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Friday, October 31, 2008

Mail Call

Frequent readers of political blogs will I'm sure sympathize with this subject from a reader:
"Re: Request for national security implications of drinking Kool Aid."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Plz to have new blogs?

Notwithstanding the apparent death of blogrolling, I have been trying to update my general list of blogs to read and add new blogs to replace dead blogs. I've especially sought out interesting academic blogs, but that's been really difficult since many academic blogs seem to consist almost entirely of two kinds of posts: 1) excruciatingly detailed explorations of the emotional process that accompanies the writing of dissertations/articles/book chapters/etc., and 2) catalogues of outrages (outrages!) that the blogger personally or vicariously encounters, followed by admissions of tears, wails, primal screams, etc. So a typical page is basically post after post of nervous breakdowns--my advisor is mercurial, my student said something derogatory about teh gays, even my cat hates me, and I cried. I was so outraged, my eyes bled. Etc.

This might all be interesting if I knew the blogger, but there is apparently some dictum of academic blogging that requires everyone to be not only anonymous, but also devoted to the use of absurd acronyms to replace identifying names, so that every normal, three-syllable college name becomes Far-Flung Palm Tree Lined Palatial Kingdom of Pain, otherwise known as FFPTLPKP, as it is hereafter referred to throughout the blog, so that any new reader who stumbles upon it will be forced to wonder, "WTF FFPTLPKP?" I understand this has to do with fear of being denied tenure, but at least if Phoebe is ever denied tenure as a result of her blog, she will have a whole army of fans (and weird middle-aged man admirers) to rally to her defense, and she will not have spent ten years referring to her school as Urban University That Doesn't Pay Grad Students Enough to Allow Them to Get a New York Apartment With a Dishwasher (UUTDPGSEATGNYAWD).

Anyway, so if you have suggestions for good academic blogs--historians, classicists, political theorists--that are not the ones I already read, and that do not fall victim to these traps of academic blogging (and I am fully aware that the ones I do read often do), I would be appreciative.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Problems

1. I dreamed last night that Google developed an option allowing me to log into two Gmail accounts at once from the same computer. So exciting! But it wasn't real.

2. I just realized that I ate exactly half of the candy I bought to give as prizes to my students for my warm-up quizzes. Oops. Fortunately, it's Halloween, so candy is on sale.

3. Yesterday, I did a third lesson with my students on persuasion. They still do not seem to understand the difference between opinions and evidence. In fact, I am not completely convinced that they understand the difference between facts and opinions. That might have to be lesson #4. Also, I gave them the following paragraph and asked them to explain why the argument could be wrong:
Our city should adopt a mandatory purple pants policy that would require everyone to wear purple pants on Fridays in order to reduce crime and make residents happier. The reason they should do this is because in the city next door, they adopted this policy and crime went down 50 percent during the same time. During this same period, crime in our city went up 20 percent. This is because we were not wearing purple pants. Also, purple pants will make everyone laugh more, so they will be happier. This will increase the average happiness in our city.
The best answer I received was that, "If everyone wears purple pants, then no one will be able to tell who commits the crimes." Teaching is hard.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On partisanship

I have been reading the Federalist and the Anti-Federalist recently, and discussion of it often seems to stall on the question of parties, partly as a result of the general DC ambience at the moment, I guess. On the one hand, there is the question of whether the federalists foresaw a party system on the horizon, and whether they wanted to avoid it or embrace it if they did. I suspect, from Hamilton's combative rhetoric at least, that he was already clearing his throat for future partisan struggles, and certainly Americans had, by 1787, a pretty long personal experience of shifting but quite obvious partisan alliances in the British Parliament, and even in the colonial cum state legislatures. They were not as entrenched as our modern system in the sense that they did not organize the legislative agenda, but they did influence the rules and procedures of legislative houses, and they did serve as flashpoints for fairly different (uh, sometimes actively warring) governing philosophies. So when the Federalist discusses the problem of faction, I tend to think that the competing interests approach of addressing faction is intended for parties, and the majority will crush your extremist fringe group approach is intended for the various movements of secessionists small and large that populate 18th and 19th Century American history.

In short, I've concluded based on very little evidence that parties were at least a partly intentional outcome of the Constitution and that they are a net good. The bulk of my non-Federalist-related reasoning stems from the nonexistence of any democracy or republic past or present that isn't divided into at least two parties. The US system may be divisive in terms of generating letter-to-the-editor-writing and door-knocking fervor (seriously, Obama Campaign, do you need to come to my house three times for every person living there?), but as far as governing goes, the American system is surprisingly stable. So does that make partisanship a virtue?

This is actually one question which I've answered differently as a result of living in Washington. In Chicago (or maybe at Chicago, though I don't think this orientation was all that different in Skokie), open expressions of settled partisanship elicited knee-jerk disapproval as manifestations of an uneducated, unthoughtful mind--the kind of people who "cling to their guns or religion," you might say. (Sorry random dude that I don't know--nothing against you, your post was just a perfect illustration.) It is somewhat important to "have views," so subscribing to a general philosophy of liberalism or conservatism (but mostly just liberalism) is admirable, and it's good to vote, too. But it's important to maintain the purity and integrity of your philosophic vision, and not allow it to become tainted by the kinds of compromises that active partisanship would require. Specifically, at any given moment, the good citizen in Chicago should be willing to do something called "transcending partisan divisions," which ostensibly means voting for the other party if that party suddenly finds itself on the side of The Good, or your party joins up with the Forces of Darkness. (That there is only one party in most of Chicago and its environs is useful here--obviously, it's much easier to claim to be above the fray when you know that your views will all be written into law anyway by other people whose job it is to do that while you philosophize.) Better yet, one should evaluate every individual candidate on his merits rather than default to his party affiliation as an adequate proxy. Thus, the good citizen is basically an Independent when it counts, and undecided at the commencement of every campaign, no matter his voting history to present, and everyone else is a "partisan hack."

There is no doubt something appealing about this kind of political independence, and we tend to admire such people and assume their political judgments are more authoritative than those of mere hacks (Chris Hitchens, for example, or Colin Powell), but as with centrism, I'm not totally sure what that appeal consists of outside of the ability to placate partisans of both sides in turn. I suspect it has something to do with a belief that Independents are less biased than everyone else, but I don't know what evidence there is to support that belief, since all it takes to be an Independent is the willingness to change your party registration occasionally. Obviously, some people have to switch parties occasionally, otherwise every election outcome would be the same forever into the future, and the party system itself would cease to exist. But does that make partisanship an evil?

Chicago hates Washington, because that's where all the lazy, stupid people live off its tax dollars and exacerbate the virulent divisions that are tearing America apart (but not specifically Chicago, since everyone there is pretty unified). In Washington, everyone is a partisan (or politically apathetic and frustrated by everyone else's partisanship). They not only care about the parties, they actually work for them, and so have all kinds of intense investments in their continuation and success. "Transcending partisanship," rather than being a long-term national vision, is what happens when I cook dinner with my roommates because we have a coincident interest in nourishment that allows us return to working to eliminate each other's livelihoods the next day. (Unless any of us happens to work for a government agency, in which case, our livelihoods actually do transcend partisanship since our jobs will never, ever be eliminated by any party.)

Partisanship is expected here, and the result is that I think I've become a partisan. I now find the model of the good Chicago citizen foreign and inefficient. For one thing, you can't evaluate every national candidate on his merits, because you don't know enough to do that. You can probably evaluate the city council candidates on these grounds, or your town mayoral candidates, but not the people running for Senate or President. Party affiliation is a reasonable assurance of who the candidate is going to be listening to once in office.

Second, if my "views" on some issue are at odds with my party's, I am inclined to wait until my party comes around rather than vote for the other party. (By "wait," I don't necessarily mean passively chill out until this shift happens, just that I would not defect on the grounds that I disagree with some wing or platform or campaign. Basically, what Ross Douthat says.) It's not that I am confusing the good of the party with the good of the country, merely that I think the party is the most efficient vehicle through which to enact policies in the best interest of the country. Indeed, I tend to think of national politics as a two-step process:
Step 1) Manage the competing factions within the party through negotiation, manipulation, and maybe sometimes excommunication so that my views dominate.
Step 2) Win elections against the other party.

If coordinated in that order, things should work out so that even if certain morons with big mouths in the party win congressional seats, my views will still dominate the legislative agenda, and said morons will generally vote for them until/unless they prove to be woefully misguided, and then the party will have to find new direction. This is not really different from The Way Things Already Are, except that it requires an aspiring Person with Views to put more emphasis on convincing a political party of the correctness of his views and less on convincing The People At Large. (Further advice: said Person with Views should not capitalize all thematic ideas in this extremely typographically obnoxious way.)

So what was the point of this post again? Yes, so I don't really sympathize with undecided voters and people who are just so torn and achingly searching their souls to select a candidate, and I'm a partisan insofar as I am comfortable in my party and it is the first place I look to improve things. Obviously, this requires a prioritization of issues which might change over time, and an opt-out clause in case of irreparably poor decisions* and, worst of all, hints of tyrannical aspirations. (Kidding. (Not really.)) It also doesn't prevent some elections from being referendums (referenda?) on party performance, though I don't think the idea that it's helpful to force a party back to the drawing board by pushing it out of power has been well-supported by the recent past. However, it seems that, on the whole, partisanship takes a more holistic approach to government in a centralized state than the supposedly enlightened nonpartisanship that tries to evaluate every individual candidate along some constantly-shifting set of mostly arbitrary criteria.

You need a Congressional majority to even hope to legislate, and a substantial minority to block bad legislation (and this even before we get the presidential veto involved), and I'm not sure that this is very often all that different from a mass of reasonably warm bodies in Congress who can be trusted to vote with the party most of the time. That means that voting for individual candidates who are not awesome is still important if you want some of the supposedly awesome things you care about to get done. So I'm going to support my warm mass, and you can support yours, and we can both go home and do political theory afterwards.

*Nope, don't even bother with your one-liners in the comments section. This is isn't a political blog, and I don't care what you think.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Outrages of extremely parochial proportions

I have never been outraged enough to write to a newspaper about anything.* This is not to say I'm apathetic about what gets printed, but rather that whatever temperamental inclinations I might have towards railing against newspapers are pretty much channeled into this blog, and moreover, ever since I started working for a newspaper, I have witnessed firsthand how ineffectual and positively obnoxious "reader feedback" actually is. Just today, we received a company email suggesting that any mail lacking a return address or whose address is "handwritten, misspelled or poorly typed" is suspect and should be discarded--whoops, there goes 90% of my mail!

Nonetheless, after enduring years of moronic Style section laments and mind-numbingly bad editorials which never moved me at all, except perhaps to blog about First World Problems, it was this completely untrue article about the Niles West girls' tennis team from the widely influential Skokie Review (possibly the Morton Grove Champion--I think they might all be one paper?) that compelled me to respond. No Niles West girls have qualified for State since 1996? Lies! Damned lies! In fact, at least three people qualified for State while I was playing for the team (yes, I once played a sport, for four whole years even--the universe works in strange ways), and one of them qualified twice. So there. It's not like there is so much exciting news happening in Skokie that reporters have no time to look this stuff up.

So I wrote them a letter, from my work email, for added intimidation. I even included documentation. Then I stepped back and thought about this and realized I was kind of behaving like the lunatics who call my office and tell me that they have "some very urgent papers I need to send you that will reveal how a select group of Jews and lizards have orchestrated this financial crisis from their UFO palace on Mars!" But that's pretty much what local papers are for, right?

*Not strictly true--In the fourth grade, I wrote a letter to the editor of the now-defunct KidNews section of the Chicago Tribune contesting some other fourth grade letter writer's assertions about Israel. I'm going to say that doesn't count.

UPDATE: The reporter replies: "That’s what happens when I rely on the coach’s word instead of doing my own research," and says there will be a correction. Extremely parochial craziness = watchdog of public truth.

UPDATE II: Win.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Nostalgia

Tonight, I had mac and cheese with salsa for dinner, which I haven't eaten since college, and which reminded me of second-year Roommate Carolyn, who showed me the recipe in our rodent-infested dorm, and who is now engaged. Weird how these things happen.

Monday, October 20, 2008

On advice: a comparative case study of bad ideas

Advice columns, like celebrity gossip and greeting cards, are all-American traditions whose purpose entirely eludes me. Why would you send your problem to some self-important woman with over-teased hair so that she can scold you in public? Do advice columns exist to disseminate information about how to deal with your fiance's sudden massive weight gain for future victims of weight-gaining fiances? If that were true, then advice columns would not likely generate a broad following, since any single problem like a ballooning fiance is likely only going to afflict a few people. Why do people who don't have a fat fiance read them with as much zeal as the victims? Are they instead providing a forum for some kind of collective catharsis for all the people who've experienced some variant of this usually quite personal problem and have been too ashamed to bring it forward for public scrutiny? Or is it catharsis for all the people who don't have the problem, so that they might be relieved at not being as desperately pathetic as the problem-haver? (Thank God my wife only gained 10 lbs. since our engagement!) Or maybe more than relief, the reader wants to feel more expert than the advice-seeker, as though of course I would know how to deal with my giant fiance, so why doesn't this poor sap? And if either of the latter two are the raison d'etre of advice columns, then why would anyone submit their tales of woe to them in the first place (notwithstanding how easy it is to make up fake appeals for advice)?

I've had cause to frequent two kinds of advice forums recently--one about grad school, and the other about renegade housecats. While these may seem like two totally unrelated topics, the populations involved (future/current academics and cat owners) seem like they might overlap, or at least not have a radically different outlook on life. But both groups tend towards puzzling and opposite extremes of advice dispensation.

Two common tropes of the grad school forum are:
1) I have a 2.7 GPA and a 950 GRE. I have a long history of failing at pretty much every academic endeavor put before me for my entire life, but my goal ever since I was basically a fetus is to get a PhD in biology from Stanford. Some people have told me that I might not get into or do well in grad school. What should I do?
2) I am married and want to attend my dream graduate program 80 billion miles away, but my spouse has a job/house/etc here and doesn't want to move. What should I do?

The most common response given to both these scenarios is that the poster should "follow his dreams" apparently without regard for other obligations or even reality. Now, there are reasonable answers given too--"maybe you should try to get a job in something else for five or fifty years and see if you still want to go to grad school then?" and "your spouse's desire to stay put is perfectly reasonable, and you will have to compromise, possibly by attending a less exciting school." But the majority of the answers are completely nuts--"you need to go to pursue Graduate studies where you want, doing what you want. It shouldn't be a guilty venture. End of Story." or, to the chronic failure: "Don't give up! I seriously think you are fine." followed by a long rant about the meaninglessness of grades and GREs. Part of the source of this extreme disregard of the existence of other people might be that most of these advisors are young, and might not grasp that not all dreams are realizable and it's not always a good idea to follow them. But most of them appear to be in their mid-twenties, so they're really stretching the grace period.

But then there are the cat advisors, who take completely the opposite view of the world and believe that you should not do anything you want, only what your cat wants. Someone posts a complaint about how their cat keeps them up all night with its ceaseless wailing and scratching at the bedroom door (so familiar!), and ask what they can do about this, and the cat advisors immediately pounce.

Rather than "hey, lock your cat in the basement if you need to get sleep," the advice is: "If this is going to continually be a problem for you, instead of spraying/fighting with the cat's normal behaviour, maybe rehome him to someone that doesn't mind the behaviour of a kitten and get yourself an older cat that has already calmed down." Most of the other advice suggests that the only solution is to let the cat sleep with you and make him as comfortable as possible so he is less apt to complain. (One suggestion: maybe he needs his own pillow?) "If I were you, I'd get some sleeping pills, ear plugs, cat proof the room and smile at the fact that my cat wanted/needed to be with me so much. Enjoy being the meowmy while you can."

So basically, if you are not ready to have your life run by a self-absorbed furball, you are not qualified to own pets. (Despite the best intentions of the cat meowmies, this is likely to result in more abandoned cats, not fewer.) And if you can't enjoy being kept up all night by the lunatic beast, you just have no meowternal instincts. I'm sure there are hundreds of people lining up to adopt (ahem, "rehome") your nocturnal screaming feline.

Why this disparity? The cat poster seems to earnestly want some information and has found himself confronted by vindictive cat owners who want to lord their superior cat-raising (catsmanship?) skills over him rather than making themselves useful. The grad school applicants seem to want affirmations for imprudent behavior that no real-world friend is willing to dispense, but I just want to laugh at the absurdity of these affirmations. Is this why advice columns are interesting to people? Also, what should I do about my wailing at midnight kitteh?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Pumpkin contest

Apropos of last Friday's pumpkin party, we have a dilemma: Which of these two pumpkins is a better cat pumpkin?I understand that the angle for the left pumpkin is not ideal, but use your imagination. Also, the left pumpkin's brains are not permanently exposed, just at this moment. One of them is mine, one is Alex's. Choose wisely. Happy autumn.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Hyde Park: Utopia

In Hyde Park, it seems, all the multiracial children hold hands and sing together while birds glide down to place flowers in their hair. Racial, economic, and political harmony is on the menu at Valois ("the anti-Starbucks"?). Also, there is no crime.

Don't get me wrong, Hyde Park is a nice place in many respects. But it's definitely not the post-racial lovefest this article suggests. Numerically speaking, yes, it is diverse. (The Hyde Parkers interviewed have even managed to spin the proliferation of homeless people and panhandlers in their favor--economic diversity!) There is also a lot of property theft and street crime and the occasional murder, which is a major feature of the neighborhood and which this elegy completely ignores. And, one block in every direction away from Hyde Park, there be dragons. (Except to the east--there be sharks.) Robert Putnam has written about how neighborhood diversity breeds more distrust and tension than Kumbaya-singing, and Hyde Park seems to me like a prime example of this logic--a place where everyone is trying so hard to appear to be integrated because underneath the general cordiality of day-to-day interaction, there is simmering suspicion and tension that boils over about what (at least to me) seemed to be the weirdest provocations.

The reporter obviously wasn't around to witness the hysterics heartwarming post-racial harmony at the town hall meeting held after the infamous "Straight Thuggin' Party," during which all questions were answered with, "No! You need to face your own ignorance!" and even the Spartacists' demands that the university be dismantled because it is a racist, imperialist force of domination were met with applause. Or there was that time in 2005 when the local high school students decided it would make an awesome game to jump neighborhood men and beat them with baseball bats. So, good times in Hyde Park.

I came to the U of C from a school where "We are so diverse!" was code for "Our academics are so mediocre!" so I was disposed to be suspicious of the claim that diversity was itself a great virtue of a neighborhood. But I wasn't prepared for the kind of politically deliberate view of diversity that Hyde Parkers took. No one moved to Skokie for the sake of its diversity; it happened to be diverse because a lot of different ethnics (is that a PC term?) moved there for other reasons. But in Hyde Park, the diversity was (or its residents claimed it to be) deliberate. White people seemed to move there expressly to live in an integrated neighborhood--that is, they made their decision based on a head count of black people and a belief that they can overcome, in isolation and through sheer willpower, what the broader society has failed or refused to do, or at least their children can, having been raised in those pure habits which the elders have had to laboriously cultivate.

But Hyde Park has been integrated for at least 50 years now, and it has yet to become postracial or a utopia. People are still living there in order to demonstrate that they can live there. They are still counting heads, they are still diligently seeking out any real or phantom signs of racism to hold up as indicators that we are not there yet, and the reality of crime continues to undermine the exhaustive PR efforts to convince us all to stop stereotyping (see page 39). (I don't mean to suggest that Hyde Park is some whacked out ideological commune, of course. Many people move there to study or work at the University, which is totally circumstantial, but once they get there, they often adopt the same attitudes as the political pioneers.)

So, WaPo puff piece = FAIL.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Scooped, again

Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement is my BA thesis. I mean, not just a related work. It IS my BA thesis, in book form, written by someone else. To wit:
- Houston starts from the tension between colonial commercial capitalism and classical republicanism and points to Franklin's thought as an attempt at synthesis
- discusses Franklin's egalitarianism of needs (my CSPAF essay!) in response to classical hierarchies
- hones in on Franklin's rabid association-building with artisans and merchants as the key to this new philosophy
- discusses the militia as the ground for the transition from classical to commercial republicanism

Ok, that's as much as I've tracked halfway into the book. But are the similarities not striking?! Granted, Houston is not interested in Franklin's educational writings like I am, nor does he argue that the school is meant to replace the militia as the primary setting for republican education in America. But, still--MY BA.

I'm pretty excited about this. It's a great book so far (obviously, I would think this), and I am always impressed at the intensity of the spell that B. Franky casts over his biographers that convince them that his thought, being the font of the American political system, probably also holds answers to all its problems when read correctly. The biographers are probably a self-selecting group to begin with since it's tough work to write a good biography of someone you despise, but I think B. Franky's iconoclasm has something to do with the sense that, if you could just figure out what made him tick, you could figure out how to fix America. And since every biographer believes he has done just that with his own novel interpretation of B. Franky's thought, the overall effect is an incredible optimism about B. Franky's ideas.

I felt this way too while I was writing my BA until I picked up Carl Schmitt on a whim for side reading, and managed to drive my conclusion off a cliff. (I am not the only person to react this way to Schmitt--when he and Agamben were assigned in a class the following quarter, the ensuing discussion was all about the apocalypse: "Oh my God, we're doomed." "Oh my God, you're totally right." "We are in the state of exception. Who is the sovereign?" "The world is ending.")

I would like to believe that craziness has passed, but it totally hasn't. Just two weeks ago, I wondered if Henry Paulson was the sovereign who governed the state of exception. Sebastian said no. (I should add here in case it's not obvious that I never actually understood Schmitt, which has contributed significantly to my paranoia.) It has also colored my reading of Franklin permanently. Now I think of B. Franky as the cheerful philosopher of peace and prosperity who can make a pretty harmonious society work even more efficiently, but who has no answers for the problem of existential enemies, especially when they come from within. He can exhort us to stop taking our principles so seriously, but it only takes a small group of dogmatists to undermine millions of practical, genial, and flexible Franklinites. He has much to say to striving and improving, but almost nothing to despair. None of this is to say that Franklin is oblivious to the darker aspects of politics, only that his iconoclasm doesn't extend far enough to counter it.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Plans B, C, and D

While the fannish gamers frothed below, I finished statement of purpose drafts for six schools this week, and now I feel the contentment of post-Thanksgiving dinner. There is still a month and a half before the first deadline! I can hibernate now, right?

The only problem is, what if grad school doesn't work out? I frequently speak of having backup plans. The obvious one is high school teaching, which was plan A v.2 for a while, until I got so invested in applying to grad school that I forgot that I would be quite happy to do other things as well. I still can't recall this, actually. Ask me again in April.

The other alternative is my awesome plan to start a rooftop mini-farm, complete with mini-cows and mini-pigs. I'm thinking a block-long roof in Brooklyn or Wicker Park or somewhere else where the loft thing is big and my neighbors underneath will think it's just fantastic that sometimes the weight of my soil caves their roof in a little.

I'm preparing for this plan by starting a compost in my backyard and learning to garden by planting a garlic. I'm also researching ways to drain excess water without "eroding" soil on a flat surface. (See above kiddie pool solution.) I'm not yet sure how I would monetize this idea (sell my garlics far and wide?), other than to charge admission to urban hipster kids to see my cool farm and mini-livestock, and I'm not sure that would cover rooftop rent. Also, how would we justify slaughtering our mini-animals for meat when they are just so cute? And if we don't turn the mini-pigs into mini-pork, then what good are they?

At least I have until April to figure this out.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Department of Bad Ideas: Teaching reading through video games

Have I mentioned how overrated educational technology is? Yes, a thousand times? Here's to a thousand and one: video games are going to inspire stubborn children to read!

Can we even recall all the gimmicks in the last 15 years that were supposed to transform these recalcitrant non-readers into junior professors? There were all those summer programs that promised you free Pizza Hut or some junk if you read 300 pages in three months. I also remember Goosebumps books, which were all uniformly awful (primarily because they were all basically the same book with a different bogeyman copied and pasted into each incarnation--the man-eating plant, the neighbor who's a vampire, etc.), but were hailed as the next big thing in making everyone excited about books. There was Pokemon (which came with books of some sort, though usually with very few words, and what words there were were incomprehensible in the style of most translation of Japanese pop culture), fan fiction, graphic novels, movie tie-ins, Harry Potter, and on and on.

Every new kind of packaging was supposed to finally get everyone reading, and what seems to be plainly obvious is that reading is not for everyone. Literacy might be, but not literary habits. And maybe that's OK. Everyone doesn't have to love Hemingway for the US to be a culturally developed nation. At the same time, these proselytizing efforts have increasingly taken the form of the lowest common denominator of "reading" and "books," to the point where it's worthwhile to stop and wonder if reading any combination of words is always better than reading nothing at all?

There is a reason that Goosebumps is awful, that most serialized fiction is awful, that Pokemon is awful, that basically anything that librarians and schoolteachers try to market as a "gateway drug" to reading is crud. It's because librarians and schoolteachers assume that the reason that some kids don't like to read is that nothing "resonates" with their interests, and since the interests of children are crude and unsophisticated, so too should be their books. This approach seems to be belied by the high probability that no one has ever become a reader because of Goosebumps, while at least some people have become readers because of books that require somewhat greater intellectual and moral exertion than man-eating plants and farting.

So this brings us to video games as a means of encouraging reading. There is no logical connection between these two activities--in my experience, the only activity that video game playing encourages is more video game playing. This is not inherently evil (just mostly), but neither is it going to achieve the stated end. But! also! "some educational experts suggest that video games still stimulate reading in blogs and strategy guides for players." And nothings instills lifelong literary habits like video game strategy guides. And indeed, the single instance this article offers of the connection between gaming and reading is that great bastion of literacy--the internet message board--"Noah also wrote about the games and other pastimes on a group Internet forum. “I was so surprised because he does not like writing,” said William Tropp, Noah’s father." Again, I have to wonder--how excited should we about every line of text a child reads? Is it an achievement that a child can establish basic communication with his peers, which is essentially what a message board allows, and which is completely different from understanding literature? Are food labels the next big literary thing?

Conveniently, the librarians rescue us from the quandary of celebrating crud in the name of literacy: “I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘What exactly is reading?’” said Jack Martin, assistant director for young adult programs at the New York Public Library." When you can no longer defend your own ground, it is usually a good idea to pretend that your ground may only have been the collective delusion of your opponents. I understand Henry Jenkins's argument for transmedia story-telling, and I think some of his promotion of fan fiction and recreational media creation is interesting, but when he gets into his predictions for the glorious future of education based on collaborative multimedia creation, he makes the same error of confusing education with entertainment that the proponents of video games as literature do.

They make other errors, too. For example:
Holly McLaughlin, a senior at Kimball who played Civilization as a sophomore in Ms. Lord’s class, said that at first she failed at the game, choosing to develop culture and religion at the expense of roads and the military. Playing, she said, helped her gain a deeper appreciation for why leaders made certain decisions. “Rather than just reading about it,” Holly said, “you would understand everything about it, because you had built a network of roads yourself.”
Yes, I also loved Age of Empires in high school and played it obsessively, and sadly, it taught me nothing about ancient history. That's because a video game is sadly not history unfolding before you; it's the creation of video game designers. And if the designers want to make a game that can be won by "developing culture and religion," then they can do that, and poor Holly McLaughlin would never know the difference. If they want to design a victory that requires the ancient Egyptians to build a hydrogen bomb, they can do that (or, that's what cheat keys are for). The connection between a historical video game and actual history is whim, not fact.

Finally, there is this small error:
“Games are teaching critical thinking skills and a sense of yourself as an agent having to make choices and live with those choices,” said James Paul Gee.
So video games help you practice being alive in ways that actually being alive don't? Also, what being alive shares in common with literature is its interest in this phenomenon called mortality, whereby people die, usually permanently, and that's seen as a pretty big reason that people have to "make choices and live with those choices." In video games, however, you just get teleported back to level 1 to start over. In spite of Mr. Gee's intensive training in critical thinking, he seems to have overlooked this slight flaw in game reality.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Public Service Announcement

There are going to be a lot of forthcoming posts griping about grad school applications. I know that's really lame, and all the normal, well-adjusted people can apply to school and maintain lively blogs at the same time, but I am an obsessive, competitive, and Internet-addled nut, so normal person standards do not apply to me. This is just how it has to be until the end of November, when I anticipate these horrors will end (although that only means that the related horrors of Waiting for Decisions will begin).

Sometimes, as a break from application-induced insanity, I might blog about how my cat has become increasingly demanding of my attention, which has resulted in such cute new habits as his reaching up and tapping my shoulder when I'm at my laptop, and such distinctly un-cute habits as peeing on my roommate's bed.

These are my first world problems

Graduate school application dilemma: I have to apply to Mismatched School in Happy Town, but I can't decide which department to apply to. My interests can be served in either political science or history, but mysteriously, despite being a well-regarded and fairly large institution, neither department at Mismatched School has enough relevant faculty for me. There are exactly 1.5 interesting political theorists (do visiting professors even count?) and 2 interesting historians. And...that's it. Logic would dictate that I should just scrap this application altogether, which I would normally do, but I can't, because Mismatched School is in Happy Town, and is otherwise perfect and wonderful in every way except for the faculty deficit. So not applying is not an option. The only question is, history or political science? Which will be least likely to get me a rejection letter saying, "Wrong address. No one here studies that."?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Kitchen goddess

I baked honey cake and pumpkin muffins in the same week. And, they were awesome.

In addition, the Very Public Saga of the Milton Friedman Institute continues, with Naomi Klein's taking on the campus Spartacists, the far left duking it out against the even farther left, while the economists yawn and ask to be awakened for the Revolution.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Last night was my first night of tutoring this school year, and we opened up with the most incompetent icebreaker game ever, which went like this:
"Everyone who was born on the West Coast stand up! East Coast!" Giggling, yelling, chair pushing. Go around the room and yell out where you were born, and have your classmates cheer or boo. "Everyone who is the oldest child! Youngest child!" Same, raucous. "Who plays a sport? What sport? Instrument? Which one?" And so on for several rounds.

Then, suddenly, "Everyone who is or knows someone battling an addiction?" Ummm... The kids, who are in seventh grade, are either oblivious to the shift in mood or uninterested in shifting with it, and continue yelling and standing up for everything. "Can you tell us about it?" "Well, I'm battling an addiction to chocolate!" "I'm addicted to television!" "I'm addicted to football!" The woman leading the game isn't about to discipline them or change the subject though, but she insists on taking them seriously because this is an Important Aspect of the Social Justice Curriculum, so this can only get worse.

Then, "Do you know anyone who has ever been discriminated against because of the color of their skin?" Unanimous yes. "Can you tell us about that time?"
"Well, there is this girl in my class. She's from Panama. And this one time, she told the teacher that me and my friends stole her money. But she didn't have no money! She made it up!"
"And did she do this because you're black?"
"Huh? No. She just didn't like us."
"So how is that discrimination? Does she not like certain groups of people?"
"Yes! Like, there's this guy in my class. And he's real funny and all the girls like him. And she likes him, but not me!"

The next kid's example of racism: "Me and my friends went to this festival, and they wouldn't let us into the tent!"
"Was that because you're black?"
"No, they said we were too young to drink!"
"Well, that's a kind of discrimination, I guess... Does anyone even know what racism is?" Blank stares.

I think this is a game the kids play to mock adults, because from what I've seen, their entire school curriculum is infused with race consciousness--every poster on the wall features famous African-Americans in science, or literature, or whatever the class is, and every project in the hall is about some aspect of MLK's or Rosa Parks's life. They can't not know what racism is, at least in the abstract, but they are clever little underminers of authority. In any case, no one volunteered any coherent accounts of racism except for the adults, who were all deadly serious in their recollections. (I exempted myself from this whole process around the time they asked everyone with a significant other to stand up and describe their relationship for an audience of 12-year-olds.) The kids, having been given the definition of racism, proceeded to offer up further absurd examples ("My teacher is caucasian and she's mean to me. It's because I'm black!" "No it's not; everyone in our class is black! You just annoying!"), so the topic was cut off. The next topic: homosexuality. You can just imagine how well that one went over with the middle school crowd. Who thought this activity would be a good idea?

On the upside, my specific brats are back, and hopefully, since I recall from last year which of the seventh graders are good and which are trouble, my request for an additional good kid will make my boring poetry lessons to the world's least receptive audience easier this year.

Then, on the walk back to the metro, it started pouring, and an ambulance driving by stopped for us and drove us all not just to to metro station, but onto the sidewalk and right up to the entrance. More evidence that DC is a kinder city than Chicago.

Signs of the times

From my bank log-in page this morning:
"WaMu customers: Welcome to JPMorgan Chase!"