Tuesday, December 21, 2004

a post about cookies

In case I haven't alienated the few readers I have with that last one, it's time now to blog about Christmas cookies. I baked two batches this evening, with limited assistance from Nick. The first, Chocolate Revel bars, came from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, of which I unaccountably have two copies. The others, Brown Sugar Cranberry cookies, came from the Domino dark brown sugar bag.

I am a sucker for recipes from magazines, labels, bags, etc. This despite the fact that I must have some three dozen perfectly lovely cookbooks--really really good ones, like Donna Hay ones, not just Better Homes and Gardens ones, as well as funky ones like The I Hate to Cook Book. All kinds of cookbooks. Yet I cook and bake from labels and magazines at least as often--maybe more so--as from the cookbooks. This can cause problems. Some time recently I made a fabulous (in my memory, anyway) pork roast stuffed with prunes. I believe the recipe came from a magazine. Can I find it? Alas, no. I was thinking about making it again for Christmas, but it is not to be found. Yet.

Anyway. The Chocolate Revel Bars (a rich oatmeal bar with a fudgy topping) are really really sweet. Diabetic coma sweet. And tasty. And the cranberry brown sugar ones are tasty and soft, at least so far. (I ate one that was still hot.)

Tomorrow, spice cookies. But first I need more butter.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Diversity in the Academy

The Economist jumps on the bandwagon:Economist.com | Lexington: "Academia is simultaneously both the part of America that is most obsessed with diversity, and the least diverse part of the country. On the one hand, colleges bend over backwards to hire minority professors and recruit minority students, aided by an ever-burgeoning bureaucracy of “diversity officers”. Yet, when it comes to politics, they are not just indifferent to diversity, but downright allergic to it."

Well, maybe. There have been several articles like this lately; the Republican professor lamenting in The Chronicle that he's in a minority on his campus, and a more reasoned piece by Mark Bauerlein before that, "Liberal Groupthink is Anti-Intellectual."

While I agree with Bauerlein that groupthink--of any stripe--is anti-intellectual, I think all of these pieces overstate the case. The piece in The Economist, for example, claims that in college one can only learn that "abortion is good" and "the rise of the West" was bad. Hardly--at least on any college campus I've ever been on. (This piece seems to be drawing its data from Tom Wolfe's novel "I am Charlotte Simmons," by the way--hardly the most reliable source.)

Of course the subtleties of academic argument are often reduced to "abortion=good; West=bad" by students and reporters alike. That's much easier than actually listening to the debate in a classroom and getting a sense of what's really going on. I used to sympathize when students told me about horrible things happening in their classes, until once something was reported back to me that I had personal experience of. The difference between what I knew to have happened, and the report--several times removed--from the student was like the difference between a Big Mac and a filet mignon. Both came from the same source, but there the resemblance ended. So that's one problem with these arguments. They're necessarily reductive and reported by biased and sometimes sloppy thinkers. Not always, though, so let's move on.

Another is the irony that the right seems to be using the term "diversity" pretty loosely here. How can those who have protested and legislated against various protections for diversity now complain that they are the diverse who are being discriminated against? There seems to be a logical inconsistency here.

And, remember, colleges and universities are institutions of liberal learning. We study the liberal arts, we promote the values of a liberal education. It is hardly surprising, then, that we in the academy are predominantly liberals. We aren't surprised when social workers are predominantly liberal, or stockbrokers are predominantly conservative--we recognize that these professions, by and large, attract a certain temperament and with that a certain political persuasion. Why should the academy be any different?

Of course we don't want to intimidate or harass, but I've got to say I haven't seen that, and the anecdotes I hear have so far failed to convince me. It's easy for an 18-year-old to say "I was afraid to speak up" when a professor's question raises hard questions; it's harder to engage in the debate. And yet I think most genuine intellectuals (and, yes, I know not all faculty members can be--or would even want to be--numbered among that group!) welcome honest debate in their classes. A faculty member is likely to "win" such a debate by virtue of greater education, greater experience, etc., but it's certainly possible to set up a debate between students and allow it to run its course. Not only possible, but I think more frequent than these commentators suggest. And it's long been true that the College Republicans is one of the largest student groups on almost any American campus, including bastions of the left like Berkeley, and they certainly don't lack the requisite faculty sponsorship. (The College Republican National Committee claims it is "the oldest and largest grassroots political organization on America’s college campuses," with over 120,000 members. The College Democrats, by contrast, claim only "more than 50,000 members by the 1992 election.")

Among faculty members the issues are different. While we may be less likely to feel intimidated than our students, so debate theoretically could take place, there are (as I've indicated above) real reasons why liberals outnumber conservatives in the academy, and I would expect that to continue. If that makes conservative professors feel uncomfortable, that's pretty much their problem. Education happens when people are jolted out of their comfort zones, doesn't it?

I do agree with Bauerlein (who, by the way, preceded me in grad school by a few years, so I can put a face to the name) that "we can't open the university to conservative ideas and persons by outside command. That would poison the atmosphere and jeopardize the ideals of free inquiry." Exactly.

He goes on to claim that "Leftist bias evolved within the protocols of academic practice (though not without intimidation), and conservative challenges should evolve in the same way. There are no administrative or professional reasons to bring conservatism into academe, to be sure, but there are good intellectual and social reasons for doing so.

Those reasons are, in brief: One, a wider spectrum of opinion accords with the claims of diversity. Two, facing real antagonists strengthens one's own position. Three, to earn a public role in American society, professors must engage the full range of public opinion."

Again, I haven't seen the intimidation that he mentions, but let's grant it. Certainly there's been intimidation, throughout history, on the other side, so I wouldn't be terribly surprised. When I started graduate school teaching at UCLA I had to sign a loyalty oath--is that intimidation? On what side? Was I being indoctrinated into a certain political mindset? Not hardly. But anyway, even granting the intimidation, I can agree that "a wider spectrum of opinion accords with the claims of diversity"--though, again, I must note the irony of the call for diversity issued from the right. And I might remind Mr. Bauerlein and his colleagues that there is hardly a wide spectrum of opinion in the mainstream media, so perhaps our narrow band within the academy can be seen as one of many narrow bands, all of which together build the wide spectrum he desires. I'd rather see a wide spectrum in the mainstream media, but the fragmentation of American culture has been going on for some time, and it's not going to change first in the academy, I believe.

So we need to engage other opinions, but they need not come from within the academy. After all, if academics only talk to themselves, we all lose. This goes to his second point as well: we do engage real antagonists, even if they aren't on the same campus with us. The right in this country is hardly voiceless, and liberals on campus engage it routinely. Really, his third point is the same as his second: engaging the full range of public opinion doesn't mean representing it, or embodying it, and we can engage it wherever we find it, even if that's not in the academy.

Yes, I am one of those liberal professors. I can admit to it and even be proud of it. But I utterly reject the notion that I am squelching debate, and I'm certainly not apologizing for my position. Liberals have been marginalized in American public discourse for so long that we have become defensive, I'm afraid, and thus open to these attacks. We need not be.

Christmas, I mean Holiday Parties

Well, the pioneer party went fine. There were Christmas carols playing in the background but otherwise no mention of the holiday we were/weren't celebrating at all. The kids pulled taffy, ate cookies and beef jerky (mmm, authentic!), drank cider, and made little "jumping jack" toys out of cardboard and popsicle sticks. Pulling taffy took the longest, and most of the kids didn't like it--the flavor of the molasses was too pronounced. But they enjoyed getting their hands all sticky anyway.

I don't mind that they don't call it a Christmas party. Some people don't celebrate Christmas and it's not right to make them feel left out. But it's odd, when some public schools have Christmas trees (my daughter's, for example) and others (my son's) don't, when Christmas carols are OK some places and not others. Mariah's holiday concert was all Christmas music, and most of it sacred--pieces from "The Messiah," a gospel piece called "Jesus, What a Wonderful Child," "Lo How a Rose," etc. The only non-Christmas piece was "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," and the only secular Christmas piece was "The Carol of the Bells." I never heard that anyone complained, but you'd never get away with that at Nick's school.

We put our tree up yesterday. I even put lights outside the house--first time ever! The kids were stunned. I tend to be an anti-display type, but we had these lights (we intend, eventually, to put them up around the back porch for late summer evenings...) and they look really cool. So I put them up around the banister in front. The tree smells nice and we may even get it decorated one of these days--after Mark gets his grading done. (I turned my grades in Thursday but I'm trying not to gloat.)

Thursday, December 16, 2004


The cards are now beyond counting. (OK, maybe ten or a dozen--we're not THAT popular.) It's time to do something with them. Open them, read them, staple them to ribbons and decorate the fireplace? Something like that. So far I have opened and read them. It's a start.

I have, however, turned in my grades. So now the festivities can begin. I also found Christmas cards in my drawer where I keep ornaments and the like. They must have been on sale last year. So perhaps I will send some. Not until after New Year's, however. So if you're hoping for one from me, just sit tight.

I baked cookies with Nick's class today for their "pioneer party" tomorrow. I find this odd. It is, of course, a Christmas party, but they can't or won't call it that. Public school and all that. I'm fine with that, but the charade is weird. It's a pioneer party because they're studying the pioneers right now. So we baked--pioneer cookies? Not so much. We creamed butter and sugar together with an electric mixer, for starters. (Though the butter was soft enough that we maybe could have been more pioneer-ish about it.) The dough for the first batch came out sort of sandy--I had scanted the butter and carefully added only the yolk of an egg, as the recipe said, and we got sand. So I had the kids squeeze it in their hands into little balls and put the balls on the cookie sheet. They looked lame, but the kids got a kick out of getting all messy.

The second batch came out better. I had enough butter for that one, and we added the whole egg, so the whole thing was moister. The cookies came out perfectly round and browned around the edges.

Still, the kids who made the first batch seemed perfectly satisfied with their misfit cookies.

We get to eat them tomorrow at the "pioneer party." Will we be wearing gingham? Not me.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

The Writer's Almanac - DECEMBER 6 - 12, 2004

Grace Paley said it (about baking, not knitting) better than I could. Read the whole poem here: (scroll down to December 11)

The Writer's Almanac - DECEMBER 6 - 12, 2004
: "The Poet's Occasional Alternative"

I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead it took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
draft a poem would have had some
distance to go days and weeks and
much crumpled paper

Thursday, December 09, 2004

it begins...

We've gotten three Christmas cards already. Four, if you count the one from a former student that came to me in the office today, but that one's not freaking me out so much. That one was newsy and fun. The others sit on my dining room table rebuking me for not writing a Christmas letter yet, not even thinking about holiday cards (maybe I have some left over from previous years in a drawer in the bottom of the chest in the living room?), not buying a tree, not having Christmas presents already bought and wrapped...

It's Advent. It's a season of waiting, of anticipation, of preparation. For me that preparation involves grading and planning next semester and taking a few days to bake cookies, in addition to (sometimes instead of?) some quiet meditation, some time spent contemplating the darkness of the season. It's too soon for lights. It's too soon for cards. My letter usually goes out in January, before Epiphany, still during the twelve days...

I haven't opened the cards on the dining table yet. They can wait another few days.

Monday, December 06, 2004


I was just checking out how people get to this site, and a couple have come from Yarn Harlot. Maybe if you're one of them you're surprised to find yourself here, since I don't have anything (much) to say about knitting. But I link to her site because it's so well-written, and because I laugh when I read it, and because I knit her poncho (though I didn't fringe it, because I used this really fuzzy yarn, and fringe seemed like overkill).

So, anyway, I thought I would write briefly about knitting. I am currently engaged in three projects: socks and two scarves. Yes, this is the level of my knitting expertise. In a past life (before I had children) I made a few things that actually required some shaping. They were intended to be sweaters for actual human beings, though all three of them came out shorter and wider than the actual human beings for whom they were intended. One of those human beings was me, and I still have my sweater in a closet. One was my mother, and hers came closest to fitting, and she wore it for a while. Maybe she even still does! The other was my (now) husband, who was then a boyfriend. He gallantly wore his blue cotton orangutan-sweater a few times and only recently asked if my feelings would be hurt if he got rid of it. What a sport!

But the lesson I took from this was to go back to knitting things in which the size didn't matter. So: ponchos, scarves, and the like. The socks are a stretch, really. (See below.) But I'm soldiering on, hoping that the one I finish next will be roughly the same size and shape as the one I already finished.

My point? I like the feel of knitting, of making something, of paying attention to directions and having them (mostly) turn out right. Much of what I do in my everyday life doesn't work that way--there are no directions, or the directions are inadequate or misleading, and my labor is either not recognized or has an effect that can't be measured or could always have been more. So I accept my imperfections in knitting because at least I have a product (I think it's like cooking for me in this way--near-instant gratification, a product that others appreciate, and a limited exercise of creativity).

One day I may learn to do cables. And maybe I'll even try to shape something again one of these days. But in the meantime I'm pretty satisfied with what I'm doing. But read Yarn Harlot if you actually want to find out something about knitting!

Sunday, December 05, 2004


Two weekends, two movies. This never happens! Last Sunday it was Finding Neverland, with Mariah, her friend and her friends' mom, who is also my friend. Mariah's friend liked it for Johnny Depp, and--while I'm not above that--I also liked it for the way it worked. I liked the mixture of realism and fantasy, the way the film moved from seemingly realistic depictions of a world outside JM Barrie's head, right into his imagination. I like films that actually use the way film can, say, depict one's imaginings as real--why not, after all? You can't do it in a novel--bring something to life like that--so why not use the ability when you have it? I also thought the film really got something fundamental about Peter Pan, which is how death-haunted it is. It is a creepy, sad little book, and it's somewhat astonishing to me that the character has become synonymous--at least for some people--with a kind of happy childhood. The way both Peter Pan and Alice (from Alice in Wonderland) have been detached from their contexts and turned into icons of childhood innocence reflects both a fundamental misreading and, I think, a sort of wish-fulfilment. We want childhood to be about happy innocence, these are stories about childhood, ergo they are icons of happy childhood innocence. Well, they may be about childhood innocence ( in fact, I think they are), but it's pretty destructive and aggressive. Which is an interesting take on things, and surprisingly honest from writers who a) didn't have children of their own and b) lived in a time when (so we now say) children were idealized. Not as much as now, I think.

Then today I got a call from another friend who wanted to see Sideways this afternoon with me. I had planned to spend the afternoon grading--and there's certainly plenty to do--but this seemed far more important. It's a pretty depressing film, one in which it's hard to find anyone to like, but well worth seeing. The scenery is fun--both my friend and I are familiar with the area, up around Solvang--and the characters are well acted. It's not that one would really want to spend time with any of them (maybe the women, who seemed far more appealing than the men), but they were interesting to watch. And the whole thinking/feeling dichotomy gets a new twist here, in some ways. The main characters, an actor and a writer, epitomize the split, but the film resists any easy choices: you can't really say one is better than the other.

There's still grading to do, however.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

TCS: Tech Central Station - Faculty Clubs and Church Pews

TCS: Tech Central Station - Faculty Clubs and Church Pews: " Most of my Christian friends have no clue what goes on in faculty clubs. And my colleagues in faculty offices cannot imagine what happens in those evangelical churches on Sunday morning.

In both cases, the truth is surprisingly attractive. And surprisingly similar: Churches and universities are the two twenty-first century American enterprises that care most about ideas, about language, and about understanding the world we live in, with all its beauty and ugliness. Nearly all older universities were founded as schools of theology: a telling fact. Another one is this: A large part of what goes on in those church buildings that dot the countryside is education -- people reading hard texts, and trying to sort out what they mean."

OK, there are important differences, too, and as a non-evangelical Christian I can't help but think the kind of education going on in those church buildings is pretty important...and sometimes, to me, threatening. But this is still a pretty interesting article.

Advent Calendar

This is a nice link if you observe Advent:Advent Calendar