ROCKETS' RED GLARE

Posted in Rants on October 20th, 2014 by Ed

I was living in Bloomington, IN when they demolished the Hoosier Dome (aka RCA Dome) in nearby Indianapolis and I kind of regret not making the drive to watch it come down. After considering it, I decided that it was a little too white trashy / low brow to drive an hour to gawk at a giant building imploding. But what the hell, it's a spectacle and not the kind of thing one sees very often so why not.

In that spirit, I won't make the same mistake again by missing the opportunity to watch St. Louis burn to the ground in a couple weeks when the grand jury announces that we don't even need to bother with the formality of a trial before letting Saint Wilson off the hook.

This case is following a very familiar pattern, with details extremely friendly to the Official Version of Events being leaked at regular intervals while dragging the Grand Jury process out long enough, the police hope, to give everyone a chance to lose interest or forget. Mind you, details like the victim's blood being found on the police car don't actually prove anything about the Official Story. They are the kind of details one would cherry pick to support it while conveniently ignoring other questions like, "If you fired twice in the car, why was it necessary to shoot four more times when he was 15 feet away?"

But no matter. The point – one we've had reinforced quite often lately – is that the amount of force one uses to retaliate against a black male who makes you Feel Threatened (legitimately or otherwise) cannot be questioned, second-guessed, or challenged. Once you determine that you are Afraid for Your Life, basically you can pull out a gun and keep pulling the trigger until you feel sufficiently less afraid or run out of ammunition, whichever comes first.

I'm not going to lie, I hope the good people of Ferguson raze that place. Some places are so terrible that there's no compelling case for their continued existence. And all the while we will have to listen to White America talk about Looting and Those People and Like Animals and sometimes I think maybe it would be best if we just leveled the whole country and started over.

YOUTHFUL SHENANIGANS

Posted in Rants on October 19th, 2014 by Ed

Growing up in the Chicago area I was only vaguely aware that anything existed south of Interstate 80. I did hear rumors of some distant hamlet called Carbondale, which would not be noteworthy (or perhaps even exist) except as the location of Southern Illinois University. With respect to SIU alumni and faculty, some of whom are among my friends, SIU is a party school. Located near nothing, excepting the fireworks-and-Oxycontin vortex point at which Missouri, Kentucky, southern Illinois, Arkansas, and Tennessee converge, SIU is the school that Chicago-area high school students choose when they can't get into University of Illinois, or UIC, or Northern Illinois, or somehow not even Illinois State. While some of its academic programs are actually pretty good, the modal SIU student does not really belong in college and has interests ranging from drinking to getting high to facilitating unplanned pregnancies.

Southern found its way into the national news once per year at Halloween, when the students rioted. Literally rioted. Tore that one-horse town a new asshole. Overturned cars, smashed windows, injured themselves and one another, and set fires. It got to the point at which the school was known for little other than the annual Grain Alcohol Thunderdome. After many years of tolerating the rampage – Party Schools face the Catch-22 of trying to limit delinquent behavior while admitting to themselves that it is part of the attraction for potential students – Carbondale and the university cracked down hard in 2000 after a particularly destructive melee. Bars were closed on Halloween, fraternities were not allowed to host parties, and so on.

Even young and conformity-prone Ed kind of thought it odd that for so many years it was considered Good Old Fashioned Fun for thousands of mostly white college kids to have a riot. Euphemisms like "party" or "disturbance" were used; the police responded but with remarkably little enthusiasm, content to let the kids go nuts and make a few arrests of kids who crossed the line from Acceptable Crimes (minor property damage, disorderly behavior) to Unacceptable Crimes like assault or use of weapons. The authorities seemed to treat the riot like a regular, predictable weather event – batten down the hatches, board up the windows, and wait for the destruction to run its course. Because what else can you do, right?

It goes without saying that there is a double standard involved in media coverage of and social attitudes toward "urban" riots – the kind that involve poor and dark-skinned people – and the Youthful Shenanigans of white middle class college kids. The former must be repressed with the maximum available force to ensure that the natural order of society is not disturbed and that the poor remain docile, servile, and without illusions about their second-class status. The latter…well, that's just boys being boys. After all, it's important for white college students to get the opportunity to rebel against the social institutions that bend over backwards to coddle and privilege them.

PROPERTY RIGHTS

Posted in Rants on October 15th, 2014 by Ed

Two related anecdotes.

1. A woman who has recently moved to this city is walking down a residential street with me after dark. She is at the tail end of five minutes of stories relating surprise at the frequency and intensity of catcalling here relative to other places she has lived. We approach three 18-to-21 looking males hanging out on a street corner. They are obviously wasted. As we walk past, they say nothing to her but one nods toward me, makes eye contact, and gives me the trying to be cool "sup" that young males do.

2. A different woman is having dinner alone at a bar. She texts me to live blog the old creeper who is accosting her (not physically) and does not seem willing to leave her alone. She laments that she does not have a boyfriend or at least some male to sit next to so that she might go to a bar and sit there in peace.

It's equal parts intriguing and disturbing how often men treat women with respect – not invading their personal space or shouting things at them that they would prefer not to have shouted at them – not because they think women deserve to be treated with respect but because they are with a man. The inebriated young men didn't refrain from making suggestive comments because they realized that it's inappropriate; they refrained because I was next to her. Old creepers and "pickup artists" do not leave accompanied women alone at bars because they recognize that ignoring all the "please stop" signals is behavior that trends toward Rapey. They do it because the has a Sold tag on her and is already the property of some other man. And many men who would happily treat women with the utmost disrespect would recoil at the thought of disrespecting another man by hitting on his Property.

Many years ago I accompanied a female friend, at her request, to a car dealership. Being younger it didn't occur to me at the time that I wasn't there because I have any special automotive knowledge that might have been useful. I was there because if the (inevitably male) car salesman wouldn't treat her too insultingly in front of Her Man. Women are probably so familiar with and used to this dynamic that they barely bother to think about it anymore. I, on the other hand, never thought about it seriously until the two incidents above happened in quick succession. I understood intuitively for a long time that having a male companion helps women receive better treatment from other men in some circumstances. However, I only recently did the math – women only get treated respectfully incidentally, as a side effect of respecting another man's ownership.

MY DAD OWNS A DEALERSHIP

Posted in Rants on October 14th, 2014 by Ed

Hopefully by now you have seen this video of a bunch of Tech Bros (allegedly Dropbox employees) trying to kick some teenagers off a soccer field in one of San Francisco's many neighborhoods in which real people are being displaced by this decade's version of Gordon Gekko.

The root cause of this incident, leaving aside the social tensions and gentrification issues in SF for the moment, is a simple misunderstanding. Apparently the park district has made some kind of policy change that allows fields to be reserved and they haven't done a great job of communicating that to residents. It's not that the Army of Bros is wrong to be peeved. But you would think that just one of them, or possibly even more than one, would be aware enough to say "You know, there's no way we are going to come out of bossing around and arguing with a bunch of teenagers looking like anything but assholes." It's like these people have some kind of status-induced autism that makes them completely oblivious to what is an appropriate way to conduct oneself in public.

It might have made more sense to leave and call the park district in an effort to get them to resolve the problem on future weekends. I mean, that's what a normal adult might have done. Instead, they decided to let the world get a good look at who they really are and trot out every Frat Asshole cliche on the planet. On camera.

I can never tell if these people honestly don't understand that they are being huge assholes or if they figure that they're so rich they don't have to care what anyone else thinks.

SELF-PARODY

Posted in Rants on October 9th, 2014 by Ed

An economics textbook could probably phrase this more eloquently than I do, but I'm fond of saying that the final stage of the life cycle in capitalism is self-parody. First you sell people an SUV, then when you get criticized for it you sell even bigger, dumber SUVs. You try to entice people to eat at a place called Golden Corral, and once you become the symbol of the rural obesity epidemic you install a fountain that oozes pestilent, lukewarm chocolate on any object placed in its orbit. First you sell the Shake Weight as an exercise implement, then you make fun of yourself and sell even more as joke gifts. Basically, you make one last financial windfall on an idea by becoming a caricature of exactly what you were accused of being all along. When everyone mocks your bad food and gargantuan portions, fuck it: introduce the Super Size.

Now that the bloom is off the rose of the Susan G. Komen For the Curetm foundation, fewer people look at it as a good way to support cancer research and more look at it as a shameless marketing firm that will slap a coat of pink on anything for a buck. The foundation appears to have embraced the hell out of that stereotype, partnering with some fracking company to paint an industrial sized drill bit pink. You know. For the Curetm.

drill

This is not the Onion. A company engaging in an activity proven to increase cancer rates in the vicinity came to Komen, proposed splashing some pink paint on their equipment, and the people running Komen said, "Sure, why not!" Because fuck it, right? Once people have figured out that you're a joke you might as well be the biggest joke you can be. Having long since established that shame is not a relevant concern in free market capitalism, once you no longer care about your reputation the opportunities to cash in become legion.

THIRD-RATE VILLAINS

Posted in Rants on October 7th, 2014 by Ed

A devoted comic book fan explained to me that the biggest issue with making a good series of films based on Batman is that other than The Joker, most of the villains suck. The Joker is #1 and once he's gone the drop-off to #2 and beyond is huge. Since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy (and the military-industrial economy) has had the exact same issue.

The USSR was a great Villain. Americans and their elected leaders could turn the USSR into whatever they wanted, and the Soviet leaders were generally dyspeptic enough to confirm our fears. The (second) Bush administration certainly tried to turn al-Qaeda and then Iraq into the same thing but even people who go through the motions of believing it…they have to know. They must know. They have to know in their heart of hearts that despite al-Qaeda's capacity to execute some genuinely horrific attacks, it's just not the same. Discounting the 15-20% of the population who believe literally anything Fox News spits at them, there's no amount of squinting that can make al-Qaeda look like an existential threat to the U.S. (Oddly enough, the same people who claim that argue that Islamic terrorists are cave-dwelling camel fuckers, and the contradiction speaks to how implausible it is to conceive of them as supervillains. But I digress.)

Now we are going through the same song and dance with ISIS and the overwhelming lack of real interest in or attention paid to the current situation is indicative of how serious we perceive their threat. Sure, they can do all of the things that Modern Terrorist magazine recommends for groups with ideological fervor and minimal resources – maximum shock value tactics like execution videos and post-firefight blood and gore images – but let's be serious here. It's fitting that the group sounds like a third-rate Connery era Bond villain because even by the standards of terrorist/paramilitary organizations they're not terribly impressive. Despite the intense effort by the media to hype them into a suitably terrifying nemesis, very few people who aren't Senators from South Carolina or Texas honestly think "ISIS is coming, the end is near." I mean, what is the narrative? It was at least plausible to think that the USSR could (but wouldn't) launch a nuclear sneak attack in our sleep; is anyone putting the kids to bed with dire warnings that ISIS is going to swoop into the suburbs and blow up the three bedroom ranch?

They sure do pose a threat to private security contractors and certain kinds of international aid workers. That'll give the kids nightmares.

LENGTHY

Posted in Rants on October 2nd, 2014 by Ed

Students complain a lot. This is neither surprising nor new. Students complaining about their classes is like adults complaining about their jobs; it's something everyone does no matter how good or badly they have it. George Carlin said there was a club for people who hate their jobs – it's called Everyone and it meets at The Bar. Replace people with students and jobs with classes and that's what it's like to work in education. You learn not to take it too seriously. Bitching and moaning is just part of what students do. It's not personal.

In the last two or three years, however, I've heard a brand new complaint with alarming frequency. I'm used to the traditional student gripes – the class is too hard, my grade sucks because you're a bad teacher, this class isn't interesting, etc etc – and I pay them little mind as long as I know I am doing my best in the classroom and the class as a whole is performing well. When I changed universities in 2012, though, I noticed a marked increase in complaints about the workload. In fact during my first semester I assigned Mark Twain's short story "Cannibalism in the Cars," figuring it would offer an enjoyable alternative to the extremely dry introductory readings on Congress. The students told me, when it became apparent that they got nothing from it, that it was just too long. In 12 point font with 1.5 spacing, the PDF was nine pages. I thought they were messing with me until one student helpfully offered, "We have the attention span of goldfish." This is a true story. I appreciated his honesty.

To be blunt, I went many years without hearing this gripe because my classes don't require an extraordinary amount of work. In my intro American government class, for example, I do what almost everyone else on the planet does: one textbook chapter per week. Gentle reader, this is not a lot of reading. Intro textbooks are basically formatted like teen magazines or popular websites these days. A chapter is about 25-30 pages. A good portion of that is not text (pictures, graphs, charts, and other visuals). It takes me about 20 minutes to read; for someone reading very slowly and carefully due to unfamiliarity with the concepts it might take 45. This is the total reading load for seven days. As my colleague is fond of saying, "The only way to assign less reading would be to assign none."

That is true, yet the students' complaints get louder every semester – there's too much reading. The underlying problem here has been studied both empirically and anecdotally by anyone who has been in a classroom in the last 15 years. An alarming portion of the students who enter college classrooms apparently have not read…anything, really. I have serious, well-founded doubts as to whether some of the students I deal with have ever read a book. I know for a painful fact that most of them read no news. At best they look at headlines. Essentially anything longer than a tweet or a Facebook status update is too long. Any video longer than about 3 minutes – the average Youtube clip – is also incomprehensible. This is the first generation of college students who were raised on both the internet and wireless devices, and it is absolutely goddamn staggering how poorly they are able to focus on anything. Anything at all, be it educational or entertaining. Open a textbook in front of them and their attention is drifting off to their smartphones before the end of the first page.

It's revealing to walk through the library in the evening, particularly during the busiest exam weeks of the semester. Every single student has a book open in front of them, and every single student is looking and pecking away at their phone. I am starting to think that these students think that if the book is open near them it counts as "reading." When I ask students who express concern about their grades how much they study, their answers make me wonder what portion of the time they report consisted of sitting in front of an open book watching TV, dicking around on the internet, or talking to their friends.

I know that every generation of teachers cries that the sky is falling because of The Kids These Days, but in barely a month I've had a parade of students through my office telling me that there's just too much reading (There isn't) or the reading is indecipherable (Intro textbooks are basically written at an 8th grade level). While these students are not illiterate, obviously, I really doubt that some of them are capable of sitting down and reading a chapter in a textbook. Those of you who do not deal with teenagers in this environment probably think I'm kidding or exaggerating, but it is becoming frighteningly obvious to those of us who do that these kids are leaving high school without the ability to focus on anything long enough to read a novel, a textbook chapter, or even a decently incisive magazine/website article.

When I really want to freak myself out, I remember that as a professor at an expensive private school my students are probably better than most. God help us all.

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TRASHED

Posted in Rants on September 29th, 2014 by Ed

I've lived in the same rental unit for over two years and I make the same walk to work and back every day, rain or shine. Thanks to that experience I can draw from memory the labels of every single brand of bumwine and bottom shelf hard liquor available for sale in this state. Ditto every fast food wrapper, quasi-generic brand of soda, and fried salt snack known to man. Oh, and for good measure, dozens of previously unheard of "state minimum" cigarette brands.

I lived in the Midwest for decades before I moved here, so very little surprised me about this place. The boiling summers, the arctic winters, the flatness, the omnipresence of ranch dressing and bland food – I'd seen it all before. One thing I wasn't prepared for is how dirty everything is. I've never seen so much litter in my life. On the rare occasions that anyone cleans any of it up – by which I mean "When I take a garbage bag and walk a few blocks picking up trash and hoping that you can't get herpes from touching a 40" – it's back again in a day or two. All of the fun stuff that accompanies urban decay – the abandoned buildings, the graffiti, the boarded windows – is here in the expected amount and doesn't really faze me. But I'm still not used to the "Everywhere is a trash can" thing.

Oddly enough the available research does not establish much of a correlation between poverty and littering. It doesn't help that the local government is short on funds and can't provide things like street cleaning as often as they might. What it boils down to, though, is not money but mentality. It's like being in the home of a really depressed person – when someone lacks motivation and has given up, the dishes in the kitchen tend to pile up. When a city is depressed, economically and otherwise, I guess everyone feels like it won't make any difference if they throw their empty Doritos bag on the ground. And even though it makes everything a little more depressing to look around and see trash everywhere you go, the idea of cleaning it up seems as overwhelming as a mountain of dishes with caked-on mac & cheese.

In short, I guess when people have pretty much given up (and not without reason) you get well acquainted with the design of Salem packs and Thunderbird bottles.

SAID IN JEST

Posted in Rants on September 23rd, 2014 by Ed

Perhaps riled up by Scotland's recent unsuccessful attempt to secede from the United Kingdom, a nationwide poll found that about one in four Americans currently favor their state's secession. In the southwest, including well-known havens for Teabaggers, militia types, and vindictive old bastards like Arizona and Texas, public support stands at a truly robust 34%.

I made an attempt on Tuesday to get students to talk about this in class, only to see it collapse under quick dismissals ("Nah, that will never happen") and the persistent lack of interest in giving serious consideration to hypothetical situations. It is easy to see the theoretical benefits of secession from a state's perspective. With some prodding, I got them thinking about the not as obvious downsides. By the time a state government replaced all of the functions currently handled at the national level – defense, monetary policy, immigration, etc. – it is reasonable to wonder if it would look much different than what we have in Washington today.

Older faculty tell me that the students' declining ability and willingness to think conceptually about theoretical or hypothetical scenarios is one of their biggest worries about The Kids These Days. I have not been at this long enough to notice a change. Yet I tried to emphasize in this discussion that it is my firm belief that we likely will be dealing with this situation during their lifetimes. Given the continuing lurch to the right of American conservatism, I don't consider it far-fetched at all to think that if I live forty more years I'll see a real secession vote in a place like Texas. Such a vote would be unlikely to succeed today, but who knows how close the decision might be in the future.

One thing I found curious was the unanimous response of the class on what the rest of the U.S. should do in response to a state's attempt at secession: nothing. Let them go. The enthusiasm for fighting another civil war to keep the most politically backward states in the union would likely be nonexistent if the situation presented itself. Haven't we had a good run? Not many nations last 230+ years under one Constitution. If Texas really wanted out, I can't picture many Californians and New Yorkers begging them to stay. We might even offer them some incentives to take the deep south with them. A Senate without the dozen assholes from Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina would be able to function. Hell, it might even work well.

Pro-union campaigners in the U.K. relied heavily on arguments about history and tradition – sentimental appeals involving lots of Union Jacks and patriotic songs. It's hard to see that strategy succeeding here if the current generation's right-wing wrecking crew succeeds in its constant efforts to make future generations even dumber. Give us another decade or two of homeschooled kids and Texas Board of Education mandates and half the country will enter adulthood believing that George Washington and Abe Lincoln and Elvis Presley and Jesus were all proponents of a free and independent Texas.

I'm not saying they'll win; only that it's inevitable at this point that some state is going to try it in the future.

WATER LEVEL

Posted in Rants on September 17th, 2014 by Ed

The first time one teaches a college class comes with no meaningful preparation. In most graduate programs there is a one-semester lip service course on pedagogy that ostensibly exists to teach teaching; in reality it is the graduate version of a blow-off course and it mostly imparts crucial lessons like "Don't fuck the students" and "Make a syllabus." To say the least, teaching (as the instructor, not as a teaching assistant) for the first time is largely a "jump in an hopefully you'll figure out how to swim" affair. Accordingly the first year or two in the classroom ranges from awful to barely adequate depending on one's natural abilities. The learning curve is steep.

Among the most common mistakes we make at the beginning is creating a course that is far more difficult than the undergraduates expect. We start out naively assuming that undergrads are like we were as undergrads. They're not; we were nerds. We were the 1% of undergraduates who care about the material enough to consider graduate school and a life in academia. The other 99% are somewhere on the continuum between ambivalent and totally uninterested. We expect that the students read the assigned readings (They don't). We expect that they learned certain things in high school (They didn't). We expect that when we tell them something in a lecture, often multiple times, they will remember it (They won't). We expect that they will study for exams and spend more than a few hours on a research paper (Probably not). The preceding may not be true if you are lucky enough to teach at some elite institution. For the vast majority of us, though, the early teaching experiences shock us to accept the reality that many undergraduates had a woeful K-12 education and/or they have very little interest in excelling academically.

So we adjust. We reduce the amount of material we attempt to cover and vary what we do in the classroom until we find what appears to work for the students. We concoct ways to force the students to keep up with the reading. We account for the fact that some freshmen wander into an American government course without knowing that "legislative branch" refers to Congress and that Democrats are more liberal than Republicans. We analyze data on our own exams and assignments and make adjustments where the students haven't done well. We like to think that we improve as teachers and make the class better, and certainly most of us do continually improve. But let us not kid ourselves: compared to our initial teach experiences, we make the classes easier. This is both practical – We don't want to explain why our class of 40 had 33 F's – and necessary, as students deserve a class that is at the appropriate level, which varies greatly by type of school and student population.

Eventually we reach a point at which we can't make the class any easier. More accurately, we won't. As one of my colleagues is fond of saying, "The only way I could assign any less reading would be to assign none." Eventually you have to struggle with the question of what is the minimum necessary for something to be called a college course at an institution that attempts to maintain academic standards. You look at the topics covered and decide that nothing else can be pared away while still doing the intended scope of the course justice. You look at the exam questions and assignments and decide that you simply can't make them any easier, simpler, or less time consuming. You look at what you present in class and come to the conclusion that this is as basic as it's going to get.

It's an unpleasant moment when you reach that point and find that the students' performance is still not where you would like it to be. The remaining explanations are that the students simply cannot succeed in a true college-level course or that you are a very poor teacher. Personally, I never wanted to find myself rooting for either of those options. And the tendency of the system is to either make excuses for the students and blame everything on the teacher or vice-versa with little middle ground.

This post is not one where the story is resolved at the end. These are questions we never stop asking – what can I do to be better, and if I'm not the problem then what can I do to fix it?

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