Monday, November 29, 2010

Whatever Happened to the Fun (and Funny) Drunk?

Just recently, I re-watched the 1981 film Arthur (starring Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli and John Gielgud), a film that I would probably place in my top-5 Funniest Films Ever. I was prompted to re-visit the film after hearing that a remake is in the works, starring Russell Brand and Helen Mirren. In the original, Dudley Moore takes a hilarious turn as the title character, a multi-millionaire drunk and a rake, who is pressured by his family to marry a woman he doesn't love under threat of having the silver spoon yanked out of his overprivileged mouth. (SPOILER ALERT: He ends up with the girl he loves... AND the money.) I can't remember the last time I watched Arthur straight through-- it was probably more than a decade ago-- but it was every bit as funny this time as it was the first time. (And the theme song, Burt Bacharach's Best That You Can Do, was still just as enchantingly infectious. If you get caught between the moon and New York City... I know it's crazty, but it's true. ) Alas, as happens with many 80's movies, in this re-viewing I found myself inadvertantly flinching at the utterly un-PC nature of many of the scenes. For example: the scene where Arthur drives to his engagement party, slugging straight from a whiskey bottle the whole way. (On the highway. In a convertible. No shame whatsoever, and not even a hint of worry about being pulled over and arrested.) Of course, one would never see a "sympathetic" cinematic depiction of drunk driving these days, so my cringing at that scene led me to wonder: when was the last time I saw a sympathetic cinematic depiction of a drunk doing anything? Nowadays, drunks are always the bad guy/girl in film-- just think of Leaving Los Vegas-- and never the fun and funny characters of old.

This wasn't always the case. Especially in the 70's and 80's, movies were chock-full of endearingly intoxicated, hilariously inebriated, intentionally sloshed and hopelessly soused characters whose constant binging and pickling was meant to amuse us far more than it was meant to warn us. Think of Walter Matthau's turn as the coach of the Bad News Bears (1976)-- I mean, he drank straight from a can of six-packs in the dugout with a bunch of 8-year-olds! Or John Belushi in Animal House (1978), equally unrivalled and beloved symbol of frat-boy alcoholic excess. Or the "other" Dudley Moore drunk film 10 (1979). The early 80's even gave us an entire movie, Strange Brew, about not much more than how fun and funny it is to be drunk. Lest you don't think intoxicated one-liners and prat-falls are all that fun or funny, there was also the classic (1978) Jackie Chan film The Legend of the Drunken Master, which championed the drunk in a more unconventional way. Chan had to learn Drunken Kung Fu (from his drunken uncle, not kidding) in order to stop an assassin. All that is to say, it used to be the case that we were neither afraid nor ashamed of our amusement by the cinematic drunk.

And if we go even further back into the cinematic archives, the drunks get even better... and classier. One of my favorites of all time is Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story. That scene where he shows up in the middle of the night at Cary Grant's (aka, "C.K. Dexter Haven") house is absolutely side-splitting. Or there's always W.C. Fields, who was a fun and/or funny drunk in almost every film he ever made. In the 40's and 50's, practically every leading man and woman was what we would now classify as an alcoholic. There is hardly a cinematic scene from that era that doesn't include a drink and a smoke, which were symbols of civilization, sophistication and enculturation far more than they were symbols of abjection or addiction. Once we get past the 80's, though, everything changed. Even "period" pieces, like Tombstone (1993), pretty much punt with regard to the tacit moral evaluation of their drunken characters. Val Kilmer's portayal of Doc Holliday is fun and funny for much of that film, but in the end makes the tragic "consumption" turn that characterizes so many post-80's period films. And you don't have to look very hard to find a list of equally depressing post-80's alcoholic films. (See Barfly, Bad Santa, The Verdict, Withnail and I, and Factotum for starters.)

Let me be clear. I'm really NOT trying to unreflectively valorize alcoholics here, no matter how fun or funny they might be. I am well aware that alcoholism is a terrible disease and that, for those who suffer it (and the people who suffer those who suffer it), the occasionally amusing pro's are far outweighed by the regularly destructive con's. That said, not every drinker is an alcoholic, of course, as even alcoholics would readily admit. After re-watching and thoroughly enjoying Arthur, I guess I just find it curious that Hollywood has so readily adopted the position that all drinking is to be villianized, especially given its reluctance to disavow other equally-inaccurate and equally-pernicious stereotypes. For example, every homosexual is not a pedophile. Just like all pretty girls are not dumb bitches. Just like every sports team from the "wrong side of the tracks" is not destined for victory. Just like every poor black man doesn't need a white savior. And every academic is not crazy, or inspirational, or uncompromisingly principled, or an ego-crushing ball-buster , or involved in complicated romatic/sexual relationships with their students. So many cinematic stereotypes relentlessly persist... why not the fun and funny drunk?

Here's my hypothesis: we've dispatched with the fun and funny drunk character in film because, of all our cultural scapegoats, it's the easiest to dispatch with. And WHY is it easiest to dispatch with the drunk? Quite simply, because no self-respecting citizen is going to stand up for him or her. Nevermind the fact that many of you (er, ahem, "us") have more than our fair share of moments that very closely approximate the fun and funny behavior of this archetype. Nay, we've all been sufficiently trained to despise it (even our own impersonations of it) with a righteous indignation. Those other "Others" are not nearly as universally reviled as the drunk, despite the fact that many of the other-Others are truly more dispicable and embarrasing stereotypes. Alas, a fun and funny drunk like Arthur has come to take the place of the homo sacer in contemporary American cinema-- set apart, despised, accursed, shunned and resolutely disavowed for the sake of our comfortably disingenuous bad faith.

I suppose my point here, insignificant as it is in the grand scheme of things, is just to say that we all have our vices, great and small. There are some vices that I absolutely cannot tolerate (like cocaine), but many more others that, to be honest, I could take or leave. I, for one, would take the vices of a cinematic character like Arthur over the vices of other characters (many played by Russell Crowe) that our culture so unreflectively valorizes. So, sue me for feeling far more empathy (and sympathy) for a friend who can authentically say "of all the gin joints, in all the towns in the world, she walks into mine" than I do for the Designated Driver who marinades in his or her sober righteousness. They say the first step is admitting you have a problem, so let me just go ahead and confess...

"My name is Doctor J, and I prefer the company in gin joints."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Why I Chose Memphis: Art Carden

Next up in our series is Dr. Art Carden, my colleague in the Economics and Business Department at Rhodes College. Art is a regular contributor to the econ-blogs Division of Labour and The Ludwig von Mises Institute as well as an essayist for the online version of Forbes Magazine. I think I can say with some confidence that Art, who I consider a good friend, is my most unlikely friend. We disagree about almost all things economic and philosophical, but what I really appreciate about Art is that he (like myself) absolutely loves an intelligent, inspired, agonistic debate. Last spring, I served as the moderator for Art's paper presentation at the ACS Women's and Gender Studies Conference and then, in the fall, I was on a panel with him where we traded volleys over the topic "What's Wrong With The World Today?". In both sessions, we disagreed pretty dramatically, but I learned in those exchanges just how valuable "the unlikely friend" can be to one's intellectual growth. Art is a man of passionate conviction, good humor and considerable erudition who, perhaps best of all, seems at total ease outside the echo-chamber of those with whom he generally agrees. More than once, we've both remarked that perhaps the only thing more entertaining than our (often animated) ideological disputes is our students' relentless attempts to stoke that fire. Unfortunately for them, you won't find Art and I getting ugly with one another, if only for the reason that we both love a good debate almost as much as we love Memphis. And, speaking of Memphis, here's Art's story:

"Why did we choose Memphis? First, Rhodes College was my target liberal arts job when I entered the market in 2005-2006. Second, it's about halfway between a lot of our very good friends in St. Louis and our families in Birmingham. It offers us the best of all worlds: it's a major city, it's close to family, real estate prices are almost absurdly low, and it offers a unique intellectual and cultural environment. You know that band you like so much? They probably wouldn't exist if it weren't for the Memphis music scene. It's pretty easy to get almost anywhere from Memphis. It was easier when it was still a Northwest hub, but if you want to go to Europe, there's a direct flight to Amsterdam. There are still direct flights to most major cities. Need to drive somewhere? US 78 will get you to Birmingham, I-40 will get you to Little Rock and Nashville, and I-55 will get you to St. Louis and Chicago in one direction and Jackson and New Orleans in the other. Memphis is especially interesting if you like economic history. Like any good academic, I have a couple of papers about this. In addition to its achievements in music and cuisine, Memphis has also been home to some game-changing entrepreneurial innovations. Self-service grocery stores and "every day low prices"? Those got their start at Piggly Wiggly. Standardization, branding, and cutting-edge information technology? Holiday Inn. New standards for auto parts sales and service? AutoZone. Overnight shipping anywhere in the world? FedEx. In addition, Chris Coyne and I are questioning whether government provision of police services is necessary and looking at new theories of institutional change by studying the Memphis race riot of 1866. This is a city with a history of unspeakable tragedy, to be sure, but it is also a city with a history of innovation and experimentation.

Memphis is also a great place to have a young family. We live just north of a shopping center where we can get groceries, books, clothes from Old Navy, Starbucks coffee (at an actual Starbucks and at a Bookstar Cafe across the street from the Starbucks). We can drive to the absolutely wonderful Children's Museum of Memphis in about five minutes. I once clocked myself at eight minutes from leaving my neighborhood to parking my car at Rhodes, and I think I hit two red lights on the way. Perhaps most importantly, we can afford to live comfortably (albeit not luxuriously) on my earnings as an economics professor at a liberal arts college. We probably wouldn't be able to do that in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.

On Thanksgiving, my sister-in-law told us about a King of the Hill episode in which one of the characters asks his illegitimate son "what's the bad part of Memphis called?" His son replies "Memphis!" Is there a grain of truth to that? Sure. But it obscures a lot of important truth. When you get right down to it, this is a pretty neat place to live."

We're creating quite an archive with all these Why I Chose Memphis stories! If you've got one that you want to share, send it to me .

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why I Chose Memphis: Jessica Lotz (The Woman Behind The Movement)

In an effort to give credit where credit is due, I'm reposting the Why I Chose Memphis story of Jessica Lotz, whose Quick Memphian Call to Arms was the original inspiration for this series. If you're not already familiar with JLotz's blog Waves and Wires, stop what you're doing right now and go check it out, especially her hilariously (and bitingly) awesome monthly series "WTF is Wrong With People?". Jessica is a Rhodes alum, and she's what we in the human-evaluation business call a "triple threat." Maybe even a "quadruple threat." She's wicked smart, uproariously funny, a talented singer and guitarist, more than little skilled at the billiards table, a super-savvy networker, the guaranteed life-of-any-party, a subtle but effective political progressive and an eminently erudite cultural critic. Wait, that's more than four threats... ah well, who can keep count with JLotz? At any rate, she is in every conceivable way a woman who's good to know. Here's her story:

"I've been planning to do this post for a couple weeks, since I'm thrilled to say that I finally nailed down an exciting, personally challenging and well-compensated job that will keep me in Memphis for the next several years. (I'm choosing not to elaborate more here, as I'm sure the organization would want some say-so in being associated with my blog). Then of course, as many of you other Memphians may already know, this publisher's-whipping-boy-of-a-town "ranked dead last in intelligence, attractiveness, safety, romantic getaways, environmental friendliness, and athleticism" in never-heard-of-it Travel + Leisure Magazine's "2010 America's Favorite Cities" survey. I could go on and on about the scientific shoddiness/subjectivity of this allegedly credible publication as I did with Forbes Magazine earlier this year, but that's why I hyper-linked that post too. Hell, your first clue should be that somehow Memphis is ranked as less diverse than Anchorage, AK, Nashville, TN and Portland, OR... Huh?! Of course, a large part of the issue here is that my fellow residents ranked Memphis lower in most categories than outsiders, given the chronically widespread sad Charlie Brown funk so many of us can never seem to get out of (and yet refuse to move away, tellingly). I'm not saying Memphis is some golden city on the hill with abundant resources and civic pride and zero social problems. We've got a lot of challenges that would eviscerate a lesser city and that will continue to require a lot of creativity and determination from those thousands (most likely not surveyed) who are passionate about seeing Memphis through in good times and bad.

But first back to my looong months of job-hunting. Although these economically hard times certainly had something to do with my many months of pajama-clad resume/cover letter spawning ways, I did have a few tough choices to make along the way when offers in Washington and Baltimore came up during the summer. Against the advice of some of my more pragmatic (and DC-situated) friends, I, ever the stubborn mule, held out on the easy way out with steady income streams afar and wound up winning big in the city I love. This is why I chose Memphis:
1. It's got character. I mean this in every sense of the word... except the kind of "character" you attribute to unattractive blind dates and real estate double-speak for crumbling rat holes. There are quirky, vibrant and singular communities, businesses and people all over this city, and unlike the more "attractive" and "stylish" Nashvilles or "intelligent" DCs of the world (and I can say this because I've lived in those places too), we don't really care what you think about us. There's  just people with the good sense to take each other at face value, pretenses of self-importance aside. And believe you me, the people that choose to live here intentionally (I know I'm perhaps arrogantly including myself in that number) have far more character than your average bear.Memphis may not be the most user-friendly to outsiders or the suburb-dwellers who refuse to cross the Wolf River, but those who have taken the time to explore its less obvious/touristy nooks and crannies know and cherish what this city has to offer. Lord knows we don't stay here because of other people's approval, just that of Wild Bill, Mollie Fontaine (may they rest in peace), Ruby Wilson, AC and Prince Mongo, et al.
2. It's got promise. Having grown up here and watching this city evolve over the last 20+ years, I think that the vast majority of Memphians would agree with me that this is a resilient city that has developed in tremendously positive ways in recent years. I remember times when downtown was as dead in the water as any of the Spice Girls' solo careers and Cafe Ole was the only thing people drove to Cooper Young for. Both of these areas are now thriving and among Memphis's most well-known and highly frequented places, while nooks like Broad Avenue, the High Point Pinch and South Main continue to blossom into great and admirably sustainable spaces for the next generation of residents.

We've got elected officials that a huge, diverse electorate can and does support and who, as far as I can tell, really care about the future of this city and have taken great strides to implement innovative policies with buy-in from a large array of local interests, not just insular cronies. We have a new bicycle Green Line and about a bajillion farmers markets that just about everyone in town can agree on. We have an avalanche of new resources and support via the Gates Foundation and Race to the Top to mend our public schools and much-needed new grants for infrastructure improvements and community development. We've come a long way, baby, and our most ambitious goals are still ahead of us. For whatever abysmal flack Memphis has gotten since all the "Southern backwater" and "decaying Mississippi river town" crap began from residents as well as outsiders, there is a lot to be proud of and it sure isn't for lack of trying.
3. It needs us. Yes, in spite of all of these assets and positive changes that I stand behind, there is still a lot of work to do here. It may sound daunting, but it's also exciting given what I think is a critical mass of Memphians who are as fed up as I am with this can't-win-for-losing onslaught of negative media attention and self-inflicted pessimism. As Ann Landers would have said to the wallowing 70s single gal with low self-esteem, how can you expect someone else to love you if you don't love yourself? Memphis needs all the civic love--and talent, compassion and devotion--that it can get and that it deserves, more importantly.

To those who feel as frustrated as I do, we must challenge ourselves and each other to find new ways to plug in, get informed and get involved in at least one more of the many initiatives that others are lovingly bringing to the table these days, be it sustainable/green development, education, neighborhood associations or improved infrastructure and transportation. Just as an individual is only as good as her friends and family and a party is only as good as its guests, a city is surely a reflection of its people for better or worse. I say it's time to put our collective best foot forward because we owe it to each other and because it's simply the right thing to do."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Why I Chose Memphis: Paul Haught

Our next contributor in the Why I Chose Memphis series is Dr. Paul Haught, Associate Dean for the School of the Arts and Chair of the Religion and Philosophy Department at Christian Brothers University. I met Paul through mutual Midtowner friends, and for a short time was totally unaware that he was married to another friend of mine, the lovely and charming Emily Holmes (who taught at Rhodes in my first year there but is now a Professor of Religious Studies at CBU). Paul is really the model of a good colleague: smart, open-minded, equal parts interesting and interested. He is as easy "talking philosophy" in traditional professional settings as he is over a couple of beers in front of a backyard firepit, which places him squarely in the category of my Favorite Kind of Academics. Paul's story repeats an emerging theme in this series, that is, stories of being "chosen" by Memphis before choosing it in return. From Paul:

"Deciding to move to Memphis was, in the beginning, mostly a practical choice for me and my family. The short story is that in 2005, I reentered the philosophy job market from the security of a tenure track position, narrowing my search to institutions that were good fits by job description or because they offered closer proximity to family. We had a son on the way, and Memphis was a two hour drive from my wife’s parents in Little Rock, itself a town I thought I could live in if I ever got the chance. Memphis also had the allure of offering the job prospect closest to New Orleans, a city I had lived in during graduate school and a town still very much alive in me.

My previous experiences of Memphis had primarily been of passing through on the way to Little Rock (usually some version of Lamar to I-55) and a wedding in Germantown some years back. I’ll just say that I had digested the allegory of the cave well enough not to trust those perceptions--there had to be more to Memphis than that. And there was, which I was fortunate to sample on my official visit to CBU. Although I only caught glimpses of the city’s beauty on that trip, it was the hospitality of the place--demonstrated by my hosts and encountered in the neighborhoods and restaurants featured on my tour--that confirmed my decision to accept the eventual offer from CBU. In the end, it wasn’t easy to leave friends and colleagues for whom I had developed a real fondness in South Carolina, but a change was needed, and Memphis was where it was going to happen.

Ever since I learned there could be such a thing as a philosophy of place, I have made two conscious efforts everywhere I’ve lived. The first is to cultivate awareness of the way each place works itself into me (as I resist, embrace, or deliberately try to modify each place). The second is to invite that process to occur, to be open to being transformed by place. Part of me is still deeply rooted in my home places of Virginia and D.C. (my nostalgia frequently takes me to the Virginia Piedmont or Blue Ridge). But I also find myself missing other landscapes and cityscapes that have made their marks on me, and I am fascinated by how this process has unfolded since I’ve been in Memphis. Time is a necessary feature of a philosophy of place, and Memphis is most prominently the event of my being and becoming a father. My first son’s birth actually happened in South Carolina, so I’m not referring to Memphis as the location of my paternity. Rather, Memphis as place has been formed for me most strongly out of the needs, desires, anxieties, and joys that belong to my life as a dad. As a result, being a dad has patterned not only how and where I spend my time but also the nature of my associations and friendships in Memphis. And as my oldest son has now grown into his own awareness of place, my wife and I increasingly become able to share our experiences of place with him and vice versa. I’ll refrain from reciting a list of all the great things Memphis has to offer for families with kids--that’s what the web is for (although yay for Shelby Farms and My Big Backyard at the Botanic Garden!)--but I will say that having chosen Memphis as the place for this transformation, dwelling here has been sometimes thrilling, often surprising, occasionally challenging, and abundantly delightful."

Thanks, Paul! And, for the rest of you, keep the stories coming! If you've got a Why I Chose Memphis account that you want to share, and I'll add yours to the chorus of voices.

Why I Chose Memphis: Kerry Keeble Russ

I can't tell you how happy I am to have the good fortune to read (and share) all of these "Why I Chose Memphis" stories... and from such a wide variety of people! Our next installment comes from Kerry Keeble Russ. Kerry moved every two years for 15 years before landing in Memphis is 2002. She was a research assistant for an Agricultural Economist, then a computer geek ("for too many years" she says), then a pharmaceutical research associate, and now she's working in her first love, art, as a graphic designer. I met Kerry through a mutual friend, but I will be the first to attest that she is one of those people who instantly makes others feel comfortable, as if you've been friends with her forever. Kerry's got a winning smile, a truly warm, inviting and non-judgmental disposition, an infectious laugh and, best of all, a rapier-like wit... all of which combine to make hers exactly the kind of eminently approachable and very lovable personality that defines Memphians. As her story tells, Kerry is a true lover of all the pleasures of life: art, Nature, good food, good people, and good drink... especially when all of those things come at an affordable price! In her own words, here is Kerry's story:

"Like many others, I ended up in Memphis not by choice, but rather by vocation. No other city would allow me to work at a profession I love, but not make a ton of money, and still be able to enjoy so much.

I’ve never been to another city except Memphis that makes arts and culture as available and affordable. There are so many but some of the more memorable examples are these: On the last Friday of every month the South Main Arts District has openings where you can view a myriad of different mediums and styles. Unless you’re too tempted by a piece, the event is free. The Orpheum offers “student rush” night for every play that comes through, for $20 students get to see the play from the orchestra seats. The Emerald Theater offers “pay what you can” night for every run of their plays. Every May the symphony plays the finale of the Memphis in May celebration, known as the “Sunset Symphony”. There will be a guest musician with the symphony and for 3-4 hours not only do you have wonderful music but also a fireworks show for the sum of $5. The grand old churches offer so many world class concerts that you can’t possibly attend them all, of which most are solely by donation. In the last two years the Levitt Shell has been revived and offers free seasonal outdoor concerts in the beautiful Overton Park.

Overton park is a true gem designed by the very same Frederick Law Olmsted who designed Central Park in New York. Memphis’ Overton has running trails, picnic areas, playgrounds, a dog park, the Levitt Shell, an award winning zoo, and a golf course.

The architecture of Memphis is amazing, from the remaining Victorians to the Bungalows of Midtown, Memphis is an architectural showplace. Even better, these beauties are actually affordable. When guests come from out of town, their favorite part of Memphis is simply walking the neighborhoods and enjoying the architecture.

The old huge trees in Midtown define the area and give the entire place a park-like feel. Add to those trees the Azaleas, the Crepe Myrtles and the other flowering shrubs and spring is a profusion of color as is fall. The Botanic and Dixon gardens offer so much for so little including education for aspiring gardeners to add their flora to the landscape.

Memphis neighbors define the term itself. Move into a Midtown neighborhood and soon you’re greeted by the block president with a list of contacts for everyone on the block in case of any type of emergency. Add in the ice cream socials and the yearly pot luck and it’s not long before you feel completely at home.

Then there’s the little bit of magic, or so it seems. I have sat in the middle of this city and watched flying squirrels floating between trees. I’ve seen fox, several really large raccoons and then there are stories that coyotes have moved in as well. Memphis, with an MSA of a million and wildlife too!

I didn’t get to choose Memphis, but I’ve felt very lucky it chose me."

If you've got a Why I Chose Memphis story to share, and I'll post it here!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Notes From the Other Side of the Job Market

In my first 3 years at my current position, I served on 2 tenure-track search committees, a process that literally took up every spare moment of my time (and many non-spare moments) for the 4 or 5 months that it lasted. Although I certainly learned a lot in my time on SLAC Search Committees-- including, among other things, that "SLAC" stands for "Small Liberal Arts College"-- I am well aware that the last couple of years were a very strange time to be doing this for the first time. A tanked economy, a new President, a panicked constituency, an inflated applicant pool and a discipline/profession under siege are certainly not the standard job-market fare as I had been led to understand it. As someone who was on the market herself not that long ago, I feel like I can say with some confidence that it is just as time-consuming and labor-intensive on the "other" (i.e., hiring) side of the job market. And, arguably, it's very close to being just as stressful. The possibility of a "failed" search for a department in these economic times is almost as devastating as the possibility of not getting a job is for an individual candidate. Well, almost...

Since this is the first year in some time that I have not been on one side or the other of the Philosophy job market, consider this my still-amateur debriefing on that process. I'm happy to report that there are a lot of really smart, really interesting and really qualified candidates out there. In that sense, our discipline is in very good shape. And for that reason, I'm also happy to report that the embarassment of riches in candidates means that-- pace conventional wisdom about the process-- nobody gets a job on his or her C.V. alone. (Pedigree does still mean a lot, but less than I or many of my co-job-seekers thought when I was on the market.) Although I'd heard it a thousand times, I was still surprised to learn how seriously hiring committees take the fact that a TT (tenure-track) hire may be a hire "for life." So, what one does in the APA and campus interviews matters quite a bit.

Which leads me to what was a mildly surprising and majorly disappointing discovery: candidates can, and do, totally bomb interviews. Of course, since I've only been through this process twice, my experience on search committees is limited at best. But if I could go back and speak to myelf when I was on the market (in one of those if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now revelatory moments), I would probably offer myself the following advice:

1. Bring your A-game. There's just no excuse for not being prepared in an interview. Know everything you can about the department, the faculty, the major requirements, the college/university course catalogue and "mission statement." It's likely that at least one thing that they think is an important part of the job is going to be different from what you think is an important part of the job. The trick is to not get caught in that difference.

2. Be clear who you are... and who you aren't. Although it may seem like a good idea to present yourself as the Jack-Of-All-Trades-- yes! I can teach interdisciplinary classes! yes! I'm interested in African-American philosophy (despite the fact that I wrote a dissertation on mereology)! yes! I would LOVE to teach Introduction to X (even though I've never heard of it before your mentioning it)!-- that's just a bad, bad, bad idea all around. First, nobody can do it all, and your pretensions will inevitably come off as either arrogant or naïve. Second, if you end up getting the job with all those empty promises, you'll find that you've committed yourself to doing/being something that you're not, which will not only cause you a lot of extra work, but will also make you unhappy. [An aside: when I was interviewing for the job I have now, which was advertised as "19th/20th C. Continental and social/political philosophy," I was asked in my APA interview how I would teach a Logic course. I responded, "if you're looking for someone to teach Logic, then I'm probably not your candidate." I was certain that one statement was going to cost me the job... but it didn't. Looking back, I'm so glad I said that, since I know that if I had to teach Logic regularly I would be a miserable, wretched thing.] Third, the truth is that search committees aren't looking for tabula rasa colleagues; they're looking for someone with an identity, a clear scholarship profile, and a promising future. As hard as it is to do this, candidates really do have to remember that the interview goes both ways: candidates should be measuring up the department on whether or not it's a good "fit" for them, too.

3. Don't act like a graduate student. It's hard to be really specific on this piece of advice, because it's hard to put my finger on exactly what "acting like a graduate student" means. It's like pornography: you know it when you see it. So, don't be "green." Don't be fawning. Don't be insecure. Don't be (too) deferential. But also don't be overconfident. The difference between getting into graduate school and getting a job is that in the former case you need to present yourself as the smartest, most promising, most "cultivat-able" thing out there, and in the latter case you need to present yourself as already cultivated, as a "good colleague." Nobody thinks of their students as colleagues, so it's important to conduct yourself in interviews as a colleague and not a student.

4. Try to approximate, as closely as possible, a normal human being. Keep the idiosyncracies to a minimum. Be nice. Be aware of your interpersonal quirks (do I stare akwardly? am I longwinded? do I swear a lot? do I speak too softly? am I inattentive to questions? am I condescending?). Of course, committees aren't only looking to hire Dr. Beige-and-Vanilla, but academia is chock-full of prickly and odd personalities and your job as a candidate is to demonstrate not only that you're less prickly and odd than the rest, but also that you can work productively with those who are. I'm as loathe to affirm disciplinary normalization as the next Foucaultian, but the truth is that the interview room is just not the place for flying your freak flag. So, try to keep your radical, unmannered, unique-as-a-snowflake (even if truly endearing) eccentricities in check.

5. Be crystal clear. If you can't give a clear and succinct summary of what you and your research are all about in language that non-specialists-- who will be on your search committee, I guarantee-- can understand, consider yourself tanked. (See my This Is Your Blurb! post.) Compared to all the time you've spent developing yourself and writing your dissertation and preparing your applications, you've got precious little time with your committee, so be prepared to maximize every moment you have. Don't fall prey to that peremptory inclination to refuse to "dumb it down." Communicating clearly is not "dumbing it down." It's a basic axiom of successful interpersonal relationships between smart people who may not all have the same background.

6. Be prepared to "spin" your weaknesses. At the end of the day, yours is an "interview" like any other. Every interviewee has weaknesses... but the best interviewees know their weaknesses, can account for them, and can articulate the latent "promise" for development in them. Did it take you 8 years to complete your graduate work? Have you served in a string of fixed-term positions? Were you denied tenure at your previous institution? Do you have middling-to-poor student evaluations? Is your publication record sub-standard? Be ready to account for it. And don't wait for your interviewers to ask you. Believe me, in your interviewers' minds, the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know.

7. Remember that EACH committee member gets a vote. In my time on the interviewer's side of the table, I was shocked to see how many candidates neglected to speak directly to one or more of the search committee members. It will come as no surprise, I suspect, to report that The Ignored were usually female, non-white or junior-faculty committee members. (Though, to be fair, it was just as often the case that candidates chose to focus their attention entirely on the committee members who they percieved to be their closest "philosophical" peers, i.e., those working in the same or cognate areas of research.) It should go without saying that one should not ignore any member of the search committee, I hope, since it's likely that each of them gets the same one-vote in the final analysis. But sometimes candidates' neglect manifests itself in more subtle ways than outright disregard. I don't know how widespread this phenomenon is, but my own and others' anecdotal observations leads me to believe that many candidates seem to be unaware that the content of their questions/remarks are consistently less substantive when directed to female, non-white, or untenured committee members. For example, candidates asked me about my impression of our college's students, its level of collegiality, its service obligations, its location, its weather or other polite niceties about 10 times more often than they asked me about my research or my impressions of their research. Of course, questions related to teaching, service, interpersonal politics and quaity-of-life issues are all important and, in their own way, substantive when determining whether or not a particular job is a good "fit" for you, but candidates must be conscientious about unreflectively directing all of those sorts of questions to (politically) "minority" or (professionally) "underrepresented" committee members at the expense of discussing "real philosophy" with them. To put it bluntly: don't talk to female committee members like they're mommies, junior committee members like they're children, or non-white committee members like they're tokens. And, correspondingly, don't talk to the senior, white, male or "famous" committee members like they're your (and everybody else's) daddy.

8. Know your history. One advantage of our discipline is that we share a largely common canonical history, at least up until the early-20th century. Those (of us) who work in 20th-C.-or-later philosophy may have a little bit of a harder time conversing with one another, especially if our differences span the so-called Analytic/Continental divide, but everyone ought to at least share the common language of our historical canon. This is particularly true for SLAC's, but with the exception of prestigious R1 jobs, most of your interviews will be for jobs in which the majority of the Major course requirements include the history of philosophy. So, be prepared to situate yourself in that history. Espescially if you have an idiosyncratic research profile, you should be able to translate it to your interviewers via figures that they know. I'm sure this isn't true for every search committee member, but for me it's a serious red flag if candidates are unable to demonstrate at least a nodding familiarity with pre-20th C. figures like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Mill, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. (After the 20th C. it's different-- I easily can excuse a candidate's unfamiliarity with Chalmers or Rawls or Deleuze.) In my estimation-- and, again, I don't think this is peculiar to me-- a candidate uneasy with the basic "history" canon in our discipline is a liability.

9. Follow-up. This advice applies more to the campus interview than the APA interview, but in either case I think it's a good idea to send a short note or email to thank the committee for their time with you. Especially if you had a particularly good conversation with one of them, or if in the course of your conversations you (or they) promised to send an article or text reference, follow-up on that. It shows that you're really interested in them and the job, that you're attentive to details, and that you're collegial. Or, at the very least, it provides another opportunity for your name to be registered in their mind.

10. Remember that you are ALWAYS being interviewed, every second that you spend with a search committee member. That includes the dinners, the lunches, the coffees, the walks between appointments, the car rides to and from the hotel... it's ALL interview time. One of the most psychologically exhausting elements of being on the job market, especially on-campus interviews, is that you have to be constantly "on." So, no matter how informal or casual or off-the-record a situation seems, never turn off your internal censor. You'd be surprised how many of those "throw-away" comments are not thrown away.

So, that's my meager $0.02 from the other side of the job market. Most of it is obvious, I'm sure, but it never hurts to illuminate the obvious when the stakes are as high as they are for candidates in this economy. The comments section is open for further advice, of course.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Why I Chose Memphis: Michael Hughes

Michael Hughes-- sommelier, food critic, Midtowner, the friendliest face at Joe's and author of the Memphis food-and-wine blog Midtown Stomp-- offers up the following account of why he chose Memphis:

"I don't know if I necessarily chose Memphis or if it chose me. When I would visit here in college I always felt for lack of a better term "at home." When I moved here I marveled at how easy it was to connect with people. Downtown was starting to come back to life & I also had my eyes opened to how much culture there was here. Beale Street did not happen to be what Memphis was all about. It is city of neighborhoods full of people from all over the world. One of my first exciting discoveries was the wealth of delicious food from Southeast Asia especially Vietnam. Memphis has been a city of re-invention for me. I worked in a handful of different industries until I found my path, wine & food. This city is a delicious city. That's why I chose Memphis. Or like I said, maybe it chose me."

Thanks, Michael!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why I Chose Memphis: Liz Dagget

So, no sooner did I send out the request for readers to submit their own "Why I Chose Memphis" accounts than the responses started pouring in. Here's the first from Liz Dagget (pictured left), Assistant Professor in the Rhodes College Art Department and Director of CODA (Center for Outreach and Development of the Arts). In her own words, here's why Professor Dagget chose Memphis:

"I originally came to Memphis because I was offered a lottery scholarship to a state school, and knew right away that Memphis was more my style than Knoxville. But after graduating, and getting my MFA elsewhere, I had nothing to tie me down and could have moved anywhere. I looked into teaching at the American University in Dubai, and had several possibilities in New York freelancing, but I came to Memphis, where I had no prospects, and luckily stumbled into an awesome job at Rhodes. But why did I choose Memphis?

If you talk to strangers, there is no better place in the world. I talk to strangers. I find people interesting. And sometimes I film these interesting people and their stories. And let me tell you that it is virtually impossible to go to the Piggly Wiggly on Avalon and not have a bizarre conversation about things such as how to get skunk stink off a cat. The people you meet in Memphis are not quiet, “normal” people who have 9-5 desk jobs and then go home and watch CSI and therefore have nothing to tell you about except their latest purchases from Pottery Barn. Oh no, these people can and will tell you about the 1960s, their views on race relations, their crazy neighbor, and their award-winning sweet potatoes. They’ll tell you how to best cook a ham hock right there in the meat isle of the Piggy Wiggly even if you didn’t ask. And it’s awesome.

There are few big egos here. Your Congressman will recognize you, and you can thank him for creating the lottery scholarship that brought you to Memphis in the first place (thanks Cohen). You will know Ernest Withers, not just from the history or headlines, but as the man you used to talk to at the Walgreen’s photo counter when you were both waiting on photos. It is possible for a handful of people to really make a difference in people’s lives: whether it is immortalizing a young person in a huge mural, or creating hopping green spaces. You’ll see great musicians as you are both out walking your dogs.

It’s comfortable. Where else can you have a huge yard for your $450 rent and be 10 minutes away from the opera? I don’t spend a lot of time in my car commuting, and Memphis is an affordable place. This allows me to be able to focus on the big, important questions in life, such as who has the best BBQ. No one cares if you are tan or what you wear, or really, if you have money. In other places, when you meet people, they first ask you what you do. I find that in Memphis instead people first ask “how are you?” And then you can really tell them and they really listen. And then the great stories begin.

P.S. I don’t care how many publications call this city ugly or horrible. In fact, this will keep out the ordinary, the feeble, and the easily-swayed. If you are meant to be a Memphian, you will come, and you will know.

Thanks, Liz! I'm confident that more people will choose Memphis not only because of you, but also because of the amazing work that CODA does for this city. Keep the stories coming, readers!

Check out all of the "Why I Chose Memphis" stories!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why I Chose Memphis: Dr. J

This post is a (bit delayed) response to fellow-blogger JLotz's Quick Memphian Call to Arms, which she posted over on her (excellent) blog Waves and Wires. JLotz recently turned down a couple of lucrative and promising job offers in D.C. and Baltimore in order to take a position here in Memphis, and she decided to post her reasons for that decision for the benefit of those who might wonder why-oh-why anyone would ever voluntarily opt for such a miserable and ugly city as Memphis. Her account is titled "Why I Chose Memphis" and is a must-read (in my humble opinion) for anyone who might be weighing the pros and cons of our fair city. JLotz asked that others of us who have made the same choice post our reasons for doing so. (Legal Wunderkind Diana has already posted hers.) Last year, I listed on this blog the Top 10 Things I Love About Memphis, so I'll try not to just repeat what I said there. Instead, I'm going to follow JLotz's lead and describe why I "chose"-- and continue to choose-- Memphis.

Like JLotz, I would also like to hear from those of you who have chosen Memphis. I know not everyone keeps a blog, so in the interest of making public as many of these stories as possible, I invite you to write your own "Why I Chose Memphis" account and I'll post your account here on my blog. (If you do send me your story, please include a picture and short bio of yourself, too.) Memphis has been tied to the whipping-post a lot this year, mercilessly pilloried in the national media, so just consider this an effort at fair and balanced coverage.

Here's why I chose Memphis:

(1) It's smart. Full disclosure first: I'm actually from Memphis. I moved away for several years to complete graduate school (first at Villanova, then at Penn State), but I returned home to Memphis to take a postion at Rhodes College in 2007. As I was thinking about this list, it was actually hard for me to choose what reason to list first-- because "it's home" or because "it's smart"-- both of which were major factors in my decision to choose Memphis four years ago. It almost never happens in academia (as far as I can tell) that people get jobs in their hometown, and as someone who always loved her hometown, I was very excited to have the opportunity to return. But, the truth is, if this weren't also a city in which I felt like I could prosper and grow professionally, I wouldn't have taken the job. This is a particularly great city to be in as a philosopher. Both the University of Memphis and Christian Brothers University have a host of interesting faculty working in Philosophy, which was an important factor in my decision-making process. (It may or may not surprise you to learn that the discipline of Philosophy can often be lonely and isolating, so positioning oneself in a place that already has an active philosophical community is a rare and important professional boon.) What I didn't fully realize until I returned, however, was just how vibrant, interconnected, involved and distinguished the rest of the academic community is here in Memphis. Sure, Memphis is no Philadelphia or New York or Boston or Los Angeles, each of which have several prestigious institutions bunched up together in one place. But most places in the United States don't have the equivalent of what Memphis has with the UofM, CBU and Rhodes... in fact, most places in the United States, if they have an institution of higher learning at all, only have one. I'm surrounded by really smart people doing fascinating, important research. They're not hard to find, they're not hard to talk to, and they're not (on the whole) disconnected from this city that we share. That's exactly the kind of envrionment I need to be in.

(2) Okay, yeah, it's also home. It wouldn't be entirely accurate to say that I chose Memphis only because it was home, but that certainly played a large part in my decision. Still, it's important to remember, I think, that not everyone wants to go home again. So it says something about Memphis that it remained for me, for all those years I was away from it, a place that I missed. (In the interim years, I've lived in: Nashville, Boston, Philadelphia, State College, Syracuse, and Hartford. Just fyi.) Everything that I love about Memphis is still here, and will always be here as far as I can tell. The people, the food, the music, the culture, the easiness, the complexity, the attitude, the history, the innovation, the rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet eccentricity, the never-say-die perseverance, the smells, the myths and legends, the memory of promises and broken promises, the hope, the festivals, the dancing, the dive bars, the slow and even-slower changes-- all of it on the banks of that enduring, never-failing flow of the Big Muddy, over which Nature sets her sun every evening in spectacular beauty. In the song Proud Mary, the last verse says: "If you go down to the river, I bet you're gonna find some people who live. You don't have to worry 'cause you got no money. People on the river are happy to give." Memphis gives more than it takes, and that's the main reason I continue to choose it.

(3) It's got character. I find it hard to believe that anyone could make a "Why I Chose Memphis" list and not include this reason. Although Memphis has undergone a lot of the "revitalization" work that often erases a city's character-- I'm looking at you, NashVegas-- the revitalizers have managed to keep their corporate paws off all the weird and wonderful places that make Memphis weird and wonderful. Even with our shiny new ballpark and arena and Riverwalk and Greenline, everyone still knows that the best places to go in Memphis are a little run-down, a little sketchy, a little kitschy, a little loud and raucous, a little eccentric, and more than little bad for your health. Some of our city leaders have character, but most of them are characters. (Remember the "Hello, Dalai" Mayoral fist-bump?) I think if you live in a city like New York or Chicago or L.A., it's easy to be proud of your city, beause the things to be proud of are so obvious. When you live in a city like Memphis, you've got to work a little harder, and I love the fact that the people of Memphis are proud of their city for all the quirky, odd, non-obvious reasons that aren't immediately apparent to visitors. To say that a city has "character" is always a bit of a back-handed compliment, like when you tell your friend that the blind-date you've set her up with has a great "personality." What you mean, of course, is something like "Hey, he's not drop-dead gorgeous or wealthy or sexy. In fact, he's a little weird. But if you take the time to get to know him, you'll love him." Give me character over glitz and glam anyday.

(4) It's historic. Rock n' Roll was born here. The Civil Rights Movement was developed, then stalled, then emboldened again here. Countless planes and trains and trucks and riverboats have moved the the material that built our country through here. Barbeque was perfected here. Authors and artists have had their hearts broken, then healed, then rebroken here. Musicians have passed through here. Other musicians have gotten stuck here. Still other musicians have tried and tried, but never been able to get here. (There are more songs that include or are about "Memphis" than any other American city.) For all these reasons and more, there is a palpable sense in Memphis that this is place where important things have happened. We're like the Philadelphia or Boston of the South, full of landmarks of American political and cultural History. Heck, even when the city made a mistake and let one of its historic sites get torn down, it still had the presence of mind to rebuild it. The history preserved here isn't all pretty either, as evidenced by the names of some of our parks, but History-- taken in total-- isn't all pretty. I choose Memphis for just that historical complexity. I want to be a part of that history.

(5) It's got soul. They got it right when they named the Memphis-based Stax Recording Studios "Soulsville USA." This city and its people have soul in spades. You can hear it in the music here, and if I could choose any "music" city on the planet to live in, I would choose Memphis. (NOLA, you're a close second!) My absolute favorite sound in the world is not a baby's coo or a kitten's purr or even a whispered "I love you." My favorite sound in the world is that thumping, bass-heavy, grooving, muffled sound that you hear when you step out of your car in one of the parking garages behind Beale Street or the parking lot of Wild Bill's on a Saturday night. It's the sound of close-by live music, calling you in like a siren, promising equal parts pleasure and sin. You can't hear all the great details of Memphis music from outside-- the blazing horns, the warbling B3's, the crying guitars, the begging, pleading, denying-and-testifying blues singers-- but you can hear the soul of it, even from outside. The "natural" sound of some cities is found in police sirens and traffic. In others, it's the cicadas and breeze. In others, it's the waves of the ocean. But here, it's soul. There's soul in the music, soul in the cadence of the locals' speech, even soul in the thunderstorms. I can't define it, I'm not even sure I understand it, but I know it when I hear it. And I choose it.

For those and a million more reasons, I chose Memphis. I wouldn't choose differently if I had it to do all over again. If you've made the same choice, and I'll post it here.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Laugh, And The World Laughs With You

Everyone knows that there are millions of hilarious YouTube videos out there, probably as many as there are YouTube videos featuring cute kids doing cute things. I don't usually post either on this blog, because all the good ones "go viral" and get seen by everyone anyway. In fact, I've only used up my blog-space twice before to do so. (Once with the "Can I Have a Napkin, Please?" bit and the other time with, of course, Jessica's Manifesto.) But I'm going to do it again with the video below, because it is hands-down the funniest thing I have seen in a long, loooong time. It features 2 minutes of a girl messing about with her webcam's image-distortion function. What's so hilarious about that, you ask? Well, quite simply, the fact that SHE thinks it's hilarious. I've watched this a dozen times now and I am crying with laughter along with her by the end every time. Just proves the old adage, I guess: Laugh, and the world laughs with you.

By the way, if you're interested in seeing what she (really) looked like while she was doing this, here's a link to a split-screen video of her doing the same thing (with one side un-distorted).

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Democratic Political Playbook (Revised, 2010)

It shouldn't come as any surpise that the "Red Wave" did, as predicted, wash ashore in Washington, DC after polls closed on the 2010 midterm elections last Tuesday. Although Democrats managed to hang on to 51 Senate seats, they lost their "house" (a trauma all-too-familiar to many of their constituents). Republican, Tea Party and Independent Representatives now hold a 239-185 majority in the House of Representatives, a change that will almost certainly introduce a whole new variant of "gridlock" politics into our already severly dysfunctional civic family. Because we have plenty of people in this country (most employed by the Fourth Estate) eager to point fingers of blame and reference questionable social-science-y explanations and/or cry like beauty pageant winners, I'll leave all the hyperbole to those who are paid handsomely to perform it. I'm not happy with the results, but... well, that's democracy.

So, what do we do now? Here are a few of my humble suggestions to those who purport to represent me:

(1) Be Aggressive. B-E-Aggressive. B-E A-GG-R-E-SS-IVE.
Pace Jon Stewart, I'm not so sure that the "you go, then I go", let's-play-nice political strategy is working so well for us. Obama basically inherited an 8-yr-old pile of stinking, festering, rotten refuse when he took office and, bless his heart, he's done a lot to clean up the mess in the LESS THAN TWO YEARS that he's been in office. But I, like many, worry that he's spent to much time trying to reach across the aisle and make nice, and not enough time trying to actually make good on his promises from two years ago. (Why, oh why, Mr. President, is Guantanamo Bay STILL open?!) Compromise is preferable, of course, when it's possible. There's no shame in opting for the Good, the True and the Right when it's not, though. And speaing of Gitmo...

(2) Keep your promises.
I know the "big" promises are hard to make good on in such a short amount of time-- things like "changing the way government is done"-- but the people who I voted for two years ago have dropped the ball on too many of the do-able promises as well. Like closing Gitmo. And reversing DADT. Or providing a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. Or enacting Cap and Trade. And whatever happened to the annual "State of the World" Address that Obama promised to give?

(3) Show the depth of your love for poor and working people.
Cornel West had it right when he challenged Obama, shortly after the 2008 election, to stay true to the long and noble history of the Democratic Party's representation of the underrepresented. There are a lot of poor and working people in this country who hoped with their votes for a change they could believe in two years ago. Now, many of those poor and working people have changed into poor, unemployed and homeless people. One of the reasons that the Tea Party has resonated so strongly with Middle America is because they have stuck, relentlessly, to their "lower taxes" message. Given that the Tea Party's version of "caring" is captured in the questionably-compassionate slogan "don't tread on me," the Left ought to be embarrassed to lose that ground.

(4) Don't panic.
You win some, you lose some. A glimpse at American political history shows that when the sitting President's party also has control of the House and the Senate, a reversal is on its way. The midterm election signaled a significant shift in voters' sentiments, but the GOP resurgence didn't quite rise to the level of a public mandate. So, let's learn our lesson, make our halftime adjustments (suggested above), and come back to play the second half with fewer penalties and a better game strategy. There was enough panic and vitriol generated in the midterm campaign season, so (despite whatever other mild concerns I may have about it) it's now time to rally to restore sanity. We've only got a couple more years until the world comes to an end, after all.

At the risk of sounding too much like a stereotypical coach in one of those feel-good, come-from-behind sports movies: Let's focus on the fundamentals. Forget about winning or losing. Play "our" game. Come together as a team. Remember what got us here.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Exercise Your Franchise!

If you didn't "early vote" before, please take the time to go to your local polling place today and exercise your franchise. As Tom Stoppard once wrote: "It's not the voting that's democracy, it's the counting." But if you don't vote, you can't be counted.

Stop. Think. Vote.