Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Arrogant Intrusions into Personal Freedom and the House GOP (not about women's health issues)

“No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up.”
—Lily Tomlin

Okay, so when was the last time Facebook was on the right side of a privacy issue? Well, they are this time—of course, it’s also in their selfish interest to be on the right side of this one, so they don’t get a lot of credit, but still….

Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, Eric Egan, issued a statement about the abhorrent policy adopted by some potential employers, including (especially?) law enforcement agencies, of requiring job applicants to surrender their passwords to Facebook and similar social media accounts as part of the interview process. Egan points out that:
As a user, you shouldn’t be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job. And as the friend of a user, you shouldn’t have to worry that your private information or communications will be revealed to someone you don’t know and didn’t intend to share with just because that user is looking for a job. That’s why we’ve made it a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password.
The legalistic tone is actually supported here: the insistence that an applicant reveal private information is indeed a violation of the TOS agreement with Facebook. In other words, the request is a de facto demand to break a contract: the fact that the most egregious offenders are law enforcement agencies—as, for example, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and the McLean County, IL, sheriff's office, as spelled out in Manuel Valdes’s AP article last week—adds a piquant savor of irony to the whole mix.

It is, of course, all well and good for those of us not on the job market to be righteously indignant about this policy—and certainly all prospective employers who try this kind of crap should be called out on it, publicly—but the fact is that in this economic environment, applicants will do pretty much anything to get a job. This makes it all the more important that employers act responsibly, and all the less likely that they’ll actually do so.

Employers can get away with being arrogant asshats, so they’ll jerk off to their little power plays at least until such time as the pool of well-qualified candidates is significantly affected either by lack of applications to begin with or by enough job-seekers telling the personnel office to perform an act most easily accomplished by especially limber hermaphrodites. More importantly, this affects all of us, not just those who are being extorted directly. If you give up your password, my privacy as your friend is compromised, even to the extent that an employer who has no real intention of hiring you, anyway, now has access to my private communications to you.

It’s no wonder Facebook is a little grumpy about this. I find myself constantly warning my students about things they have released to the public. And Facebook has always been rather free and easy with other people’s privacy—making default privacy settings as loose as possible, sometimes without as much as telling users of new policies. This Machiavellian hellishness is worse, however: if I’m taking reasonably good care of my own privacy, I have relatively little to fear from your actions—I need to expect that anything I post to your wall, for example, will be read by people who are strangers to me or even antagonistic towards me. But I can do something about that, simply by not posting anything I’m not perfectly happy to have associated with me by everyone from my boss to my students to my teenaged niece.

Giving over your log-in credentials, however, means that your prospective employer has access to my private messages to you: the one about my loved one’s terminal illness, my decision to look for another job, my venting about my boss (which I’d only do to you, because I rightly trust your integrity and trustworthiness, although I underestimate your economic desperation). And as if that weren’t enough, some hack in the personnel office also gets to find out what sites I’ve liked: they’re not interested in the fact that I’m a New York Rangers fan, or even that I like the Grateful Dead… no, they care about the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; Being Liberal; Don’t Invite Anyone Who Thinks Ayn Rand Makes Sense to Your Next Party; The Other 98%. Because thus invading my privacy means, to their McCarthyite mentality, that you hang around with undesirables… even if I haven’t seen you since we were in high school together almost 40 years ago and we weren’t really close even then. Of course, this all presupposes that the little parasites are even pretending to be doing their job and not just feeding their voyeuristic fantasies: a hasty assumption, to be sure.

Oh, how I wish the people conducting these little assaults on a free society weren’t dead stupid. I’d love it if someone asked for a Facebook password and hired the first person who showed appropriate common sense and discretion and told them fold it five ways and shove it where the sun don’t shine. Alas, the folks perpetrating this unethical and sleazy attack on personal freedom are generally dumber than the proverbial box of rocks. One of my students reminded me this morning of the late, great, George Carlin’s observation: “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize that half of them are stupider than that.” Yeah, that seems rather pertinent about now.

The only slightly less sleazy first cousin of this tactic is to insist that employees “friend” their boss or some minion in the personnel office or whatever. This is still intrusive, still unethical, but it can be circumvented, and it’s not going to open up other people’s lives to scrutiny. Of course, there’s still something creepy about this business: I consciously avoid friending students or others who might think they’re under some obligation to respond favorably to a friend request. I will respond to their requests to me, but they must initiate the process. The result is that there are a number of students with whom I’m rather close but who are not FB friends, whereas others whom I know only slightly are friended (some are granted only limited access to my page, however). But that’s OK. I really have no particular desire to be a stalker.

The reason I’m writing about this is more than simply astonishment at the audacity of the perpetrators, however. You see, Congressman Earl Perlmutter (D-CO) tried to do something about this situation. He introduced an amendment to a House bill, attempting to allow the FCC to prevent the practice:
Nothing in this Act or any amendment made by this Act shall be construed to limit or restrict the ability of the Federal Communications Commission to adopt a rule or to amend an existing rule to protect online privacy, including requirements in such rule that prohibit licensees or regulated entities from mandating that job applicants or employees disclose confidential passwords to social networking web sites.
And not a single Republican in the whole damned House of Representatives voted for it. Really.

OK, OK, so Perlmutter’s scheme may have been more political than substantive. It was a motion to re-commit. That means he wanted to send the whole bill (the Federal Communications Commission Process Reform Act of 2012, to be precise) back to committee. He wanted to delay the passage of the bill, in other words. He could have introduced the amendment per se, and didn’t. He chose instead a tactic that, had it been successful (in legislative as opposed to political terms), would have thwarted, at least for a while, legislation intended to make the FCC more transparent. Wait… I thought it was the Democrats who wanted transparency and the Republicans who were obstructionists. But, then again, it was the Democrats under Clinton who played around with the Clipper Chip and similar nonsense (albeit the erosion of 1st Amendment rights by the PATRIOT Act—the most perversely ironic political term since Bolshevik—trumps all). You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.

Anyway, Greg Walden (R-OR), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, argued that Perlmutter’s amendment “wouldn’t protect the consumer.” Ummmm… were any of us talking about consumers? In any case, Walden argued that the amendment wouldn’t work (why not?), all the while pretending that his objections weren’t just as disingenuous as Perlmutter’s motion. The Republicans wanted their bill passed, and the Democrats wanted to play for time. But Perlmutter and his cohorts also know that this topic is a political winner for their side, especially if they can maneuver the GOP into opposing this obviously people-friendly legislation. The House Republicans would have to be pretty stupid to fall for that little subterfuge. Needless to say, they are, and they did.

Walden might even be telling the truth that he really is interested in privacy issues and really is willing to talk further about the topic. But the political horse is already out of the barn. The Democrats might not have gotten everything on their wish list, but they accomplished their principal objective of those within their reach: not really able to influence legislation, they succeeded in making the Republicans look bad… not that those guys need any help. It was a cynical ploy, and it worked. Ah, the political life…

There’s a Bob Dylan lyric that sums up the Democrats’ strategy:
You didn't know it
You didn't think it could be done
In the final end he won the wars
After losin’ every battle.
The song? “Idiot Wind.”


Monday, March 26, 2012

Another Pseudo-Educator Defames Those of Us Who Actually Do Something.

So, there was this op-ed piece in the Washington Post a couple days ago, entitled “Do college professors work hard enough?.” After I finally stopped laughing, I realized that the author, one David C. Levy, was actually serious. Really, he was. He actually argues that escalating tuition costs are the product of faculty salaries, not the fact that administrative positions are multiplying faster than a particularly horny warren of rabbits (and at absurdly high salaries relative to faculty), that services from psychological counseling to high-end computer access are now de rigeur, that new student centers and recreation facilities are sprouting faster than zits on prom night, and that states are myopically slashing their support for higher education even while wailing about how expensive college is.

The problem with giving a forum to misinformed and arrogant cretins like Levy, of course, is that people who don’t know anything about what the professoriate does don’t realize that he doesn’t have a clue, either. He’s currently the president of something called the Cambridge Information Group (a “family-owned management and investment firm,” according to their website), and he’s a former chancellor of the New School University. He also headed the Parsons School of Design for two decades. Pretty impressive, huh? Well… sort of. He hasn’t been associated directly with an institution of higher learning in quite a while, never (as far as I can tell) at a state university, and if he ever set foot in a classroom on my side of the lectern, it was a). forty years ago, and b). not worthy of mention on his official bio. In other words, to say that Dr. Levy knows shit from apple butter about what professors do is roughly akin to saying the CEO of McDonald’s knows what it’s like to be a chef—hey, he’s successful in the restaurant business, right?

Levy is, in short, every real professor’s nightmare: the poseur, the self-proclaimed “career-long academic” who couldn’t find his way to a classroom with a guide dog, and who pretends that his (apparently considerable) skill as an administrator has anything to do with what my colleagues and I actually do. I am reminded of a former dean, whom I knew was going to be trouble when he informed me that he understood what theatre faculty are like because he’d once written a chancel drama for his church. Certainly there are some university presidents and provosts and deans (oh my!) who had previously prospered in the classroom: my father was one, my current provost another. But I fear they’re the exception.

None of this is to say that Dr. Levy’s commentary ought automatically to be discarded, any more that you, Gentle Reader, ought to ignore my commentary on fracking because I’m not a geologist. No, it’s not Levy’s lack of specific expertise that deserves derision: it’s the fact that he doesn’t have a fucking clue is sadly, perhaps willfully, misinformed about virtually everything he says.

Let’s start with the basic assertion that “Happily, senior faculty at most state universities and colleges now earn $80,000 to $150,000, roughly in line with the average incomes of others with advanced degrees.” Dr. Levy, it’s really rude not to share whatever the hell it is you’re smoking… because you are seriously out to lunch. I am a tenured full professor (one becomes “senior faculty” at the associate professor level, one step down from my current rank) at a state university. I have a PhD and a little over 20 years of full-time teaching experience, plus another several years of part-time teaching, both as a teaching assistant (with full responsibility for my courses) and as an adjunct faculty member. The low end of that salary range would represent better than a 25% raise for me.

True, I work at a teaching-oriented university (a.k.a. not a “Research 1” institution), and in a field that doesn’t pay terribly well compared with the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines. But there are a lot of people like me: far more than community college profs making $88K. I mean, seriously, Dave, do a little damned homework.

What is particularly offensive in Levy’s screed is the suggestion that whereas faculty at research institutions might actually do some work, the rest of us clearly don’t:
But we all should object when they receive these [“upper-middle-class”] salaries for working less than half the time of their non-academic peers….

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation….

…the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth.
ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? Seriously, how can anyone this stupid feed himself, let alone be placed in a position of authority? He does, of course, have the advantage of blissful ignorance, having apparently never set foot on the campus of such an institution.

I’d be willing to bet that I’ve never spent a year on a full-time faculty in which I worked less than 2500 hours, and I know for a fact I’ve topped 3000 several times. “The unlikely event” that I spend as much time grading and prepping as physically in the classroom? What planet is this guy from? I generally spend about an hour and a half or two hours of prep for every hour in class… it’s that low compared to many of my peers because I’ve been doing this a while, and I occasionally (gasp!) re-cycle old notes without updating them. Not much has changed about the history of the ancient Greek theatre since last year. (By the way: when a book came out 20 years or so ago that really did change the way we looked at Greek theatre… yeah, I published a review on that.)

The foregoing number does not include grading, by the way. That adds another ten hours or so a week, on average, to my workload. I’ve also got about 30 advisees. Because I take my advising responsibilities seriously, that’s another 100 hours a year or so in formal advising, probably three times that in informal advising. I spend probably 50 hours a year writing recommendations, another 100 in meetings, another 100 preparing for those meetings. I direct a show most years: 200 hours. And then there’s recruiting, supervising student productions, seeing all 30 productions my department produces in a year (yes, I enjoy it, but it’s still work), advanced preparation for courses (not included above), serving on committees and in elected positions in my professional organization, reading shows for possible production down the road… oh, and I really do need to publish and present with some regularity, even here in the hinterlands. Oh, and reading books and journals just to stay current in the field. So much for all that “time off” in summers and such.

If I in fact worked a 2000-hour year for the $80K that’s at the low end of Levy’s scale for senior faculty, let alone for full professors, it would represent a raise of about 55-60% in terms of my hourly wage. If Dr. Levy would be willing to arrange that, I sure would appreciate it. Somehow, however, I doubt that’s gonna happen.

The point is this: judging how much a professor works based on how much time is spent literally in the classroom is akin to judging the workload of that “executive” Dr. Levy is perfectly willing to grant a 2000-hour workload based on how much time s/he spends in formal meetings. No agenda, no credit. Colleague comes by to discuss an idea for two hours? If it’s not in your Blackberry, it doesn’t count. Spend the evening working out a problem? No documentation, then it didn’t happen.

So, I hereby challenge you, Dr. Levy, to follow me around for a week. I’ll do the work; you just sit and watch. Let’s start on a Saturday. If you’re still with me on Wednesday afternoon, I’ll tip my hat to you. Stay with me until Friday and I’ll buy you dinner and offer a formal apology. But if, you sorry sack of equine excrement, I run you into the ground, as I fully expect that I will (and as I’m dead certain that some of my friends and colleagues in the profession would), you will kindly STFU for the rest of your days about subjects you don’t begin to comprehend.

David C. Levy would be a strong contender for a Curmie Award, but unfortunately, he’s not eligible. That distinction is reserved for educators who embarrass their profession. Dr. Levy is no educator. Not now, not ever. And I, for one, am glad about that.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Why This Blog Isn't Migrating to Wordpress

As virtually anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, I have become a consistent if not avid reader of Jack Marshall’s Ethics Alarms blog. We agree more often than not, argue sometimes, tweak each other’s commentary sometimes, and sometimes just allow the other to go off on a rant, figuring some battles aren’t worth fighting. In other words, we’ve become friends, even though we’ve never actually met (I hope to change that this summer).

Anyway, I have been a frequent commenter on his blog (and he on mine, although since he cranks out his original material at a prodigious rate—probably 10 times as often as I—I comment a lot more on his site than he on mine). A couple of days ago, I went to comment on something Jack had written. The comments section on Jack’s blog asks for your e-mail address, your name, and (optionally) your website. As a commenter there, I’ve been “Rick” at my hotmail account, with a link to this page for over a year. But now, the cookie brings up something else: because, ages ago, I set up a Gravitar account as the only way I could comment on something somewhere, and because Wordpress (which hosts Jack’s blog) is linked to Gravitar, and because the people who run those sites are amoral and/or incompetent, my e-mail account now automatically generates a link to my Wordpress identity. Not only that, I can’t change it!

I must sign in through my Wordpress account, which I have never used, and which I can’t delete (not sure if this link will work, but here it is. Trust me, it reads: “ accounts cannot be deleted.” It graciously offers that I can delete my (entirely non-existent) blog, however. Asshats.

I know, I know—it’s pretty much a first-world problem not to be able to have readers of Jack’s blog click over to mine. But it’s a problem that ought not to exist, and indeed didn’t exist a week ago. Someone at Wordpress thinks this apparent new policy (there’s no statement from them that they’re doing this) is a good idea. Someone at Wordpress is wrong about that.

More to the point, there’s no reason for the change. I could understand (not like, but understand) a monetary motive, but given the fact that I’m not paying anything for either the Blogspot site I actually use or the Wordpress site I don’t, that reasoning doesn’t seem to work. If the idea is to attract more users to Wordpress, it’s a stupid strategy. I’m not thrilled with Blogspot, and had considered migrating to Wordpress. Needless to say, that ain’t gonna happen if the latter site is run by idiots, as it appears to be. And I’m now less inclined to comment on Jack’s posts (or those of a couple other Wordpress-hosted blogs I read at least occasionally), meaning less traffic on Wordpress sites: I’d presume that more traffic is good, but what do I know?

So I went to my Wordpress account, which until less than a week ago I didn’t even know I had, and changed the e-mail address associated with the account… to my (also) unused gmail address, which I had to add to do something with my work iPad. I figured this little stratagem might make sense: divert the stuff I don’t want to an account I don’t use. Nope. Didn’t work. I’m still unable to use my preferred e-mail to comment on Jack’s posts: important because that’s the address used to inform me of follow-up comments on that post. There’s something on the Wordpress site that suggests that this situation might change, because they’re fucking incompetent it takes time for changes to completely register. I can’t sign in to that account using my Hotmail account any more, but it might take a day and a half—so they say—for that address to become “available” again. Riiiiiiiiiight.

What we’re left with is a site more arrogant and less competent than Facebook, and that’s saying rather a lot. What I find most amusing about this whole situation, of course, is the fact that the blog I’m trying to access and comment on without interference from some officiously over-reaching site administrator’s unethical brainchild is… yeah, a site about ethics. I do enjoy irony. Usually, that is.

For the record, no, I am not going to stop posting comments on Jack’s site, even if I have to do so without allowing a reader to move over to this blog with a single click. And no, I don’t think Jack should stomp off in a huff and never post on Wordpress again because of their unconscionable assholitude. But I am a firm believer that karma returns, and there will be a serious come-uppance down the road for whatever knuckle-dragger came up with this scheme. In the meantime, I’ll just snarl a little when trying to post comments. Luckily, such behavior is well within my range.

UPDATE (3/25, 11:21 pm CDT): I just tried to post a comment on Ethics Alarms. It wouldn't let me post without signing in to my Wordpress account, which it insisted was linked to my hotmail address. Of course, I couldn’t actually sign in using that address, since I changed it on the site. So I signed in using my gmail address. I then posted my comment, which promptly vanished into the ether. It may have been sent for moderation (since it’s an address that’s new to the site, and Jack gets lots of spam comments); it may have been sucked into a vortex, never to return. We shall see.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Political Hackery in the Classroom

[It’s been too long… New story first, then maybe some catch-up.]

When I was in 8th grade, I was Richard Nixon. That is, I played him, in a manner of speaking, for a Social Studies project. It was the fall of 1968, and Nixon was challenging incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey for the presidency. My class was divided in half, with half of us taking Nixon’s side and the other half Humphrey’s. Because the class actually was roughly evenly divided in political terms, we had at least some say in which side we ended up on: like most kids that age, my politics, such as they were, were those of my parents, and my folks were avid Republicans. (I often wonder… perhaps “doubt” would be a better word, whether they’d be so today were they still alive, given the fact that my Dad was a biologist, a conservationist, and in his 21st year as an employee of a state university, having received both his MS and PhD from other state universities. But that’s not the point, here.) So I was a Republican, too.

Anyway, everyone in the class was assigned to a particular policy issue: the Vietnam War, civil rights, tax policy, etc., with the whole project culminating on the day before Election Day with a debate between students playing the two presidential and vice presidential nominees, drawing on material collected by classmates. Then there was a straw poll taken on Election Day itself. What I remember most about the project was that I didn’t want to be Nixon—not because I didn’t like him or his policies, but because I wanted to be Spiro Agnew, whom I regarded as the weak link for the GOP ticket: I thought our side needed me more there. But I was persuaded to be Nixon… only to see the girl playing Ed Muskie mop the floor with our Agnew. We lost the straw poll, as we probably would have in any case, but the lessons were manifold:
If you really bother to find out about the issues, the chances are very good you’ll prefer one candidate’s position on Topic X and his opponent’s position on Topic Y.

The press must not be trusted implicitly to provide accurate and unbiased reportage.

Real candidates’ real positions are far more nuanced than the average person will ever comprehend. (Or be encouraged, by either side, to comprehend.)

Strategy matters.
And so on.

The point is, I wasn’t the only student in that class to learn a lot about the candidates, the issues, the campaigns, and the electoral process. That’s a good thing.

To say that these were not the lessons imparted this year by one Michael Denman at Liberty Middle School in Fairfax County, Virginia, would be to err more on the side of understatement than of hyperbole. Mr. Denman divided his class into four groups, one for each of the remaining Republican candidates (well, the ones virtually anyone has voted for). The students’ assignment? Prepare for a “primary” debate? Delineate the candidates’ positions relative to each other and to President Obama’s? Predict the chances of each candidate to get the nomination or, failing that, to have a significant effect on the party’s platform? Nope, nope, and nope.

Give up? Why, to do opposition research on their candidate, determine his weaknesses, and find the name of a specific individual on the Obama re-election team to receive the gift-wrapped offerings of attack fodder, of course. OK, really?

This project is stupid in almost more ways than you can count. It is clearly partisan—no one was assigned to do similar research into Mr. Obama’s weaknesses, a point subsequently made to the apparently dim-witted Mr. Denman by his principal. According to a news report, “The principal advised the teacher that he should emphasize to his students that this assignment was meant to learn a process and not to endorse a particular candidate…. The teacher agreed with the principal’s direction.” One imagines Denman sitting starry-eyed in the principal’s office, blissfully unaware of the sheer idiocy of his assignment.

Of course, whichever way a particular teacher’s political leanings may go, there’s likely to be at least a few students who (or whose parents) disagree: this means the project is problematic not only in terms of professional ethics, but as political strategy as well. In other words, the one of the most things that I learned about in 8th grade—the fact that preaching to the choir is ineffective and indeed fraught with peril—was specifically and intentionally undercut by this 8th-grade teacher. Maybe if he hung a sign around his neck that read “don’t do what I just did,” it would have helped.

Finally, there’s the part about sending the collected materials on to the Obama campaign. This is just weird, even if we grant the assertions that the attack strategies weren’t really to be forwarded—students just needed to locate a prospective recipient. Seriously, the re-election process might not be going as well as it might—the idea that even a flawed President/candidate like Mr. Obama wouldn’t have long since wrapped up the 2012 election, bringing both Houses of Congress with him, when the GOP can’t do better than a quartet of buffoons the likes of Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul, ought to be troubling.

But even the President’s harshest critics can’t seriously think that his campaign’s opposition research program would be much enhanced by a couple dozen 8th-graders doing a class project, working on it a few hours a week for a month or two. Really, they have people whose job it is to do that work…people with degrees and stuff, even. Moreover, I find it difficult to believe that it takes two students to track down an Obama staffer but only two to write the opposition research strategy paper. And what, exactly, is a “weakness,” anyway? Inconsistent or wrong-headed policies? Positions that can be “spun” to appear horrific even if sensible? Nah, probably not—more likely, something about dogs on car roofs, ex-wives, or racist newsletters.

To be fair, the notion that this assignment was “like something out of East Germany during the Cold War,” as one anonymous [i.e., cowardly] “frustrated [i.e., partisan in the other direction] father” put it, is a bit foam-flecked. But worthy of consideration for a Curmie Award? Oh, yeah.

[Thanks to my netpal Jack Marshall. You can see his take on this story on his Ethics Alarms blog here.]