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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Miss Self-Important is a moron, installment # who knows?

Very recently, it occurred to me that the song Amazing Grace is not actually about a person named Grace. On the one hand, I could plead Jewish ignorance on this point. But I think that might give Jewish ignorance a bad name, and besides, what would I plead when I am ignorant about basic aspects of Judaism?

Due to a lack of excitement on the home front, I will be in New York this weekend, visiting Julia, re-uniting with UChicagoans, some of whom I never knew in the first place, and touring Brooklyn in the hope that it will yield its utopian secrets to me. Laterz.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Miss Self-Important overcomes the civic literacy odds

It was a harrowing journey, but I managed to find my way through the perfidy of modern American higher education and score a 93% on ISI's civic literacy exam. Sadly, I did not know that Congress could not "receive ambassadors" or what it means to "receive ambassadors" in the first place, or that capitalism r0x0rs because "the price system utilizes more local knowledge of means and ends." I thought property rights might be more central to its success. But whatevs. The main point is that I am like five bazillion times more edumacated than da peepz at Harvard and Princeton. w00tz!

In general, Miss Self-Important no longer has faith in all these "studies" showing that Americans are fat, lazy, and stupid. Once, back in high school, when she was still flush with excitement over her discovery that American history was the most fascinating subject ever, she would get indignant over the lackluster performance of Americans on these public pop quizzes. Since I am getting A's on my AP US exams, why can't these people be like me and study history all the time? Oh yes, because they have other legitimate priorities. Even after four years of studying US history (and all the other subjects on this test), I would not be able to teach even a basic high school course on it without looking back over a history textbook. Maybe this is a signal that our failure to memorize is going to doom our civilization, but I am inclined to believe that, as long as we know where to find this information when we need it, we will be ok. Real life is not exactly like a pop quiz.

Also, the ISI test is totally skewed in favor of conservatives students who study classical political philosophy and think relativism is the greatest threat to civilization--basically, followers of Allan Bloom. There's nothing wrong with these positions per se, but it's misleading to suggest that American universities are failing to teach civics if they don't expound it. Even where the test seems to invoke modern thinkers or liberal ideas, these are almost always the wrong answer, and the correct answers can be pretty much summed up as "relativism is bad" or "Edmund Burke is awesome." For example:
8) The phrase that in America there should be a “wall of separation” between church and state appears in:
A. George Washington's Farewell Address.
B. The Mayflower Compact.
C. the Constitution.
D. the Declaration of Independence.
E. Thomas Jefferson's letters.
The precise location of the phrase "wall of separation" has no broad importance in the actual history of the US; it is a part of the specific rhetoric of contemporary religious rights debates. This question is designed for the sole purpose of unmasking uninformed liberals, who will incorrectly assume that the quote is from the Consitution. Fine, wrong is wrong, but there are no questions on the test that would implicate uninformed conservatives by playing on common conservative misconceptions of US history in the same way. And while I agree that it would be better in general if everyone could distinguish the actual text of the Bill of Rights from other writings of the Founders, the phrase is not less a part of the thought of the American Founders for being in a letter. It seems to me perfectly legitimate to use it in arguments favoring strict separation of church and state, so long as it's not said to be from the Constitution.

Then we have the Classical Political Thought p0wns Ur Modernity questions:
19) In The Republic, Plato points to the desirability of:
A. tyranny.
B. democracy.
C. philosopher kings.
D. commercial republics.
E. world government.
Yikes! Now I know that postmodernism and cultural relativism have invaded my innards like parasites and have made it impossible for me to make value-judgments or believe in correct answers, but I would suggest that a) the answer to this question is ambiguous (though the commonplace answer that the testers want is clear), and b) it's actually not hugely relevant to American civics. It is in a broad way, of course, as is all of the Western tradition, and ultimately all knowledge in the world ever, but if we wanted to test students' knowledge of that, well, we might have to expand this little quiz from 60 to about 6,000 questions.

29) Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas would concur that:
A. all moral and political truth is relative to one's time and place.
B. moral ideas are best explained as material accidents or byproducts of evolution.
C. values originating in one's conscience cannot be judged by others.
D. Christianity is the only true religion and should rule the state.
E. certain permanent moral and political truths are accessible to human reason.
Interesting, no parallel questions about what twentieth century thinkers believe (relativism, duh). Evidently, an education up to Tocqueville is a complete education. Studying anyone who came later will probably detract from your civic knowledge.

Finally, this bizarre question:
27) Which statement is a common argument against the claim that "man cannot know things"?
A. Professors teach opinion not knowledge.
B. Appellate judges do not comprehend social justice.
C. Consensus belief in a democracy always contains error.
D. Man trusts his ability to know in order to reject his ability to know.
E. Social scientists cannot objectively rank cultures.
I guess this question is supposed to refer obliquely to Descartes, but what? Why? What does it have to do with civics, and what are these crazy options about professors and social scientists and judges doing here?

If you look at the breakdown by question, the highest percentage of correct answers are on questions about the content of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the basic precepts of American government and free market economics (with the exception of the church and state trick question). The fewest correct answers are on peripheral political philosophy questions and questions about dates and chronologies. Given that 60% correct answer rates are still a little sad, the distribution is still not too bad. The canon of political philosophy is not quite civics (though it certainly doesn't hurt to know it), and dates are easy to double-check.

The highest gains over time are on political philosophy and economics questions--both subjects that students typically first encounter in college. Assuming that the gains are more or less the result of college education, that is a good sign. The biggest knowledge losses are on basic facts (eg, "Who was involved in Reconstruction?") and dates that are often taught in high school and that students are expected to posses by college. Certainly things like the year of Jamestown's founding were not rehashed in any history course I took in college. The explanation seems to be that students--especially those not majoring in history--knew this once and forgot it. Sad, maybe. But still not fatal so long as people know where to find the information should they ever need it.

And finally, whatever ISI wants to claim about Eastern Connecticut State's fine instruction in civics that improved students' scores by almost 10 percent by senior year while crappy Harvard only improved by 6 percent, the fact remains that Eastern Connecticut State's seniors peaked at 40 percent while Harvard's freshman scored 63 percent. Harvard's students, like students at all the traditionally high-performing schools, come in knowing more and leave knowing more. ECS is just offering effective remedial instruction--a good thing in its own right, but no reason to clamor for admission unless you too could use some basic US history knowledge.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

New school year without Miss Self-Important

Judging by the new issue of the Maroon, autumn quarter at the U of C must be about to start. I'm sure there is perfect sweater weather in Hyde Park right now, with warm patches in the sun, and Uncle Joe's is cozily full of obnoxiously loud drama people and math majors drinking $1 coffee, and the giddy first years on the Shoreland busses are having grossly uninformed course selection conversations ("I heard there is a secret honors-level hum class." "Well, I heard that you can take Spanish to fulfill your math requirement.") And the lines at the Seminary Co-op are snaking back to the philosophy section, and no one quite knows what do with himself in the free days before classes begin. Oh, and the A-Level may return! And, in keeping with the U of C ethic, genius warrants exemption from the law.

Not that I miss any of that or anything. I have a Real Life in the Real World now. I am so over the U of C. So. Over. It.

Or not.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

First World Problems: My dorm bed is too small to have sex in!

The WashPost has a brilliant article about the pain and suffering of college students who must endure sleeping on used twin beds in their dorm rooms. Soon they may get some relief, however, as some universities begin offering double beds in an effort to enhance the, uh, academic performance of their students.

The roots of this pressing social concern evidently lie in the trauma that many students suffer when the material luxuries they are accustomed to at home are slightly modified in college in order to allocate funds for other kinds of luxuries, like classes. "Our students are constantly giving feedback about having to sleep on a single bed," Treter said. "Many of them are not coming from single beds. Many come from doubles and queens, so they have to readjust to living on the single bed."

And this can be difficult. Students who "come from queen beds," like students who come from broken homes or low-income neighborhoods, are often lost in the impersonal bureaucracy of the university, and such marginalization can do serious damage to their abilities to flourish in the university setting. Twin beds make it harder for obese people to move around comfortably at night, and it's a pain for everyone who's just trying to have some decent sex. These are serious needs that require serious accommodation. Kudos to AU for leading the way!

UPDATE: Along similar lines, Help! I Thought the Naval Academy Was Just a Really Prestigious University Until I Discovered That It's Part of the Military!, via Joanne Jacobs. First few comments to the article are excellent as well.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Miss Self-Important is such a square

At the coffee shop where I do work on the weekends, I am always surrounded by high school students, and I am impressed by their cultural savvy. When I was in high school, it never even occurred to me to study at the local Barnes and Noble, no less some hipster coffee shop in the city. That would've been cool. Why was I so uncool? Is coolness progressive, like history and science? Are future generations blessed with inevitably greater coolness than their predecessors?

I finished Herzog, and was at first confused by its similarity to Philip Roth. The main purpose of my reading Herzog was to gain insight into the minds of the people who write letters and emails to my boss. Unfortunately, while it's possible that they are brilliant, charming sufferers going through some personal meltdown caused by cruel and manipulative women, it's more likely that they're just crazy. I am less inclined to see the poignancy and poetry of the suffering of dozens of people at once who won't stop calling, faxing, and mailing than the one well-developed philosophical sufferer in Herzog. So much for that.

Autumn weather is here, and it is amazing. Life is on average 3.7 times better inside a fuzzy sweater.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

In which I take young adult literature way too seriously

I was at Barnes and Noble on Sunday night, not browsing the young adult books, when I came across a display of YA books singled out for being particularly drug-addled, and I decided to catch up with the genre.

First, there was The Notebook Girls, of which I was immediately jealous, as I am jealous of all teenage girls who receive substantial royalties for doing nothing more than recording their daily lives. If only I had figured out how to do that in high school, I would not have college loans to pay off today. Then I realized that one of the authors is Katha Pollitt's daughter, and was no longer mystified by how this junk got published. The premise of the book was something like four fabulously well-connected girls go to Stuyvesant, run around New York, smoke a lot of pot, get drunk often, attempt to hook up a lot, and write about it in a journal, which is published in either their original handwriting, or something closely resembling the nauseating bubbly script of teenage girls. They "find themselves" via notebook, and then get into fantastic colleges.

Then there is Rx, a kind of hokey story about an honor student who gets addicted to Ritalin, starts dealing prescription meds, ends up involved in someone's OD death, then gets into a fantastic college. See the trend? Granted, not all the books end with getting into a fantastic college--Crank ends with teen pregnancy and only ambiguous addiction recovery. More realistic?

Sort of. When I was reading YA novels, which was by definition when I was younger than the characters in the books, writers were not likely to get into the specifics of academic achievement. The characters were understood to be smart or successful by repeated assertion of the author, not run-downs of their class ranks, SAT scores, and AP course loads. (Think: Judy Blume's girl genius, Rachel Robinson.) College was almost never mentioned except in passing during high school graduation scenes, at which point, it appeared to have dropped from the sky, since no mention was ever made of the characters actually preparing for or applying to college. The implication was that the details of academic achievement were peripheral to the high school experience, which was defined by the social dramas that typically made up the plot. College applications didn't warrant pages.

By the late '90s, however, when I was reading this stuff, it was already pretty out of touch. To describe middle or upper-class high school life without accounting for academic competition and achievement hierarchies was no longer realistic. It would take a few years for YA authors (and, incidentally, TV shows) to catch on to the national obsession with academic achievement and college acceptance. As cheesy as some descriptions of social heirarchies are (the top students are called "the Twenty" in Rx), they is closer to the reality of large public schools than social breakdowns consisting of cheerleaders, wannabe cheerleaders, and non-cheerleaders. Cheerleading, except maybe in places where high school football = life, is no longer the greatest universal ambition of high school girls.

So YA books have made great strides in realism. They're so realistic that they're even being written by teenage girls themselves. The problem of characters who are never seen in class or studying but magically get accepted to elite universities has not been totally resolved (and it might never be, given that entire chapters devoted to chem labs and the contents of history papers would be tough going for readers), but it's at least addressed by the repeated mention of GPAs and AP exams. Buffy the Vampire Slayer getting into Northwestern and Veronica Mars being accepted to Stanford is a little unlikely (could they possibly have time to do their homework?), but rich girls from Stuy getting into Cornell is pretty believable, even if they do portray themselves as having spent most of high school smoking pot.

Still, if realism is the aim of literature (and television) directed at teenage girls (and since at least Judy Blume, I think it's safe to say that it is) there is a sort of obvious contradiction that Buffy and Veronica Mars highlight. True realism would be chapters describing chem labs and history papers. Most of the middle class demographic for this probably resembles Miss Self-Important circa 2000 rather than the characters in Gossip Girls (which, btw, I am like so excited for!), and certainly rather than Buffy. Miss Self-Important divided most of her time between school, such thrilling activities as Academic Decathlon (shoutout to mah Decathletes!), homework, and staring at her ceiling. Her social life consisted of roughly four people with whom she did such adventurous things as attend movies and study history, and her love life consisted of one undefinable, ongoing situation that hardly evoked grand romantic sentiments or warranted a treatise on the profound pleasures of young love. It was just awkward.

That would be realism, but it would also be mind-numbingly dull. Reality is mundane. It's also inscrutable, and it requires interpretation. Merely recording its dullness, though, is not an interpretation. That's why Buffy is a vampire slayer and Veronica Mars is a detective. The fantasies and fictions are metaphors for pretty banal high school experiences; they are artful ways of drawing out what is actually a limited and constrained moment in life. In this sense, they are believable even though they're unrealistic. (At least, in the first couple seasons of Buffy and the first season of VMars, that was the case. After that, the metaphors took on lives of their own that had increasingly less grounding in adolescent experience.) So strict realism, the observation and recording of events, has only a limited ability to convey what needs to be said. It is not enough to describe the experiences of girls back to them.

But rather than craft clever fictions through which to draw insights, a lot of YA literature seems to fall back on grotesque tragedy to replace the drama that is often missing in real teenage life. So you end up with characters whose lives are completely shattered--drug addictions, teen pregnancies, abusive parents, eating disorders, cutting, etc. The idea is that these characters reflect the "real issues facing modern adolescents." Ergo, they are realistic. But that seems not to follow. Rather, as characters, they are more composite sketches of all our social pathologies, "social issues" with names and storylines. But adolescence is not just a stack of traumatic social issues. These issues do come up in people's lives, but for most people, I don't know that they are central to the drama of growing up. For most people, I would think, a lot of it exists in the moments between "coping with pressure" and all those other pop-psychology jargon.

At the same time that realism is taken to mean intense suffering and extreme scenarios, the writers seem to get more interested in observing the minutia of daily life and less interested in passing judgment. Products and brand names played a prominent role in all the books I looked through, as did (often painful) attempts to infuse dialogue with the latest slang. But whether you should abuse prescription drugs? Well, no, but seemingly only because it detracts from your schoolwork and might indirectly lead to someone's death (fear the karmic vengeance!). But in reality, since frequent marijuana use in high school is unlikely to lead to death, and will probably not even prove an obstacle to academic achievement and elite college admission (just ask Katha Pollitt's daughter), the answer is yes, you should abuse (or at the very least, use) drugs because you're young and this is your time to have a dramatic "realistic" life. Same goes for eating disorders, although with the added caveat that you should be angry at society for pressuring you into this unhealthy lifestyle. The verdict that drugs complicate things is just a basic observation masked as a judgment. If all these writers want to do is describe other people's horrible lives for their cathartic value, then why write fiction at all? Just find people who actually experienced rape, incest, drug addiction, anorexia, and so on, and write their biographies.

Should we blame this on Judy Blume's quite understandable desire to portray the actual lives of girls in an unsentimental way rather than idealize the way good girls should behave (which in itself doesn't particularly encourage readers to make moral judgments either; it just tells them what they should think)? After all, her books largely did deal with things that every girl experiences--puberty, social pressure, familial tension, and so on. Her characters are not desperate screw-ups. Moreover, how many girls over the last 30 years have learned that menarche does not equal bleeding to death because Judy Blume was humane enough to make that fact public? (On the other hand, of course, how many girls suffered extraordinarily from having to find this out from their older sisters or school nurses?) At the same time, you have contemporaneous writers like Robert Cormier bringing "issues" like peer pressure and puberty into actual fiction, and not just expose-style schlock. Or maybe LM Montgomery is just an over-sentimentalized precursor to Judy Blume, and we should blame the Victorians? I am sure there is a scholarly literature available on this subject. I think it is best to end this post here and look it up.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

An open letter to autumn

Dear autumn,

Something is greatly amiss here in Washington. Why are you allowing Starbucks to sell me pumpkin spice lattes in 90-degree weather? I am ready for scarf-and-sweater season (in fact, I am already thinking about which scarves to pair with which sweaters), but my roommates insist that it is still necessary to keep the air conditioner on. (Because they can't sleep when it's warmer than 78 degrees. First world problems.) They tell me, moreover, that this will need to continue until well into October. Is this true, autumn? Because if you want my opinion, autumn, that is really excessive. Are you just going to sit there and let summer dominate you like that? Because I'm sure that there are a lot of women out there who have a lot of scarves and a lot of sweaters that they want to wear a lot of times this year who would be willing to back you on this one.

Fight the good fight, autumn. Stand up for seasonal distinction.

Your comrade,

Miss Self-Important

Friday, September 07, 2007

On unnecessary indecision and grad school

Uh oh. It appears that Miss Self-Important should not apply to graduate school. For one thing, I am ambivalent about a future in academia. I have never had a single ounce of interest in attending an academic conference, or in writing boring and unimportant things for academic journals just so I can keep my job. This could all change given some experience, as such things tend to do, and maybe there are other things about academia that would make it worthwhile to do the lame things, just as there are aspects of my current job that make it worthwhile for me to continue fighting with my printer. But I can't know that now.

The second problem seems to be that I don't have a really specific interest that I want to dedicate my existence to, although if pressed, I could probably cohere various threads into something like the acceptable statements of interest Timothy Burke has up. Athens, Rome, England, early America: definitions of citizenship. Republicanism? Protestantism? Maybe not real Rome and Athens, but reflections thereof in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? You know, something like this, but with more conjunctions. I think I could pull it off without pouring my heart out about how much I love America like I accidentally did to one of my recommendation writers recently. That was a mistake, which I regret. My grad school application will be all business.

Methodologies and professional academia, I know very little about. The only strict methodology I was ever taught was close reading, which is really just a method lacking an elaborate ology, so I don't think it counts. Come to think of it, I'm not even totally sure what constitutes a methodology. Is Marxism a methodology? Or statistical analysis? And aside from occasional crumbs of gossip that fell my way, I didn't spend my undergrad education researching the professional and social mores of the history department. I have no idea what it would be like to be a professional academic historian outside of what I've observed of my own professors, which included a lot about their fashion choices and verbal tics in class and almost nothing about their professional and social lives. How am I supposed to know which of their types I want to inhabit?

So basically, I am totally unequipped for grad school. I'm grateful for any advice on the question, of course, since what do I know? But I'm also tired of waffling. No relatively reversible choice should warrant so much soul-searching indecision. Or such stringent criteria. Do I possess that elusive combination of intellect, passion, and temperament to succeed academically while avoiding mental illness in grad school? Is academia my destiny? I guess we'll just have to find out, since I'm going to apply next year, and if I get in and I get funding, I'm going to go, and if it induces some sort of suicidal depression, then I will quit and do something else. And that's that.
I've managed to take apart pretty much my entire printer, and I still can't get at this infuriating sheet of jammed paper. Would it be acceptable at this point to take a hammer to it? Would that really be worse than calling the tech guys because I can't fix my own pathetic little paper jam?

Edit: A mere three hours later, the page has finally been extricated. Score for self-reliance!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

On the subject of bathroom etiquette

Generally speaking, is it acceptable to talk to people in public restrooms while they're in the stalls?

In the bathroom today, someone asked me if I wanted to get coffee sometime, and while, in another circumstance, I would have been happy to get coffee with her, at that moment, I would have been much happier to be allowed to pee. So I said no. Or something like maybe, but in a very hurried and dismissive way because I was busy thinking, "Are you serious? Do you need to ask me this right now?" I don't typically socialize in those circumstances. At the sinks, sure. While drying my hands, ok. But conversations end at the stall door. Right?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Fashion faux pas

In my incredible fashion brilliance, I have been wearing my skirt backwards for several weeks. I've given it a lot of thought, and I finally decided that no, the slit should be in the back, along with the zipper. Upon adjustment, the whole world suddenly made a lot more sense.