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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Annual end-of-year hyper-navel-gazing

As though I don't do enough of it on a daily basis. Last year, I made four resolutions. I am pleased to report that all have been attained.

This year, I am upping the ante by adding an extra resolution:
1) Not get fired from my job
2) Apply to grad school
3) Write things
4) Go places
5) Be not unhappy a year from now

I know; I am an overachiever.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

In which I reveal that I am actually Scrooge

I always enjoy the Christmas season right up until Christmas actually arrives. Then everyone ditches me to "spend time with their families" and all this other nonsense, while I am left to watch old episodes of Gossip Girl and try to rescue my personal Haitian family from starvation and disease. The game is totally rigged since the trick is to send the youngest one to volunteer for UNICEF (makers of said game) rather than to school, since school only occasionally provides education whereas UNICEF builds a library which keeps everyone happy and a community health center which keeps everyone healthy enough to keep running market stalls and distilling rum.

But, at least I am going to Chicago on Wednesday. Chicago!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Preemptive redactions

Once upon a time, I was going to write something about the underestimated intensity of female friendships, particularly among young women, and the way that strict categories of sexual orientation often fail to capture and might occasionally distort the nature of these relationships. (Think: Victorian literature vs. post-60s awareness-raising lit portrayals of what are now called "girl crushes," among other stupid names.) But then I read through New York Magazine's archives and discovered that this article had already been written, and it was horrible, and girls are actually vacuous, sex- and attention-crazed freaks. Oh well.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Vindication

Recall my dream of a carless utopia? The New Yorker, it seems, shares my vision:
Drivers often say they prize the time alone—to gather their wits, listen to music, or talk on the phone. They also like the freedom, the ability, illusory though it may be, to come and go as they please; schedules can seem an imposition, as can a crowded train’s cattle-car ambience. But the driver’s seat is a lonely place. People tend to behave in their cars as though they are alone in a room. Road rage is one symptom of this; on the street or on the train, people don’t generally walk around calling each other assholes. Howard Stern is another; you can listen to lewd evocations without feeling as though you were pushing the bounds of the social contract. You could drive to work without your pants on, and no one would know.

The loneliness quotient might also account for some of the commute tolerance in New York. On the train or the bus, one can experience an illusion of fellowship, even if you disdain your fellow-passengers or are revolted by them. Perhaps there’s succor in inadvertent eye contact, the presence of a pretty woman, shared disgruntlement (over a delay or a spilled Pepsi), or the shuffle through the doors, which requires, on a subconscious level, an array of social compromises and collaborations. Train riding has other benefits. Passengers can sleep or read, send e-mails or play cards. Delays are out of their control.
An excellent essay all around, I might add.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

First world problems: There is too little violence in my life!

Via UD, the excellent story of yet another student victim of the ubiquitous self-inflicted hate crime:
A Princeton University student who claimed he was beaten unconscious by two assailants after receiving death threats for his morally conservative views admitted yesterday to fabricating the attack and sending the e-mail death threats to himself, other students, and a prominent conservative professor, police officials said...

In November, a student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. reportedly admitted to drawing three of several swastikas on her own dorm room door after police disclosed hidden video footage.

At Boise State University in Idaho, a gay student who had said he was the victim of a hate crime that knocked him unconscious later told police he had beaten himself with a stick, press reports said. (emphasis mine)
In the past, such incidents typically involved people vandalizing their own stuff and then crying about it in public, but the willingness to beat the crap out of themselves reveals exciting new opportunities in the war against nonexistent campus oppression. (No information is yet available about how Mr. Oppressed Princeton Student managed to work himself into a state in which "his jaw was badly swollen, his face was covered with cuts and abrasions, and the inside of his mouth was bleeding," but it sounds like he outdid even Mr. Self-Inflicted Stick Attack.)

Why do people do these ridiculous things, and why do they only happen on college campuses? Cheryl suggests that it's evidence of First World Problems turned pathological. Cosseted student activists no longer face any opposition to their publicity stunts from administrators or police, and what's the fun of epic protests if Power just accedes to Truth's demands or ignores them? No one gets billy-clubbed and comes out looking noble and heroic. The only thing that heats up is the campus paper's op-ed page. "So if the cops won't beat you or actual bigots, then you have to beat yourself and hope that causes some kind of uproar."

My friends the strangers

Since you're all so obviously excited by this youth/media stuff (please, slow down the barrage of comments), I'm going to post even more on it.

Online social networking is said to be primarily for the purpose of reinforcing pre-existing relationships, but that can only happen when your real life social network is also online in large numbers. Where does this put early adopters of a technology? When a new site is launched or new software is developed, its first users by definition cannot use it to mirror their physical social lives (unless all their real life friends also happen to be tech geeks), so these sites must encourage cyber friendships at least initially. But at some point of critical mass, this seems to stop being the case.

For example, when Facebook first launched at the U of C, I accepted friend requests from strangers, but once Facebook had become entrenched at most colleges and most of my real friends had signed up, I decided that friending strangers was creepy and rejected such requests. (Conversely, such requests declined around the same time.) It was as if the understood purpose of the technology had changed from, "Look, we are playing around with this cool toy! No rules! Woo!" to "Now this is an extension of our social lives and so must be governed by a consistent set of behavioral conventions." In real life, it is not acceptable to approach strangers and ask them for personal information, and so neither was it on Facebook any longer.

And this understanding lasted until Facebook opened to the general public and older or non-college adults started registering. Even though they were entering an established site, they were still in some sense early adopters since, for them, Facebook did not reflect their real life social universes (unless they happened to be friends exclusively with college students and recent alums). And they subverted all our wonderful college student conventions by cluttering their pages with zillions of applications (a new feature added around the time of their entrance of which they did not know to be wary) and, yes, starting up the random friending process again. GoodReads is even worse. I get about one random friend request a week, usually from an adult, and I am totally confused as to why these people are out trolling for strangers with whom to share their reading lists, of all things.

Evidently, some people have yet to receive the "internet is meant to reinforce reality" memo.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

In which I retract the claims of the previous post, as per custom

David sends along a link to the Open Yale Courses, a series of videotaped and audio-recorded introductory undergrad courses available for download. Of course, I started listening to the recapitulation of my hum and sosc courses, and came across this point:
Socrates' defense speech, like every platonic dialogue, is ultimately a dialogue about education. Who has the right to teach, who has the right to educate? This is in many ways for Socrates the fundamental political question of all times. It is the question of really who governs or maybe put another way, who should govern, who ought to govern.
Put that way, we should only allow the best and brightest to teach, unless of course we have a regime in which government is not intended to be by the best and brightest (possibly), or in which schooling is only a partial component of political education (likely).

In an econ course in college, the question once came up: "How much do we value education in America if we pay teachers so little and professional athletes so much?" (Though it should be noted that, for people with only BAs who get summers and holidays off, as well as excellent health benefits, teachers are not paid as badly as they claim.) This was followed by an explanation of how the availability of substitutes increases elasticity (there are many people who can teach third grade, but extremely few people who can play basketball like Michael Jordan) and how much money "we" (the government) spent on education vs. professional athletics, which are not funded by "us" (except when "we" use eminent domain to get land for stadiums). Thus, the pay disparity does not really reflect our cultural devaluation of education in favor of pro sports.

Indeed, one of the recurring arguments of early American education writers was that the profession of teaching needed to be taken more seriously and granted more respect if we hoped to train children appropriately for their duties in a free republic. Given that in the eighteenth century, it was not uncommon for schoolteachers to be abusive itinerant alcoholics, I'd say this injunction has been realized to a great extent.

Still, with the exception of some people who are willing to pay a sizable premium for the education of their children (the cost of private school tuition, or that of living in a top public district, for example), we still valorize our athletes far more than our schoolteachers. Perhaps this is because we are boors? Or maybe because our teachers and our schools are honored in proportion to their roles as governors, and the more decentralized our education system, the less connected are the schools to the direct training of rulers?

The Yale Open Courses thing is strangely displeasing to watch, however, despite my general craving for a return to coursework in life. (The most recent solution has been to contemplate taking a Thai cooking class--not quite like reading Heidegger, but a close second, I'm sure.) Possibly the problem is that I've already taken various equivalents to Introduction to Political Philosophy, and it may be time to move past that into unexplored realms like Modern Poetry. More likely, it's just not a real class with real reading and real discussion and real papers. But, hey, I will settle.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

My teacher the rocket scientist

How did we come to believe that teaching is a profession requiring our country's best minds? Every time I come across this assumption, I think of the smartest people I know and what they might become running a sixth grade classroom, and I grow sad. Some of them would no doubt be bad at teaching, while some would be great and very happy, but most would simply be bored explaining over and over how to divide fractions, or diagram a sentence.

Selecting teachers of primary and secondary subjects for their ability to do far more than divide fractions and diagram sentences on the assumption that, since they know advanced math or complex grammar, they really, really know simple math and grammar seems to miss entirely that aspect of pedagogy that requires teachers to be personable, sympathetic, patient, and able to effectively convey the basic information they are charged to teach. It doesn't take a George Orwell to explain the five-paragraph essay structure to a 14-year-old, whereas it is unlikely that a competent but mediocre writer with a solid grasp of basic structure will become George Orwell. Encouraging Orwell to become a high school English teacher seems, in soulless economic terms, an inefficient allocation of resources.

So why should we be alarmed to discover that, "The SAT scores of prospective teachers who took the licensing tests in elementary education and physical education, however, were significantly below the average for all college graduates"? Since when does coordinating a third grade basketball game, or instructing eight-year-olds in double-digit subtraction require the intellectual talents of someone who could otherwise research protease inhibitors or write about the politics of eighth century monasticism? I would be happy to entrust my children to patient, sympathetic teachers who can develop a good rapport with their students while teaching them the basics, even if those people graduated with a 2.5 GPA. Teaching high school courses, particularly advanced ones, probably requires a more thorough college-level understanding of the subject, but probably not more than that.

Obviously, individuals are free to choose the careers they want, and if someone with a PhD in classics decides he wants to teach seventh grade social studies, I have no objection (in fact, this is more or less my life plan). However, the assumption of alternative certification programs like Teach for America is that poor educational outcomes can be reversed if more brilliant people are lured away from fields like law or banking or academia to become teachers, and that is, I think, fairly inaccurate. (Their other assumption however, that traditional certification is a pointless obstacle for qualified potential teachers from academic rather than pre-professional backgrounds, is correct.)

And yes, this question has been raised before.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The traveling pants, sans sisterhood

I ordered some pants from American Eagle several weeks ago. They were nice pants, ordered (because they do not carry short lengths in-store) at a nice discount, and they never arrived.

The first problem was that the confirmation email I received listed my address as simply "Nth St." Clearly, the person on the phone had messed up my order, so I called back and corrected the address. They accepted that, but then two weeks later, the pants still had not arrived. I called again and was told that they had been unable to change the "Nth St." address, and so the shipment was still headed for this mystical place which is neither number nor letter and certainly not address. What was I to do?

"Go to the post office in Arlington and check if the pants are there," I was told.
"Do you know how many post offices there are in Arlington?" I replied.
"Well, call them all then. If they're not picked up, they'll be returned to us."
"But how does that help me? I won't have any pants if they're returned to you."
"We'll send them back to you."
"At which address?"
"The right address."
"That's what you said last time, and now you're telling me to hunt down my pants at every post office in the county."
"No, this time we will send them to the right address."
"But that will take another month."
"Yes."

I went to the closest post office over the weekend, but unsurprisingly, they did not have my pants. I called American Eagle again and was informed that my pants were now in Kansas, and I should call back in a few days. Why? How hard can it possibly be to ship me a pair of pants?

Monday, December 10, 2007

The internet lynch mob?

First, there was the intensely weird story of the middle-aged woman who pretended to be a 16-year-old boy on MySpace in order to flirt with and ultimately reject a girl who had been mean to her own daughter, which resulted in the girl's suicide. Perhaps an example, for Withywindle, of Postman's thesis about the way that a medium can create or collapse hierarchies, depending on how it conveys its information. Internet social networking communities: no adulthood required. So who is responsible for all this? On the one hand, if Middle-Aged Mom had really been a 16-year-old boy, I would be more inclined to emphasize that the girl was overly sensitive. To hold a child who said cruel things responsible for suicide seems extreme given that children, by their nature, say a lot of cruel things. We assume adults, with their more developed moral judgment, should refrain from such, ahem, childishness, and so we hold them more responsible for their lapses of judgment. We even call them lapses, implying that they are exceptions to normal behavior.

So what do we think when MAM acts exactly like a reckless 16-year-old boy? She is no more responsible for the suicide, since we've established that a mean boy is not a murderer and she was clearly perceived as a mean boy rather than a Middle-Aged Mom, but she is nonetheless more culpable for something. For being childish, even though that is not a crime with any legal status. She should be held somehow responsible for behaving like a 16-year-old boy and betraying a child.

Enter: the internet. That's how this all started, right? So this all got intensely weirder recently when the hoax blog of said MAM surfaced and generated bazillions of angry comments (read now, before Google's cache updates) condemning MAM and demanding that either she repent or she be prosecuted or both. In the pre-internet world, you had to go pretty far out of your way to find the perpetrator of even a real crime and give them a piece of your mind, but the internet could make democratic justice a lot easier. Gawker is already in the business of channeling the internet's speed and America's insecurity about success to destroy innocent douchebags. What if we let the internet lynch mob loose on all the other ambiguous not-quite-criminal cases of bad behavior by giving them a URL at which they can easily be reached for comment? What would we accomplish? Catharsis? A revival of humiliation as punishment? Or just intense fear of stepping out of line in even the most innocuous ways, since every social faux pas could make you the target of the internet lynch mob?

Granted, making a fake MySpace profile to taunt the neighbors' daughter is not quite the innocent social faux pas of sending a douchebaggy response to a random person on match.com. But they have in common the internet, which creates enough distance between you and your audience that what you do becomes sort of surreal and all the those things about responsibility, maturity, and social comportment you laboriously picked up in childhood? Suddenly less urgent. A couple weeks ago, when I was exploring Second Life, I decided to go into a gay bathhouse plastered with signs barring women, because you know, why not? It's just a virtual reality with virtual people having virtual sex in a virtually discriminatory bathhouse. Would I ever do that in real life? No. But what does real life have to do with anything? Let the online justice begin!

(In case you're wondering about the bathhouse incident, I got warned by the virtual alarm system that I would be virtually reported to the virtual authorities if I didn't leave.)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Did you know

that Art Garfunkel has had excellent literary taste for the past 29 years? And some have commented that my reading list was useless. At least it didn't list page counts.

Regular blogging will return eventually. In the meantime, Cheryl has a website, courtesy of my sad CSS skillz.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Let's rank my toes in order of prestige

With grad schools, law schools, medical schools, colleges, and now high schools under their belt, all that's left for US News to rank is nursery schools. What will their criteria be--rates of graduates who can successfully tie their shoes, with separate weight for the subset of disadvantaged students and their shoe-tying success rates? Not that I oppose the publication of the data included in the rankings, but I have some serious doubts that it's about "accountability" for the schools. Accountability would require holding low-performing schools responsible for their results and doing something about them, not publishing a cash-cow list of great schools whose only possible response can be to bask in their glory. That's not accountability; it's praise for money.

Also, Niles West may not be the best school ever, but how is it possibly so much worse than Von Steuben so as not to even warrant inclusion on the list? On the other hand, does this mean that if I ever become incredibly successful, I can call myself self-made, or say I've overcome obstacles?

Monday, December 03, 2007

How to get into Harvard

Evidently, like this. Can I also just make clear how jealous I am of everyone who had the opportunity to study Latin and Greek before college?