The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."... ...Reinhold Niebuhr.

Commentary of the Day - October 14, 2001:  My Modest Experiment and My Dean - Guest Commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

(Ed. note: The following article was scheduled for publication before the events of Sept. 11, 2001.  Apologies to Sanford for the delay.)

Careful readers of The Irascible Professor will remember that I recently  signed up for my college's phased retirement plan.  A few weeks ago my colleagues in the English department  settled  down for  the first meeting of the new semester.  Many more will follow, but I won't attend any of them. Nor will I be showing up for faculty meetings or filling my usual seat when the folks on the Judaic Studies and Africana Studies committee hash out issues over lunch.  I now live an officially meetingless life which, along with my reduced salary, comes with the territory.

I should be happy about this--and, in truth, I am--but I still remain something of a scamp, albeit an aging one. That's where my dean comes in.  I plan to tell him that I've just launched an experiment he might well find interesting.  Granted, it is not the sort of experiment that my friends in the chemistry whip up at their lab.  Nor is it the stuff that psychologists do when they get their rats to run through a maze.  No, mine involves a human subject--namely, me.

What I've decided to do--and moreover, to do it as a point of professional honor--is to make sure that I'm sitting in front of my computer, pecking away at something, during the same period that I would  normally have been at a meeting.  And I mean precisely the same 4:30-6 PM slots our faculty favors or the 3-4:30 PM times when departmental business is conducted.  It's no good, I'm told, to change the variables in an experiment and put in a hour or two of extra writing any damned time I please.  No, this "writing" is designed to be radically different from whatever other pecking around I might otherwise do. It will happen during the moments that, for some thirty-five years of teaching, were interrupted by the call  of what our college called "governance."  Since a large share of this governance often turned out to be about how to evaluate productivity in teaching and scholarship, I thought my experiment might shed some new light on a matter hotly debated, and largely unresolved, during the years I was obliged to attend such meetings.

My experiment is not very complicated, much less is it on postmodernism's cutting edge; but if simplicity is the essence of genius, my experiment has that hands-down.  You see, I'll spend what my newfound "experimental time" writing anything I damn please: a poem, an op-ed piece, a  slab of memoir, all the way up to longer articles or even a book.  Who knows?  I plan to go wherever  the Muse pulls me and  to enjoy the ride.

For example, during my department's first, two-hour organizational meeting (held on Labor Day afternoon, no less), I penned the following thoughts about the upcoming trial of Rabbi Fred Neulander, a man accused of arranging his wife's death.  When the actual trial begins, I suspect it will generate a media circus, and that's what I wanted to comment in the following op-ed piece:

          Dreaming About Rabbi Fred Neulander's "Dream Team"

As I key in this paragraph, jury selection is beginning for the October trial in which Rabbi Fred Neulander will face charges that he arranged his wife's murder.  If convicted, he will be the first clergyman in New Jersey to receive the death penalty. It should come as no surprise that the impending trial has received enormous media attention--but this, as they say, is only the tip of the iceberg.  By the time nobody remembers Chandra Levy or any longer cares about Gary Condit, it will be "all Neulander all the time" for the likes of Chris Matthews, Geraldo Rivera, and all their talking-head cousins.  After all, here is a case where a husband allegedly had his wife pummeled to death so that he might continue an affair with Elaine Soncini, a Philadelphia  "radio personality."  What makes the Neulander trial different, indeed, what makes it ripe for a media blitz, is that Neulander, a conservative rabbi,  once  headed up the largest, most prosperous congregation in South Jersey.

As it so happens, I spend summers on the Jersey shore, along with many folks who belonged to Neulander's Cherry Hill  congregation.  The shock  they felt when news of adultery leaked out (his mistress was a member of the congregation who had come to the rabbi for counseling after her husband's death) was bad enough, but when his wife Carol was murdered on November 1, l994 they had no choice but to give him the boot.  Now they must deal with the fact that their beloved, former rabbi may have engineered his wife's death, and that his trial will be televised on "Court TV" and then analyzed to death by the network newscasts and cable talk shows.  All of this will no doubt be painful to those who knew the  Neulanders under happier circumstances.

So, why am I trying to wrinkle  a lighter note into what is clearly a horribly tragic situation?  The answer is as simple as it is simultaneously complicated: satire is a only way I know to give high-profile lawyers and media  hounds the pasting they deserve.  I gladly leave rabbi-bashing to somebody else, but I would like to offer up a few words about the "dream team" Neulander  is probably assembling at this very moment. In my dreams about his "dream team," I round up the following suspects: Johnny Cochran, Alan Dershowitz, and F.Lee Bailey. And as I see it in mind's eye, there will come at moment during the trial when Cochran, true to form, will announce that "if the yarmulke don't fit, you must acquit."  Later, he will wax even more dramatic when he points out that "if the teffilin be tight, you must do right!"  What these aphorisms mean is anybody's guess, but they worked nicely in the O.J. case.

As for Dershowitz, it will not take him long to sniff out all sort of anti-Semitism at play.  After all, prospective jurors were asked hundreds of questions, many of which dealt with whether or not they had "ever been treated unfairly by a Jew."

Finally, F. Lee Bailey will no doubt argue that the two thugs who actually did the murder-for-hire--Leonard Jenoff and Paul Michael Daniels--were unsavory, and certainly unreliable witnesses against Rabbi Neulander.  They have confessed, and told investigators that Rabbi Neulander gave them $30,000 to arrange the hit. But, as Bailey will make clear, their testimony cannot be used to convict Rabbi Neulander.  On the other hand, one might reasonably ask if somebody looking to off his wife would look for "savory" characters to do this sort of work.

The Rabbi Neulander case is just now heating up as the story spreads westward.  Small wonder that I found myself dreaming about the dream team and what they'll do to make sure that the guilty walk free.

I can report that the piece was "conditionally accepted"--that is, if I  wait until the jury delivers a  verdict before I pass along what the editors regarded as too many judgments of my own.

A few days later, a faculty meeting, also organizational and also grinding on for an hour and a half, gave me the chance to write the baseball poem that had been banging around the back of my head all season. It came out
like this:

Box Score Blues

        It's not just that my favorite infielder

        went 0 for 5 or that I am forced to see

        certain errors in the cold print of black-and-white,

        It's the night sweats of imagining my life

        neatly arranged in columns so objective,

        so brutally true that there is no defense.

        Who could stand seeing the small naked truths

        of each day? Strikeouts recorded

        for the registry. Errors lined up like Indians.

        It's enough to give the blues the blues.

        That's why these lines about baseball's green diagonal

        haunt my straight ahead, presumably normal, life.

        Part of me yearns for the precision of knowing

        how I've done at the end of the day. But

        another part is afraid to see what I'll see,

        without a chance to tell my side of the story.

        I guess what I want are extra innings but that

        is not  in the scorecard or on my field of dreams.

I haven't sent this one out as yet because I may want to fuss with a line or two, but that's not the point. I'm pleased with what I got down on paper while the faculty geared up for yet another round of discussions about whether or not to we need, really need, a merit system.

By now you have a pretty good idea about how my modest experiment will work.  At the end of the semester, I'll dutifully  tally up what I've produced--the pieces that managed to find their  way into print, along with those  that may have tickled my heart or funny bone but that, alas,  fell on unaccepting eyes.  I plan to share this information with my dean, and possibly with other folks as well. Why so? Because I figure that what I stumbled into will confirm what many others already suspect--namely, that if faculty members had more time to actually do things, more would get done.

I can imagine the painful look my dean will  give me.   His job, after all, depends on chairing meetings--and that's what my experiment is out to scuttle.  He may have even think (heaven forbid!)  that I was out to get..., well, him.  I'm not, but I'm also  convinced that nobody, including the dean, would be unhappy if the college had fewer meetings.  And if the result turned out to be  more "productivity" all around, so much the better--even for folks (I count myself among them)  who think that the word should always be surrounded by sneer quotes and given the fish eye it richly deserves.

For me, it's more important that I managed to finish what I wanted to say on this subject in the two hours  that my department spent, a week after organizing itself, to talk about (what else?) evaluating our curriculum.  Next week, I'm told, I will  have at least two or three more chances to move my little experiment along.  I can't wait.

©2001 Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin & Marshall College.

The Irascible Professor comments:  Meetings are the bane of a faculty member's life.  We forever complain about having to attend them.  However, we shudder to imagine what the academy would be like without some form of restraint on the administrata.  And, given the wall-to-wall coverage of war, anthrax, and terrorism that has dominated the media for the last few weeks, a good old-fashioned scandal might be a welcome relief.

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