Thursday, August 28, 2008

More self-involved news

The summer issue of The New Atlantis is online, featuring the culmination of my many wasted evenings on Second Life, as well as articles by Cheryl and Seb.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


I came across an unfortunate unattended stash of my old photos on teh interwebs the other day, and worked rapidly to remove them from public view. Along the way, I found this evidence of my former cuteness:
Miss Self-Important, aged 3, world traveler in a hat

Monday, August 25, 2008

First world problems: No one is excited about the homework I assign!

Ah, high school English teachers, perennial targets of Miss Self-Important's ire. The newest installment of English Teacher Angst comes from the Washington Post, in which Angsty English Teacher laments that her students just aren't having as much fun with Charles Dickens as they used to. When did high school students love Charles Dickens and fall all over themselves to write essays about him? Unclear. But moving on.

The problem seems to be that teenagers don't get excited by "great books" in English classes, and as a result, become illiterate. Well, except that some of these books turn out to be of questionable greatness--"How the GarcĂ­a Girls Lost Their Accents," for example--and that the kids are actually reading a lot of non-assigned sci-fi in their free time, and so presumably are not illiterate. Nonetheless! This is a major problem for Angsty English Teacher, because her students (who are also brilliant creative writers in the making, it should be noted) sleep through her course and sometimes long for their next period gym class. I haven't heard of many brilliant writers who don't read or any pedagogy based on fun (except, in fact, gym class, which was the least fun experience of my life), but maybe this mysterious new species of "digital native" will overturn my anachronistic assumptions.

This is yet another variation on the the childhood as hostile nation theme, which incomprehensibly describes children as a coordinated barbarian invasion against the institutions of our state. It's us vs. them locked in a battle for culture, and they're totally winning because they have MySpace and text messages and fall asleep in class when we try to teach them things we think are important. And if the only purpose of schooling is to ensure that kids have fun so they don't have time to plot against and destroy us with their MySpaces, what can we do but surrender to their demands and create AP Text Messaging to appease them?

How such a deranged appraisal of education has become so popular is beyond me. Not only does it fail to consider that adults give children MySpace and text messaging (when was the last time a child invented broadband technology?), but it also suggests that their exists some kind of solidarity between children against adults. YA lit likes to play up this image of the rebellious teen, which has some element of truth in it, but completely overlooks the hatred, insecurity, and rivalry that makes up probably the majority of children's social lives, as well as the desire of children to please adults, including their teachers. I would even conjecture that the admiration that adults have expressed for the rebellious teen type over the past 40 years--that romantic "non-comformist" or assertive individualist who acts out in public--has actually contributed more to the desire of children to become that type than the approval of their peers has.

Angsty English Teacher is at the front lines of this call for adults to surrender authority over culture to children:
"Butchering." That's what one of my former students, a young man who loves creative writing but rarely gets to do any at school, called English class. He was referring to the endless picking apart of linguistic details that loses teens in a haze of "So what?" The reading quizzes that turn, say, "Hamlet" into a Q&A on facts, symbols and themes. The thesis-driven essay assignments that require students to write about a novel they can't muster any passion for ("The Scarlet Letter" is high on teens' list of most dreaded)...Until we do a better job of introducing contemporary culture into our reading lists, matching books to readers and getting our students to buy in to the whole process, literature teachers will continue to fuel the reading crisis.
I was under the impression that Hamlet actually did contain some facts, symbols and themes, the comprehension of which might be indispensable for understanding Hamlet, and also, for ascertaining that the reading was completed as assigned. (Though I was always among the Shakespeare Haters in high school, so don't take my word for it. I learned this unfortunate truth in college.) And that "thesis-driven essay"--the basis for pretty much every piece of writing you will ever produce in your life, from the artiest novel to the most mundane office memo--who needs to practice that? But it turns out that, because Angsty English Teacher believes that the only way to avoid plagiarism is to assign PhD dissertations in miniature for every assignment, writing essays about books is no longer about practicing reading or writing, but instead about doing absolutely original and groundbreaking research:
If I were a student today, surfing the gazillions of Web libraries or model-essay banks for insight into an assigned school classic, I'm sure I'd be asking myself, "What on Earth could there be left to say?" Last year, when I thought that I was stepping out of the mainstream by requiring my students to write a review of "Dead Poets Society," I was shocked to find, with just one click, that the 1989 Robin Williams movie had already been analyzed by hundreds of online literary pundits. Asking our students for yet another written commentary has a certain absurd ring to it, no?
Students have been writing about Homer for 3,000 years, but 2008 will go down as the year when it all of a sudden got stale. So what's left to teach if even a cheesy 1989 film is too tired for further analysis? I vote for novels yet to be written. What to do about Angsty English Teacher's angst is the vaguest part of this essay. She clearly wants her students to like her very badly, and is willing to sacrifice every standard of education to that great cause. But what's left to teach them if everything they don't develop "a passion" for immediately isn't worth their time? Welcome to Honors Whatever You Already Do Outside of School, a class dedicated to making education completely redundant by only teaching students what they already know.

Addendum: I guess I should add, since I am criticizing Angsty English Teacher for being unspecific about her desired reforms, that I think classics should continue to be read in English classes precisely because they are hard. Most science fiction is not hard, and that's why 14-year-olds read it on their own. But how to read Homer or Shakespeare or Faulkner is a skill that needs to be modeled and taught explicitly. That said, even among great works of literature, there is a lot to choose from, and the wisest will choose to cut Dickens and Hardy because they will know that it is impossible for anyone under 40 who is not a grad student in English literature to appreciate them. Just sayin'.

Advantages of the blog as medium

1. Getting to the point, exhibit A:

Jacob Weisberg in Slate:
Many have discoursed on what an Obama victory could mean for America. We would finally be able to see our legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism in the rearview mirror. Our kids would grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives. The rest of the world would embrace a less fearful and more open post-post-9/11 America. But does it not follow that an Obama defeat would signify the opposite? If Obama loses, our children will grow up thinking of equal opportunity as a myth. His defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to. In this event, the world's judgment will be severe and inescapable: The United States had its day but, in the end, couldn't put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race...To the rest of the world, a rejection of the promise he represents wouldn't just be an odd choice by the United States. It would be taken for what it would be: sign and symptom of a nation's historical decline.

Stuff White People Like, #8: Barack Obama
Because white people are afraid that if they don’t like him that they will be called racist.

Monday, August 18, 2008

An open letter to the GRE

Dear GRE,

As a wise Barbie doll once said, "Math is hard." Also, how can I possibly be paying this much to get crushed by factorials?

No love,
Miss Self-Important

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The campaign to alleviate Tony Judt's sadness about not being more famous than he is, and other woes

In the introduction to Tony Judt's Reappraisals is a lament for the twentieth century we have forgotten; that is to say that we have forgotten his version of the twentieth century, in which the welfare state pretty much averted World Wars III, IV, and V (try disproving that). It's also a lament for the public intellectual, whom we've apparently forgotten as well, and just before Judt could get in on the fun, too. One problem with these kinds of historian laments about how no one cares about history anymore is that the people who really don't care about history aren't reading the book, and I do care about history at least enough to read the book, so why am I being scolded?

Another problem is that they assume the agreement of all the morose historians of the world (their only readers, after all), and so rely on a lot of sloppy assertions like, "In our time...the past has no agreed narrative shape of its own. It acquires meaning only by reference to our many and often contrasting present concerns." I suppose this could be true to some degree if you consider the habit of grade schools to justify the history they teach in terms of its contemporary "relevance" and take this habit to be the great curse of our time, but it's not clear that it is, or that it's even a uniquely current phenomenon. (Tocqueville's description of the tendency towards presentism in America comes to mind.) The rest of the introduction is a series of such assertions, including: "The United States today is the only advanced country that still glorifies and exalts its military, a sentiment familiar in Europe before 1945 but quite unknown today."

When I was "studying" in Greece a couple of years ago, we arrived in Athens a few days before Greek Independence Day in March, and so as part of our orientation, we were all taken to see the parade in Syntagma. It started out with the usual drummers and things, but this was then followed by what seemed like representative of every regiment of the Greek military, in full uniform, with weapons. This included the amphibious units, and the soldiers on skis (they had to carry the skis, alas). After that came the armored vehicles, small artillery, tanks, jets, and near the end was--I kid you not--a giant missile on wheels. (I tried to find you all a picture of the missile from my classmates' photo albums, but I was unsuccessful. You'll have to take my word for it, though there are photos of the tanks and jets here.) It was an impressive display, which we all left in shock. A missile! Who would wheel out a missile for Independence Day? I've never even seen armed soldiers at an Independence Day parade (although I'd imagine this does happen in other places in America)--the most martial element was the high school marching band. The rest is a bunch of girls twirling batons and old men in striped hats ambling around on stilts. To the extent that our Independence Day or Memorial Day parades are about the military, they are primarily about honoring its veterans rather than projecting its current and future might.

Which is not to say that Judt is wrong to say that we revere the military and the idea of the soldier's self-sacrifice, but I'm not sure that's the same thing as glorifying it. Parading a giant missile around the streets of Athens seems more clearly a form of glorification than the kind of passive respect our monuments to the army invoke. (I'm thinking of, for example, Arlington Cemetery.) And you might say that Greece is not a fully European or developed country, or that, like South Korea and Israel, for example, the proximity of an existential enemy forces it into a different relationship with its military than is the case with more peaceful Western European nations, but actually, I'm pretty sure that other Western European nations also have military parades (Bastille Day?), whereas if you drove tanks down the Main Street of some American town (or probably even Washington, DC), most spectators would assume this meant we were under attack and immediately freak out.

Anyway, onwards to Arthur Koestler.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Science also supports the yuppie lifestyle

Look, the NYT finds that caffeine consumption up to a "reasonable amount" (according to their calculation, that's about 32 oz. of coffee a day--roughly the volume of a canteen, I might point out) is good for you in every way possible, and bad in none. (Ok, it doesn't help you lose weight, but maybe that's not the coffee's fault so much as the muffin you always order with the coffee.) It's even better than water! JT Levy really will live forever, and the rest of us might come close. The only lingering question: how long before archaeologists dig up a primitive espresso machine in a middle period Egyptian refuse heap?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

On the homefront

SmartBike DC is here, right outside my office, waiting for me to register, which I would totally do if a thousand other people did it first. I like the idea of bike-sharing (it was very utopian when Alex and I saw it in Barcelona), but I would also like not to be run over by a car, so I would only participate when half the current drivers switched to bikes and removed their running-me-over hazard from the streets. But, if I don't register, then I am only contributing to the non-biking in DC and preventing my desired bike-happy future from ever materializing. This is a dilemma. DCist commenters, in keeping with tradition, pan the idea because it's corporate, and it doesn't come with helmets. Maybe I'll re-evaluate my options when they build some bike stations in Arlington.

In salient news for human moles like myself, I got a pair of $20 prescription sunglasses from Zenni. I know, I know, it looks totally sketchy, and you would never buy your glasses off the internet from a place claiming to sell glasses for $8. But, lo, they send actual glasses with your actual prescription in which you look only slightly like the tool you are:
Unfortunately, you can't try them on in advance, so the fit is not perfect. And in order to cost so little, they're probably made out of Elmer's glue by Chinese political prisoners working in unlit dungeons, and will fall apart within two months, but at $20 a pair, they'd have to fall apart every two months for two years to match what I paid at LensCrafters.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Status and education: how much deeper can I gaze into my own navel?

I'm confused by this exchange between Reihan and Dara on the American Scene:
Reihan: In America, as far as I can tell, members of “the elite,” understood as people with the most occupational prestige, take great pride in their broadmindedness. Distinctions are important, but the distinctions aren’t classic high-low distinctions. I talked to this brilliant, brilliant kid a few months ago, an African American student at an exclusive Southern prep school, and he noted that the cool kids — the kids with the most cultural capital, so to speak — listened to a dizzyingly wide range of music, from extremely twee indie pop to the grimiest hip-hop. So in a sense the cultural code was actually more inscrutable: there was no stable canon one could master. Rather, you had to be sufficiently and continuously plugged in to sense which way the cultural winds would shift, which is exhausting for those trying to succeed at status politics. One could argue that this is at least as insidious as cultural elitism along the lines described by Bourdieu. There’s no denying, however, that it is different.
Dara: Part of it might be that in the era of conventional “high culture,” familiarity with certain acceptable kinds of art was telegraphed much more publicly. Going to the opera was an event and, therefore, an opportunity to signify your sophistication to anyone who happened to see you on the way. Even hanging a work of art in the foyer was something that people would see before they necessarily had an intimate level of acquaintance with you...The dominant art forms of the present, on the other hand, are mediatized enough that we consume them in much more private settings. So in order to know a person’s taste in something it is necessary to have a relationship with him/her first, thus making it impossible for elite preferences to serve their second function...So maybe you’re barking up the wrong tree: instead of comparing the taste of today to the taste of twelve years ago (or the last few hundred years), maybe the source of cultural capital has shifted. Is there anything that serves both as a vocabulary to be mastered and as a signal for who it’s acceptable to approach? (My guess is that technology and social media fit the bill—signifying status via standing in line for an iPhone 3G, etc., with people with MySpace accounts constituting a sort of “anti-elite”—but I could be persuaded otherwise.)
I'm not sure I buy the idea that today's taste-making is more private simply because its accoutrements are acquired privately, since the point of all the private acquisition is still to show it off in public, whether via online favorites lists or dorm-wide itunes sharing or some such thing. And if display in your house counts as at least semi-public, as Dara suggests it does, then there is still the matter of showing off your books and artwork and expensive kitchen gadgets at your dinner parties. (Basically, if you consider Stuff White People Like to be a relatively accurate compendium of the current signs of high status in America, you have to believe that these signs are visible to strangers, otherwise how could the blog's author notice them?) Maybe we don't note each other's presence at the opera anymore, but we still signal our status at the gym, the Whole Foods, the coffee shop, the elite school (whose logo we plaster on our cars and ass-pants), etc. Taste-signaling might be more fragmented and reach a smaller proportion of the elite than in the past, but the elite is much larger than it was in the past as well.

However, the suggestion that technology is the new status symbol, taken together with Reihan's point about the imperative to have increasingly omnivorous taste in media suggests that elitism now consists in how you consume rather than what you consume. So it matters that you have an iPod, not what's in it (though it helps to have a lot of random stuff). Or it matters that you are clued in enough to use Twitter, not what you write in it, which by definition has to be eye-gougingly boring. Or, that you choose what to read because it's been reviewed in n+1 instead of because some old geezer thinks it's a "classic." This actually dovetails nicely with the idea of the so-called "creative class" whose members lack techne and specific content knowledge, but have instead been educated in flexibility and a mode of thought ("critical thinking," "problem solving," whatever you want to call it) that is supposedly more broadly applicable and economically lucrative than the pedantic old-style education.

(My own education in history, for example, can be clearly divided into two parts: in high school, I had to memorize a bunch of facts and retain them for exams; in college, I had to distill arguments from primary sources in a way that typically required only the sketchiest knowledge of historical facts. The point was to learn a way of reading, not to memorize the content of what was read, since the content was unlikely to be directly relevant to one's future career. This belief that a liberal education "teaches you how to think" is the current flaccid compromise between the traditional liberal arts and the demands of a technical economy, I think.)

None of this is to say that I'm convinced that modern elitism is somehow radically different now than it was 60 years ago because now it's not about what you like, but how you acquire it. Aggregators of good taste have always been around (Remember when The Partisan Review stood for all that was highbrow? I don't either, but they tell me this was so.) and which gadgets you owned, where you shopped, how your relationships were mediated, and all that contributes to how you lived your life have always been part of what makes an elite. I would prefer the safer claim that educational attainment is what makes the current elite because it's the universities that are currently the crucible in which adult values and attitudes about what is worthwhile (including iPhones and social networking) are forged. Nonetheless, I think there is a connection between the lack of specific content in what is considered good taste and the way in which the good tasters have been educated.

Can you tell that I spend a lot of time agonizing over the possibility that I am a vapid yuppie and repeatedly concluding in the affirmative?

omgz, bestest cheezburger evar


Friday, August 01, 2008

Miss Self-Important does not learn important lessons

When I was applying to college, I admit that I completely succumbed to the lure of the internet message boards. In some ways, this was excusable. I had no grasp of the application process, no older siblings' experience to reference, and few friends with whom to commiserate. Most of my high school class avoided private colleges, and those who did apply to them were either superior human beings who did not stress out over these things and wondered why you were pestering them with your worries, or covert operators who would say things like, "Oh, I'm not sure I even want to apply to college" while probing you about your plans and then mysteriously getting into Yale come spring. There was also a small subset of entertaining fools who were happy to discuss how they would be accepted to Swarthmore any day now, although it was common knowledge to everyone but them that they were delusional (and had also been kicked off the newspaper for plagiarizing repeatedly). I did get three trenchant pieces of advice from an English teacher--1) don't write your personal statement about why you refuse to shave your legs (oops! time for draft #2!), 2) don't go to Vassar; you'll hate it, 3) everyone at Chicago is depressed, wears black turtlenecks, and smokes all day. All painfully true, but nonetheless limited.

As we know, when question arise and credible answers are nowhere to be found, there is always the internet. Back in 2002, the thing was the Princeton Review message boards, where at the low, low price of your dignity and self-respect, you could post your "stats" and the schools to which you were applying, and then 20-30 anonymous strangers with absolutely no qualifications would tell you what your chances of admission were. Several other anonymous strangers would contribute such useful tidbits as "Harvard is a TTT! YOU ARE ALL KIKES!!! I DID YOUR MOM LAST NITE!!!" (In all my time on the message boards, I never did figure out what TTT stood for.) In addition to all this, there were many soul-searching threads about what exactly the cut-off SAT score for such-and-such school was since it was this person's dream since before they were even conceived to go there, and whether the school would prefer someone who played lacrosse to someone who had published poetry, and whether Northwestern really deserved to be ranked in the Top 10--no, really really? or just really? And does Cornell p0wN Columbia or vice versa? Basically, the pressing questions of our age.

Despite the very obvious evident pointlessness of these message boards, they held some sort of perverse fascination for me, and I spent many angsty nights poring over them, scoping out my hypothetical competition, trying to glean tiny scraps of useful information from the vast wasteland, and aggressively chewing my fingernails. There were people's entire life stories for you, partly told in numbers, but also significantly fleshed out with tales of great woe and garnished with liberal amounts of pompous boasting. And, despite our petty squabbles over whether it's better to go to a prestigious school and be mediocre, or go to a mediocre school on full scholarship and be brilliant, everyone seemed to agree on the basic premise that the college decision was the single most important moment of our lives, which would both redeem our pasts and promise us glorious futures, so it was obviously completely justified to read the boards until 3 am every night of one's senior year and despair of any possibility of ever being happy every time some other completely clueless high school senior wrote that you should do X thing to ensure your admission which you could not possibly do by the deadline, like write a book or wipe out malaria in Africa.

Once admissions season over, I laughed at myself for having been sucked into this nonsense, and vowed never to be so gullible again. And I was doing fine until this week, when I was working on my statement of purpose for grad school and became slightly confused. What better place to find small answers to small questions than teh internets, right? NO. Instead, I found AutoAdmit and Grad Student Cafe and half a dozen other EVIL SOUL-SUCKING admissions message boards whose laments and conjectures forced my heart rate up 500 percent. Prior to this discovery, I'd been going about the application process diligently but not obsessively. If it doesn't work out, I have a plan B, a plan C, and a plan D to fall back on. But now, I have been temporarily infected by message board tunnel vision and getting into grad school is the most important thing evar. Apparently, you need to be both general and specific in your personal statement, you need to email and not email professors in the fall, your recs need to be from philosopher-kings, and you need to study four hours a day for the GRE, a requirement which cannot be eased on the basis of such pathetic excuses as full-time employment. And after all that, you will be rejected from every school, including all the master's programs. And then you will dedicate your life to insisting that these rejections were the best thing that ever happened to you to anyone on internet message boards who's willing to listen.

The internet was designed to prey on the fears of people who are inclined to worry about imminent DOOM anyway. There is no way to win.