COLLECTIVE INACTION PROBLEM

Posted in Rants on May 12th, 2015 by Ed

What follows is an outline of a conversation I have had repeatedly throughout my academic career. It is a representation of no individual or institution in particular, as I have had it with people at all stages of their career and at all types of post-secondary institutions from community colleges up to major research universities.

As a preface, everybody must know that educators spend a tremendous amount of time complaining about the students. I imagine doctors and nurses complain about their patients, and that people in retail and service complain about customers. Well, I can promise you that teachers are no different. If you know any teachers, you probably know this firsthand. If not, well…your suspicions are true. We complain.

Some colleague will spend a variable amount of time – years on end, or a single conversation – complaining about some aspect of his/her students. Usually it is their complete lack of effort or their utter lack of preparation / skills necessary to succeed in a university environment. My experiences have led me to believe what they tell me without being terribly skeptical. At some point I will ask a question like, "So did you end up failing a lot of people? Was that an issue?" or "What did your grade distribution look like?" Since I do not record these conversations and keep them as evidence you will have to take my word for this part, but I'd estimate that about 75% of the time my fellow educator reports that the grades were all A or B. Maybe, if he or she is a real ball-breaker, they give grades all the way down to C.

This is not universally true. Sometimes other professors tell me they fail a lot, or they pride themselves on being a tough grader who does not simply hand out A's like candy. There are some of us out there. But take a look at the statistics on grade inflation. Not only is A the modal grade in college courses now but the average GPA at any campus in the country has increased steadily since the 1990s. Maybe the students are just getting smarter. I kid, I kid.

I don't understand how people who have a Ph.D., not to mention considerable college teaching experience, cannot put two and two together. The students are terrible, yet somehow giving them all passing grades (and in some cases B or higher) isn't making them less terrible. Shocking, isn't it? It's almost as if the students can glean information online or from the campus grapevine about which faculty members are creampuff graders and take their classes with the confidence that if they don't feel like putting in the effort necessary to get an A they can do absolutely nothing and walk out with the B. Someone should do some research to study the question of how hard people will work above and beyond what is necessary to accomplish a well-defined goal.

That leaves the question: Why? Why do some faculty do this?

We don't lack for theories. Some people believe that giving high grades buys positive teaching evaluations, while others insist that no such relationship exists. Others argue that faculty, particularly at smaller and more teaching-intensive schools, grow to like their students to the point that they will not grade them harshly. Others blame parents and administrators for emphasizing grades above learning and retention above quality, respectively. Students who fail out of school don't write tuition checks, after all.

I have a simpler theory: laziness. It's rare that I don't side with academics, for obvious reasons. But I really think this one is largely our fault. Faculty give out inflated grades because it's easier. It's easier than working hard to improve a student's performance when said student simply does not care, and it's easier than giving out D and F grades and having to deal with students complaining about their grades and trying to negotiate higher ones. That's really all there is to it. Passing the students along, as America's high schools figured out long ago, is the easiest way to avoid making their problems your own. Just give them a C so they won't take your class again, or a B so you won't have to watch them cry in your office about how dad is going to take the SUV away.

Ironically, the perception of how much work is involved with giving out real, uninflated grades is…inflated. Being a Dick Grader is not nearly as much work as most faculty seem to think. If you lay out clear expectations and let the students know up front that you're not going to tolerate negotiations and that anyone looking for a course that can be passed with no effort should look elsewhere, it turns out that you don't have to spend hours and hours at the end of the semester in pained negotiations with aggrieved students.

It is not our job to hand out an A to anyone who enrolls in the course. When we choose to do so, however, we shouldn't be surprised that the students adjust their approach to our courses accordingly. If I could get my paycheck without having to put any effort into the job you can be certain that I would. Why would the students, grade-oriented as our system has become, do any differently?

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REVENGE FANTASY

Posted in Rants on May 11th, 2015 by Ed

I know that it's not very Progressive to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others, nor to believe that the socioeconomic equivalent of corporal punishment is the only way that the brainwashed white trash base of the Republican Party will ever learn. To do that would be mean. Instead I'll just say that I would love to see the looks on some of these rural Pennsylvanians' faces the first time they see opaque amber sludge in place of what should be tap water. Shockingly, it turns out that fracking happens almost entirely in dirt poor rural areas – the same kind that have voted in droves for every crypto-fascist bag man, harebrained religious fanatic, and snake-eyed Job Creator that has crawled from the toxic sludge of the GOP in the past thirty years.

I'd like to see the looks on their faces as the reality sinks in that maybe – just maybe – all those people who promised to hand environmental regulatory power over to the energy industry if not eliminate it altogether didn't have the best interests of the Common Man at heart after all. Maybe the GOP and its media arm are not a grassroots populist movement organized to protect the little guy, that it is in fact an elaborate racket that exists solely to siphon wealth upward.

I'd like to tell them: At least you voted repeatedly to protect yourself from the non-existent threats to your guns. Maybe you can shoot the contaminants out of the water.

I'd like to tell them: Thank god there are no Homos around to contaminate the water, right? Just benzene and ethylene glycol.

I'd like to tell them: Thank god you vote for whoever waves around the Bible most enthusiastically. No doubt the hydrocarbons can be prayed out of the water.

I'd like to tell them: At least you can afford some nice medical care when this gives you cancer thanks to those lucrative jobs that the oil companies promised would flock to your decrepit community, even though most of them never materialized or were ephemeral.

Most of all, I'd like to congratulate them for being perceptive enough to recognize the real enemy all along: the government. The welfare state. Teen moms. Saddam Hussein. Common Core. Death panels. The UN. Sex education. Saul Alinsky. Water fluoridation. Literally anyone and anything other than that man behind the curtain, who probably doesn't even exist but if he did exist he's certainly harmless and if he's not harmless it's only because he's actively looking out for the interests of white trash everywhere.

Sometimes you get what you vote for, and if you're willfully ignorant (and proud of it) what you think you voted for and what you end up getting are unlikely to have much in common. Congratulations, people who vote for the likes of Pat Toomey and Rick Santorum. I'm supposed to feel bad for you, but I'm not terribly moved to see you forced to live, literally, in a mess of your own making.

NPF: UNIFORM APPLICATION

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 8th, 2015 by Ed

Those of us who are a bit older may recall that Sean Penn used to be married to Madonna. It ended sometime after Penn tied her to a chair – for nine hours – and beat her beyond recognition with, among other things, a baseball bat. It was so brutal that even in the days before the internet allowed everyone to see the gruesome pictures and even though Penn was a bonafide Hollywood megastar, the police and district attorney charged him with a felony. Even if you're the excuse-making type for domestic violence, that can't be waved away with something like "Things got heated and he slapped her and he's very sorry." Tying someone up and beating them with a baseball bat is, in a word, fucked up.

Now. How many times have you heard someone refuse to see a movie because Penn was in it? Did anyone give you grief when you rented Mystic River or Dead Man Walking? Do you feel guilty when you watch Spicoli's scenes for the thousandth time? Do people post all over Facebook imploring you not to see whatever movie or cable series he's in these days? Perhaps you experience that, but I certainly do not.

I was reminded dozens of times, however, as a boxing fan that I was the scum of the Earth if I watched wife-beater Floyd Mayweather fight homophobe Manny Pacquiao on Saturday night (I didn't). I decided against it because I realized it was bound to be boring (It was). But I am forever baffled by why people are so insistent that people are not allowed to watch sporting events, or are bad people for doing so, if any of the people involved are Bad People. They demonstrably are Bad People in the case of this boxing match, but that is beside the point that we are bizarrely selective about when their Badness matters.

Like Queens of the Stone Age? Nick Oliviera beat his girlfriend and held her hostage with a rifle while he stood off the police for several hours. Chuck Berry was arrested in 1990 for secretly filming women in public bathrooms. Kiefer Sutherland has five DUIs. John Wayne was a horrible racist, as is Eric Clapton. Jon Voight is a right-wing teabagging lunatic who makes Pacquiao look like Bernie Sanders. Jimmy Page kidnapped a 14 year old girl he was fucking and held her virtual hostage for years. Woody Allen…where to start.

And those are the ones we know about. How many more of our favorite artists and athletes and performers are guilty of horrible, horrible things? Probably quite a few. Certainly not all, but with all that money and power and cocaine I'd have to imagine that a higher than average number have dark secrets. So I'm at a loss to explain why people were supposed to skip Floyd Mayweather's fight when I would be willing to bet any sum that no one in the history of the world has skipped Coachella or demanded that the radio be turned off on account of the equally brutal crimes of a QOTSA member.

It's hard to construct an argument that it's a bad thing to draw attention to the fact that Floyd Mayweather is a terrible human being; when Mike Tyson is like "That dude is fucked up," you know the dude in question is indeed flawed. I can't rationalize the discrepancy in the treatment of athletes and other celebrities on that account, though. Is it because they're big and (often) dark and scary? Is it because their misdeeds get more media attention? Or is it just a double standard that has no logic behind it?

My attitude is that we have no idea what kind of awful people our favorite actors, musicians, athletes, authors, etc. are when we give them our money and our attention, but if you have decided that the ones whose evil deeds are public knowledge should be boycotted you had better prepare yourself to boycott an awful lot of stuff.

COST-BENEFIT

Posted in Rants on May 7th, 2015 by Ed

Across the pond, the Italian government is paying Lamborghini (a subsidiary of the German Volkswagen-Audi group) 100 million Euros (approx. $112,000,000) to hire 300 new workers to begin production of a monstrously ugly SUV called the Urus. As Lamborghini's products are sold exclusively to young people who have incredible amounts of money and absolutely no taste, I'm sure this thing that looks like a Decepticon and sounds like a bladder disorder will do fine at the $250,000+ they plan to charge for each one.

On the surface this looks like the classic example of European Socialism and in fact I have seen a few commentaries that describe it as such. Another European socialist nightmare state clinging to the failed theories of the past and effectively nationalizing a company that can't survive in the Free Market. In practice, though, this type of policy has far more in common with the "cutting edge" (try saying it, it sounds so ridiculous) of right wing economics today: take public money, slop it in a trough, and invite private enterprise to waddle up and eat their fill. Lamborghini, like the Volkswagen Group as a whole, makes shitloads of money. This isn't British Leyland in the mid-70s desperately asking the government for enough cash to keep them alive. It's a company playing jurisdictions against one another to loot the public coffers and get concessions far beyond any that common sense or economic wisdom would dictate. In this case, Lamborghini's threat to manufacture elsewhere in the EU – no doubt the low-wage countries of Eastern Europe in which Volkswagen is increasingly shifting its labor – was enough to get Italian politicians to abandon even the pretense of making rational decisions.

The government is giving the company $112 million (US) to hire 300 people for a production run of one vehicle. In the auto industry a typical production run (the lifespan of one model with only minor changes from year to year) is usually six years. If you do the math, that equates to $55,000 per job per year, or $330,000 per job over the six year period. That is considerably more than Lamborghini will pay them in salary and benefits. How can anyone making a rational case for this investment believe that employing 300 people for six years is really worth $112 million to the state? Obviously not, but apparently enough influence has been bought to make such a financial non-starter happen. The decision has nothing to do with making a rational case; Italy has moved beyond the torpor of 1970s socialism and embraced the glories of 21st Century crony capitalism.

We see a lot of this in Southern states in the US, where state legislatures slop out billions in tax breaks, infrastructure improvements, and outright cash giveaways to lure in factories that will employ at best one or two thousand people (many of whom will end up being temp hires at or near minimum wage). Like cutting taxes for the wealthy has nothing to do with a sincere belief that it will increase tax revenues – that is merely a rationale for public consumption and the edification of gullible rubes – the real purpose of giving away money in this fashion is simply to those well connected players in the private sector who, having paid the piper, fully expect to call the tune.

Socialism? No, this is where neoliberalism got us. A socialist government would drive a harder bargain before pissing away this much money. Giving it away on the flimsiest of pretenses is more indicative of the urge to serve Big Business than of the urge to control it.

A NOVEL IDEA

Posted in Rants on May 4th, 2015 by Ed

I did my best to try to subject David Brooks' latest to a proper FJM Treatment, but I couldn't. I've done Brooks too many times (phrasing) and his column is too mean, condescending, and deceptive to be a source of any real humor. This kind of shit just isn't funny anymore. If you're interested you can read up on how every number he cites in his piece is either distorted or flat-out fabricated, but I just couldn't get past this paragraph. It killed all the funny. I don't like to be Brooks' favorite creature – the Very Serious Person – but I did a serious face and it ruined any attempt to make this enjoyable.

Despite all these efforts, there are too many young men leading lives like the one Gray led. He was apparently a kind-hearted, respectful, popular man, but he was not on the path to upward mobility. He won a settlement for lead paint poisoning. According to The Washington Post, his mother was a heroin addict who, in a deposition, said she couldn’t read. In one court filing, it was reported that Gray was four grade levels behind in reading. He was arrested more than a dozen times.

Here is where we introduce David Brooks to the novel idea that even people who are not on the path to upward mobility deserve to not be killed by the police.

Look, this is how poverty works. That's why anyone who knows their ass from the Grand Canyon calls it a "cycle." Freddie Gray, like 9 out of 10 males growing up in a shit neighborhood have, had a criminal record. Petty drug stuff for the most part, which is to be expected once young men realize that selling weed / making meth / etc is about 1000% more lucrative than any other financial opportunity available to them. It's not, as an old white person like David Brooks might say, like Freddie Gray was slitting old ladies' throats in alleys for thrills. There is nothing to suggest that he was a Bad Person, just another person who had to raise himself predictably taking to a life in the gray market economy.

But here's the thing: none of that matters. Poverty – and say this part as Tim Curry's character in Clue talking about Communism – is just David Brooks' red herring. It doesn't matter if Freddie Gray was an altar boy who spent his spare time saving endangered owls or the second coming of the Boston Strangler. There is no excuse for him dying in police custody. Wonderful, rich, upwardly mobile people don't deserve that. Poor, evil people wallowing in the underclass don't deserve it either. That's what someone like Brooks can't grasp, the idea that a person's social status and life experience should not dictate the kind of treatment afforded them by a system that is supposedly blind, impartial, and fair.

MATTER OF TIME

Posted in Rants on May 3rd, 2015 by Ed

The first lecture I ever gave in a college classroom was about the Electoral College, and every time that topic comes up in various courses I feel a bit sentimental. If I may say so, I'm a pretty good repository of information about this arcane and ridiculous system. It's far more intricate than most people realize, although there is a very good reason most people don't realize it: none of the technicalities ever matter. In practice we go to bed on Election Night (or wake up the next morning) knowing the next president despite the fact that the actual Electors are unknown and the Electoral Votes won't be cast for more than a month. Everything after Election Day happens behind the curtain.

There are a lot of strange things that could happen under the rules of the Electoral College; they could, but they never do. An Elector could go "faithless." A state legislature could change its rules for selecting Electors. A tycoon could, in my view, offer an Elector a billion dollar check to change his vote with no legal ramifications for either party (Electors are neither elected officials nor appointed civil servants). For all its what-ifs, however, in practice the process is as dull as dishwater. Candidates and state party organizations choose electors based on unquestioned loyalty to the party and demonstrated willingness to be a good soldier.

There is one big glaring loophole, though. A fatal design flaw. And for years I've resisted writing about it because I feel like if we say its name aloud it will make it more likely to happen. But I'm sure that plenty of Republican strategists, lawyers, and conspiracy theorists have already thought of this in what could be either their finest or their darkest hour.

Here's a quick rundown on how the system unfolds. American voters don't vote for presidential candidates; they vote for a slate of Electors committed to support a candidate. A handful of states print the name of these Electors on the ballot but most do not. We vote on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November (don't ask). Immediately thereafter, each state submits a formal list to Congress of the Electors chosen – whichever set represents the candidate who won the state's popular vote. Five or six weeks later, on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December (really, don't ask) the Electors meet in their state capitol to cast their votes formally. These are recorded by the Archivist and reported to Congress. OK. All clear so far.

The final step occurs in the first week of January, when the new Congress is sworn in and opens its session. On its first day, Congress must certify the Electoral Votes submitted by the states. This, like most parts of the process, is a rubber stamp in the modern era. Any objections made to the Electoral Vote must be in writing and signed by one Senator and one Representative. This is where everything could go to shit. As long as the Republicans have a majority in both chambers, there's no real reason they couldn't just refuse to certify the Electoral Vote. If you think that's too far-fetched I'd suggest you have not been paying close enough attention. How would they justify it? Who knows what Bircher-derived nonsense they would concoct. Texans are currently convinced that the Army is about to come and take their guns; I'm not sure there's a practical limit to their ability to delude themselves when it is to their benefit.

Objections occur rarely and are dealt with quickly. In theory, though, there is no reason either of those statements must hold in the future. A valid (signed) objection results in an immediate suspension of Congress while each chamber convenes separately to resolve the objection. I can find no evidence – certainly none in the 12th Amendment, and none in subsequent acts of Congress – that this suspension could not continue indefinitely. There's no procedure, no contingency plan, for a deadlock that cannot be resolved. It is implied that the members of Congress will come to some sort of reasonable compromise quickly.

Yeah. They wouldn't even need to dig in their heels on all 50 states in a close election, just the one or two that put the Democratic candidate over the top. Close your eyes and tell me that you can't picture it happening; that you can't see Lindsey Graham gravely telling the cameras that California's votes must be rejected because the UN and FEMA and illegal immigrants and teen welfare moms and al Qaeda and whatever other nonsense they can dream up. And tell me that you can't see half of this country buying it hook, line, and sinker.

I am a person of no particular intellectual gifts; if I could figure this out then god knows the lawyers and Dark Artists of the Beltway can figure it out. The only thing stopping anyone from trying this is common sense, restraint, and shame. Take a look at today's Congressional Republicans and let me know how much of that you see. It may not happen soon but at some point, I can guarantee you that someone will try this. If I'm not here to say I told you so, this post will have to do it for me.

NPF: FANTASTIC VOYAGE

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 1st, 2015 by Ed

So this is what I'm doing to some poor rental car in June. Suggestions and dire warnings welcome.

Capture

DODGE THIS

Posted in Quick Hits on May 1st, 2015 by Ed

Every time I think the crazy can't be topped I end up eating my words, but please read the comment section on this story about the Texas National Guard being deployed to monitor US Army exercises in Texas and tell me where we could possibly go from here. If this isn't peak crazy, I hope I'm not alive when it comes.