Monday, October 11, 1999

WHAT I DID ON MY SUMMER VACATION--or: ONE THING ALL THIS MISERY IS GOOD FOR by Rebel Girl

[Dissent 33, 10/11/99]

During the summer, Rebel Girl transforms herself from a meek and mild English Professor into a meek and mild midlevel administrator at one of the country’s most prestigious writing conferences. She xeroxes, she collates, she answers phones, she picks up famous writers at the Reno airport, and she soothes the egos of nervous would-be writers far from home. Plus she stacks and unstacks those ubiquitous molded plastic chairs, a task that takes on Sisyphean dimensions as the summer wears on. But she’s happy. Really. The conference allows her to be a student again, to listen and to learn. In turn, her own writing (she hopes) strengthens and her teaching does as well. Each year, she returns from the High Sierra refreshed and ready to rock.

From time to time during the summer, Rebel Girl finds herself sitting next to or standing near one or more leading literary luminaries. Yes, part of the writing conference scene is those parties you’ve no doubt heard about, the ones where writers gather and chat, dropping names, telling tales, comparing advances and editors. The wine flows and the metaphors do too.

Now Rebel Girl, for all her attitude in print, is, by nature, a shy girl. It’s true. Indeed, if Rebel Girl had followed another path, if she had lived the vida loca, the bruise-colored tattoo scrolling across her left shoulder blade might very well have read Shy Girl instead of English Major. But that’s another story.

At these soirées, Rebel Girl does her best to do very little, except perhaps, eat. Her goal is a low, well-fed, profile. Still, from time to time she is pressed to speak, to say something, anything, to the person standing next to her—just for the sake of simple cocktail party courtesy. In the past, this resulted in Rebel Girl telling people what they already know. Boring—boring to the particular guest, boring to Rebel Girl, an embarrassingly dull moment for everyone within ear shot. These people are writers, after all—Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book award nominees, former poet laureates. They care about language and content. So when Rebel Girl burbles something about the weather (Hot, isn’t it?) or, even worse, something about the writer or his or her work (Did you know an excerpt from The Joy Luck Club appears in a textbook I use for my composition class?), she feels the disappointment rise. People expect better.

This year, Rebel Girl vowed to do better. She vowed to be rude, to remain silent if necessary, anything to avoid hearing herself brightly observe the air temperature. I will not speak, she told herself, unless I can say something significantly engaging. After all, she’d 1istened in long enough to know what these folks really enjoyed was a good story, not a weather report.

So it happened that there she was, sipping a gin and tonic next to a writer whom Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times has called, “one of his generation’s most eloquent voices.” Rebel Girl nodded, she smiled, she sipped, but she said nothing. What could she say? “Just what does that Pulitzer Prize look like? Where do you keep it?”

Finally, Mr. Famous Writer said something. “I hear you teach at a community college,” he said in his gentle drawl. “What’s that like?”

She hesitated. She wanted to be careful. She sensed that her favorite subject, the sad level of literacy of the average student, however compelling, might not appeal to this gentleman of letters. Nor would course load or composition theory. What he really wanted, she reminded herself, was a story. A good story, one with characters and conflict, with something important at stake. She recalled the email she’d received just that morning from one of her colleagues. It detailed the latest outrages and included the text of recent news articles. The little college in the orange groves was still making headlines, even in the summer.

“Well....” she began. She described a painting that had hung innocently enough in the school office since she was hired, some seven years ago. Painted by an adjunct faculty member, the painting in question depicted two bathing suit clad women lounging in a shallow pool of water. She’d always thought the painting was about the effects of sunlight on water, the bodies providing a means to measure it. But what did she know? The new interim dean (—Interim dean number 2 by her count; did she mention that her district had been going through, uh, an administrative upheaval on par with President Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre?), a gentlemen with multiple degrees, including a J.D., had, after a few days of contemplation, ordered the painting taken down. It constituted potential sexual harassment, he declared. He didn’t know much about art but he was a lawyer and he knew sexual harassment when he saw it. To her credit, the school secretary refused to remove the painting. Interim Dean 2 did it himself.

The famous writer was incredulous. “The painting,” he repeated, to make sure he got it right, “was sexually harassing people?”

“Apparently so,” she said.

“Was the dean acting on a complaint?”

“Apparently not. Unless,” she added, to be fair, “it was his own.”

“Amazing,” he said.

She agreed. “But that’s not all that’s been taken down,” she went on. Rebel Girl elaborated on another story that had also reached her that morning. Faculty had until August 8th, to remove any material posted on their office doors, windows or painted surfaces within their offices. If faculty didn’t remove material by that date, the material would be removed for them.

“Is this also about sexual harassment?” asked Mr. Pulitzer Prize.

“No,” she said, “it’s about worker harassment and the First Amendment. It’s about what they try to get away with when they think no one’s looking.”

“What are you going to do?” he asked.

“What we’ve been doing for the past two, three years,” Rebel Girl said. “Resist.”

“Tell me more,” the writer said, settling back into the easy chair. “Sounds like quite a story.”

The evening had just begun. There were so many stories to tell. The Purloined Poinsettia. The Michael Collins Piper Caper. The Clocktower Incident. The Case of the Homophobic Flyer. The Mystery of the Disappearing School Chairs. The Secret Life of George Kadar, Friend of Frogue and Fighter for White Power. The Jinx of the IVC Clap. The Crop Circles in the Orange Groves. —Oops, wrong story.

Dear Readers: Flash-forward a few years. Michiko Kakutani interviews the aforementioned author about his latest novel. “Your use of a community college as metaphor for the state of the union is magnificent,” she gushes. “It has everything: power-hungry politicans, Machiavellian administrators, conspiracy theorists, opportunistic players, phony populism—plus a plot that rivals Les Liasones Dangereux. At the beginning of the new millennium, your new novel sends a powerful message about the misguided priorities of America’s leaders. Tell me, where on earth did you get the idea?”

*Note: Not unlike Ronald Reagan’s latest biographer, Rebel Girl has taken some creative liberties in her dramatization of the preceding encounter. Still, its essence is true. It did happen. The characters, though unbelievable, are real. Rebel Girl, like myself, is a real person. Our pain, fellow workers, was indeed felt by one of the country’s leading authors, modest compensation for the neglect by much of our community. --RG

8-14: do you regret all the lying?

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Goals and Values and Twaddle

blather: long-winded talk with no real substance*
The whole concept of MSLOs [measurable student learning outcomes] as the latest fad in education is somewhat akin to the now discredited fad of the '90's, Total Quality Management, or TQM. Essentially, the ACCJC adopted MSLOs as the overarching basis for accrediting community colleges based on their faith in the theoretical treatises of a movement.... After repeated requests for research showing that such use of MSLOs is effective, none has been forthcoming from the ACCJC [accreditors]. Prior to large scale imposition of such a requirement at all institutions, research should be provided to establish that continuous monitoring of MSLOs has resulted in measurable improvements in student success at a given institution. No such research is forthcoming because there is none….
The Accountability Game…., Leon F. Marzillier (Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, October, 2002)
In the summer of ’13, I offered a critique of the awkward verbiage by which the district and colleges explain their values, goals, and objectives —aka SOCCCD'S G&V (goals and values) blather.
I wrote a post each for the district, Saddleback College, and Irvine Valley College efforts. (See the links below.)
This verbiage—stated in terms of “values,” “missions,” “goals,” “visions,” and whatnot—is often badly written. It is sometimes embarrassingly trite.
It occasionally communicates something worthwhile.
No doubt you are familiar with the usual objections to jargon. Higher education, too, has its jargon—an irony, given typical college-level instruction in writing, which urges jargon eschewery.
Sure enough, SOCCCD G&V blather is riddled with jargon and with terms misused and abused. For instance, in the case of the district’s dubious blather, the so-called “vision” is actually a purpose. Why didn't they just call it that?
As one slogs through this prattle, one finds that "visions" tend to be awfully similar to “missions,” with which they are distinguished. The latter in turn are awfully similar to “goals,” which must be distinguished from “objectives.” But aren't goals and objectives pretty much the same thing?
These perverse word games will surely perplex or annoy anyone armed with a command of the English language. In fact, readers will be perplexed to the degree that they are thus armed. Illiterates, of course, will be untroubled.
Here's a simple point: the district and colleges’ G&V blather tends to eschew good, plain English in favor of technical terms and trendy words and phrases (i.e., it tends to be bullshitty and vague). Thus, one encounters such trendy terminological turds as “dynamic,” “diversity,” “student success,” and “student-centered.” Even meretricious neologisms such as ISLOs and “persistence rates” pop up, unexplained, undefended.
Does anyone see a transparency problem with all of this? Shouldn't the public, or at least the well educated public, be able to comprehend statements of the colleges' goals and values?
In the case of the district, to its credit, all it really seems to want to say is that it wants to teach well and it wants students to succeed. Admirable!
So why all the ugly, common-sense defying, buzzword-encrusted claptrap?

Districtular poppycock: our “vision” and our “mission” and our tolerance of twaddle - July 31, 2013

THEY BUZZ: Saddleback College's "Mission, Vision, and Values" - August 4, 2013

IVC’s vision, mission, and goals: nonsense on stilts - August 5, 2013

THE IRVINE VALLEY CHRONICLES: no ideas, just clichés & buzzwords - Sep 30, 2013

*From my Apple laptop's dictionary