Assorted Links

Salman Rushdie fatwa turned into Iranian video game – Evidently, several years ago Iran’s national foundation of computer games asked students to design and create scripts for this game, with the top three being handed over to developers. Evidently the game will involve the players to carry out the Ayatollah’s command to kill Rushdie.

I don’t Want Health Care if Just Anyone Can Have It – An article that appeared in the Onion, March 2007, but is apropos of the ACA supreme court ruling (I would recommend reading the Opinion given by John Roberts, which is probably going to give more problems long term for the supporters of the ACA).

Rest of the Country Should Take a Good Look At the Situation in Texas – An article about the actual health care crisis that Texas is in.

Ethics Training is Wrong – The opinion of math professor Lou Van den Dries who refused to attend yearly mandatory ethics violations and had received a fine for his actions. Among other things, he calls the ethics workshops “Orwellian” and states that “An unfortunate byproduct of the computer revolution is that it has given new tools in the hands of unwise rulers to annoy us for no good reason.” He has chosen to settle the fine rather than going through a legal process.

Assorted Links

Some articles that caught my eye in the last few days, including one about higher education that touched a nerve.

1. Why the Scientist Stereotype is Bad For Everyone, Especially Kids – An article that addresses the white, male, bearded, bespectacled, and awkward/deranged stereotype for scientists, as well as the misconception that science is boring. As usual, he argues for a paradigm shift that makes science fun and interesting and results in a better educated workforce.

2. Why Would We Want a Less Educated Nation/ Defending the PhD – A blog post by Claire Potter, Tenured Radical, that discusses some of the many issues of Humanities and Social Sciences PhD programs. Among them include the attrition rates, job markets, and resistance to change while also maintaining the insistence that those who do not achieve a tenure-track job are failures. In many ways, she is trying to appeal to education and intellectualism for its own sake as a way to create and perpetuate an educated society. Commenters universally critique her for being naive here, and the post does come across that way. Perhaps more insidiously, despite the (I believe) well intentioned nature of the post, it also comes across as somewhat condescending and as a self-help session for those people who already seek post-graduate degrees in the humanities. It does call for an expansion of the fields that hire PhDs, but not really encouraging more people to attain those degrees (at least right now). I am sympathetic to the plight–I am, after all, in it–but other than removing stigma of non-academic jobs and, to an extent, changing what is taught by PhD programs, most of the changes are on sectors not in academia.1

The case can be made that there would be a trickle-down effect that would eventually result in more people going to graduate school and yes, a better educated nation is an admirable goal. Yet, I suspect that there are a wide range of environmental and societal issues that must be addressed in order to lay the foundation for the changes that she calls for. So, yes, removing the stigma of non-academic work is necessary, but focusing on the highest level of education, without even looking at whether or not people actually want to go (particularly since we have been conditioned to consider school a drag) is naive.

1 She does manage to write the post without directly attacking Republican legislators, Fox News, or any of the other usual suspects for a case like this, but the attempt to stay high-minded actually feeds into the charges of naivete and condescension.

3. ‘Me too, Me too!’ – A look at some of the dedicated educational centers abroad that are trying to forge professional connections with the top universities in the world.

4. Spoiled Rotten – An article from the New Yorker that looks at the spoiled manner of “American” kids. There are some thought-provoking points here, but there are also some underlying assumptions that are not laid out.

5. A Few Words About Breasts – A piece written for Esquire in 1972 by the late Nora Ephron, republished online.

6. Men Can’t Have it All Either – A Response in the Atlantic to the story by Anne-Marie Slaughter that questions some of proposed changes that Slaughter proposes and points out that what Slaughter identifies as a woman’s issue is really an issue that affects both men and woman in the modern world.

7. Europe is on Big ATM, and Only the Few Know the Code – A post by Charlie Pierce that compares the formation of a central European Treasury to a system with no nations, but only banks.

8. EU Unveils its vision for the future of monetary union – A story about the future of the Monetary Union that sparked Pierce’s comment.

Assorted Links

A note on what is to follow. I quit Facebook earlier today and gave some thought to what would be the least ostentatious way to continue to share links. I settled on posting a collection of links to my blog rather than sending out individual links through email. With some luck this will also cause me to write here somewhat more often. The format may change periodically as I tinker with it, but without further ado:

1. Grammar, a Victim in the Office – An article about the decline in grammar in the workplace in the Wallstreet Journal.

2. Grammar is dead, Long live Grammar Nerds – A flawed, but supposedly humorous article in the Atlantic Wire on the same topic.

3. Helene Hegemann: ‘There’s no such thing as originality, just authenticity’ – An interview with Helen Hegemann, the German author of Axolotl Roadkill who was critically acclaimed until accusations of plagiarism came in. She defends her use of the plagiarized material by denying originality–an issue that I think about often and an argument I am sympathetic to.

4. Kim Kardashian: How did she become a threat to western civilisation? – Commentary about a British schoolteacher who has been praised for her speech denouncing the obsession with celebrities (particularly the overly sexualized ones).

5. Why Zoo’s Kim Kardashian Cover is Wrong – An op-ed by the author of the speech that covers the relevant points.

6. Some Books are More Equal Than Others – an op-ed that argues that except when people are first learning how to read, choice of summer reading material for students (and all reading material to some extent) does matter a great deal. She particularly states that while some students will happily and relatively easily read fiction on their own, others will make greater gains in comprehension and vocabulary by reading non-fiction rather than fiction.

7. Old Vs Young – an op-ed that uses the upcoming Presidential election to help argue the point that the generational gap in the United States today is greater than at any point since the 1960s.

8. The Accelerating Pace of Change for its own Sake – a blog post from Publick Occurrences I did share on Facebook before jumping ship. It addresses the envisioned changes in higher education.

Social Networking

Facebook has failed. I joined the site in 2004, my freshman year of college and it was the thing to do. Facebook offered a platform through which you could stay in touch with hundreds of people at a glance–status updates, relationships, links, and so on. It also offered game and applications. This was–and, according to many people, still is–the wave of the future. This medium epitomizes the information age. An age that, for better and for worse, is the one we live in. And the promise is this: the world comes closer together, information passes nearly instantaneously and there is a constant stream of data.1

The information are is wireless, too. Today, before writing this, I took a walk in Central Park and saw multiple people sitting in groups with their Macbooks out. I am hardly exempt–hardly would I let three minutes go by without pulling out my cellphone to see if new texts had arrived in one of a half-dozen ongoing conversations. Now, though, I am sitting at a bar called Earl’s,2 writing with pen and paper about and for the internet.

One of the primary concerns in this internet, information age is privacy, and this has been true with Facebook since its inception. This, however, is not my primary concern with social networking. In fact, I consider this a fundamental trade off of the internet. I am somewhat selected about what and where I post and comment, but neither am I going to stop using my gmail, google search, or any of the sites that hold contact and personal information about me. In order for me to use the internet, I feel that I have to sacrifice something and put my information into the hands of anonymous entities which–I hope–have more interest in keeping that information secure than in selling it.3 This is an entirely rational trade off and (though this might be naive) not something that I can envision an alternative to. Thus, the privacy concerns are not where I believe that Facebook has failed.

The failure of Facebook–and, by extension, all social media–is that in the pursuit of bringing the world closer together, it has actually served to dehumanize socialization.4

Before launching into my critique, allow me to eulogize social networking. Social Networking sites do provide an excellent database of personal and contact information and since they have wide visitation, they are a wonderful platform for event planning. Likewise they provide an excellent place to share and spread links because the sites are designed such that anything posted is streamed in front of the networks without requiring anyone else to actively search for it. Lastly, the sites do serve to provide a quick-form update about people chosen as “friends,” that does not actually require any interaction with that friend.

Therein lies the crux of the problem. Social networking websites provide an avalanche of (mostly trivial) information, updates from applications and games. There is some valuable information and (occasionally) stimulating discussion, but most of the time it is merely white noise. I do not mean to demean anyone by calling their posts white noise, but more often than not, that is what it is.5 Most of the people with whom I am friends on Facebook I have not talked to or heard from in any other medium in years. Sometimes this has been a choice, other times there has been an incident that prompted the distance, but most of the time it is because that person and I would never have really been in touch at all except for the social networking site.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this and, in some situations, I am genuinely glad to reconnect and catch up. But more frequently, the reconnection is superficial and exists only on an online list. I bear none of these people any malice, but I also believe that social networking sites (and particularly Facebook) are having a negative impact on genuine interpersonal relationships. Thus, in the words of Bilbo Baggins:

“I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve…this is the end! I am going. I am leaving now. Goodbye!”

1 Another epitomes of the age is the 24-hour news network.
2 1297 Park Street, New York, Highly recommended.
3 I prefer to have assurances that they do not sell it, though.
4 See, for example, what Yiayia believes about internet communication: You marry machine?.
5 I can only assume how my posts appear to other people.

The Anatomy of a Social Movement: the system

One of the ironies of graduate school is that it does actually live up to the root word of skhole, translated as “leisure.” First, graduate school in the humanities has to be something you enjoy doing because it is a grind without much hope of bountiful riches upon completion (though it may seem so compared to most graduate student stipends); second, the course of study, teaching, working on your own projects, and sometimes a second job means that most of your leisure time is consumed by your studies–one of my complaints when I am stressed is that my academic career is restricted to my hobby since I don’t often get a chance to write or research anything directly related to my field in class. With this being the case, there is not much free time and the system is designed such that if you desire an academic, professional career you must persist, particularly during the semesters when there is an immediate grade at stake, but also during the breaks from school when much of your actual writing towards your career takes place (or, as with this summer for me, most of the reading for the comprehensive exams takes place). Some people enter graduate school to prolong college, whether because they can’t find a job, don’t want a job, or just don’t know what they want to do; others enter graduate school because it is exactly what they want to do. The latter group has an even tougher time slipping away.

The extended conversation about graduate school comes from my own regret about not joining the Occupy movement. I wanted to join. I wanted to put down everything and fly to New York, but I want my degree more. I want to have a fruitful and productive career more, so I did not get on the plane. I felt that I was not in a position to leave if I wanted to continue in graduate school. That is the nature of the system–if the opportunity for achieving something the individual values more than change exists, be it money or a vocation or a promise, then the protest ends before it begins.

Adventures in Pedogogy: Politics and the English Language

On a whim, I assigned my students an extra reading assignment this past semester. In hindsight, the timing of this assignment was not ideal since we had a relatively large amount of reading spread across three distinct topics. But we had just one more meeting before their papers were due, so I felt incapable of delaying any longer if I wanted them to read it before writing the paper. So, in an educational experiment, I assigned them to read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language , with the warning that we would indeed talk about it during class.

Though this essay has nothing what-so-ever to do with the history of the United States since 1965, the course for which I taught), I find it to be a valuable, funny, and insightful commentary on writing. Even if the rest of the text is overly dense, Orwell lists six “rules” for writing that I often refer to myself.

Not every student read the essay, but that is always the case. In fact, I found that a higher percentage of my students read this essay than read many, if not most, other assignments. Typically, some did not understand the point of the essay or the point of the exercise, including one student who did not understand how history could be written without using the passive voice (I suspect that he had confused passive voice and past tense in his head, but I never confirmed that since we just worked through what the passive voice was and he seemed to understand better after that). Of the students who responded to me specifically about the essay, all did so favorably.

I had to work through the essay quickly–too quickly–as has often been the case this semester for a variety of reasons. I couched the discussion within a larger discussion of their papers, going over the assignment, tips for writing, and how to write thesis statements. Due to the time constraints I focused on Orwell’s “rules” and sever select passages that encapsulate the sloppiness of most writing. Likewise, we addressed the vocabulary terms and some of the expressions used to make sure that the students understood them. For example, we went over what a “swan song” is and questioned the ability of a “fascist octopus” to sing it. Then we discussed whether or not an octopus can be a fascist.

Next time I do this, I would like to have the students work through the essay a bit more carefully and perhaps to analyze some passages of historical (rather than political) writing. I can probably muster up some of my own purple passages for them to analyze. There is a better way to incorporate this essay, I am sure, but I received a positive enough response that it justifies planning a little further in advance next time and incorporating it as an assigned reading in future courses with an emphasis on student writing.