Tuesday 21 June 2005

Why I Am Writing So Much Now

by Trowbridge H. Ford

My writing over the past two or three years has started to raise people's eyebrows, even those of friends. They all assumed that since I had voluntarily retired from my tenured teaching position in a well-endowed, American undergraduate college nearly 20 years ago, I had long given up on writing anything since I was no longer in the so-called "publish and perish" business - what academics in any kind of establishment worth its salt must engage in if they hope to continue advancement. My critics thought that I should simply be enjoying my retirement out on the links, courts and beaches - and I did for many years.

Friends and acquaintances wondered if I was in need of money, and writing to make up for financial shortfalls, especially given the collapse of the dollar, and the apparently impending meltdown of Social Security. Of course, almost everyone can use more cash, I certainly, but my recent writing has been no more financially rewarding than my previous publications while an academic. In fact, my work on the internet has been running a signifcant deficit since its inception.

The only reward for scholarly work in the political field, except for a few high flyers like Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, and Condi Rice who can get big advances for whatever catches the eye of the international political elite, is the fellowships and expenses one receives for researching and writing about some peripheral subject or issue. One is only paid for working outside the classroom. And there is no money in posting articles on the internet.

Critics wondered if I was experiencing some kind of mental difficulty, and doctors had over or under prescribed my medication. 'Martin Ingram' apparently aka Captain Simon Hayward, a former British covert operator, and co-author of Stakeknife - an apparent exposé of Britain's Shoot-to-Kill mission in Northern Ireland during the 1980s - has resorted to such prescriptions when I have pursued him about his role in these operations I have never taken any medication for alleged mental problems, much less even seen doctors about any such problems, though, of course, I may have been suffering from some for some time. Other critics have responded to my articles by claiming that I hate Americans and their government.

My renewed interest in writing was caused, however, by injesting unwanted and unknown material - ricin, it seems - after I was set up by Jim Marrs in his book Crossfire and Jim DiEugenio in a Chairman's Letter to an issue of Probe magazine for having allegedly tried to set up falsely former President Richard Nixon in the conspiracy which assassinated JFK - what former President Bill Clinton tried to rectify while I was living in retirement in Portugal through the activities of the American Ambassador there, Elizabeth Frawley Bagley, its resident CIA agent Michael Thomas, and the Portuguese intelligence service. While these efforts failed to kill me (see my two confession articles about being an American exile in the Trowbridge Archive.), I was slowly roused to make known my complaints in any way I could all over the political spectrum.

Most people also discount, if not disparage, the work and trouble aspiring teachers experience in getting started and progressing in their profession, largely because the low esteem teaching has. The conventional adage claims that if a person can't do anything worthwhile, he or she can always teach. The general public still believes that teachers can begin with the flimsiest credentials, perhaps a degree purchased from an ad in a newspaper or on the internet, and once hired, they can continue to get promotions and salary increases simply by renewing their contracts. The only career threats apparently are dying early or suffering incapacitating injury prematurely.

Of course, these are merely convenient myths, usually held by the general public to justify rejection of tax hikes to improve educational standards, and alumni of private schools to avoid
contributing to their fund-raising. Teachers in primary and secondary education usually have real educational requirements - both in terms of knowledge and skill - to gain a position, and then they are required to undergo periodic review about their performance and to obtain new training in order to progress. It is almost always quite stressful.

In higher education - teaching in colleges and universities - the distorted view of what it entails seems to have more validity - it's a cushy job which can be obtained easily, and one can do and say what one likes pretty much after that - but will not withstand any serious scrutiny. To even be considered for a position in these institutions, the candidate must not only have done well in getting degrees at respectable institutions but have recognized scholars willing to write letters of recommendation about his or her achievement, character, and potential. Then an applicant for a real position will generally have to visit the establishment in order to satisfy a cross-section of its community that he seems competent, and satisfy superiors in the department that he knows what he is talking about, and can handle himself in an academic environment.

Once hired, the junior faculty member must satisfy its administration, senior department members, and students. If he is too outspoken about his subjects or controversial about matters relating to the alumni and community relations, he can hardly expect to survive for long, much less survive the tenure process. Possible exceptions about airing minority opinions can only occur during times of widespread turmoil and controversy - like what happened in America during the Vietnam War - and when students are increasingly receptive to, if not accepting of, them. Washing the institution's dirty linen - especially its treatment of hired staff, and disruptive students - is even more dangerous activity. It can lead fellow teachers, especially in one's department, to conclude that the tenure candidate is a troublemarker - what they will prudently choose to call 'lacking collegiality'.

Then there are all the expected obligations the tenure-track candidate must satisfy - be a successful instructor, serve the institution in various administrative matters, and demonstrate increasing competence in his chosen fields of study - at least achieve a doctoral degree from a recognized institution, and hopefully have it published, preferably by some university press.
Service can concern all kinds of things - advising students, serving on committees dealing with things like cirriculum development, degree requirements, departmental hiring, student status, athletics, community affairs, etc. - straightforward matters under normal circumstances. As for teaching evaluation, it too can be fairly uncontroversial, as students should be allowed to judge how well an instructor articulates his knowledge of the subject, engages students constructively in the classroom process, reacts to differences of opinion and student challenges, and like.

This never meant, though, that the academy was ever some kind of irovy-tower where freedom of thought reigned - misconceptions which have been enhanced by current controversies in the mainstream media surrounding the so-called 'war on terror'. With Britain's Association of
University Teachers (AUT) instituting a boycott of Israeli universities because of the treatment of dissent at the universities of Bar-Ilan and Haifa, and professors at Yale, Columbia, Harvard, Colorado and other universities engaged in the process of helping terminate staff who are making waves, the public is inclined to think that academic freedom is under renewed assault.

It has always been this way when academics make unwelcome waves which threaten an institution's reputation, financial well-being, and internal stability, though the general public can
often be unsure about who are making the threats, why, and with what result because of the secrecy observed in handling such matters. Usually, the alleged offender simply disappears after the institution initiates an early retirement, or refuses to renew a contract.

The only possible strenghtening of academic freedom recently has been the boycott, called by the AUT, though one would not know it by reading mainstream media stories about the dispute. Haifa University has punished senior lecturer Ilan Pappe for encouraging a student, Teddy Katz, to study alleged massacres of Arabs in Tanturin during Israel's War of Independence, and Bar-Ilan has a close relationship with the College of Judia and Samaria in the Ariel settlement on the West Bank.

Of course, the mainstream media have compared it to the boycotting of Nazi universities during the rise of Hitler, and all kinds of elitist teaching groups, like the American Association of University Professors and the American Political Science Association, have chimed in. Individuals, like the NYT's Jon Weiner, have concurred, claiming that the boycott will only silence critics within the universities themselves. The move is a sensible one, though, putting Israeli universities on notice that they just cannot do what they want with minority voices and views - what the boycott may well encourage.

The only problem with the boycott is that it is hardly likely to have much impact of the ground, as it is hardly likely that the universities will be calling upon the services of any AUT member soon, though it does have 50,000 members. Then there is nothing to stop an AUT member from going there if he or she wants. There is no mechanism for punishing members who break the ban.

The attempt to get rid of Ward Churchill, the tenured professor at the University of Colorado who caused all kinds of controversy by comparing the victims of the 9/11attacks to little Adolf
Eichmanns - equating them rather crudely with chickens who had come home to roost because of the assaults on Iraq - is much harder to evaluate. Churchill has continued to make unpopular demands - like the Coalition withdrawing immediately from Afghanistan and Iraq - and has mixed up his career with demands of the American Indian Movement, claiming to be a Cherokee himself, but one cannot be sure if he is just speaking his mind, or trying to throw a damper on all governmental dissent while obtaining a nice nest egg for his retirement in the process.

The hoopla at Columbia over the conduct in the classroom by its Middlle Eastern and Asian Language and Cultural Dpartment, especially Joseph Massad, in considering how Palestinians were treated by the Israelis - one student Deana Shenker claiming in one of her statements that he had told her to drop the course if she did not believe that they had committed atrocities against them - reminds me of how I was treated when I sought to punish the son of one of its leading professors in my class for plagiarizing a paper when I was teaching there. She took her complaint to The David Project which highlighted them in a short documentary film, Columbia Unbecoming. My student took his complaint to the deans of the colleges involved, and to the head of the department in which the course was being taught, who was also the first reader of my proposed Ph.D. disssertation.

She was so successful that President Bollinger just "assumed" that her complaint was true, and took steps to stop student intimidation - making apparently no mention of protecting academic freedom in the process - what resulted in the tightening up of student grievance procedures, and the appointment of an Ad Hoc Grievance Committee to investigate the charges. Its report in March corroborated Shenker's complaint, though acknowledging that MEALAC teachers had been subjected to repeated harrassment by outside visitors, and auditors of classes, and called for the appointment of a Presidential Council on Student Affairs to establish a revamped set of procedures to deal with student grievances - what Bollinger has instituted.

My student too thought that he had done nothing wrong, and was so successful in getting the
University's elite to back up his false claim that it not only gave him an A+ grade for the paper I required him to redo while I went on leave for a year - resulting in a final grade of B for the course which would permit him to transfer from one college to the other - but also put my career in jeopardy by allowing the revenge-seeking departmental head to reject my dissertation when he got the chance. I only was able to frustrate his effort by having evidence of his antipathy to my work, and threatening to take the University to court if it continued with his vendetta. Of course, my employment had been terminated while this was happening - what Hassad undoubtedly is experiencing now.

Besides these unexpected controversies which unduly politicize the academic climate for individuals and institutions alike, there were always impediments upon what a teacher can say, and do on any campus. Individuals are hired to teach, and do research in specific fields. And to get started in this process, one has to continue to satisfy recognized scholars in those areas - what calls for being a team player rather than a maverick who strikes out on his own. If one does, one may well strike out permanently. Then, once gains tenure at an institution, one is still expected to stay within the fields one was orginally hired for.

While public disputes about wars, campus labor relations and the like, as we have already seen, can result in colleagues stepping on one another's toes, teaching requirements, except for most senior professors, result in an individual teacher widening his knowledge whether he likes it or not.
There are introductory and internediate courses in all fields which must be taught, and then a colleague teaching a special course way outside the area of others' expertise might get sick or die, requiring other department members to fill in the gap. After such a career, a teacher's areas of interest and competence might have changed radically, though there are all kinds of feathers to worry about ruffling if he seriously starts working in these related fields.

I certainly experienced this kind of transformation, and expected blowback during my academic career. While my fields for the doctorate were comparative government, and traditional political theory, I ended up being essentially interested in modern British political history, and Anglo-American covert government during the Cold War. The transformation could have only occurred because of changing positions often because of the Vietnam War - what obliged me to change the focus of my teaching, and leaving the place before professorial opposition became well organized. In a 30-year period, I imagine I taught 30 different courses in the areas of European government and foreign policy, American national and local government, and introductory ones to both political science and comparative politics.

The biggest trouble with this learning experience was that it was difficult to fully exploit in a professional way. I was pegged as the person who taught Western European politics, with a special interest in French politics of the Fourth and Fifth Republics. Actually, I was soon interested in the development of modern British politics and foreign policy. As far as I can
remember, I have never written a word about continental European politics, though I have taught more courses about it - the comparative politics of the major powers, the minor powers, Eastern Europe, Soviet politics, Soviet foreign policy, etc., than I could ever hope to recall. While writing extensively about British political development during the 19th and 20th centuries - extensions of my Ph.D. thesis - I became increasingly interested in the conduct of the Cold War, especially from the point of view of Washington and London.

The biggest impediment then was getting any standing with leaders in these fields who were interested in my research, and its publication. People outside higher education have no idea of how hard it is to get an audience for any really new research by any outsider to any established field. I vividly remember contacts with well-known professors like Bernard Crick, Ian Christie, Michael Thompson, Geoffrey Elton, Richard Neustadt, and Eric Hobsbawn. They considered my projects and queries those of a rank amateur who had never even studied the basics of the field at university.

I shall never forget when I finally arranged a meeting with Professor Neustadt, the head of the department when I was at Columbia, and then a leading light at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, about my research into the JFK assassination, especially how the President was apparently set up for assassination by the activities of former Vice President Richard M. Nixon, and Navy Secretary John B. Connally. Neustadt had been a leading academic adviser to JFK. When Neustadt learned of my reason for the appointment, he immediately clammed up, like acquaintance David Halberstam did when I asked him about similar concerns when he came to Holy Cross College to give a lecture.

While I finally was able to establish some kind of standing in British criminal law history circles, especially through my efforts at British Legal History Conferences, and those of Professor Albert Kiralfy's The Journal of Legal History, I was still amazed when I gave a paper at another legal history conference, only to witness the leading academic giving another paper refusing to appear, apparently because of my participation - what resulted in another conferee reading his paper in his stead. Then the discussion of the papers took place without even the slightest mention of what I had said. It was as if I wasn't even there.

Fortunately, the internet has rendered all this trial and tribulation unnecessary with instant circulation of one's ideas, and whatever their value, to far bigger audiences. Even if one is obliged to develop one's own web site for them to appear, at least it can be done. The transmission of new ideas can take place without one having to curry a favorable opinion of them by some powerful figure in a position to either stop them or to amend them in ways which suit his interests more than yours. I certainly shall continue to take advantage of its potential as long as I can be instructive.