Weekly Varia no. 18, 03/18/23

This week was Spring Break. I have never been one for “spring break” trips, both because of personal inclination and financial considerations. But, this year, we used the break for the second trip to bring wedding festivities to our family. Members of both of our families met up in Las Cruses, New Mexico, which we used as a base for exploring the Organ Mountains, White Sands, Mesilla, and other local attractions. I would particularly recommend the Zuhl Collection at New Mexico State University, which contained just a spectacular collection of petrified wood and fossils.

The combination of travel and family meant that my break hasn’t been as restful as I had hoped, but it was restorative in other ways. One of my brothers made it to this trip and I hadn’t seen him since before the pandemic started because the last two planned attempts were both disrupted by COVID. Likewise, we were able to visit friends in El Paso and see their first child who was born last year. Despite having every intention of maintaining a modestly productive routine I mostly spent my downtime at our AirBnB reading such that I finished three books and part of a fourth within the week. I can feel the words starting to burble beneath the surface again, but they’re not ready to burst forth just yet.

Now I’m back in chilly Kirksville. Yesterday I finished grading my outstanding assignments and this weekend I will be spending the time between naps putting the rest of my course materials in order for the coming week. In other words, a pretty normal weekend.

This week’s varia:

  • Judge Kyle Duncan spoke at Stanford where, conservative commentators claim, he was “cancelled” by student protests. Students did protest at the event by asking him pointed questions, but they also settled in to allow him to deliver his prepared responses when he decided to pivot to question and answer and proceeded to berate the students who asked questions. Mark Joseph Stern suggests that this was Duncan’s intent all along, as an audition that would raise his profile onto a short list for the Supreme Court under the next Republican administration. Ken White (Popehat) is disgusted with everyone involved in the incident. I’m inclined to side with him in the sense that responding in kind to deliberate provocation is entirely counter-productive, which is why I have been developing a non-engagement policy on social media.
  • Kate Wagner of McMansion Hell fame has a design column at The Nation. The first installment explores the rise of what she calls “griege” (gray + beige) aesthetic. She argues that it has become the dominant mode because of a confluence of factors, most notably the digital unreality of online realty and that many buyers are looking for an investment and thus are thinking about resale before ever completing the purchase.
  • A home Zillow valued at $417,000 on the Outer Banks of North Carolina fell into the sea last week, leaving a 21-mile long debris trail. This marks the fourth such home in the last 13 months. The effects of climate change are already here.
  • The Biden Administration is pushing for TikTok to be sold or else face a ban in the United states because of its link to the Chinese Government. This story follows the comments from a TikTok spokesperson, but it also came out this week that the company had used the location data of US journalists to try to determine who had been talking to them.
  • Pro Publica has video and a story about the rise of Teneo, a conservative influence group funded by Leonard Leo. I am always struck by the conspiracy-minded nature of these groups, where they justify their own conspiracy by claiming the existence of a preexisting structure among their perceived enemies. Of course their examples rely on faceless archetypes rather than concrete examples because such a conspiracy doesn’t exist.
  • Police departments have not been defunded, but, like in many other sectors, large departments are suffering from staffing shortages. This is leading to departments like that of New Orleans to realize that they need to re-tool their mandate so that they can focus on the worst types of crime and other, less dangerous, responsibilities can be passed to non-police agencies.
  • Federal regulators saw problem after problem at Silicon Valley Bank more than a year ago, but acted too slowly to correct the problems. Embedded in that same story is a note about how SVB grew expansively after the rollback of the Dodd-Frank regulations. Correlation is not necessarily causation, though, and this story implies that existing regulations should have caught the problem. I am still inclined to believe that there were overlapping causes of SVB’s collapse, including regulatory failure, the particular spending practices of venture-capital funded startups, a sudden tightening of the bond market, and the particular makeup of SVB’s depositors that had an unusually-high percentage of very large accounts that made the bank vulnerable to runs.
  • Former President Trump took to social media to say that he expects to be notified of an indictment next week, including in the statement comments to his supports akin to the ones he said on January 6, 2021. The little commentary I’ve seen indicates that this stems from a probe into the Stormy Daniels payoff, but this could well be rampant speculation at this point.
  • The city of Newark performed a ceremony to inaugurate a sister city arrangement with the Hindu nation Kailasa, which doesn’t exist. Kailasa was invented by Swami Nithyananda, an Indian scam artist on the run from rape charges.
  • A Maine resident is appealing a rejected vanity licence plate “LUVTOFU,” saying that he’s a vegan.
  • ChatGPT Starting To Think Journalist Could One Day Be Capable Of Independent Thought (The Onion).

Album of the Week: Jukebox the Ghost, I Got a Girl EP (2022)

Currently Reading: Abdulrazak Gurnah, Afterlives

White Sands National Park
Organ Mountains National Monument
Compressed Iron, from the Zuhl Collection
Pyritized sea life from the Mesozoic era

Spring Break

Last semester the University of Missouri academic included a full week off for Thanksgiving (as it has every year I’ve been here). The difference this year was that there were just four school days left in the semester before the start of finals week. I was not wild about this quick turnaround before the examination period, particularly since there didn’t seem like enough time to really give any new instruction as everyone seemed to spend that entire week trying to work their way back into school mode…and then the semester ended. It takes me most of that week of vacation just to get to a point where I can really relax and was perhaps even more sluggish than most in that first week back, too, so my grumpy reaction to the schedule was to grouse that I’d rather just get Thanksgiving (Thursday and Friday) off and keep up the head of steam for the semester since we were already in the home-stretch. It doesn’t do any good to grab the runner going into the final turn to hand him or her a glass of water– just save it for the finish line.

But that (originally) hallowed tradition of Spring Break falls earlier in the semester, which makes my specific complaint about last semester’s Thanksgiving break moot. There is plenty of time to work back up, teach some more, and go into the end of the semester at least a little bit more refreshed than you otherwise would be. It is also a reasonable time to assign papers to be due since, at least in theory, there is a whole week where students shouldn’t have to actually attend class and can dedicate at least a little bit of time to reading and writing–things that may be expected of them for classes, but that can’t actually be completed in the classroom.

Of course, a passing glance at Twitter indicates that if a professor expects students to take an exam on the first day back from spring break, having given them the break to study, the professor is a jerk, or if that professor has the exam the day before spring break, leaving the students free to fulfill whatever escapades they desire, that same professor “should be called an array of four letter words.” In fact, if the professors expect students to do anything over spring break, they are (according to my “research”) out of their minds because it is time for break, not a time for school. This same “research” generally indicates all sorts of frustration over work assigned by professors and a lesser amount of praise for them, often, though not exclusively, the product of cancelled classes, so I suspect that at least some of the complaints would merely be reframed rather than removed were there no spring break. That said, would the academic calendar be better off without a week-long break in the middle of a semester?

My gut inclination is to say yes.

Though I am not religious, do I understand an impulse to tie an academic hiatus to a holiday like Easter (Brandeis did the same for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah), but Spring Break as it is currently conceived of is not tied to a specific holiday. Instead, it has transformed into a commercial opportunity and is assumed to be a welcome reprieve from the rigors of the semester for both students and instructors. The studious can play catch up on work while the fiscally fortunate may bathe in sun and liquor in far off paradises and everyone can enjoy a bit of sloth. Nonetheless it feels to me like a stark caesura in the middle of the semester that exacerbates problems when it comes to the educational cycle and encourages even more procrastination than already exists. I have been trying to mull over the reasons–if not religion–that the full week mid-semester break exists and have come away with nothing except tradition (and a one week period where the university can run on reduced staff). It is one of those things that seems to have been there as long as anyone can remember any many people have fond memories of, so why bother change it?

Now it is not that I necessarily want to extend the semester or bring upon myself any more work than I already have. Instead of a single week-long break, I would endorse multiple (up to five or six, say) long weekends scattered throughout the semester. Sure, the March/April economy of Cancun and Panama City would suffer, but that really shouldn’t be a concern for colleges. There would be backlash, too, but I suspect that instead of an extended buildup toward this week followed by a drawn out denouement, more long weekends would actually keep people fresher throughout the semester and avoid both the mid-semester trap week and the months without any break at all as sometimes happens in the fall semester before Thanksgiving.

This rambling speculation is a flight of fancy on my part. It comes from a place of exhaustion from the semester and bafflement at watching people talk about their professors on social media. I realize that there is little chance that spring break will go away, but I would still be interested to know how other people would react (or would have reacted) to the idea of eliminating Spring Break altogether.