August 25, 2010

A response, a personal realization, a haiku


The first time I had an Op-Ed piece published, I was a junior in High School. I criticized Ronald Reagan for saying that prayer should be allowed in public schools. I received at least one middle-of-the-night phone call--keep in mind that I was maybe 12 or 13 at the time (and my parents made me take the call, assuring me that it would make me tougher)--eviscerating me. The reaction to my recent Op-Ed in the Strib played out mostly on-line. I have to confess that I have not read in detail every comment I received. In my mind, the playing field isn't equal. I signed my Op-Ed, and in doing so, wrote something that was much more modulated and restrained than I might have written if I could be assured anonymity. People who provide on-line commentary do not have to provide their names, and are hence freer than I to say more outrageous things than they might say face-to-face. I'm not complaining. In fact, I would argue that this aspect of publishing an Op-Ed is very good. It makes a person think very carefully about their words, as they will be forever associated with their name. I believe in moderation.

(Sidebar: I am a little miffed that the Strib chose to identify me as "A Professor at the University of Minnesota." Those who submit Op-Eds are required to give a profession. I listed my profession simply as "professor," with no affiliation. Thanks to, I know that someone from the Strib visited my website the week before my Op-Ed was published, presumably to determine my affiliation. Their choice to list me as "Professor at the University of Minnesota" implies that I had signed my Op-Ed that way, and that I was somehow trying to use my affiliation as a credential. I had no such intention. I am by no means ashamed of my affiliation with the U of M, but my status as a faculty member in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences doesn't inform my views about corporate responsibilities and GLBT rights at all. I was a GLBT activist long before I was a scientist. The courses I teach--phonetics, speech science, phonological disorders, the physics and biology of spoken language--are about as far away from the topic of the Op-Ed as they can be.)

Thanks to some people who have written me personal E-Mails (and have signed their names), I understand that one of the comments to the Op-Ed was that a Target boycott takes the focus in this election season off of the economy and onto gay rights. I agree that the economy is a huge focus. It weighs on all of our minds. My partner, who works in manufacturing, was unemployed for over a year. I know what it means to take a hit. As director of graduate studies, I was responsible for the well-being of three cohorts of speech-language pathology and audiology students. I sweated every year until they all had jobs (or, in this case, until my term was up!). I have just as strong an interest in the economy improving as does the next guy or gal. As I said in my Op-Ed, I do think that issues related to human rights can trump all others in some cases.

Still, if we want to talk purely about economics and not about civil rights, I'm happy to do so. Consider the following: By entering the political arena as aggressively as they have, Target has made all consumers gun-shy. Target was the shining star of 'pro-gay' corporations, and they contributed to a group that supports a virulently anti-gay politician.

(Sidebar2: This isn't merely about gay marriage, this is about someone who is allied with a group that calls the execution of GLBT people justified. This is a person who wanted to withdraw funds from an HIV prevention program because its materials were sexually explicit.)

(Sidebar3: How can we prevent HIV--a sexually transmitted disease--unless we talk about the mechanics of its transmission? I personally am not nuts about seeing anti-meth posters that show people with no teeth and rotting skin, but that kind of explicit imagery is needed to keep people off of meth. We have to think of the greater good in these cases. Supporting sexually explicit HIV prevention materials is good if it, well, prevents HIV.)

If a supposedly pro-gay corporation like Target can make this kind of misstep, then who's to say that other places we shop--Mills Fleet Farm, Rainbow, Aldi, etc.--won't? Even if we take Target's explanation at face value and assume that their mistake was due to them improperly vetting MNForward, how can we know that other corporations won't make similar mistakes? Target's misstep has, in effect, dampened consumer confidence. We typically think of consumer confidence as it relates to the people's perception that they have enough money to spend. In the minds of real consumers, though, confidence is related to much more. It is related to confidence that the money is being spent properly. With corporations entering the political arena, consumer confidence is going to be very low until consumers can be sure that the money they spend is going to be used for activities that are consistent with their values and aspirations. If Target and others (and yes, there are MANY others--Best Buy, Red Wing Shoes, etc.--sorry, Target, but the bigger they are, the harder they fall) don't provide assurances that they won't make similar missteps in the future, then consumer confidence will continue to be low. This is not trivial. In our post-manufacturing society, consumer spending essentially drives our economy.

In short, activists' reactions to Target's ill-advised, poorly-vetted, and not-yet-atoned donation is all about the economy. It's about making consumers confident that the money they spend won't be spent on activities that contradict their values, and which have the potential to harm our common good.


This semester I have a leave of absence from teaching. This leave will not be a 'sit on the beach, eat bon-bon'-type leave (if such things even exist--come mid-September, I don't think there will be much beach-going in Minnesota). I have a textbook to finish, about 8 publications to write, three ongoing dissertations to advise, an NSF-funded grant to finish (including collecting data in three different languages and on two different continents), and a new grant project to get moving. My realization is that I really do work best when I have a very regimented schedule. I also enjoy the social interactions with students a whole lot. I don't think I'm unique in this respect. A whole lot of rhetoric gets thrown around about how professors just want to do their research and not work with students. I just don't see it.


As promised, a haiku:

A crisp, fall-like day
reminds me that fall is the
very best season

August 21, 2010

Holy unexpected occurrence, Batman! I got published.

Well, it got published.

Angry? Sorta. Passionate? Kinda. Provocative? You betcha.

Let the commenting begin.

...and on an only marginally related topic, I have followed the discussions on the New York Times website on tenure and the future of academia (). I am not unsympathetic to the call to restructure the tenure system. My support is based largely on the very negative effect that tenure has on the academic labor market. As I read the comments on my editorial--particularly the "bring me his head on a stick" variety--I find myself very grateful for the protection that tenure offers me. I can express a controversial opinion and be confident that I will withstand the backlash.

August 13, 2010

The Target Boycott is Justified

File this one under "Letters to the Editor that will Never be Published." As that last sentence implies, I wrote this as a letter to the Editor of the Star Tribune.

Dear Editors:

Today's editorial on the recent political donations by the Target Corporation clearly articulated the many fears that people have about the consequences of a nationwide boycott of Target stores. Some of these fears are justified. A decrease in sales might impact the Minnesota economy in the short term. The Star Tribune itself might be affected, as they doubtlessly rely on Target for a substantial portion of their advertising revenue. Surely the Star Tribune editors are aware of the potential consequences of the boycott, and hope that people will act in a way that protects their business relationship with Target. Target's well-heeled corporate leaders themselves must be equally frightened.

Opposition to this boycott, however, is extremely short-sighted, as Minnesotans stand to lose far more if anti-GLBT contributions by businesses are allowed to go on unchecked. Minnesotans face a stark choice in the upcoming gubernatorial election. They can elect Tom Emmer, a dangerous extremist, or one of his two principle competitors, Mark Dayton and Tom Horner, both of whom support a broad spetrum of GLBT rights. In supporting a group allied with Mr. Emmer, Target has indicated that their goal of being pro-business trumps all other concerns, including the human rights of GLBT people.
Target's support of their GLBT employees is somewhat admirable. It is likely motivated by a desire to carve out a niche in the big-box retail market among younger urban people, who are likely to be pro-gay. Their failure to support GLBT Minnesotans more broadly more calls into question the meaningfulness of their support of their own employees. The ultimate goal for GLBT people is to achieve equal rights under the law, not to have available to them as potential employers a small number of benign corporations who deign to give them marginally better treatment than do some other companies. A boycott sends a powerful message to Target and to the entire business community that GLBT rights for all Minnesotans is our ultimate goal.

I realize that this boycott is challenging. Target's donations to some local organizations have been significant. They have also had the powerful effect of indebting those groups and individuals to Target. Sadly, those groups and individuals are effectively held hostage when they face the possibility that they might lose some of the money they receive from Target if the boycott were successful. I would hope that those groups would see that supporting the equal rights of GLBT people is paramount to making money in the short term.

I agree that those who call for a nationwide boycott of Target, me included, have not specified what they would need to do to remedy their ill-advised donation to Minnesota Forward. While I can't speak on behalf of all GLBT Minnesotans, I can make a recommendation. Target should make a donation to a group of GLBT small business owners and business leaders that is independent from Target. Unfortunately, the most obvious candidate, Twin Cities Quorum, is too closely allied with Target currently to assure that this money would be used for activities that are truly independent from those of Target. Surely local GLBT small business leaders--perhaps even a subset of the membership of Quorum, absent those affiliated with Target--could find a compromise. This donation would be a better investment of Target's funds, as such a group represents Target's self-stated pro-business and purportedly pro-GLBT stances. It would be particularly meaningful if the donation were larger--even by just a symbolic increment--than the donation that they made to Minnesota Forward. Furthermore, I would hope that Target would develop an explicit policy that they would donate to no group or individual that had anti-GLBT stances. I personally would feel comfortable shopping at Target if those two steps were taken. In the absence of anything meaningful, Target runs the risk of alienating itself permanently from the very demographic that made its company strong. That, more than anything else, would bring significant lasting harm to Minnesota's people and its economy.

Sincerely Yours,
Benjamin Munson

July 18, 2010

A vacation from anger

I recently looked back on some of my old blog posts. It struck me that I must come across to random readers (=people who don't know me but who stumble across my blog) as the biggest crank on the planet. In all honesty, I don't know where I rank or even if it's possible to objectively rank people in crankiness, but I do know that the persona I project in my blog sounds nothing like the person I am! This is particularly true this summer, when I have been more relaxed and at peace with the world than I have in, well, perhaps my entire adult life. I pledge that my next three blog entries will convey that.

July 9, 2010

Aah, the private sector--so much more enlightened than academia

As some of my loyal, long-time blog readers know, the University of Minnesota's same-sex domestic partnership benefits come with a price. The University's contribution to my same-sex domestic partner's health insurance is treated as additional taxable income. The University's contribution to a married heterosexual partner is tax-exempt. This means that I make less take-home money than a married heterosexual colleague with the same base pay, solely because I am gay. Keep in mind that this occurs at a University with an anti-discrimination statement that references sexual orientation.

I spent a good deal of the 2007-2008 (I think, maybe it was 2008-2009) school year working on a proposal to offset this tax increase. This proposal was approved by the senate and was then glibly dismissed by Bob Bruininks, who declared the university's unequal take-home pay for GLB faculty and staff with same-sex domestic partners to be perfectly fair.

Well, it turns out that some enlightened minds in the private sector think otherwise. Check out this article from the New York Times

It seems that Google takes a more enlightened and fair view of this policy than the University of Minnesota does. In fact, when I was researching the struck-down-from-on-high proposal, I found out that a handful of enlightened private companies do the same. In contrast, none of the universities that I contacted offset the imputed income-tax increase.

I'm glad to see that companies in the private sector have implemented such an enlightened policy. I hope that academia will someday follow suit.

June 11, 2010

Governor Pawlenty: Completely and Totally Misinformed about Higher Education, and I'm the Guy who can Prove it

On the Daily Show last night (June 10, 2010), Minnesota Governor Tim "We don't need no education" Pawlenty conveyed the following message (quoted from the Daily Show website):

"[Pawlenty] also made his customary pitch for offering more college courses online, rather than from "boring professors" on campus."

As disappointing as that statement is, I don't think that it's any surprise that anti-intellectualism has made it to the executive branch of our state government. Despite the complete lack of surprise, it did my blood boil and my stomach lurch.

And, as it happens, I have some very strong data to suggest that like so many other things, Pawlenty is wrong about this. First, some background: I'd like to think that as a classroom instructor, I'm fairly average. I never had a single course in higher education pedagogy during my graduate program, though I have participated in numerous professional-development activities related to teaching during my time as a professor (not the least of which being a great proseminar that Kathi Kohnert ran last term). I say that to point out that I don't think that there's anything particularly outstanding about the way I teach. I consider myself a pretty average U of M faculty member.

Let's look at an admittedly non-random sample of student comments from my latest class, SLHS 3304. This class had an enrollment of 95 in a room that fits 96. It most certainly wasn't a seminar: one professor, 95 students. Surely this is the kind of class Gov. Milquetoast thinks that students should sleep in and miss and listen to on their iPods™ at their leisure. Let's see what the students had to say about it:

"[Ben Munson] Asked for question often and answered them--seemed as if he wanted the students to learn--created a very interactive learning environment"

(Hmm, can't think of the last time someone interacted with a podcast.)

"Allowed time for questions. Consistently asked if we understood the material being presented."

(Oh yeah, your iPod™ is really going to be able to monitor understanding and answer questions on the fly.)

"He provided examples, slides, and was very excited about what he was teaching. He involved students and made learning fun."

(As opposed to listening to an iPad™, perhaps the most mind-dulling and asocial experience that modern society has created for us.)

"He was always well-prepared. He was also incredibly considerate, encouraging, and welcoming. I never felt embarrassed to ask a question in class, and he always gave us thorough clarification if needed."

(No offense, Apple, but even the on-line help files for the iPad™ don't give thorough clarification.)

"Dr. Munson was always willing to slow down the place of a lecture to answer questions and explain things in a different way if we don't understand something."

(Sure, you can slow down the pace of something on your iPad™, but all that's going to do is make the lecture sound like it was being delivered by Darth Vader.)

"The classroom environment was really good--I learned a lot from Dr. Munson. He presented our subject matter clearly but in an enjoyable and interactive way."

(What's the environment in which you would iPad™? The gym? On the bus? While doing something else altogether? Don't make me get PG-13 here.)

"[Dr. Munson] knows how to replay the material in a way that a student is able to capture and learn."

(The last time I used an iPod™ to replay something, it just replayed exactly what had been played originally.)

There were actually a couple of times (literally, a couple = 2) that I taught using Adobe Connect because I was out of town at a conference or giving an invited lecture. That might seem a little like Gov. Pawlenty's model of an on-line course. Let's see what the students said about that:

"The online lectures were a very nice change of pace and interactive."

(Oh, dang! One of the things that was appreciated about the on-line lectures was that they were *interactive*. So unlike a podcast...)

Now, let's look at some of the negative comments.

"Likes to hear his own voice."

(I'm going to confess that is true, I do like my own voice. I like others' voices--even Fran Drescher's. I am 100% guilty of having appropriate levels of self-esteem.)

Is that a random sample? No, of course not, but it conveys the sentiment of the evaluations pretty well. Were there more negative comments? Of course. The big ones were that the tests were too hard, the course overall was a bit harder than some other courses at this level, the PowerPoint slides weren't always posted well enough in advance, and that the class discussions sometimes strayed off topic.

In sum, though, this course, which I regard as quite representative of U of M courses, was regarded as one in which attending in person and interacting with a professor was a highly value-added experience. Why, then does Gov. Pawlenty so adamantly argue that students shouldn't bother with 'boring professors'? Well, since he has attacked me personally, I'm going to go back to the school-yard and come back with a personal attack on him. At my high school, the Mohawk-wearing faux-punks used to like to say that people who are the most impressed are the least impressing. I suggest Gov. Pawlenty consider the possibility that those who are the most bored are also the most boring.

And I close with one if the best comments I have ever received as a professor. Yes, I'm being pretty egotistical to share it, but here it is:

"[T]his is the first class that I have not ditched out on regularly. I didn't even skip class once! I actually wanted to be here. As a serial class skipper, I am amazed by how much a difference a great professor can make in my attitude toward class."

That's a keeper--the kind of thing that I used to call up my father to tell him. My dad inspired me to be a good teacher and to treat everyone well, and comments like that are as much (or even more) a tribute to him than they are a tribute to me. Well, he's dead, and I'm telling all of you. And I'm also telling you that this is not abnormal. Professors care about learning and they care about knowledge. iPods™ are made by Apple™ which cares about Money™, Money™, and Money™. Private on-line universities also care about Money™, Money™, and Getting as Much Federal Student Aid as they Possibly Can without Regard for Graduation Rates™.

My pride at the class-skipper's comment probably adds fuel to the fire of whomever wrote the one truly stinging comment I got this past term, that I'm "too into [my]self" (this was the same person who thought I liked the sound of my own voice), but it does go to show that there is a great value added to being in class.

I am fortunate to be in a department with people who are spectacularly dedicated to teaching. When Kathi Kohnert organized our proseminar in teaching, she sent out a questionnaire before the first meeting. One of the questions on it asked what we liked about teaching. Nearly every one of us answered "the students." I honestly believe that this describes the attitudes of most people in higher education. Those who seek to make villains of us have a big honking obstacle in their path: reality.

April 3, 2010

A haiku

Sitemeter tells me

Six locals searched for my blog

today. Enjoy it.

March 23, 2010

A U of M Senate-Related Haiku

be it resolved that

bozos who send spam should take

the biggest pay cuts

February 26, 2010

Friday, 5:30 pm haiku

Friday, going home
with boat-loads of work to do
Weekend, or week start?

February 14, 2010

Haiku on my current state of affairs at work (edited in response to nagging from the grammar police)

I'm so behind now
That the question has become
"Whom to disappoint?"

February 2, 2010

A haiku rebuking Tom Petty

Waiting's the hardest part
Until you hear "no." And then,
That's the hardest part

January 27, 2010

Hearty Midwesterner Winter Weather Haiku

Minnesota Winter:
Give me six and sunny, not
thirty and cloudy

January 22, 2010

Playoff Haiku

New York Times Pick Saints
For This Sunday's Playoff Game?
Feh! Sköl, Vikings, sköl!

January 21, 2010

Campaign Finance Ruling Haiku

Supreme Court Ruling
Ends US Democracy
Where Now? New Zealand?

December 21, 2009

According to the narcissist within...

...Bing wins over Google. You might wonder in what sense does Bing "win?" If one Googles my name, the order of the top ten hits is very much what I would like it to be: my web page first, my university page second, and a few others that I like. The rest of the pages, though, are crap. With Bing, my web page is only the fifth hit, behind my LinkedIn page and something called Bing doesn't win on the first page of hits, but beyond that, Bing has much more useful hits than Google. Google seems obsessed with finding 15 year old reviews I wrote on (and stick by to this day), whereas Bing finds more interesting professional references.