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Category: academia

UVA issues Virginia Quarterly Review audit: No bullying on record


The University of Virginia issued its audit of the Virginia Quarterly Review on Wednesday. The audit, which focused on finances and management issues at the award-winning magazine, was spurred by the suicide of Managing Editor Kevin Morrissey on July 30.

In a key finding, the audit found "no specific allegations of bullying or harassment prior to July 30th."

This statement seems designed to put to rest charges of workplace bullying that had been leveled at Editor Ted Genoways after Morrissey's death, made primarily by Morrissey's estranged sister.

Yet the report doesn't let Genoways off the hook, recommending "appropriate corrective action" be taken for his management style. 

Staffers had previously gone to the university with other, less significant complaints about how the magazine was managed. The audit stated that although officials were aware of their issues, "none ever seemed to rise to the level of a serious, on-going concern."

More fully, the audit stated:

Earlier notifications this year consisted mostly of concerns about organizational structure and untimely management communication styles; more recent concerns encompassed a failure by the Editor to follow institutional procedures in a variety of areas. There were reports through the years of the Editor not being courteous or respectful with some contributors and colleagues, as well as problems with certain employees, but none ever seemed to rise to the level of a serious, on-going concern. The reports were mostly viewed by others as conflicts between a creative, innovative manager and persons who did not share the Editor’s aspirations.

Some media reports after Morrissey's death relied on the narratives of his co-workers to try to understand why he killed himself, looking to the culture inside the magazine. The audit, citing personnel concerns, was thin on details but implied that doing so may have led to distortions.

The report continued:

The Audit Department found that some individuals made incorrect assumptions, regarding other institutional personnel, without necessarily being based on or aware of all the facts. Recollections were not entirely accurate when compared to written records, and presumptions regarding the projected behavior and responsibilities of certain individuals were not on target.

The audit provided no specific details of inaccurate recollections or assumptions about behavior. 

In its financial audit, the report found that a $2,000 charge was "a possible unapproved subvention" worthy of further inquiry -- the charge was for printing costs for "the Editor's poetry," meaning Genoways'. That doesn't look good, but is a fairly small amount in an audit that covered three years and a budget large enough to include $475,000 in withdrawals from an independent investment fund. That fund, which was established by earlier management of the magazine, will soon be brought under increased university control.

The audit (available as a PDF here) included several recommendations and italicized sections labeled "management response" about plans going forward. The first step will be moving VQR from the office of the university president, where it had been since its founding in 1925, to the office of the vice president for research -- a move that had been underway when Morrissey's suicide put many of the magazine's plans on hold. The magazine's position in the president's office meant that VQR was able to operate fairly independently and with minimal supervision.

Increased supervision and oversight is recommended, with specific recommendations about management and operations, including following institutional policies with computers, staffing and delegation of responsibilities. There will also be changes in VQR's advisory board.

The audit further recommended better clarification within the university for expressing personnel concerns; complaints taken to the ombudsman, for example, are confidential and action cannot be taken on them.

A management response explained that the new board and the magazine's editor will be tasked with drawing up a mission plan and business statement, due no later than Oct. 1, 2011.

But that's a long way off -- what will the magazine do in the meantime? Although it is not explicitly stated in the audit, Assistant Vice President for Public Affairs Carolyn Wood confirmed in an e-mail that "VQR will continue to publish."

Wood also made clear that there have not been any staff changes -- yet. "All members of VQR staff may remain in their current positions, although, as was outlined in the report, there will be a different management structure put in place," she wrotes. "Staff members, who just learned about the recommendations of the report today, have been given the time they need to decide if they wish to remain with VQR or pursue other options." How this matches with the report's second recommendation -- "Appropriate corrective action should be taken with regards to the Editor" -- remains to be seen.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: The University of Virginia. Credit: neotint via Flickr

The enduring charm of Buzz (Aldrin, not Lightyear) as author and astronaut


People these days may recognize Buzz Aldrin as a rapper with Snoop Dogg or a dancer on “Dancing With the Stars,” but first and foremost he is the astronaut who in 1969 was the second man, after Neil Armstrong, to set foot on the moon — and that's exactly how the Sunday crowd at the Festival of Books acknowledged him.

Aldrin was interviewed by L.A. Times writer Patt Morrison about his new book, “Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home.” Morrison started the discussion by telling the crowd there was now only 1 degree of separation between them and the man whose footprint will remain on the moon for millennia.

Morrison kept the mood light during the conversation. Her opening question: Is "Toy Story's" Buzz Lightyear named after him?  “Shall we check with Disney’s lawyers?” Aldrin shot back.

Continue reading »

Jonathan Lethem to join Pomona College faculty

Jonathan LethemPomona College


Novelist Jonathan Lethem will be leaving his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., for sunny Southern California, Pomona College announced Friday.

But first, he'll have one last eastern fall to enjoy. After a vote of the trustees, he is expected to take his place as the Roy Edward Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College in spring 2011. 

While Lethem is known for his books set in New York -- including "Motherless Brooklyn," "Fortress of Solitude" and 2009's "Chronic City" -- he lived for some time in Berkeley and set his 2007 book "You Don't Love Me Yet" in Los Angeles. Perhaps Southern California will appear in his future work.

From 2002 to 2008, the Roy Edward Disney Professorship in Creative Writing was held by David Foster Wallace. 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Jonathan Lethem at home in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2007. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times

Harryette Mullen wins $50,000 poetry prize

Harryette Mullenpoetry prize

Poet Harryette Mullen, a professor at  UCLA, has won the Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets and Writers Magazine. Now in its fourth year, the substantive prize carries with it an award of $50,000.

In their announcement of the award, the judges wrote that Mullen's work is "brilliant and enigmatic, familiar and subversive. Like jewels, her poems are multifaceted and shoot off lights. Mullen uses the techniques of sound association, innuendo, and signifying, and this way makes the reader alert to the cunning of the English language."

Considered an innovative, experimental poet, it came as a surprise in 2002 when her poetry collection "Sleeping with the Dictionary" was a finalist for the National Book Award. "Harryette is bringing a new kind of voice," poet Toi Derricott told The Times that year. "Sleeping with the Dictionary" was also nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award.

In a 2002 L.A. Times profile of the poet, Renee Tawa wrote:

"Sleeping With the Dictionary" (UC Press), was inspired by the influences that pinball through her consciousness, from the 20-year-old shoe-store jingle to the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles to an African American courtship ritual exchange. Her poems fool with anagrams -- words made by rearranging letters such as "tan" and "ant" -- and echoing, or riffs on words that sound alike: "Ocean Potion odd jobs Oingo Boingo okey-dokey old gold/googa-booga/Only the Lonely oodles of noodles ... " she writes in "Jinglejangle."...

Growing up in Fort Worth, Mullen discovered wordplay on the playground, where second-grade boys and girls recited flirtatious exchanges: "What's cookin' good looking?" "Ain't nothin' cookin' but the beans in the pot, and they wouldn't be if the water wasn't hot." She was raised by a single mother, who was a schoolteacher, and other relatives including her grandfather, a Baptist minister.

"I remember the bookcase with the glass front, my grandfather's books. I remember sitting on his knee, and he's reading to me from Mother Goose, and I can still picture the cow jumping over the moon, and the crooked man with the crooked stick.... All of that is still there," she said, tapping her forehead.

Previous winners of the Jackson Poetry Prize are Tony Hoagland, Linda Gregg and Elizabeth Alexander, the poet who read at President Obama's inauguration.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Harryette Mullen in Venice, Calif. Credit: Hank Lazer.

Social historian Howard Zinn has died

A People's History of the United StatesHoward ZinnVoices of a People's History of the United States


Howard Zinn, the author of "A People's History of the United States" and several other books, has died. The Boston Herald reports he suffered a heart attack today in Santa Monica. Zinn was 87.

Zinn, a longtime professor at Boston University, was known for his left-wing politics. Born in New York, Zinn served in the Army Air Forces during World War II, where he became a second lieutenant. He attended New York University on the GI bill after the war, enrolling as a 27-year-old freshman; he did his postgraduate work at Columbia. As a young professor, he became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War.

He published books on the Vietnam War, as well as other books on history and American society. But it was his 1980 book "A People's History of the United States" and its follow-up, "Voices of a People's History of the United States," that made him required reading. Literally -- "A People's History of the United States" presented American history from alternative perspectives, including native peoples, slaves, disenfranchised workers, farmers and women.

Zinn's works remain in print; a new edition of "Voices of a People's History of the United States" came out in November, and a revised edition of "A People's History of the United States" is set to be published in July.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Howard Zinn with actor Viggo Mortensen during a staged reading of "A People's History of the United States" in 2005. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

From our pages: Louis Menand's ideas


In our pages this week, Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University and the author of "The Ironist's Cage," reviews the new book by Louis Menand, "The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University." Menand, who in addition to writing for the New Yorker is a professor of English at Harvard, has a front seat from which to observe the reform in academia -- or is that resistance?

He begins his new book with this challenge: How do you create a general education program required by all undergraduates? Rather than argue for any particular set of classes or distribution requirements, Menand describes the evolution in this country of a model in which the college years have been kept separate from anything that resembles vocational or professional training. Defenders of either the "books everyone should have read" POV or of the "skills everyone should have acquired" have usually been stymied by "a superstition: that the practical is the enemy of the true." Menand's message here: It doesn't have to be this way....

This slim volume of loosely linked essays doesn't offer any solutions to the resistance to innovation at America's best universities, but it does show how we have created professional academic conformity.

Read the complete review here.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Michael Fein / Bloomberg

When scholarship meets Wikipedia

BeiderbeckeBix BeiderbeckeWikipedia


Maybe you have to be something of a fan of early jazz to know coronetist Bix Beiderbecke -- he's in the picture above, horn pointed at the camera. Beiderbecke was an influential performer in the late 1920s, but he died young -- in 1931, just 28 years old -- and he hasn't made it as far into the popular consciousness as, say, Dizzie Gillespie or Louis Armstrong. 

One who does know Beiderbecke is Brendan Wolfe. Wolfe not only named his litblog for the musician; he's at work on a book about him for Speck Press, which recently published Ted Goia's "The Birth (and Death) of the Cool." Wolfe, a longtime writer and editor, currently works as an encyclopedia editor.

So one day this summer, he decided he would update Beiderbecke's Wikipedia entry. "The entry I found was terrible," he writes. "Part of why I did this is because I love Wikipedia. I think it's a great resource, and I say that even though the online encyclopedia that employs me follows a different model."

All went well, as Wolfe poured his knowledge, scholarship and research into a new entry. As it stands now (after Wolfe's work, and possibly inclusive of others) Beiderbecke's Wikipedia entry lists more than 30 sources and includes 111 footnotes. This is a fairly high degree of research for the online encyclopedia; by contrast, Chick Webb, another major 1920s performer who died in the 1930s, has an entry with just 10 sources and no footnotes at all.

But there was a hitch. While Wolfe was working with others behind the scenes at Wikipedia, they suggested he submit it for "good article" status. He waited, very anxiously at first, to hear from a volunteer Wikipedia editor; months later, he did. And he was dismayed by what he heard. This was one note, which begins with the editor quoting Wolfe's writing:

"the second number was marred by alcohol consumed by the musicians, who included Tommy Dorsey on trombone and Beiderbecke's best friend, Don Murray, on clarinet". Does this implies that Tommy Dorsey and Don Murray contributed to the alcoholic mistaken in the 2d number? Tommy Dorsey and Don Murray contributed to Beiderbecke's life or work at last, except as members as the same band for a while? If these 2 musicians NOT contributed in at least of one of these aspects, they are irrevelant - just name dropping.

Wolfe writes, "I am not embarrassed to admit that this filled me with rage. As did this:" (again, the note begins with a quote from Wolfe's entry; the bullet points are from the editor):

"(The headmaster went so far as to inform Mr. and Mrs. Beiderbecke, about Bix, "that certain parents have objected strenuously to their sons' association with him.)"
  • The parentheses are dishonest - either you take responsibility their content and for the space they take in section.
  • If the item is retained, the headmaster's florid prose needs to be replaced with something consise.

No wonder he was angry. The editor's comments are riddled with grammatical errors ("does this implies", "alcoholic mistaken") and misspellings ("irrevelant", "consise"). While this is, admittedly, a behind-the-scenes discussion, the editor's critique is so sloppily written that it verges on the indecipherable.

It's an example of what Jaron Lanier called the "fallacy of the infallible collective" in his critique of Wikipedia. Someone clearly ill-suited for vetting articles for quality was in a position of doing just that. Eventually, however, the collective worked out its kinks: The first editor ceased reviewing the article, and another took over and awarded it the "good" rating.

And there it is, Bix Beiderbecke explained in great detail on Wikipedia. Perhaps, as Wolfe hopes, it will spark interest in the musician that might lead people to his forthcoming book. Equally likely, sadly, is that it will scare other scholars off from investing their time in creating well-rounded Wikipedia entries.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image credit: Columbia Jazz Masterpieces

Getting academic about David Mitchell

conferenceDavid MitchellUniversity of St Andrews


Academics and book lovers in Scotland are gearing up for the first University of St. Andrews conference on the work of writer David Mitchell, taking place Thursday and Friday, Sept. 3 and 4. Conferences such as this are nothing new -- you can't swing a stick at an academic calendar without hitting one on James Joyce, Virginia Woolf or any number of other major writers -- but this one is unusual.

Because Mitchell -- whose most acclaimed novel, "Cloud Atlas," was shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize  -- differs from the likes of Joyce and Woolf because he's alive. He might even be said to still be in the early phase of his career: He just turned 40 this year, published four novels in the last decade, and his fifth is due out in 2010. Yet his body of work is weighty enough to merit attention from professors from across the United Kingdom, France and even UC Davis.

Like other conferences, this one will include a number of panels on the author's work. And as they are at many other conferences, the panels are charmingly arcane. A sampling:

Intertextual Doppelganger: David Mitchell’s "number9dream" and "Japan"

Narratology and the Mitchell Multiverse

"Versed Enough in Antipodese Etiquette": Speculative Fiction as Postcolonial Critique in "Ghostwritten" and "Cloud Atlas"

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, from Postmodernity to the Posthuman

Writing Inside/Out: Genre and David Mitchell’s Paratext

Hypertext, Palimpsest, and the Virtual Text: Tracing the Digital in David Mitchell's "Ghostwritten"

Reading those titles makes me both want to attend and wince with embarrassment. How fun it would be to discuss narratology and posthumanism and text and intertextuality in relation to Mitchell's work! How silly and removed these discussions are from the job of writing and the joys of reading!

Maybe it's better that Joyce and Woolf and other study-worthy novelists are gone. Are these really the kinds of discussions a novelist should be aware of? Ask Mitchell. The sprightly young novelist is scheduled to appear at the conference in person; he'll read and answer questions on Friday evening.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Images: Random House and the University of St. Andrews


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