My first album was a four-record set called, #1 Hits of the ‘60s. I ordered it C.O.D. in 1973 after I saw Mickey Dolenz, of the Monkees, hawking it on our local UHF channel (WTCG). My mom had to pay for it when it arrived, but I immediately chose Lulu’s “To Sir, With Love” as my favorite track of the 52 songs. So when the 1967 movie of the same name was scheduled to play on the 4 O’clock movie, I knew this latchkey kid would be parked in front of the TV.
What that 9-year-old living in a Georgia Klan town got was his first introduction to Mr. Sydney Poitier. I loved the story of American who tamed the rowdy British kids by breaking the traditional rules of the classroom. He was dignity and respectful control in the face of youthful chaos. Perhaps I craved that. The fact that that he was black man corralling white kids added to the juxtaposition. But he didn’t treat them as children, and they transitioned into young adulthood under the guidance of “Sir.” There was nothing in my Georgia schools like this. This white boy immediately thought, I want to be like Sydney Poitier.
The film itself, directed and written by James Clavell, is overly sentimental and plagued with real gender problems, but it tackled British racial politics the same season that the Beatles were singing, “All Your Need is Love.” To my young mind, it was all about Pointier’s poise and composure as he deconstructed the politics of the public school, literally throwing out the book (into the classroom trashcan) to take the students to museums and other London adventures. I’d had a taste of Montessori under my belt from the second half of second grade (the first half was wasted in Bible school), and I craved that educational freedom.
So I became a teacher. The first classes I taught were as a young graduate student at Emory University. In one sociology class, taught on the second floor of the Candler Library, I had my own Mark Thackery moment. (Thackery was Poitier’s character in the film.) Instead of working class hoodlums, my students were the privileged children of wealth. It was clear that students weren’t invested in the curriculum I had created for my Youth Subculture class, so I went into a monologue about the corrosive nature of privilege and the opportunity of youth to define itself in its own historical moment. Then I threw the three required texts out of the library window and told them we would never meet in that classroom again. I channeled Sydney as we took the class out into the world. (I later went and retrieved those books from the bushes below the window.)
That dignified grace was a hallmark of so many of Poitier’s roles, including favorites like The Defiant Ones (1958), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), and Guess Who is Coming to Dinner (1967). His seminal role as Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night (1967) was a pretty accurate picture of policing in my rural Georgia town and planted the seed police reform in my young brain. I became obsessed with his films, never missing them on the 4 O’Clock movie or when I’d sneak downstairs into the recroom to watch Paris Blues (1961) on the late movie. When I learned about his civil rights work, I had permission to question the racism of my peer culture. Other kids had their role models, this was mine. Sydney and I had the same birthday (February 20) and I knew that the best thing I could be was to be like Sydney Poitier.
There will never be anyone like him, but I carry his Mark Thackery with me into the classroom every time, with love.
When we wake from a dream, half remembering the details and then immediately losing them, we only know what we don’t know. Keith Richards once wrote in his detailed autobiography, “Memory is fiction” as a way of letting himself off the hook for constructing a picture of his life that may have diverted from facts. But all history is a construction. George Washington told a lie or two. When I remember something in my own life, am I remembering it as it happened, or merely remembering my last memory of it? A picture of a picture, losing sharpness with each copy.
That’s sort of how I reflect on 2020, a year of years, as if a dream that I am just now waking up from. Did all that happen? The clouds of CS gas may have affected my cognitive ability. If I’m not mistaken, everything collapsed. Reality as we know it ended and I’m a bit foggy on whether that was a bad or a good thing.
The year for me really began on March 11. Before that it was the usual drama; war in the Persian Gulf, Democratic debates, stock market and helicopter crashes, and me trying to get my kindergartner dressed for school. The news about the “novel coronavirus” had been spreading fast and I remember telling my students in February that this was probably going to be the story of the year. Little did I know it would be a tsunami that would wash over every person on the planet. March 11 was the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. It was also the day that we were supposed to see Patti Smith in concert. We had tickets for show at the Seattle Paramount and were going to drive up after my Wednesday classes. That afternoon the show was cancelled out of fear of the virus spreading (Washington was the first state to get hit) and I had a feeling that it was just getting started. The following day Tom Hanks was was sick. As goes Tom Hanks, so goes the world.
The year now exists in a series of half remembered moments that may have been scenes from a movie and not my life.
I remember fleeing Portland because the wildfires in Oregon and California had clogged the air with smoke, making breathing impossible. We headed as far west as possible, ending up in Newport, Oregon, which was a mixture of smoke and fog but at least you could breathe. You couldn’t see the ocean and the escape it promised. We camped out in the Sylvia writers’ hotel, where we found sanctuary in old books as our daughter played with Shelly the Cat. (I am back at the Sylvia Hotel now, sitting next to my wife who is writing her book that will change the world. I can see the Pacific Ocean and it can see me. I’m finally starting Patti Smith’s The Year of the Monkey.) When the rains came back to Oregon, Cozy and I danced in the streets, thanking Gaia for protecting our house.
I remember Andi and I being in the streets of Portland as the revolution ramped up. Trump’s federal troops had come in to quash the Black Lives Matter protests, which only brought more anti-fascist Americanos to the fight. By that week’s Battle of Portland, we already had a few tear-gassings under our belt. There was a moment this July night (really morning) when I was hiding behind a concrete pillar on SW 5th Avenue as the DHS troops fired rounds at unarmed protestors. Was this Argentina, 1979, Mexico City, 1968, Belfast, 1972, Cairo, 2013? What country was I in and would I be killed by a hastily assembled gang of federal forces whose only mandate was to show that Trump was tough on “antifa”? Andrea and I made a mad dash across the street to a safer alcove. In 1994 I had tried to get to Sarajevo from Austria and was blocked at the border. In 2020, I was in the middle of something equally as historic. A group of protestors came marching eastward, chanting “No cops, no KKK, no fascist USA” and the federal forces fired rounds and them and then chased them down to attempt mass arrests. “Oh my God” Andi screamed. Was that America or was that a dream?
I remember having to move my college classes to a remote set-up and hoping my students, laid flat by deportations, lay offs, depression, and the virus itself, would show up. Weekly Zoom meetings became more like therapy sessions and I found myself longing to see their two-dimensional faces. Most typically kept their cameras on mute, making me wonder if I was dreaming them or they were dreaming me. Did they even exist? A name on a role and on a screen. Had the virus erased them, as well? While my daughter found community in a neighborhood “pod school” with four other first-graders, I was stuck in my living room, whiskey in my coffee, pretending I was a college professor.
I remember watching the body count. 1000 dead. 50,000 dead. 250,000 dead. 294,535 dead, just in the U.S.. All while the president played golf and held super-spreader rallies, proclaiming it would magically go away after election day. (Didn’t he get the virus? And his wife? And his kids? And his greasy-hands-in-pants lawyer?) I remember thinking that I had COVID more than once, including this morning. (That was just a hangover from drinking Gin Rickies in the F. Scott Fitzgerald room at the Sylvia.) I remember worrying I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to Andi and Cozy with a ventilator down my throat. My parents, in their seventies in hard hit Georgia, stayed in my mind. Would I get to see them again? Would anything be anything again?
I remember a gameshow president trying to imitate his dictator pals, even after he lost the election BY A LOT. I think about his cult-like followers caravanning into Portland in pick-up trucks, shooting paintball guns (and real ones) at protesters, oblivious to the 1922 March on Rome that brought fascism to Italy wrapped in a national flag and the cry, “Kill the communists!” I wonder where those people are now. Training for Civil War II, I imagine, their orange lord encouraging to them face the bullets while he snorts Adderall in his last moments in the White House. Donald Trump was cancelled like Coachella, but the specter of his idiocy hovers like a toxic cloud from a sewage plant fire.
I remember a planet convulsing with the burden of having to carry the human race for another year. So many hurricanes they had to start the alphabet over again. Endless fires and floods and people wondered, “Is Tiger King on?”
And I remember black people begging for their lives to matter. Not begging, demanding. Tired of this shit 155 after the end of slavery and yet it continues. The signs said it all, “Enough is enough!,” “Black trans lives matter!” “Stop killing us!” and a thousand others. A hundred nights of protests in Portland. Americans being gassed in Lafayette Park so Trump could hold a prop Bible. White People reading White Fragility and then looking in the mirror. A racial convulsion of a nation that had too long denied its sins. Was this an awakening or were we still asleep?
But I also remember the more personal moments, like my wife being awarded her masters degree and then landing a teaching gig at Reed College, or my daughter learning how to ride a bike or communing the the lemurs at the Zoo. Those moments seemed more real than watching the death throes of the American Century. Deep, quarantine-time conversations with my wife about how to make our marriage a friendship meant more than worrying about Melania and her celebrity apprentice.
With the vaccine and Inauguration Day on the way, I’m ready to wake up and see how this year will be remembered. But I’m happy to wait for the grand historical recap to be told. Or the post mortem. In 2021, when we open our eyes, there will be a dance where we once again embrace and celebrate the joy of life, vowing to not go back to sleep.
Fuck. It’s just a word. One syllable. Why should we give it power over us? People are born because of that word, and killed, and fired, and fined. (Just ask Bono.) I used to do a whole lecture in my Intro Sociology class on the social construction of profanity in which I would make each student say it out loud. The point was that the taboo on this word is so strong that some folks can’t even bring themselves to say it out loud. They can think it, or say “the F word,” which is pretty much just saying it. But they fear God or their mother or their own internalized morality and keep their mouths shut. Free yourself! Fuck!
Sometimes in the classroom I’ll drop an F Bomb for emphasis or just to make sure students are paying attention. “Antiquated gendered double standards. Don’t you think that’s fucked up?” In my mind it makes me more like the students and less like the stodgy caricature of a college professor. More relatable. Let’s break down the fucking wall of pretense. I put my jeans on one leg at a time, too.
I had an “aha” moment about that whole thing in a class I was teaching this week. I was trying to express the frustrations educators have trying to compete with technology in the classroom. I can’t lecture when students are on their phones or staring at God-knows-what on their laptops. I laid out a perfectly biting use of the word in question and it immediately sounded wrong. Like who am I just to throw this word around? I tried to make sure the students understood the context, but it bothered me all night; probably more than it bothered them.
Then I remembered an African-American student of mine at Portland State who always wore a suit to school. I regularly taught his Social Theory class in jeans and a t-shirt. He pointed out that, as a black man, his authority is not assumed like it was for me. He had to dress up to not be put as far down. As many women and people of color know, you have to work twice as hard for half as much when you are not a white male. My white male privilege allows me to dress like Mark Zuckerberg and drop the occasional F bomb without my authority being diminished. It’s good to be the fucking king.
If I was a female or a woman with the same speech pattern, it would be met with shock, disdain, and condemnation for my whole category. “She swears like a sailor.” “Well, black people are kinda thuggish.” And on and on. I would be viewed as from a less civilized demographic. Sluttish, animalistic, etc.. There’s a great video of a 14-year-old boy doing a slam poem called “White Boy Privilege.” He drops some F bombs and then says, “I can say ‘fuckin’’ and not one of you is attributing it to the fact that everyone in my skin color has a dirty mouth.”
My white maleness gives me free reign. Earlier this week I was giving a presentation in Chicago about white nationalism to a group called the Government Alliance on Racial Equity. On the opening slide of my PowerPoint it said, “Randy Blazak, PhD.” While talking to these folks, I realized it was stupid to put the “PhD.” up there. My expertise is assumed. I just made it overkill. If I was a woman or a person of color, it might have been the opposite dynamic. “Please listen to me. I have a PhD.” I’m often worried people won’t listen to me, but I should remember that my race and gender carries more weight than any letters.
If my goal is to dismantle my privilege, it’s time to lay off the F bombs. If all my students, friends and colleagues don’t have the same linguistic freedom, why should I exploit it? After all, it’s just a word.
We are a nation of consumers. We take things in; Smartphones, Cool Ranch Doritos, Netflix series, overpriced coffee drinks, tabloid gossip, and countless internet posts. It is all digested by our collective guts. We consume so much and yet produce so little. The question that hangs in the air is – what do you give back to the world? Are you a human trade deficit importing more than you are exporting?
If I have a life philosophy it comes from my Eagle Scout father who, when we were off camping, always reminded me to leave the campsite in better shape than I found it. I’ve taken that to have much broader meaning, especially now as a father. Put more in than take out. But what do I have to give? I have friends that house African refugees and write exposés about the criminal justice system. Big stuff!
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because my services as an “expert” on hate and extremism have become increasingly in demand, whether it’s consulting on murder cases or running anti-bias workshops for federal employees. I have an invited opinion piece out this week in Huffington Post on gender and white supremacy, which means a bunch of people are going to think I must know something about something. But do I? What is criteria by which one has taken in enough information that they are qualified to start exporting information out?
In academia, one measure is the drive to “publish or perish.” In my path to tenure, I published books and articles, but, although I made it all the way to the top rank at Portland State, “full professor,” it never felt like enough. (Some of my fellow criminologists are publishing machines!) I balanced my academic work with sociological fiction that I hoped would reach a wider audience than a journal article or overpriced textbook. Parenthood has now stolen much of my writing time. I’m currently working on a book on prison culture, a chapter on the impacts of hate crime on the local Muslim population, and a journal article on my research on prison visitation. I was going to get much of that done during Spring Break. Yeah, no.
When you are young and hungry and moving up the ladder, obsession becomes your work ethic. I watched zero TV in the early nineties because I was too busy reading all the stuff you have to have read to be “knowledgeable.” I had to force myself to watch Melrose Place just so I could participate in conversations with my peers. You’re a sponge, taking it all in, and synthesizing it, and waiting for the time to be right to put your version out into the world for some other young upstart to consume.
Now that I’m older, I’m starting to take confidence in my ability to export my knowledge. All that experience has value, monetizable value. There’s no end to the learning. I certainly had a great lesson learning about white fragility this year. But the time is right to share these lessons and, when appropriate, get paid for it. Traditional cultures revere their elders for the wisdom they’ve collected. I might not be Yoda yet, but I’ve got some ideas to share.
This popped up because I was recently invited to present my work at a workshop on violent extremism and gender in Abu Dhabi that is being hosted by the UN. I balked. First of all, the United Arab Emirates is pretty much on the opposite side of the planet. It’s a long way to go to talk for an hour. But also, why me? Am I really that much of an expert to merit these good folks to flying me to the Middle East (and putting me up for four nights)? Everyone told me to go, of course, and that if I could actually help people to understand this issue I really had to go. “If people will be helped by your experience, you need to get on that plane,” said one friend.
Every person is an expert on their own lives. As an ethnographer, I love to talk to people about their journeys and what they’ve learned along the way. Along my way, I’ve learned that talking about what I’ve consumed and processed is not just about hearing the sound of my own voice, but exporting insight that can actually make a difference in this crazy historical period that feels like a giant backslide. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the “sage on the stage” role, but experience matters. Your experience matters and so does mine.
Before I fly off to Abu Dhabi, I fly off to Chicago, and after Abu Dhabi, I fly off to Oslo, Norway. It’s all to talk. Andrea made me a great website (www.randyblazak.com) so I can talk more. It might be okay to say that sharing what I’ve learned to make the world more livable is what I’m going to give back. We’ve got a campsite that needs to be cleaned up.
The first time I ever taught a college-level class was as a graduate student at Atlanta’s Emory University in White Hall, probably the fall 1986. I was the teaching assistant of renown criminologist Robert Agnew. He was out of town at a conference and left it to his 22-year-old TA to give a lecture on some crime theories that were to be covered that day. I spent a week preparing, including jokes and pop culture references I thought the undergrads would appreciate. When it was time to shine, I just froze. Like Cindy Brady on that game show, I was frozen, nailed to podium. My main memory was the realization that I can see my own cheeks. So much for the dazzling young professor.
It wasn’t long before I got my 10,000 hours of teaching in. As a grad student, I was teaching at private Emory, urban community colleges, and rural universities up in North Georgia. All my peers were musicians and I had found my own performance platform. Give me a topic and I was ready to rock it. I had found what I was good at.
My inspiration for my whole approach can be blamed on the British film, To Sir With Love. The 1967 classic stars Sidney Poitier as Mark Thackeray, an American teacher thrown in with a bunch of working class “unteachable” students. It’s the racial opposite of all the American white savior pics, like Dangerous Minds, where a rebellious white teacher shows all the minority kids why they should value education. Thackeray is black and his students are white and he soon realizes a traditional curriculum isn’t gonna a work with these hoodlums so he throws their school books in the trashcan and takes them out museums and shit for some real-world lessons. Cue greatest theme song ever.
I had a similar moment at Emory when I realized that not only were my bourgeois students not doing the readings, they weren’t really taking my class seriously. Channeling Sidney (who shares my birthday), I threw all the books out of the classroom window in the Candler Library. I cancelled all the quizzes and exams and told them that now the only requirement was that they come to class and participate. They were always bugging me, on nice days, to have class outside on the grassy Emory quad. I told them we would now have every class outside, no matter what the weather.
That little tantrum paid off because that was the most engaged I had ever seen students on that campus. They read, discussed, and did a lot of the work for me. There were days when it was a brutal Georgia thunderstorm and we’d be sitting in the grass, soaking wet, discussing semiotics and doing class analysis of subcultural phenomenon. People must have thought we were crazy but I still hear from those students.
There are two general ways of thinking about teaching at the university level, what we call pedagogy. One is the “sage on the stage” who stands up there and shares his or her knowledge with the lucky students. The other is the “guide on the side” who facilitates the learning process, building on the student already accumulated knowledge. As I began to fashion myself as a feminist educator, the guide on the side made much more sense. I could assign a book, like The Beauty Myth, but, the real learning came from the testimony from female students. Similarly, I would tackle race by assigning a classic like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but the students of color would have the real authority on the topic. I just sit there with my coffee taking it in.
My teaching style over the years has been a bit more like a grand performance art piece. Once, on the first day of my Youth Subcultures class at Portland State University, I walked in the classroom and asked to the students to follow me. Like the Pied Piper, I led them outside to Southwest Broadway, the main boulevard that runs through campus. I asked the students to lie down in the street. They did, stopping the busy traffic across three lanes. It looked like a protest but I was trying to make the point about the street as a multi-facet metaphor for youth in America. We were literally on the street. That one got back to the dean.
I’ve been mourning my exit from PSU and sad that my program at the University of Oregon was defunded, throwing a lot of committed teachers out of work in favor of some “on line learning” alternative. There is nothing that matches the magic that happens in the classroom. So I couldn’t be more exited to finally be back in the classroom teaching sociology. I started my adjunct position at Portland Community College on Wednesday with a discussion of how the sociological imagination liberates us from the boxes that we have been shoved into. Like getting back on a bike, I was right back in the zone. This stuff matters.
In a time when universities are shedding tenure track faculty in favor of websites, the vitality of the classroom is the last fortress of our shared Enlightenment values. Online education is a hoax. Research demonstrates that online students retain less information. (There are some effective online classes and, for some students, it is their only access to higher education.) The student who is registered for the class may not be the one who is actually taking it and the professor who is listed as the instructor may not be the one who is actually teaching it. It’s a money making fraud. So back I’m there in the classroom. I don’t need a Powerpoint slideshow or any fancy technology. I just need students who are ready for an adventure. I’m back, let’s go.
I’ve never pretended to speak for all male feminists, let alone all feminists on earth. I don’t even speak for my own feminism from a year ago. Life, its lessons (and a few good articles in Gender & Society) have their impact. Just like a person can’t step in the same river twice, one’s understanding of the world is constantly evolving. Take a look at Donald Trump. A year ago he pledged to be the advocate of transexual Americans and now he’s throwing them under the bus to divert attention from his multiple dumpster fires. He’s (de) evolving!
When I taught feminist theory at Portland State University, I would warn students about people who painted feminism with broad brushstrokes and feminists as simplistic caricatures. People like woman-hating personality Rush Limbaugh, who is fond of using the therm, “femi-nazi.” People who think being pro-woman means being anti-man. People who can’t even define feminism but spend their free time making the feminist-bashing memes that litter the internet.
The reality is that feminism is a many splendored thing. It’s a huge umbrella under which there are multiple ideas about gender relations. I’ve spent some time on this blog discussing liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, and Riot Grrrl feminism. There’s first, second, and post-modern third-wave feminism. Eco-feminism has a voice but so does free-market feminism. There are Muslim feminists, Catholic feminists, and conservative feminists. Even Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist. There’s also a growing phalanx of male feminists who I hope will become the fourth wave, smashing male domination from inside the old boys club.
There’s plenty of disagreement within these camps. Just read bell hook’s first book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981). In it she writes, “It is obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement.” There are plenty of people who call themselves feminists in the pop world and have no idea what intersectionality is (and I’m guessing that includes Ms. Palin).
So to say, “feminists think…” is hugely problematic. What is the feminist position on the Wonder Woman movie? I’ve read dozens of different positions, all rightfully feminist. The people that paint feminism with a broad strokes don’t truly understand what feminism is and is not. I got some chuckles when I presented a paper at a conference in the late 1990s making the case that the Spice Girls were an effective vehicle for teaching tweens about feminist principles. Nearly 20 years later there are a lot of millennial feminists making that exact same case.
What feminists of every stripe have in common is a belief in patriarchy, a power dynamic that advantages men. Some see that as a individual level thing, like men’s use of violence against women, some see it as a macro-level systemic thing, including any religion that defines God as “He.” Even more see it as both. But after that, all bets are off. I often argue that all women understand the presence of patriarchy, whether it’s the glass ceiling at their job, or their rapey uncle, or the constant pressure to “look good” in the face of the tick tock of age. They might not have the intellectual vocabulary to “frame the present discourse,” but all women are feminists IMHO. Even anti-feminist women have a feminist brain.
There are plenty of aggro feminists who don’t think men can be a part of the dialogue, just as there are black activists that don’t think there is room at the table for white allies. I get it. As a white person, I can dip into the struggle for black liberation when I have time and pat myself on the back for being “woke.” My male privilege is the same thing. I can work to smash patriarchy, but I’m still benefitting from that patriarchy even when I’m in the middle of a woman’s march. “Look, it’s a man here to save us!” I’ve been tackling both the issue of male privilege and white privilege in my Recovering Asshole podcast and some of the conversations have been challenging for this “woke” white boy.
There is this emerging concept of “solidarity work” – showing up to the liberation work of groups you don’t belong to. It’s all about being ready to take a backseat and asking how to help. That means men can be feminists but they have to know when to shut up and listen to their female compatriots. Since men have traditionally been the “voice of authority,” it can be a new experience for guys to STFU, especially when males have been taught to disregard female voices. Remember when Trump said he didn’t think Hillary Clinton had the stamina to be president? I guess by “president” he meant “playing golf every weekend.”
Without a doubt there are people who have hijacked feminism for their own purposes. This includes the “victim feminists” who see all women as inherent victims of men. This is not feminism. These fake feminists erase women’s agency, including to be sexual beings who want what they want and have every right to go after the shama-lama-ding-dong. Consenting adults, even the female ones, can get up to some freaky hanky skanky. (This is a theme in my recent book, The Dream Police.) No leading feminist, not Andrea Dworkin, not Catherine MacKinnon, has ever said “All sex is rape.” But the enemies of feminists repeat this fake feminist mantra, and it’s not just Rush Limbaugh doing it.
There’s a whole world of feminism to explore, something for everyone, and none of it is set in stone. People’s perspectives evolve. Just ask a roomful of feminists whether or not transwomen are part of their struggle. You’ll get lots of answers. Then ask that same room six-months later. My own feminist path as been a jagged path with plenty of missteps. Becoming a father of daughter certainly has played a role in that. So beware of anyone who claims to speak for all feminists. You just can’t have that many brains in one head.
It was a blessing in disguise. My paternity leave from Portland State University was involuntarily extended thanks to a bizarre collaboration between a clinically psychotic felon and a couple of administrators with a clear agenda. That time away from full-time work has allowed be to help my daughter transition from a baby into a little person. It’s also allowed me to publish a book, teach on a tropical island, write this weekly blog, start a podcast, and “man” the homefront while my wife advances in the work world. And I got to be home with Cozy from the first gurgle to her saying things like “Let’s check it out,” and “I ran like a cheetah.” It’s been a beautiful experience filled with art, adventure, and great love.
And now it’s time for it to end.
The truth is I’ve been looking for work ever since I jumped off the gangplank at PSU. But I had a nice cushion made up of a settlement, savings, some publishing money, and a perfect collection of rare Avengers and Hulk comic books that now (sadly) belong to someone else. A $50,000 loan from my retirement was going to get us through to my next gig. Now, suddenly, I can see the bottom of the well. The money is about gone. Invest the last bucket in Powerball tickets?
Two years ago I thought I could just make a local lateral transition. There was a visiting professorship at Reed College (they wanted a quantitative methods teacher and I’m a qualitative schmoe) and a tenure-track gig at the University of Portland (they could have me but only with my tenure). I was sad but not shocked when those didn’t pan out. (They must not have known how awesome I was.) So I branched out and got an interview at CUNY in Manhattan and then a second interview with the provost. (I must have asked for too much money for that one.) What seemed like it would be a relatively smooth “mid-career” move looked increasingly more and more difficult. On top of the fact that universities are replacing tenure-line professorships with the academic slave-labor known as “adjuncts” and “on-line education,” the person that was applying was me, and, according the rumor mill, I have baggage.
What started off as a few disheartening roadblocks became dozens of rejections. Some positions I was a stretch to qualify for. (I would have made an awesome dean at Eastern Oregon University.) Some positions I was definitely an over-qualified candidate. (After my great interview, nobody could tell me why I didn’t get the job teaching Intro Sociology at Green River Community College.) Some jobs would have pushed me out of my comfort zone. (Oh, how I wanted to be the new executive director of Caldera Arts.) And some jobs were tailor-made for my experience and skills. (Whoever ends up being the new Diversity Program Specialist for the Portland Police, I challenge you to an equity duel.)
Why am I not getting these jobs? You’d think people would want an award-winning professor, published in his field, with a long record of community service, who is likely quoted in your copy of the New York Times or making points on CNN while you’re on the treadmill. Are all the other candidates that much better? Or is something else going on?
I left PSU under a cloud of suspicion. It’s no secret that there were a few higher-ups that had it in for me. They were fueled by the rumor and innuendo that I was some type of campus playboy. A old bogus post on an internet gossip site that had a picture of me with my girlfriend of almost three years and the assertion that she “slept with me for an A” gave them additional ammo. There was never anything of the sort ever in my academic career. No human can say they got any special treatment in any of my classes for anything. But when gossip rules, you can’t win. (Hillary Clinton, I feel your pain.)
Then a “former racist skinhead” named Steven Stroud decided he was going to try everything he could think of to attack me for some perceived slight that existed in his psychotic mind. He began writing numerous letters from his prison cell to the university, accusing me of everything under the sun. Out of pure luck, he finally hit on one thing these powerful few could use.
My crime: My wife was a former student.
That’s all it took. Forget that Andrea and I were consenting adults. Forget that she was the one who first asked me me out (after the class had ended). That was it. I had signed an agreement five years earlier that I would never date a PSU student after a stalker went all Basic Instinct on me and it was a quick way to resolve the matter. Now the torches were relit. They even traveled out to Eastern Oregon to visit this guy in prison to see if there were any more salacious details he could add to their “case.” They were giddy.
I have zero regrets about my relationship with Andrea. We are incredibly happy and more in love every day. And that love produced our beautiful daughter. Cozy is the sun my little planet was destined to revolve around. She will change history. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. My only regret is that I quickly settled my lawsuit against the university. I had the moral high ground and could have won, especially if I took the story to my colleagues, students, and the general public. But we had a new baby and I was scared I would burn up our nest egg on lawyer fees while they used tuition and taxpayer dollars to fund their highly skilled legal team. I settled and thought I could just leave my academic home of twenty years and move on.
Now over two years later it feels like I have been blacklisted; that the rumor-mongers are still waging their campaign against me. I need to work. The loan has to be repaid, the mortgage is due, and my daughter deserves the life I waited 50 years to give her. (I was one of those people who said, for decades, “I can’t have children, I’m not financially stable enough!”) She is so excited to exist in this world, I should be able to give her some security (although I will be eternally grateful to WIC for making sure my child at least had $8 worth of fruits and vegetables each month). This kid already deserves more than I will be able to give her.
So here’s the deal: I’m a passionate worker with a PhD. from Emory University and a long employment record. My last full time salary was $82,000 for a 9-month contract. I will work for less than that, but it’s gotta cover the bills. And I need benefits. Republicans have made it clear they want to kill the Affordable Care Act which, at the moment, provides health care to my family. We’d like to stay in Portland but for a decent job we’ll move to Arkansas and just annoy the locals by playing Bikini Kill and drawing Hitler mustaches on Trump posters.
I was an awesome professor. There’s plenty of people who will tell you that my classes at Portland State changed lives. I’d like a job that makes the world a better place. If you can convince me that selling vacuum cleaners can do that, I’ll listen. But it’s time for me to get back to work. My family is depending on me.
Please share this with anyone who might be able to help. References and my mother’s secret cheesecake recipe available on request. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Other than Donald Trump, does anybody truly like the sound of their own voice? Mine makes me cringe when I hear recordings of it. I feel for the thousands of the students who have had to listen to me over the years. But I do love to talk and maybe my jabber has some value in the world. Those students got a lot of stories from my weird life to illustrate points, hopefully finding applications in their own stories. Maybe I should keep talking.
The reason for talking is that I’m an asshole. But I’m trying to get better. I was featured in a front page interview in yesterday’s Oregonian newspaper. I casually chatted with the reporter about all things related to racism in Oregon. I assumed this was background research for a larger story, but it was an actual interview. I was trying to make the case that institutions are changing from the inside and said, “I’m the last person in the world that says human resource ladies are giving us hope in the world, but they are a reflection of how much institutional change has happened. Every HR department has an equity and diversity department now.”
I was trying to make a joke about the stereotype of people who work in Human Resources offices and how they are, in fact, agents of change. In print it fell flat. I just looked like an asshole and the online commenters sunk their teeth into my quip. I could’ve gotten defensive, bleating, “It was just a joke!” but I’m in recovery and that means taking responsibility for my mistakes.
There are two types of people in the world, (I love it when people bisect humanity like that) assholes and people who know they are assholes and are trying to not be. I’m trying to be in the latter category and that requires more listening than talking. So why am I starting a podcast about my privilege? Shouldn’t I shut my privileged mouth up?
Privilege is such a dirty word in our culture. Everybody’s “worked hard” for whatever they have. Try telling a white guy who is homeless that he has white privilege and male privilege. It might be a hard sell. But he does. Devah Pager’s profound 2003 study, “The Mark of the Criminal Record,” found that African-Americans without criminal records faced more job discrimination than whites with criminal records. For years I assigned Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to my Intro Sociology students. (“1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”) Most of them were smart enough to get it. Having an unearned privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means the playing field that you walked on to is not even.
I had a trick that usually worked pretty well in the classroom. I’d ask the left-handed students to raise their hands. Then I’d have them testify to the multitude of advantages that right people have. Usually the right-handers would be a bit surprised. “Well, I never thought of that,” they’d grunt. Then I’d ask the righties how many had lefties in their life that they cared about. “Is it possible that there’s a similar dynamic with race or sexual orientation?” “Oh,” they’d grunt.
I’m right-handed. And a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual, male, middle-class homeowner. I’m pretty damn privileged. Some days it doesn’t feel like it, but even on those days I am. If I ignore it or, even worse, deny it, I’m officially an asshole. So I thought I’d make my own recovery a public one. Growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia (the birthplace of the modern KKK), I can recall some pretty racist moments in my life. I wrote a paper in high school titled, “If they have Black History Month, why can’t we have White History Month?” I was a product of my environment. Now I’m actively anti-racist, but I have to acknowledge there is racist residue (it’s sticky), and it is strongest when I deny my white privilege.
So I’m kicking off my first podcast, Recovering Asshole. I’m going to talk to people who don’t have privileges I enjoy. Maybe they can help me (and you) be a little less of a privileged asshole. In the wake of the Portland Max stabbings, I thought we’d tackle immigration first. It made sense to talk to my fabulous wife, Andrea Barrios, about her boarder crossing. In the spirit of John & Yoko, we did the interview in bed. It gave me a deeper appreciation for what she went to just to be in this country. I won’t discuss what happened after the interview. (Maybe I should launch Recovering Asshole: After Dark as a paid subscription podcast.)
We’re here on iTunes. Please subscribe. It’s free. And share. If you don’t have iTunes, you can find it on Soundcloud. Maybe we’ll get a sponsor. Maybe we’ll bring a bit of empathy into our lives. I know there are a ton of great conversations coming.
I’ve got lots of interviews lined up. We’re going to talk to Muslims, African-Americans, Trans people, gay parents, domestic violence survivors, and, yes, even left-handed people. I’m a podcast fan (Fabcast is my current favorite), so I think I know how to keep the listener engaged. My hope is that people who find Recovering Asshole with share it with their friends (especially the assholes) and it can grow into something that can have an impact.
We’re allowed to make mistakes on this journey. It’s not easy. I’m sorry if my comment about “HR ladies” came off as sexist. I’m using it as a moment of reflection. My tagline for the show is my tagline for life – We’re all works in progress, so let’s get to work.
There are plenty of books out there about living a “purpose driven” life. There also lots of rap songs about “keepin’ it real.” It’s basically the same thing. Are your actions in line with your values? Or maybe you’ve sold out to the Man, sold your soul to the Devil, or drank the Kool Aid. We want authenticity in our humans.
This presidential campaign has been full accusations that people are fake. Trump is not a true conservative. Clinton is not a real progressive. Ben Carson is not an actual brain surgeon. But all of us are vulnerable to this accusation. Our identities are works in process and constantly in flux. Nobody is a perfect anything. I’m a feminist but I own the soundtrack to Baywatch and it’s probably not for the music. Busted.
We’re all hypocrites on some level; never quite living up to the vision of ourselves. Maybe not even close. We hate it when our favorite artist becomes huge and moves into a mansion in Beverly Hills, but we’d probably do the same damn thing. “I need more room for my rescue gerbils!”
I bring this up in this short blog post because it is an issue for anybody on the job market. Now that Cozy has turned two and The Dream Police is out, getting back to work is a priority. Since higher education has been eroded by the “new model” of declining tenure-line positions in favor of adjuncts and online classes, my next chapter will very likely be outside of academia. But what? I’ve been a college professor for over twenty years.
So that’s where the value check comes in. I’ve got two possible vectors outside of the classroom. The first is to do something rooted in my work around equity and social justice, or criminology. I applied for a couple of great Department of Justice gigs in DC, but the feds tend to hire from the inside. The other vector is that I get to write and get paid for it. Maybe The Dream Police or The Mission of the Sacred Heart (which is currently in the pipeline in Hollywood) will get picked up by a major publishing house. I’d love to get a paycheck to just sit in the coffee shop and write my weird stories.
I think I’d be really happy working in either world, but it’s not always that easy. Especially when you have a kid. And a mortgage.
So you start thinking, “What else could I do?” I could totally be a letter carrier but it would be about a 50% pay cut from my last gig. I could run for office, but I’d have to vet myself, and that might get ugly. How far out of my comfort zone would I go? If I was offered a $100,000 a year position working for Monsanto, would I take it? (No) The Koch Brothers? (Um, depends.) Nike? (Oh, OK). I’m sure the CIA knows I’ve visited the “Careers” section of their website (not that I’d past the “Have you ever been a communist” background check. (But if I can, call me, girl!)).
Before you judge me as a sell out, it’s like this – Yeah, I have down-for-the-program-and-up-the establishment values. But I’ve also got a precious daughter who is gonna need school supplies soon and I promised my wife I’d take her to Paris while she was still young enough to imagine living in an art studio in the Latin Quarter. So I might sell my soul a little bit. I think there are a lot of parents who have faced that reality and made the choice of the road most taken.
I’ve lived my dream. As a tenured professor I was fulfilled by my work every single day. I’m okay with bending the dream for my family. Maybe a socially progressive Portland agency needs a community outreach officer. Or maybe the CIA will hire me to neutralize the coming Trump militia. I could really be good at that.
I had my dream job. For twenty years I was an award winning sociology professor at Portland State University. My research on hate groups made me an internationally recognized expert on the subject and I did countless media appearances, from The O’Reilly Factor to Al Jazeera. I published and presented and diligently worked my way up the ranks: the young Assistant Professor, the tenured Associate Professor, and finally the stately Full Professor. Most importantly, I would walk out of every single class and feel privileged that I got to impact so many lives on crucial issues like race, gender, and power dynamics. Occasionally, I felt it was like a huge mistake that a punk like me ended up with such a wonderful career.
Then this career that meant something to the world was taken away from me because I fell in love.
In what seemed like a David Mamet play, a small group of powerful administrators teamed up with a racist skinhead incarcerated in an Oregon prison to purge me from campus. I was an officer in the faculty union and we had recently voted to go on strike so there were already battle lines drawn. My crime? My wife was taking an online Women’s Studies class at PSU. After numerous accusations generated by the inmate, all of which fell flat, they asked me, “Are you sleeping with any students at this university?” I responded, “Yes, I sleep with one every night. My wife.” Our child was in her carrier set next to me when I said it. And that was that. They had their technical violation.
Andrea had been a student in one of my huge Intro Sociology classes and I never really even spoke to her during the class. After the class was over I ran into her at Dante’s bar and she bought me a shot of tequila and asked if I’d like to go out sometime. I told her I didn’t date students. She bought me another shot of tequila and I said maybe we could be friends. It wasn’t long after that that we fell madly in love, became travel companions, got married and had a beautiful daughter. Not once in this drama did I ever regret choosing to be with Andrea. She is the partner I’ve waited for all my life. Any regret is reserved for the trust I placed in university administrators to recognize that love is a gift to be celebrated, not punished.
The whole thing was pointless, yet emotionally devastating. I can’t speak to their true motives. I have my suspicions. They had discretion to weigh my contribution to the university against this supposed offense, so it’s hard for me to see their response as a rational action. Perhaps they saw my unconventionality as a liability. My only real regret in the matter is that I let the lawyers make all the decisions after that point. I should have fought harder against the rumor mongers and for my place at the school that I loved. But we had a new baby and I was afraid if I didn’t accept the settlement, I would have a hard time finding work in my field again.
So I walked away from my dream job.
I wanted to write and be a stay-at-home dad for a bit. I hoped I could land in something quickly, a visiting professorship, a publishing advance, an invitation to be on Dancing with the Stars. Turns out the market for full professors is pretty slim. Shrinking academic budgets have departments looking for cheap Assistant Professors just out of grad school. “I’ve already been through the tenure process,” I said to myself. “I’m not going through that hell again.” With my experience couldn’t I just hop over to Reed College or the University of Portland? I had guest lectured at both.
In the meantime, the great health benefits I had at PSU ended and our baby needed health care. We went on to the Oregon Health Plan and signed up for WIC. These services for “poor people” I had lectured about since my grad school days at Emory were now a vital part of keeping my family going. I would take Cozy to the dental services with the other low income parents and thank the universe that Obamacare was actually a thing. But going to the bank to take out my unemployment funds or using the WIC vouchers to purchase milk and government cheese for my child was the first lesson in humility. “This is just temporary,” I would promise myself. My wife, who actually had a job would laugh. “You’re a white man with a PhD,” she’d say. “You’re gonna be fine.”
I had plenty of irons in the fire. I was happy to have time to work on a new novel, partially inspired by what happened. Friends and fans of my last book fully funded a $10,000 Kickstarter project to back it. I developed a reality show about teachers that might have some legs. I sent off applications for jobs I seemed to be cut out for, including at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC. I was flown out to interview for a professorship at a great university in NYC and then flown out again to meet with the Provost. When she asked me what salary I’d require, I answered with my last salary at PSU and hoped that would be enough to move my family to the very expensive Big Apple. They ended up giving the job to some kid straight out of Harvard who probably said he would work for half that,
All the money I had banked away over the years started to thin out. Andrea got a great job at a law firm but I had to start selling off my beloved comic book collection. My summer teaching position in Isla Mujeres meant we could live on pesos and stretch it out for a while. I had fashioned myself as a bohemian stay-at-home dad, writing, pouring wine while Andrea painted, and presenting on Portland’s civil rights history with the baby on my hip. As long as the mortgage was covered I got less and less interested in looking for a job that didn’t suit me. (Although, I worried I might end up working weekends at the Foot Locker.)
I’ve had a great detour for the last year-and-a-half, away from regular work. I desperately miss my students and colleagues at PSU, but I’ve continued to teach classes at the University of Oregon and on Isla Mujeres. I’ve done dozens of important tours with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, worked as a grant evaluator at the National Institute of Justice in DC, and written a pretty damn good book that will be out in a month. But it’s time to get back to work. Cozy is 2 and Andrea has her eyes on law school. I need to step back into the provider role.
The second stage of humility is the asking for help finding a job. My Pisces brain thought someone would just hand me a plum gig because I’m just so fabulous. I don’t think it works that way in the real world. It’s time to put myself out there and get my foot in a few doors. That might include swallowing my pride and taking a few steps back so I can compete with those kids right out of grad school. A friend messaged me, “Don’t be afraid to backtrack with teaching in Higher Ed. There is no need to be prideful. You had a great run in education and maybe you could have another great run.”
There are so many philosophies to job-seeking. Some think you should wait for the job you envision yourself in. I just want to be able to take care of my family and the world they live in. Also, I know Excel.
I’ve worked steadily since I was 15. I got a job putting up Christmas decorations at Northlake Mall. At 16, I was the youngest person hired at Turtles Records, a great local Atlanta music chain that is long gone. I’ve loved work all my life, making this “gap year” a strange experience. But raising a child is a full time job in itself and I think Cozy is a better person for hiring me.
So here I am, passionate about seeing the human race evolve into a kinder species. Sometimes my sense of humor is questionable. I’m obsessed with music I haven’t heard yet. I’m completely devoted to my wife and child and making their dreams come true. I love to teach and write and sometimes forget where the comma goes. I have a lifetime of community involvement and thousands of former students that hopefully learned a thing or two about how the world works. I’m paper trained and I need a job.