On the Pride of Nittany Lions

So here we are: Jerry Sandusky has been found guilty and the Freeh report will surely yield further convictions. Punishing these monsters will bring a kind of closure for Sandusky’s victims, for their families, and maybe even for a society ill-at-ease with the child-rapes and the cover-up that we now know perpetuated them.

There may be a bigger question we need to address, however: whether the church of football—or even a narrower church of Penn State—helped Sandusky commit and cover up his crimes. We know that a pair of janitors were afraid to come forward because they feared for their jobs. We must also wonder to what pressures Sandusky’s accomplices—as we should now consider Paterno, Spanier, et al.—were subjected.

Among those living in regions well-populated with Penn State alumni, it has long been a staple of conversation that Penn Staters can be over-the-top in their displays of school pride. It was a matter of course that those of us who’d gone to other schools would roll our eyes at the exuberant pride of Nittany Lions—often, but not always, on gameday. What I want to suggest here is that we were onto something.

I used to work at a marketing company just a couple hours away from Penn State. It had four owners, three of whom were Penn State alumni. Alums also made up perhaps two-thirds of the firm’s workforce, nearly thirty people in all. At that place, the ongoing ribbing about the superiority of Penn State was pervasive and aggressive. To make a tenuous comparison, this aspect of the office’s culture closely mirrored the underlying structures of workplace sexual harassment.

There are many critical differences, again. Most importantly and most obviously, applying to Penn State is a choice; those of us who didn’t apply (or didn’t go) to PSU weren’t born that way.

There are also illuminating similarities, though. More than once, behind closed conference room doors, I heard non-Staters acknowledging a feeling that Penn State alumni got better jobs, promotions, and raises. (I always felt I had been treated fairly, but I had a non-standard trajectory at the company to begin with.)

It was almost always the case that returning fire had undesirable consequences: intensifying the aggression of the conversation, marking you as a hater, and in one case even leading to a public questioning of whether a non-alum could understand the culture well enough to work on a web project for the Penn State football program. The answer, it was determined, was “no.”

To be clear, no similar question had or would ever come up for another client. When one is hired to do work in the agency world, the presumption is that one can understand any client well enough to do the job. That flexibility underwrites the very existence of the marketing and advertising industries, where although a firm might have certain areas of specialization, rich experience in one vertical (say, non-profit marketing) is thought to be a sufficient platform for expansion into another.

The dynamic at my former company never escalated far enough to be addressed even informally, but that, too, is a trademark of the kind of talk that sexual harassment laws were put in place to eliminate. The idea wasn’t just to protect women (and men, gays, etc.) from the Clarence Thomases of the world, but to protect women in particular from the subtle and insidious effects of gender bias. I quote now from the website of the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission:

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general. […] Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

Once again, I don’t mean to suggest that any laws were broken at my former place of employment, nor that what happened there was in any way as grave as sexual harassment, which is tied to broader and much more deeply troubling issues than school pride.

What I do mean to suggest is that the discourse of Penn State fervor could, in the years before the Sandusky scandal, closely reflect that of sexual harassment. If you replace “a person’s sex” and “a woman” in the paragraph above with “a person’s alma mater” and “somebody who didn’t go to Penn State,” then suddenly the power dynamics in place at my former company become painfully clear.

One pressing problem, in the wake of the scandal at PSU, is that it would be irresponsible not to wonder whether a culture of such zealotry had to exist in order for the cover-up to take place, to spread as deep and to last as long as it did.

To wonder that, though, is terrifying. For me at least, it means asking whether a great many close friends, colleagues, and family members are implicated, however indirectly, in what seems like it may become the most morally dissonant scandal the United States has ever seen on its own ground. It means asking whether the way “the rest of us” bristled at Penn State pride was more than just a general discomfort with what felt like an immature emotional display. It means asking whether we found the members of the Penn State brogeoisie who walked among us irritating not just because we weren’t a part of it, but because there was something inherently dangerous about their attitude.

I don’t mean to claim that Penn State is worse than the other schools with maximally feverish fans. Ohio State comes to mind as a close second—perhaps because of a regional bias I’m subject to—and I once knew a ‘Bama fan who was beaten into a coma after shouting “Roll Tide” in Auburn gameday traffic.

If Penn State is not the only school with its own parish in the church of football, though, then our problem is bigger than the crimes of one man, as atrocious as they were. It’s bigger, even, than the reprehensible lack of action on the part of revered figures like Sandusky’s late and former boss, Joe Paterno. In short, if what happened at Penn State could have happened elsewhere, then the kind of closure we will feel, those of us not directly affected by Sandusky and his accomplices, comes to seem like little more than an excuse once again to close our eyes.

What’s Wrong with (Movie) Comedy

I have never posted a link to anything without substantive commentary of my own, but I have almost nothing to add to this piece and it’s too much a crusade of mine to pass up.

See, I’ve been complaining about comedic movies for years now, and Adam Sternbergh has done the best possible job of it over at the New York Times:

Together, like Lenin and Trotsky, [Todd] Phillips and [Judd] Apatow have engineered a comedic-cinematic putsch. “Old School,” in 2003, was the April Theses for this uprising, and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” in 2005, was its October Revolution. […] What these auteurs truly have in common, though, is that they have systematically boiled away many of the pleasures previously associated with comedy — first among these, jokes themselves — and replaced them with a different kind of lure: the appeal of spending two hours hanging out with a loose and jocular gang of goofy bros. (Also: ritual humiliation. Humiliation is a big part of it, too.)

As an aside, I am quick to defend TV comedy without really knowing why. In Sternbergh’s formulation, it’s because TV comedy still features jokes. Amazing stuff.

How not to Email a Professor: A Lesson on Audience

Professor Michael Leddy’s “How to email a professor” is making the rounds on Facebook for the third time in as many years. While there’s much good advice in there, there’s also advice that seems useful mostly for students with professors who think like Leddy.

There are other ways to think, though, and examining a handful of differences between Leddy’s perspective and how I would have my students email me provides us with an interesting chance to think about the role of audience in professional communication (as I do in my advice at the end of this post). In what follows, I use Leddy’s headings to aid the reader in her comparisons of our positions.

I should say quickly that Leddy’s post dates from over six years ago, and his own opinions may well have changed in the interim. So I direct this post not to him, but to students and faculty everywhere. [Rainbow appears.]

“Write from your college or university email account.”

College and university email accounts that I’ve used are spam-ridden, have inconvenient webmail interfaces, and lack features for integration with desktop clients (e.g., fully-supported IMAP access). I try never to use mine; frankly I’d rather get a Facebook message from a student than a message to any institutional email address.

And while I agree that email addresses should be professional rather than “salacious”—which seems, at any rate, a strong word to describe any of the examples he uses (even “qtpie2005”)—I can’t see any difference in professionalism between “firstname.lastname@gmail.com” and the series of odd initials and numbers that comprise most email addresses. And since Gmail accounts are free, if I were the proverbial qtpie2005, I’d simply create a second account for my professional communications.

“Choose an appropriate greeting.”

Leddy bristles at “Dear ____,” but it’s quite common in my sphere. As a graduate student, many of my professors used it; I, in turn, picked up the habit of using it with my students, especially when addressing them as a group.

In fact, if I haven’t heard from a student before, I prefer they begin with “Dear,” as I would when writing to a colleague I didn’t know well, or to a writer who had submitted to the fledgling literary magazine I help out with. Here as in the first case, a student following Leddy’s advice would actually do slightly worse with me—to whatever insignificant extent they’d do better with Leddy, at least.

“Sign with your full name, course number, and meeting time.”

Leddy notes that signing “eliminates the need for stilted self-identification (‘I am a student in your such-and-such class’).” It seems to me, though, that making me scroll down to the end of your email to find out who’s email I’m reading is inconsiderate. If a student doubts that a professor will know him by name—as he probably should, depending on the class—he should identify himself as quickly as possible.

“Don’t send unexpected attachments.”

It’s not clear from Leddy’s post whether it’s the “attachments” or the “unexpected” that he has a bigger problem with, but the points he makes in this section and my responses are as follows:

  1. “It’s bad form.” Not so much an argument as an assertion, and one I couldn’t disagree with more. I’ve never thought for a second that it was rude to send me an attachment without some kind of prior authorization.
  2. “Attaching an essay with a request that your professor look it over is very bad form.” Context is everything. If a student wants to send me a draft to glance at, I am more than happy to do so, and it saves me time. If we have a lot to talk about, I will suggest we meet in person—but why should it be on the student’s shoulders to decide that for both of us? After all, I’m the teacher here; she’s the one who’s not sure how to feel about her paper.
  3. “Your professor is supposed to print out your essay because you’re not coming to class?” I never print out student work, and they only turn in work electronically. This issue is a non-starter for me.

My Advice: Know Your Audience.

To be fair, some of Leddy’s advice seems applicable across a far more broad sampling of professors (for example, “Proofread what you’ve written.”). Still, rather than issue a set of fixed rules, I would advise my students to learn as much as they can about how each of their professors prefers to communicate.

How? By observation, first of all. Start with the basics of professionalism, to be sure—and as always, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab has a fine guide—but beyond that, read your professors’ emails carefully and respond in ways that seem consistent with their tone and formatting. (If this process seems familiar, consider how you’re learning to write the academic essays with which you’re all apparently surprising Prof. Leddy.)

Also, by asking. A simple question like “Do you prefer to be called Prof. Goldstein?” goes a long way. I’d rather play a part in shaping your professional communication to my liking than have Prof. Leddy do it for me.

Thoughts on the Aftermath of bin Laden’s Death

By now we’ve all noticed some polarization—in the media, amongst friends and family, elsewhere—around the question of how we are to respond to the news of bin Laden’s death. I am grateful to report that my own friends have been respectful, tolerant, and generally understanding of the other side, both on Facebook and IRL.

For my part, I agree with David Sirota that there is some reasonable and positive feeling to be had here. I don’t have it myself, but I didn’t lose anybody close or have to run screaming through the dust clouds in lower Manhattan—and I am not big on the kind of closure that comes from anywhere but inside oneself anyway. (But again, easy for me to say. The only loved one I’ve buried was a hamster.)

Still, the phrase that Sirota keeps revis(it)ing—”some relief,” “somber relief,” “muted relief”—seems to matter here. And when, near the end of the piece, he attaches that relief to a sadness at the knowledge that, ultimately, the single death doesn’t make up for the thousands that came before—that’s what I think Party Nation is missing.

But I’m not 100% convinced that the majority of the partiers really care all that much about bin Laden’s death. (One college professor I follow on Twitter noted that three of her students didn’t know who bin Laden was.) I think we in the States just live in a party culture right now—especially the college set.

Those of us a bit older are downtrodden about the economy, about the partisan bickering, about health care, about our endless military entanglements, about our inability to reconcile with our friends and neighbors about basic questions like what counts as a marriage and whether it’s murder or a medical procedure when the patient is a 20-week-old fetus. So although I wish it hadn’t gone down this way, I also understand that for many, this may simply be an excuse to spend a few bucks at the bar that we couldn’t ordinarily pry from our tightened purse-strings.

Macchiato Cowboy: Starbucks & the Gourmet Movement

Starbucks’ Tribute to Itself

This morning, hat in hand, a cowboy ordered a drink: “Two-percent espresso macchiato, ma’am.” The honorific belonged wholly to the cowboy, but the precious phrasing came right out of Starbucks’ own system of signification, according to which the default milk is whole and the default macchiato includes syrups and flavorings and, as often as not, whipped cream.

To order what you might call—or might once have called—a “real” or a “proper” macchiato, Starbucks requires cowboys and the rest of us to throw “espresso” into service as a qualifier. An espresso macchiato, we are told, is a “European-style beverage” whose “just enough” may satisfy us—”sometimes.” (After all, any American who spurns sweet, sweet caloric density must be doing so only as an exception.)

This morning, to recap, I heard a cowboy who had some familiarity with the language of a coffee-shop chain’s menu ordering a European-style beverage using once-foreign words with no shame. Forty years after the opening of the first Starbucks, I should not have been surprised, and perhaps it wasn’t surprise that I felt, but the shock of recollection, of the past intruding on the present.

Notwithstanding our brief, post-traumatic regression in the “Freedom Fries” years, we have grown more accepting of foreign foods. I was raised vegetarian, and my childhood memories are pock-marked with incidents of derision over tofu, over aloo palak, over falafel. I grant you that we warm to European influence more readily than to Asian or Indian or Middle-Eastern, but still: To hear this macchiato cowboy place his order is my vindication. It is the moment when my inner Carrie burns down the whole fucking gymnasium.

This morning, on hearing the macchiato cowboy speak, I wondered whether Starbucks is not merely one beneficiary of this movement (as David Kamp might have it), but is rather the social lubricant that made possible its most recent incarnation.

Strange words make us feel strange, at least until some force comes along and rubs our bellies until our nerves subside. Our perception of French culinary superiority intimidated us until Julia Child made words like bourguignonne sound as familiar as they do now. Likewise for Martin Yan and wok, and James Beard and barbecue, perhaps.

In this context, it seems possible that had we not ordered espressi and cappucini and macchiati at the Starbucks counter in the very early 1990s, would we not have been prepared, a few years later, to watch a man swish his ponytail — not judging; I’ve had one, too — and tell us how to procure fennel pollen, which Batali introduced to his viewers in 1995 or 1996. Without being forced to learn the language of ventis and talls and grandes, which Starbucks has smartly memorialized in recent months (as in the photo above), I cannot imagine us supporting the rise of arugula—also featured in Molto Mario‘s first few episodes—let alone those of chipotle, kimchi, rooibos, and hummus.

It seems possible, in other words, that those of us who prefer things as they have become owe Starbucks gratitude for more than just the spread of decent coffee (if not so much their own), that we owe them for their influence on the boundaries of our everyday language, for insidiously softening American masculinity just enough to let gourmet food in the door.