence. The empirical studies, with a very few exceptions, are deliberately cast in such general terms, and written in such a value- and metaphor-free style, that they won’t reach anyone without a professional interest. Neither sort would give an intelligent outsider—say, a parent or student, a regent or a trustee—a vivid picture of a year’s life and work at a college or university, as it is experienced by all parties; much less a lucid explanation of how finance and pedagogy, bad intentions and good execution shape one another in the academic world.

Historiann suggests that

The other bloggers and regular commenters here study and/or teach at a variety of institutions around the world–so let’s offer our own detailed descriptions of our universities and what the problems look like from our vantage.

. . .and she was kind enough to include me among the bloggers she tagged for this meme.  So here goes.

(Check out the comments on Historiann’s post for links to others who have posted on this topic this week.)


I must admit I haven’t read any of the books Grafton reviews, though certainly I have heard of most of them.  I don’t read them because too often I’m unduly angered by books in this genre. It’s akin to being a duck and reading books about duck hunting during duck season.

Another caveat: I’m still junior faculty at Boise State; this is my second year on the tenure track in the history department there.  I’m getting a sense of the university and its issues, but my perspective is necessarily the narrow one of a newcomer to the scene. Plus, I can’t help but compare it to the institution where I spent 10 years, first as a graduate student, then briefly as an adjunct and then as professional staff, UC Davis.

Finally, I’m not known for having much of a filter; I tend to say what’s on my mind.  I like to think that characteristic lends me the ability to “speak truth to power,” but more realistically, it’s just me being naïve and not knowing when I’m putting my foot in my mouth. Who knows, then, what kinds of–let’s be generous and call them fans–this blog post will win me locally?

In this post, I’m looking at students, my workload, and three big issues that concern me.

Let’s begin with the students

Here’s the difference between UC Davis students and Boise State students, in a nutshell:

UC Davis student, in my office, talking to me about her D paper.  She’s 19 years old and taking my course to satisfy a general ed requirement.  “But I’ve always been an ‘A’ student!  Certainly there’s been some mistake.  Can you look at my paper again to see if you missed something?”

Boise State student, in my office, talking to me about his D paper. He’s 28 years old and taking my course to satisfy a general ed requirement. “Well, I’ve fucked up again, haven’t I? How can I do better next time?”  He listens to my suggestions.  “That’s really helpful.  I might not get to this until next week; I have sole responsibility for the kids right now because my wife has to spend several weekends in jail.”

My sense is that our students, and particularly our undergrads, are predominantly working class. Last I checked, our four-year graduation rate is 8 percent, and the six-year is 26 percent, but of course that doesn’t say much about reality, as many of our students are transfers from elsewhere, and they don’t figure into graduation rates.*  Many of my students are my age (36) or older.  This semester, I have students born between 1957 and 1993, which, as you can imagine, makes for interesting discussions.  Many are veterans.  Many have fought with addiction in various forms.  About one-third are Mormon.  The overwhelming majority are white.  Many are single parents. At least three of my students have initiated divorces this semester; I can’t remember having any married undergrads at Davis.

My workload

I came in at a time when everyone in the department has a 2-2 course load, and we’re all nervous that we’ll have to go back to a 3-3 (without, of course, the institution changing its research and service expectations).  This year and for the forseeable future, however, I’m on a 2-1, because I’m the internship coordinator for the department. This job is supposed to come with a course release each semester, but it would be foolish of me to accept a 1-1 load when I’m wanting to seem like A Team Player On The Tenure Track,** so I negotiated a 2-1 plus a stipend.  When I first came on board, I also negotiated a couple of course releases in my first couple years, but I won’t be taking those, as a 1-0 load doesn’t look very good, either.

It looks as if my pattern of courses will become one survey and one upper-division course in the fall, totaling about 80-90 students, and then either one upper-division undergraduate course (possibly cross-listed for grad students) or a graduate course in the spring (40 students if undergrad, 15 students if grad).  I can make those upper-division courses pretty much anything I want. Thus far that’s meant a public history and a women’s history course; I’ve proposed a digital history course for next fall.

All in all, it’s a fine teaching load.  I have no complaints, except maybe when I’m grading papers.

The scholarship requirements for tenure are modest, with three decent journal articles and around five lesser pieces (e.g. book reviews).***

As a public historian and women’s historian, I’m finding service is taking care of itself both on and off campus. Most of us in history carry a pretty significant service commitment.

Let’s lay it all out on the table, shall we?  Aside from my small stipend for internship coordination, I’m paid $49,000 a year, and yes, I negotiated up to that amount. It’s a significant decrease from my staff salary at UC Davis, and I don’t have much hope of it increasing until tenure, when it should rise to just about what I was making in Davis.  (And no, we’re not finding it cheaper to live in Idaho than California, aside from the cost of our rent.)

Big issues

Boise State is definitely feeling its growing pains, so it’s facing plenty of challenges, not the least of which is that it still receives less funding from the state than does the University of Idaho–last year it was widely advertised around here that BSU receives 2/3 per student what UI does–even though Boise State is now the most selective public institution in Idaho.  Educational institutions in Idaho aren’t really rolling in money to begin with. That said, here are three big issues that I think will impact my time here at Boise State:

A new focus on STEM education and research (and a misunderstanding of what the humanities are and do)

The university is jonesing for STEM money and STEM graduates. I mean, all the big universities are doing it, right?  I understand the appeal of STEM–there’s a good deal of satisfaction and positive public relations to be had in announcing your science professor has just secured a grant worth $250,000 or more. It’s also nice to bring the university royalties from intellectual property that’s been commercialized through technology transfer. That said, science researchers at most American universities rarely recoup their start-up costs through grants, so the costs of scientific research tend to be added to undergraduate tuition–and they definitely don’t recoup those costs if faculty leave for elsewhere within a decade. Despite these figures, during my time at UC Davis I heard more than one professor opine the indirect costs paid to the university from science grants are life support for the humanities.

The misguided self-importance of a few scientists aside, administrators also are misinterpreting the relative economic value to the university of the sciences and the humanities. At least one person interviewing for a high-profile position here has announced that all departments should pay for themselves–by which the prospective bigwig meant with income from more than tuition. I know he isn’t alone in this belief (universities should be run like businesses!), and the implication always seems to be that arts and humanities programs should be the first to fall under the budget ax because we’re not producing patents and drawing mega-grants.  Yet the humanities, with our growing class sizes, our many general education courses, and our lower faculty salaries, are incredibly cost-efficient–especially when we consider that we’re educating a lot of the K-12 teachers who accept ridiculously low salaries. (How low? Last year, the salary for a new teacher in Idaho dropped below $28,000, and the average salary remains $41,000.)

Of course, my colleagues and I have a nefarious (and apparently quite workable) plan to snag an NSF grant or two, so that the indirect costs will help pay for some scientist’s lab equipment.  (My start-up costs? $3,000 plus an iMac.)

There also hasn’t yet, as far as I can tell, been any kind of serious reflection here by people outside the humanities as to how the arts and humanities complement STEM education and research.

An attempt to become a “metropolitan research university of distinction”

This drive toward “distinction” is marked by greater investment in STEM, but also more Ph.D. programs and a greater rate of faculty publication.  I’m all for publishing, but it’s difficult in light of the next issue I’ll discuss.  (And can I just say it’s hard for us long-form historians to compete on publication quantity with criminal justice or political science types who apparently publish many, many short pieces?)

A desire to scale up the number of students we teach, and the speed with which they graduate

I’m not sure why our administration wants to bring in more students, as we’re having a hard enough time graduating the students we already have.  Perhaps it’s because if we’re investing heavily in the sciences, we’re going to need to recoup the costs somewhere–and where better than by making arts and humanities faculty teach more classes, each with a significantly greater number of students?

Because so many of our students are working part- or full-time, many of us would like to provide them with as flexible a schedule as possible. Unfortunately, for administrators, this flexibility too often means offering classes online.  I say “unfortunately” because, although I am often an advocate for the thoughtful use of technology in teaching and learning, the university has made a couple of decisions that make it clear

  • online classes are about faculty relinquishing control of their “content” and allowing for the greater adjunctification of the university;
  • the university has a narrow view of online teaching as content to be acquired by students;
  • the university is not really invested in best practices in online learning.

This blog post is already too long, so I’m going to just touch briefly on each of these points.

First, a colleague of mine has been teaching a section of one of her courses online for some time. When she first signed on teach online, she was told any course content she created would be her intellectual property.  However, the university’s latest version of its statement on online instruction intellectual property rights (PDF) indicates quite the opposite:

A course (as a designed collection of assembled and authored material) produced under University sponsorship, where the University provides the specific authorization or supervision for the preparation of the course, is a work made for hire (as defined by law and BSU policy). A course specially ordered or commissioned by the University and for which the University has agreed to specially compensate or provide other support (such as release time) to the creator(s) is a commissioned work, (as defined by BSU policy). In either case, the copyright to the course will be held and exercised by the university.

I suppose that means my colleague’s course, which includes videos of her lectures, can now be handed over to an adjunct to teach, yes?  Who cares, as my colleague pointed out, that according to the AAUP’s counsel, it’s unlikely that classes crafted by professors can be considered works for hire?

Second, in that same IP statement, the university makes clear what, in its eyes, constitutes an online course: “An online course implemented in the Blackboard course-management system at Boise State University, or similar educational technologies, is an organized collection of articles, notes, media, assignments, online communications, tests, and similar materials.” Basically, then, an online course is a bunch of stuff that can be collected and passed on to someone else.  It is not, you will note, collaborative or individual student work that showcases critical and creative thinking. It is something to be packaged and delivered–likely, as I noted above, not by the professor who created it.

Third, the platform the university provides and assumes faculty will use, Blackboard, does not provide adequate tools or configuration options to allow for best practices in student learning in the humanities.  If I’m going to teach online, you can bet it will be more ds106, less enterprise learning management (ick!) system.


That was quite the monologue, and yet it barely scratches the surface of my last 16 months or so of experience at Boise State.

Anyone who wants to participate in this meme is welcome to do so–either leave a trackback at Historiann’s, or a link in the comments to her post.

I especially invite Colleague Who Sometimes Reads This Blog (and signs hir comments thus) to add hir perspective, either here in the comments or in a pseudonymous! guest! post!  Alternatively: Get. a. blog.  :)

* For a nice rant about graduation rates and how they (don’t) work, see Dr. Crazy’s post for this meme; simply search her long post for the phrase “motherfucking graduation rates.”

* Hey, that’s A TPOTTT–a teapot!  Sing it with me, tenure-track folks: I’m a little teapot. . .

*** I’m totally falling down on pursuing book reviews and encyclopedia articles. If you’re a journal or encyclopedia editor who needs reviews/entries in public history, women in U.S. science, women in California history, museum studies, or digital humanities, please do be in touch.

Elsewhere. . .

If you’re interested in museums and/or internships, I have the first post in a looooong time up at Museum Blogging.

Irregularly scheduled programming will resume here soon. :)

Hard time

Fang volunteered to portray Troy Powell, a condemned murderer who was hanged with his co-conspirator in 1951, for the Frightened Felons event at the historic Old Idaho Penitentiary.  His performance was apparently, erm, memorable.  As he writes in a recent blog post, the most common advice he received was “Dial it back!”

Here’s his portrait from the evening, as found on the Old Pen’s Facebook page and taken by Nette Shaff: