Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Purpose of West Chester University

My friend and colleague at West Chester University, John Elmore of the School of Education, sent this letter out to university professors this morning. This concerns legislation that is being introduced to the Pennsylvania State Senate this afternoon by Andrew Dinniman (D-19th district) and Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson (R-6th district) which would allow West Chester to leave the state system of higher education and join the ranks of "state-related" schools like Penn State, Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh. The Dinniman/Tomlinson proposal would have enormous ramifications on APSCUF, the state union of college professors. This educational initiative seems to be politically motivated by West Chester's university president Greg Weisenstein and the PASSHE Board of Governors. Elmore's letter was co-signed by two of his colleagues,  Curry Malott and Rob Haworth. Their argument lays out why this legislation is an attack on the principles of democracy. 

The Purpose of West Chester University

Over the past forty years, public universities – and the students and faculty who define them – have been poked, prodded, threatened, starved, and coerced into capitulating to the redefining of the purpose of public higher education. Here at West Chester University we have all witnessed the
incessant commodification of our campus, our curricula, and our students. We have all sat in
meetings where we are told that our students are now ‘customers’, our classrooms are now ‘delivery mechanisms’, our teaching is now a ‘product’, and even our public university itself is now a ‘brand’. We are told that these transformations are inevitable and that this is all necessitated by a never-ending economic crisis – “the new normal” – in a country, paradoxically, overflowing with so much capital investors struggle to find new investment opportunities. American workers, including professors, are therefore constantly reminded that we shouldn’t let our idealistic and antiquated perspectives on the value of public education, and the necessity of an educated citizenry within a democracy, stand in the way of ‘progress’. The latest version of that ‘progress’ is the proposed ‘opportunity’ for West Chester University to become a ‘state-related’ brand so that we might realize the real opportunity of selling a more expensive, and therefore more profitable, ‘product’.

We are certain that over the coming weeks and months we will engage in many debates over this
grand opportunity. We will undoubtedly argue over the potential effects such a change might have on faculty rights, collective bargaining, our union, our students, our sister campuses and our campus. These are all valid and critical concerns – even a casual evaluation of tuition and fee rates at the current state-related institutions offers clear evidence of what such a change would mean for our students, and thus a betrayal of PASSHE’s historic purpose, that is, “to provide high quality education at the lowest possible cost.” However, what we would like to make clear is that what is being proposed here at WCU is not merely a different path to the same destination. This agenda emanates from a very specific valuation of what we do here and the very purposes of public education in general. In short, the efforts to privatize West Chester University are not value-neutral, nor are they unique to West Chester. This movement towards the privatization of public spaces can be seen in every aspect of contemporary society. Such trends are typically captured within the term “neoliberalism.”

Neoliberal theory is manifested in both economic policy and political ideology, which in concert
disperse formidable effects and transformations of the socio-cultural realities of society. This
neoliberal culture praises entrepreneurialism, self-reliance, and rugged individualism; equates
unimpeded materialism and the pursuit of self-interest with human freedom and social justice;
venerates the stockpiling of personal wealth; degrades collective and public responsibility; and equates any government intervention on behalf of a collective social welfare as counterproductive to human progress. David Harvey (2005) describes it well:

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political-economic practices that proposes
that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms
and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong property rights, free
markets, and free trade… there has everywhere been an emphatic turn towards neoliberalism
in political-economic practices and thinking since the 1970s (pp.18-19).

Arguing that self-interest and an unfettered free-market are the best, if not only, path to progress,
equality and a supposedly merit-based version of social justice, public institutions are viewed through the lens of neoliberalism as, at best, social distractions and, at worst, antiquated seeds of Bolshevism. For the advocate of neoliberalism, therefore, anything that operates outside the for-profit model, whether it is a public school, a library, or a post office, is actually counterproductive to human progress. For a participatory democracy, such a retreat from all things public means, in effect, a retreat from democracy itself. As Noam Chomsky (2010) declared, “The very design of neoliberal principles is a direct attack on democracy” (p.75).

History clearly evinces that making visible the circumstances and power relations undergirding any form of hegemony, by way of the development of a critical and dialectic lens within the people, has always bee the most fundamental ingredient for counter-hegemonic struggle. Neoliberal advocates recognize this threat inherent to popular education and, in maintenance of its agenda, seek to nullify and obliterate any such form of democratic resistance to the expansion of private power and free market religiosity. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the destruction of public education has been a goal of neoliberal advocates wherever and whenever they have found opportunity to unfurl their flag. When taking such goals into account, the decades long effort to destroy public education, and offer private, for-profit alternatives - designed by neoliberal think tanks, funded by right wing political action committees, and championed by conservative politicians – should come as no surprise. We have witnessed the anti-democratic results of the neoliberal program for public universities in places like Wisconsin, Michigan and multiple other public universities across the country and around the globe.

We recognize that the positions we take here will be labeled by some as idealistic, antiquated, and out of touch - we can live with such scrutiny. We also recognize that not every faculty member on this campus made a conscious and political decision to be a part of public education and, therefore, may not have made our same connections between the existence of public education and the health of participatory democracy. However, we sincerely hope that our colleagues, regardless of their political orientation, will come to realize that we did not arrive at this crossroads of our own volition; we were systematically delivered here. The continuous budget cuts, draconian systems of oversight, marginalization of students and faculty, have all served as a cattle prod driving us to the point where we might be willing to abandon the promise of public education and the promise of West Chester University as a public good.

In spite of their fear mongering concerning an inevitable economic crisis, the values of those who
promote the neoliberal agenda are clear, and we do not share these destructive values. We believe the question for us as faculty members of West Chester University is this: Do we believe in the concept of a public good and its critical role within democratic society - and, if so, what responsibility do we have in defending the public good in which we have been entrusted? Will we defend public education or will we submit and become the latest example of its demise?

We should not allow ourselves to be distracted from this core question.

In Solidarity,

John Elmore, Curry Malott, & Rob Haworth

Professional & Secondary Education

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Best Pop Music CDs of 2013.....

The Best CDs of 2013: Red Baraat reigns at the top of the pops!

1) Red Baraat –Shruggy Ji . Before he became a famous producer of best-selling albums, Boston rock critic Jon Landau once famously scripted a critical review proclaiming “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” With apologies to both the Boss and Landau, I think the same claim could be made for Red Baraat. As America increasingly becomes a nation of Third World immigrants, this Brooklyn collective of mostly Muslim brass and percussion players seems to suggest our new musical landscape will incorporate a plethora of exotic, wild new sounds that seem very foreign to our ears.  We can only hope more of the same glorious stuff is in store. Without making any religious or political statements, the band shows us a glimpse of what the new American world music may be: an inspirational, in-your face blast of brassy fun. Red Baraat takes its name from the Indian wedding ceremony in which the groom, joined by friends and family, walk to the bride's family's dwelling to pick her up – accompanied by a rollicking brass band on this joyous trek through the neighborhood.  If this sounds like a rejiggered New Orleans street tradition, well so does Red Baraat. Led by Sonny Jain on dhol (a large drum that Jain wears on a strap over his shoulder), the Brooklyn band is a savvy fusion of brass-heavy New Orleans jazz, bhangra funk and Indian wedding music. If there is any “fault” it’s that the studio album does not quite measure up to the band’s live performance. Don’t miss them if they’re playing within a 50 mile radius. You’re smile for days afterwards. This is irresistible and imminently danceable party music.

2) Patty Griffin – American Kid  and Silver Bell.   One could make a case that no American recording artist had a better year than Patty Griffin. I’ve been a sucker for this Maine singer-songwriter since first hearing Living With Ghosts a stripped down 1996 acoustic set of poignant vignettes that plumb the depths of love, loss of love and family life. Her latest collection, American Kid,  is reminiscent of that initial effort, songs that detail her relationship with her father. They were written shortly after learning of her father’s impending death and explore his absence in her life. Her new husband, Robert Plant, sings background on several of the songs, most notably “Ohio” and “Faithful Son.” This is Americana’s finest recorded moments of 2013.  Later in the year, she released Silver Bell, an album of kick-ass rock and roll songs that were never released by her record company when they were recorded in 2000. Stand out tracks include “Boston”, “Little God” and “Silver Bell.” Both albums are worth owning. That they both came out in the same calendar year makes 2013 a very special time for one of America’s best female rock/pop musicians.

3) Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium.  I put Okkervil River at the top of my end of the year list twice in the last seven years, so my affection for this band is well documented. I adore this record. I listened to it more than anything else in 2013. It’s easily their most accessible effort, showcasing Will Sheff’s most intimate songwriting. “Down Down the Deep River”, the year’s best pop song, is a roller coaster remembrance of the fears of growing up in a small New England town. The rest of the collection of a cycle of songs celebrating the joys and despairs evident in small town American life. It’s chock full of Sheff’s poignant obser/reservations. If there is any justice, this CD some day will be parsed and studied in high school English classes the way Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio still is. Don’t overlook “On a Balcony” and “Walking Without Frankie”. Another artistic achievement from the best rock band in America.  

4) Rokia Traore – Beautiful Africa. If you allow me the concession that Red Baraat is really an American band (after all, they reside in Brooklyn!), then I would say this CD is my favorite World Music disc of the year. Traore’s aching vocals are a revelation. She’s made a savvy decision to allow John Parish, PJ Harvey’s producer and sideman, to turn the sound knobs for this record. He’s moved her away from the acoustic blues influences of her other CDs into something that sounds a lot more visceral. Yet Traore’s reliance on the n’goni (her stringed instrument) makes this a distinctively African album, partly sung in her native language, Bambara. It succeeds because of her shimmering, intensely soulful singing. Highlights include the furious “Kouma” and the thoughtful “Mélancholie”, a highly personal reflection on solitude.

5) Parquet Courts – Light Up GoldFifteen head-banging songs in just 33 minutes. Not one of them feels like filler. This Brooklyn rock quartet (they originally hail from Texas) take the lo-fi aesthetic of Pavement, the Feelies and Guided By Voices to new heights and turn that 1990s template into something that sounds fresh and original. And when you listen closely, you can hear the ghost of Lou Reed in their performances. Like Reed, none of these guys can sing a note. Like Reed, they put their songs over with passion and confidence. Songwriter Andrew Savage’s wry observational takes on politics, pop culture and personal relationships suggest he spent more than a few months of his teenage years listening to both Reed and Jonathon Richman.  Start with “Stoned and Starving” and “Borrowed Time.” Let the slacker angst wash over you. Revel in the innocent glory of a garage rock band finding their voice. Pure punk bliss.

6) Iron & Wine – Ghost On Ghost.   I usually find it difficult to appreciate the earnest yearning of Sam Beam’s  warm as oatmeal vocals. He tends to put me to sleep. (Which, for a guy with old man sleep issues, is something I should enjoy more). But this year’s Iron & Wine effort sounds like a nod to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks/Moondance” era. Beam’s baritone is backed by a blend of soulful horns and gloriously augmented by the thrum of acoustic bass, violins and tasty female background vocalists. His singing feels lighter and more carefree than ever before. He seems confident in his role as front man of a revved up rock band. Van would be proud! Standout cuts include “New Mexico’s No Breeze” and “Grace for Saints and Ramblers.”

7) Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady.  If you haven’t caught Janelle Monae’s act yet, check out her Letterman performance of “Dance Apocalyptic” on YouTube. Watch it until the end, when she’s dancing a jig in black leather boots on top of Dave’s desk. In a nutshell, that’s why she has staked a claim to Michael Jackson’s throne . When I caught her show at the Electric Factory in Philly in October, I thought I was seeing James Brown in his prime. They cart her out in a white straight jacket and when they peel it off her, watch out!  Ninety minutes of non-stop dance moves that take your breath away. Like her last record, this one has some annoying sci-fi patter that suggests it’s a “high concept” album. None is needed. She really is the Queen of Soul. Some day you, too, will kneel and bow before her immense talent and ambition.

8) Frank Turner – Tape Deck HeartFormer front man for the British punk band Million Dead, Turner turned to a more traditional brand of Brit folk rock later in his career and has released a string of great CDs that mine the same territory as Billy Bragg, whose liberal politics provide a nifty template for Turner’s own voice on Tape Deck Heart. “Four Little Words” stakes a riotous claim for dancing in the mosh pit and the celebratory “Recovery” makes addiction to a woman sound like a necessary part of living a full life. This underrated artist deserves attention and this CD is one of the hidden gems of the year. It you pick this up, pay special attention to Nigel Powell’s drumming. Turner may craft the lyrics, but Powell is the pistons of Turner’s V6 engine.  

9) Sallie Ford & the Sound OutsideUntamed Beast. This Portland band sounds like punk rockers who grew up listening to rockabilly and Charles Mingus. And Sallie sings with a swagger that’s sexy, sultry and natural. The All Music Guide described her vocal performances like this: “With a voice that can belt, soothe, caress, and flat-out spit sass, attitude and raw street emotion, she sounds like a dream cross between Ella Fitzgerald and Janis Joplin.” Songs to download: “They Told Me”, “Bad Boys” and “Do Me Right”. But be sure the house doesn’t burn down while you’re listening.

10) The Will Callers – What Else Is Left?If you like your alt-country ballsy, loud and with a slathered side of greasy greatness, you’ll dig the Will Callers, Fort Worth’s finest. Produced by Ray Wylie Hubbard (the bespectacled Texas hippy whose “Grifter’s Hymnal” topped my best of the year list last December), this 2013 CD is shot through with gunslinger attitude.  The band earned a statewide Texas rep by winning the Shiner’s Rising Star contest in 2010. This is their first full length studio CD and marks them as a band to watch carefully in the near future. “One Single Tear”, “Weight of the World”, “Heart Like Mine” and “87 Miles” will rock the house.

In alphabetical order, my next 10 favorite CDs of the year were: Arcade Fire, Reflektor; Daft Punk, Random Access Memories; Jason Isbell, Southeastern; King Khan & the Shrines, Idle No More; Laura Marling, Once I Was An Eagle; Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park; The National, Trouble Will Find Me;  Satellite Hearts, Imperial Green. Allen Toussaint, Songbook; Kurt Vile, Walking On a Pretty Daze. 
The ten best songs of 2013: 1) “Down Down the Deep River,” Okkervil River; 2) “Shruggy Ji,” Red Baraat; 3) “Recovery,” Frank Turner; 4) “Dance Apocalyptic”, Janelle Monae; 5) “Light Up Gold,” Parquet Courts; 6) “Bite My Tongue,” King Khan & the Shrines; 7) “Ohio,” Patty Griffin; 8) “Bad Boys”, Sally Ford & The Sound Outside; I9) Iron & Wine, “Grace for Saints and Rambles”; 10) Daft Punk, “Get Lucky".

The best music I heard all year didn’t come out on a CD.  Soon, though, I have a feeling my friends will be able to hear the Late Greats, my favorite new band, on their own compact disc. At Thanksgiving a year ago, my son Luke started writing songs with some friends he knew from the creative writing program at West Chester. The music had a rough, folk/rock edge to it and most of the songs had a humorous twist to them. Some were more clever than most. A few were kind of impressive. Luke and some of his writing friends played a benefit concert in Upper Darby for a work colleague who had some medical bills to pay. Before they played a single song, he mentioned the band was looking for a drummer. Once they secured one, just a few weeks later, their songs were beginning to round into form. By mid-summer, they were playing in my basement in Downingtown once every two weeks. Their transition into a real band of rock musicians was fast and exhilarating to witness. The Late Greats had potential. That was obvious on the basement performance footage I shot on a Flipcam.

In July and early August, they played several gigs in club venues in Philadelphia. You could see them gain confidence and proficiency with each passing performance.   Then, just two weeks ago, they headlined a benefit concert Luke organized for his sister’s library project for the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. I introduced the band before they performed. Standing on the stage with them felt like being in presence of caged lions. They were ready to pounce. And once Luke started singing, they owned the room. Music savvy friends who had never heard them before were suitably impressed.  The Late Greats made my favorite music of 2013. I wish they had something out on CD, they’d be on the list for sure.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Deciphering Lou Reed on Election Night (my interview with Lou Reed the night Jimmy Carter was elected president in November, 1976)

Deciphering Lou Reed on Election Night
(From the States-Item, November 6, 1976)
The passing of Lou Reed on Sunday made me remember a night in November of 1976 when I was one of a handful of reporters who "interviewed" Reed in New Orleans. It was election night and I remember the evening had a surreal feel to it, as if Reed were above politics somehow, unconcerned with the ebb and flow of Capital power. Jimmy Carter won a close election against then-president Gerald Ford and the election results were trickling in on a black and white TV in a hotel lobby as Reed sat down to be interviewed. His girlfriend of the time, a wispy thin transsexual named Rachel, sat next to him smoking a cigarette, looking bored.

I was a big fan of Reed's, but it was hard to know exactly what was going on with the rock 'n roll singer that evening. He seemed barely lucid at times. At other times, some of our questions seemed to engage his interest. He may have been high, but I couldn't know for sure. I suspected the interview was mostly a performance, Reed acting  the part of a jaded rock artist, but I couldn't be sure of that either.  Getting a straight answer out of him was dicey at best. I didn't feel as if I had enough material to write a coherent article about the evening. What I ended up publishing was a list of his most lucid quotations. The  column that appears below was published on Nov. 6th, 1976 in Lagniappe, the weekend entertainment tab for the States-Item. It came out three days after the presidential election. I was a general assignment reporter for the paper at the time but my real interest was in writing rock criticism for the newspaper. 
                    *            *           *           *

With the release of Rock and Roll Heart, Lou Reed becomes a prime candidate for Comeback of the Year in rock mag circles. Combined with Reed’s earlier 1976 album, Coney Island Baby, the new LP makes Reed one of the most prolific rockers of the year.

On election night ’76, Lou Reed was in New Orleans. Squirrelish, sullen Reed, trying hard to keep his rock and roll mystique together while a tableful of reporters picked his brain. As the “interview” wore on, it became increasingly hard for me to separate Lou Reed the performer from Lou Reed the person. The interview was a performance, too.

What did Lou Reed the person have to say that could be of any interest to New Orleanians? Not a great deal, and certainly nothing that could fit into a cohesive article. He was bitchy at times and droll at times. Mostly he was arcane.

He said he was teed off at RCA records, his former label, but refused to say why. He preferred to call himself “product” rather than “artist.”

“Product can talk about product and artist can talk about art, but product cannot talk about art,” he said. “That’s like margarine trying to talk about butter.”

Here are some other gems from our conversation:

“Robert Christgau (rock critic for the Village Voice)should be shot. Anybody that has the audacity to put a grade on Stevie Wonder’s work should be shot between the eyes."  (Christgau gives letter grades to new album releases, a process Reed finds degrading.)

“I don’t know what decadence is. A lot of business men are decadent, too.”

Lou Reed’s influences, both before the Velvet Underground and since then? “Everybody.”

His work?

Berlin.  “Should have been promoted more by RCA. My best album.”

Metal Machine Music. “Was misunderstood by RCA. They took it around to AM stations. Of course it didn’t go over. I like it a lot, play it all the time at home.”

Transformer. “We really didn’t know what we were doing in the recording studio. We didn’t realize what making a record was.”

 Coney Island Baby. “The other side of Metal Machine Music.”

Rock and Roll Heart. “I wanted to put a pacemaker on the cover, but I didn’t know what one looked like.”

Loaded.  “That was loaded with singles, that’s why we called it that. That album could have kept a lot of people working for a long time, but I left the band at that time and there was no one to play the music any more so they didn’t promote it.”

Does he still go to movies? “Naw. I get bored I can’t sit still in one place very long.”

Favorite magazines: “I think Ladies Home Journal is the funniest magazine in America. It’s like National Lampoon except it’s real. I also read Psychology Today and Scientific American. Last month Scientific American had a blown up picture of a cancer cell. It was just beautiful. You don’t have to read it, you can enjoy it just looking at the pictures.”

Politics: “I was for Carter but I was afraid that if people found out, they’d use it against Carter. I don’t think people in the arts should use their position to influence people. (Like Pearl Bailey did election eve, endorsing Gerald Ford). If the bad guys are coming over the hill I sure wouldn’t want Pearl Bailey to be Secretary of State.”

His favorite company: “Sony. I wish they would let me endorse something for them, I think they’re fantastic. Once they built their own pocket radios but they designed them too large to fit into regular-sized pockets. They just went out and manufactured their own shirts to fit the radios.”

His watch: (The interview was degenerating at this point). “I got this gem from Texas Instruments for $19.95. Why pay $400 for something that you can get for much cheaper? They are the best American company, almost in Sony’s league.”

New Orleans: “I love New Orleans. Last time I was here I stayed four days, but I could never live here. There aren’t enough cabs.”

New York: “Twenty minutes outside of New York I start to get scared. I can’t order out for pizza. Not that I do that all the time, but it’s nice to know you can. I don’t own a car. What would I do with it in the city? Besides, my license expired and I could never pass that test again. Parallel parking? Between those red and green pylons?”

Lou Reed’s worldview: “The way I look at the world, everything is black and white.”

Reed said some other profound things that I either didn’t write down or didn’t’ comprehend. His purpose for visiting the city was, of course, to promote the new album. But he plans to play New Orleans soon, possibly in the spring. He is currently touring with the same band that he’s worked with on his latest two albums.

Both Coney Island Baby and Rock and Roll Heart are vintage Reed, solid rock and roll from the pulse of New York City, two of the best albums of the year. He may be a little hard to understand across a table, but Lou Reed comes across loud and clear on vinyl.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

It was 30 years ago today....

The picture leaves a little bit to be desired. I shot it last night with a digital camera under the glaring overhead lights of my dining room bulbs. It was encased in a frame, covered in glass. The bulbs give the picture a yellowish cast that makes it resemble a lithograph.

This photograph was taken on the day I was married, October 8th, 1983, thirty years ago today to Annette Clare Klinger.

The marriage only lasted 15 years. The divorce is now as old as the marriage itself. But I will remember that day for a long time. Most people who attended the wedding remember it, too.

The picture was snapped on an afternoon as glorious as the weather today. The temperature never rose about 75 degrees. There wasn't a single cloud to be found anywhere in the heavens above.  I was married to my bride under "Crystal Blue Persuasion" skies. 

We wrote our own vows to one another. I carried mine on a torn and tattered piece of paper in my wallet for many years afterwards. Just seconds after saying our vows, a flock of Canadian geese flew overhead on their way to greener pastures down South. Their collective honks and calls seemed like a blessing at the time.

The pastor's name was John Sweet. He was a minister from a Presbyterian church around the corner from the humble brick row home where the Klingers lived, in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. His wife was named Sharon. Many wonderful moments happened that day, but the most memorable moment and the highlight of the entire day was her rendition of "The Lord's Prayer" at the end of the ceremony.

The song gave everyone who heard her sing chills. I still get them when I remember. Her voice was  a soaring soprano that seemed to lift as high as the tall, stately maples that basked Curtis Arboretum in a glorious canopy of gold, green, red and orange and yellow. Summer was ending with a bang.

And then she sang.

Even the heavenly trumpets of the geese seemed pedestrian in comparison.

I had heard that some members of the choir in John's Presbyterian church did not want her to to sing with them in the choir. When she opened her mouth, and I heard her voice for the first time, the truth of the matter was revealed. None of them would ever match her talent, the sheer power of her vocal range. She would drown them all out. She was too good for them, by a long shot.

I am not certain, but that may have been her first public "performance." Three years later, she debuted at the Berlin Opera House. You can see her singing professionally with Placido Domingo here in this link:


The marriage was blessed in a variety of ways, especially on the day of the wedding. Its ending was hard and those of us in the middle of it all suffered greatly from its demise. But Annette and I have both said many times we would endure all its tears and hardships for the children we brought into the world.

I can live with the pain. The anniversary still brings many, many wonderful memories.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Name Game

While meeting with my Feature Writing class last week, I was trying to tell my students about the importance of developing story ideas.

They are everywhere, sometimes they're right in front of your face. Sometimes they happen even when you're discussing story ideas.

One of my favorite journalism students, a young woman named Victoria Holt, asked me a question in class last week and addressed me by my first name: "Chuck"

I was flummoxed. My softball teammates call me "Chuck." My friends and colleagues call me "Chuck." My siblings call me "Chuck" (except for one sister who insists on calling me "Charlie" because she never got the message I adopted "Chuck" while I was in college,  in need of a byline.

Can you tell me a single reporter named "Charlie"? I sure can't.

Students do not call me "Chuck". And I didn't quite know how to react to her.

Knowing ahead of time some of my students had ordered their text books online and wouldn't have them this early in the semester, I had photocopied the first two stories we would be discussing. Tori told me "I have my book, but I forgot to bring it to class."

As I was passing the stories around, I casually mentioned to Tori when I got to her area of the classroom, "I am ticked off at you, Tori. But not for forgetting your book."  This got the laugh I was hoping for from the rest of the class. One of her friends, a tall lad with wavy blonde hair named Dillon, told me and the rest of the class that "Tori calls him 'Chuck' outside of class, too, so she may as well call him that in class."

This was news to me. And I wasn't too sure how I felt about it.

It only occurred to me the next day: Tori had handed me a golden opportunity to show that even an off-handed aside in the middle of a class can provide fodder for a column. I decided I should use this classroom anecdote to show how you could spin a story out of almost anything if you had an angle.

So, I mentioned this to Tori in an email on Tuesday night and then I asked my class when we met today. Is there a story here? If so, what is it? What is the appropriate thing to call your teachers or your professors? Do most of us insist on being called by our professional titles? How many of you would like to call your professors by your first name?

I admitted to the class I didn't know how to respond to Tori when she called me "Chuck." She had taken two other journalism classes from me in recent semesters, and I personally admired her work ethic and thought she was a promising reporter. But she is still a student, one whose work I have to grade. I cannot pretend to be her friend. Nor would I want to. There has to be some professional boundaries between me and my students. And I explained this to the class, while addressing Tori.

Do you call any of your father's friends by their first names, I asked her? Yes, there was one, she said, someone her father was very close to and someone who had encouraged her to call him by his first name. Had she intentionally called me by my first name last week, just to test the boundaries? She admitted. "I wanted to see what you would do. I did it as a joke."

The findings of my impromptu and very unscientific survey revealed that most of my students felt more comfortable conferring a degree of respect on their professor by calling them by their professional name, Dr. So-and So, or, in my case, "Mr. Bauerlein," (because I do not have a PhD). One or two profs that my students have taken told them on the first day of classes to "call me by my first name". But even when they were given permission, it took a while for them to become used to it. It felt unnatural.

Several students in my feature writing class told me their art teachers in high school seemed more inclined to ask their students to "call me by my first name" because art was a "collaborative effort" and doing so made it seem as if they were "making art together."

My own feeling is that, because I am judging their work and putting grades on it, I cannot allow myself to become overly friendly and allow them to call me "Chuck." If you do "C" work for me, calling me "Chuck" will not make the C disappear, no matter how "friendly" it sounds.

"When you graduate from West Chester, and you are about to embark on your media career, at that point I will consider you a colleague. You may call me 'Chuck' then. In the meantime, let's stick with the standard protocol. Call me 'Mr. B.' or 'Mr. Bauerlein.' "

I have no doubt a few of them have more interesting words for me than "Chuck" when they are talking about me in private. I guess I should be thankful some of the best and the brightest of them call me by a name that I don't mind hearing when I am out of ear-shot.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Two thoughtful responses to my Riley Cooper blog on race

I received a number of comments about my blog of Thursday in which I suggested the Eagles should have suspended wide-out receiver Riley Cooper after he was exposed on a YouTube video using a an insensitive racial slur.

While the media uproar surrounding Cooper's remark still rages, I thought I would post two very thought responses to my blog. The first one is from my sister, Judy, who teaches theater at a state university in California. She brings a fresh perspective to the controversy because she sees the world through the lens of her education in theatrical. The second respondent, whose remarks appear underneath my sister's, wished to remain anonymous.    

From my sister, Judy:
I read your blog. Nicely done. Chuck, it seems that your reaction is historically based and a bit more theoretical, while your friend's response is more experiential - both entirely valid perspectives. I completely agree that CONTEXT is key here, and both of you make good arguments for the uses of context in a cultural and historical framework.
Here's my take from a performance theory perspective:
What I see as the biggest issue in Cooper's threat (and it WAS a threat) is his lack of awareness of his own privileged position as: a) a white man, and b) a superstar athlete.  To me, he is performing a role: a hyper masculinized bully.  He is clearly using his power (physical, cultural, racial) to get his way. He uses the derogatory term "nigger" to re-claim his status as superior/white man, and in doing so he is harkening upon our own cultural understanding of the term nigger.  His comments awaken in us (his audience) a multitude of responses depending on our own experiences with race, and possibly our level of education. His choice of words had an intention behind them. I'm guessing he was trying to humiliate his opponent, and win over some like-minded by-standers.  He used a term that we all know - that we all have a position on - for a very good reason, even if that "reason" was made in a split second.

Could we say that he was unaware of the power of his performance? Could we say that he learned these things in a locker room? Sure. But the bottom line is that as a white man he possess invisible privileges that he should be aware of. He also possesses a substantive amount of economic and social capital - far beyond that of the security guard he's addressing.  One might say - and this is where compassion comes in -  that he doesn't KNOW himself very well. Why? Because he hasn't been taught that whiteness is privilege. Why hasn't he been taught this? Because it is a very, very uncomfortable thing for us to examine given the complexity of race, class and gender in our country. There's always an experience, a "truth", that will eclipse the larger historical and social framework.
I think that we, as a society, create these performances. I think that we cast characters and ask them to perform roles, like the hyper-masculinized athlete/hero. We ask people to be losers or winners, to stay uneducated, to sexualize their own bodies, etc. So when something like this happens it reminds us that we need to ask for something different.

And this is the second thoughtful response, from an acquaintance who works in city services for the city of Philadelphia:
I read your blog post, and to a certain extent, I agree. But I take issue with a few things, not within the post itself; rather with cultural aspects surrounding "the N word" and how it effects society at large.

First let me state: words have power. The pen is mightier than the sword. That said, words only have as much power over you as you allow: in my case, when I was in 1st to 8th grade, the other kids called me 'contaminated' due to a physical defect I was born with. That hurt me greatly, and I still cringe when I hear it. But I don't let it rule my life; I've overcome the low self esteem that hurt caused me. I understand that my struggle is comparatively weak versus what that of the average African American encounters, but as much as I will never understand their struggle, they cannot understand mine.

Second: I take issue with the blanket statement that any other person that is not African American can ever utter the N word. It largely depends on context. Yes, it can be a hateful word; that said, it can be a term of endearment: I have, since I was 19, black friends that call me 'niggah' and are OK with me calling them 'niggah'.  So, it depends on context.

While I found Cooper's words to be hateful, ignorant and inappropriate in their context (white guy talking to black security guard at a Kenny Chesney concert, where presumably 99% of the attendees were white) I also have to consider his locker room experiences, in which I can only presume that 'niggah' is tossed about with abandon. So, as an NFL player, I really can't blame him for having that word in his vocabulary, inasmuch as I wouldn't blame Eminem for having it in his vocabulary as a rapper. It comes with the territory.

Where I work, the employee base is 30% white, black and hispanic, the remaining percentage asian. If I got offended every time I heard the slightest 'slur', for example, when two hispanics, speaking in Spanish, toss out a 'blanco y negro' (whites and blacks) in the elevator, I'd never get along with anyone. We're all people at work; we understand we come from different backgrounds, and we all know that part of our job is to represent our various communities. So long as there is a balance, it works. In other words: we're not really racist, but each person has a neighborhood agenda to promote. It is what it is, and we accept that.

Finally, while I realize that the scars of 400 years of slavery and another 100 years of Jim Crow institutionalized oppression are not healed,  I cannot lay blame entirely on society for the failures of the individual.

I don't know if you are aware of this, but, culturally, in the African American urban community, "Acting White"--studying, attending school, having a job, being responsible--is culturally frowned upon.  Furthermore, dependence on the 'system', i.e. public housing, food stamps, welfare, utility allowances etc. is strongly encouraged. Not that I am against programs that help the poor, but I do have a hard time reconciling people that depend on the system on a lifetime basis versus those that need it for a few years in order to get through some hard times.

The "Acting White" phenomenon is what makes friends of mine, that will remain nameless, rise to Masters-level education, or their nephew, who can solve complicated mathematical equations in his head and has to hide the fact he is a leader in his schools debate team: they have/will overcome white societies racism, and the urban black societies culture of willful ignorance and dependence.

So, what has happened over the past half century +/- 20 years is a culture of entitlement has developed. People that are talented and intelligent have, largely by peer pressure, not developed to their full potential. That has nothing to do with me, you, or Riley Cooper: but, it allows that kind of racial stereotype to propagate. As a cook I worked with at B Rathbones when I was 15 answered me when I, both innocently and ignorantly asked him, "what is a nigger?" He said, "A nigger is a lazy person." That's a definition of a word that I can live with.

Finally: if what Riley Cooper uttered, drunkenly, at a concert, is so offensive, it begs the question: what about the actual names of our sports franchises? I find the term "Redskins" patently offensive; the mascots and/or logos of the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians are, without a doubt, racially based cartoons of the proud peoples that once inhabited our continent. People that our forebears came close to exterminating from the face of the planet. Hell, Braves fans do "the chop" with an accompanying/mocking cheer. Is that not at least, if not more so, as offensive as one player on one team uttering a drunken slur?

So: in closing, I think you have overreacted a bit much in calling for the dismissal of Riley Cooper. After all, he's only human. Just like the rest of us.

On Thu, Aug 1, 201

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Riley Cooper should have been axed: why the Eagles didn't do enough

Race will never stop rearing its ugly head in this country.

It's 2013, and the nation has had a mixed-race President for five years now. So, yes, we seem to be making "progress" in this divisive issue. But, as the brouhaha over Riley Cooper's insensitive and racist remark suggests, Americans continue to be bound to a terrible national heritage:  our centuries long, disgraceful, immoral appeasement with slavery. 150 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, we still deal with its fallout.

We are frequently reminded of this lesson must be taught. Slavery was a detestable part of our history. It  turned Americans into monsters. We need to collectively, finally, fess up to this unforgiveable sin and all its implications. Caucasian Americans can never use a word as  hateful and divisive as the N-word. And we need to make our children understand it is not a word they can ever utter.

I'm willing to give Cooper credit for telling the public how embarrassed he is for his insensitive remark. His public apology at the Eagles training camp today seemed sincere and I really want to believe he will learn from his mistake. The truest thing he said in his public apology yesterday was "my parents didn't raise me that way. I embarrassed them." I believed him. And I feel much worse for them than I do for him. If my child did something like this I would feel eternal shame. I bet Cooper's parents will be feeling shame for a long time and they did nothing wrong.

I was also glad to hear Cooper say that the fact he was drinking was "no excuse." But I would have preferred he didn't bring the drinking into the conversation. By mentioning it, the implication was too obvious. The alcohol "made me do it; this isn't the 'real' me." When you watch the video, and hear the vitriol with which he uses that spiteful word; when you hear the anger in his voice, it is hard to imagine alcohol was doing any of the talking. Riley doing all the talking and there is no way around this: he sounded like a racist.

Jeffrey Lurie, said to be one of the most politically liberal owners in the NFL, should have acted with a firmer hand. Liberals tend to believe in second chances, and it is possible Lurie had that thought in the back of his head when he laid only a $37,000 fine on Cooper. (This was the most he could fine a player, based on the NFL collective bargaining agreement. Cooper is only making around $680,000 this season, so his insensitive comment is bound to hurt his wallet).

But it's also possible Lurie and his new head coach, Chip Kelly, had a heart to heart talk before Lurie made his sentiments known to the media. The Eagles slotted Riley Cooper as their number one wide-out as soon as Jeremy Maclin sustained a season-ending injury. The Eagles need Cooper to play if they want to enjoy a successful season. Therein lies management's dilemma. Pro football is a billion dollar business. There's a lot at stake in showing improvement this year. Lurie wants to give local fans a reason to root.

But I think he may have misread his fan base. Many of us would have been a lot prouder if the team simply cut Cooper, just to send a message: this is Philly, the Eagles don't tolerate racism. Anyone insensitive enough to use such a spiteful word cannot play in Philadelphia.

THAT would have shown leadership. It would have told the world something important: we who live in Philadelphia care more about promoting diversity, securing civility, than we do about corporate profits. Some things are more important that winning. Like loving you're brother, no matter what his skin color is. That's what "Philadelphia", in it's original Greek term, is supposed to mean.

As an educator, I plan on using Cooper's mistake as a lesson in semantics and in history. We must remind students in our classes why the N-word is so offensive. I watched "Roots" several months ago for the first time and I was appalled at how many times I had to hear that awful word during the show. When the TV series (based on the Alex Haley novel) first came out, Americans were not as sensitive to the nuances of the word as they now are. And the series provided a necessary service to white Americans who needed to understand the context of the word and why it is so vile to black Americans. "Roots" was a graphic display of exactly what the word meant. It means a lot more than just the enslavement of dark skinned people.

A person born into slavery had no freedom. You were a thing to be owned. You were not your own person. Your master was entitled, in the legal meaning of the word, to use you however he wanted. Your children were his, too. He could punish you with impunity. He could ask you to perform any demeaning thing he wanted you to do, including having sex with him. Rape was legal and common. If you disobeyed him or objected to being raped, he could beat you. If you died from his whippings and beatings, there was no public outcry and no legal recourse to his murder. When a slaver owned you, your body was his to use. The most common word slavers used to describe the slaves they owned was the N-word. It was universally used with contempt and degradation.

We, as educators, must make students understand that any Caucasian who calls a person of color the N-word is crossing a line that is egregious and hurtful because of the original historic meaning in which the word was used. I have no problem with blacks who use the word as a term of endearment. I wish they didn't because too many uneducated people believe the word has become "acceptable" when they do. But if their use of it can somehow ease some of the hateful implications of the word, if their use of the word helps to remind the rest of us it's off limits, that's a good thing.

This is what the N-word implies: hundreds of years of bondage. Murder. Lynchings. Whippings. Rapes. The total degradation of an entire race of people. There is nothing good in it.

Riley Cooper didn't invent the word. It's been around for centuries, just like hatred itself. But if the Eagles dismissed him for the season for his insensitive remark, I can almost guarantee you this: no white player would ever risk using it again.

We would all have something to thank Cooper for then. And most of us might even be ready to forgive him. Even his black teammates.