Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The department of unexpected events, part 2


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Curricular suggestions, plz

Recently, my students complained that all the stories we read are lame and demanded new stories. Surprisingly, I did not suggest this to them, even though I too was ready to poke my eyes out when while we slogged through "The School Days of an Indian Girl" by Zitkala-sa, which included such brilliant passages as: "Perhaps my Indian nature is the moaning wind which stirs them now for their present record. But, however tempestuous this is within me, it comes out as the low voice of a curiously colored sea-shell, which is only for those ears that are bent with compassion to hear it." Maybe Zitkala-sa would not have been my first choice as an assignment, but I figured that since my students believed that Native Americans were from Africa, even really bad but factual writing could correct at least some of their misconceptions.

But they did not agree. They demanded "more mysteries and romances" instead and less "boring stuff," which I take to mean the political and ethnic social justice "stuff" that constitutes the current curriculum. I am, of course, happy to oblige this particular request since the only thing I actually enjoyed teaching in the original curriculum was--bizarrely--the poetry. Unfortunately, since social justice takes up a lot of space, there actually aren't any mysteries or romances in the curriculum at all. This means that Miss Self-Important is writing her own curriculum. We're beginning with "The Tell-Tale Heart" this week, and we will discuss how Poe builds suspense (or, more likely, we will discuss all the gory movies that my students have seen recently and how much blood was in them). The question is, what to do afterwards? This is the unexpected downside of viewing my seventh grade reading curriculum as memory-expendable.

I have considered "The Purloined Letter" if this week's Poe goes well, but it's about 15 pages, and I only have about 30 minutes of instruction time, so it would take two sessions, and they'd probably forget the story and lose the print-out by the following week, so length is dangerous. Any other suggestions for short mysteries? I can't remember any of the Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie I read, but is any of it short and lively? Also, what to do about the romances? Two of my kids are boys, and only one of them can be intimidated into cooperation with girly things. Basically, what literature to read with middle school kids that does not suck?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Do I have any questions?

Grad schools seem to really want me to have questions. What are some questions I should have? The questions I actually have include things like, what am I doing? Why am I doing this? Was this a really bad idea? Will I be miserable? Am I even qualified? How should I decide what to do? How can I coordinate this decision with Seb?

In the meantime, the only reasonable question I have figured out to ask is, does the funding package cover the summer? See--practicality!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The co-option of other people's nostalgias through television

Having fallen into an inexplicable future-contemplating malaise in which figuring out what to do next year has become impossible, I spent all day today in bed watching reruns of the Mary Tyler Moore Show on Hulu. I watched the Mary Tyler Moore Show more regularly during the pre-internet period of my childhood, when most of the media I consumed was channeled through either the local oldies station or Nick-at-Nite, and if anyone had asked me what year it was, I likely would've replied 1972.

Because my parents both worked in the evenings and I terrorized all my babysitters so thoroughly that they refused to return after a few months with me, I finally won the privilege of staying at home alone by the time I was nine or so. I liked to pretend that this was a great assertion of my maturity and independence, but in fact, like probably most children who watch horror movies and the 9 o'clock news, I was terrified of being home alone, and even came up with the brilliant strategy of hiding in the washing machine should burglars or the Chucky doll attack. (Unlike other brilliant plans of that time, like mistaking Shake 'n Bake for a kind of meat-flavored pixie stick powder and mistaking my lawn for a different kind of 'grass,' I consider the washing machine ploy a clever strategy to this day.)

However, I discovered that an effective way to overcome home alone fear was by drowning it out with television. Starting at about 7 pm, I would turn on the TV, and it would command my attention until my mother came home, or I was too sleepy to be afraid any longer. Since I watched and therefore trusted Nickelodeon during the day, I, with my firm small child brand loyalty, assumed it would not fail me in the evenings. I'm not sure I even realized there was anything different about Nick-at-Nite except that the shows were from a time when the world had no color, but that time was in most crucial respects, no different from the present. (My parents' photos of the '60s and '70s were also black and white, so I concluded that this was in fact the state of reality at the time rather than merely a limitation of technology. It seemed sad that, only 30 years ago, people lived in a gray world, but who was I to question the magic of scientific progress?)

In 1994, Nick-at-Nite's programming began with Rocky and Bullwinkle, which was a cartoon, and so obviously intended for children, right? That was, like, one of the immutable laws of television. The Cold War satire was so far over my head that it didn't occur to me that Boris Badanov and Natasha Nogoodnik were anything but completely reasonable Russian names, and I was pleased that the show featured my people. I wondered in passing every week why the plot never seemed to move forward, but assumed I was just missing the crucial broadcasts at other times that would've made the story intelligible.

By means of this cunning ploy, I was eased into all the other exciting programming intended for people who wanted to relive their sock hop memories, and so now these are my memories, sans actual sock hops. (Though Happy Days is, in hindsight, a particularly meta example of this kind; having been intended to deliver 1950s nostalgia to the 1970s, I instead encountered it without any context in the 1990s. I assumed it was pretty realistic, like everything else on the teevee.)

Anyway, long story short(ened, relatively), now that I am a more historicized person, the Mary Tyler Moore Show appears to be both absurdly corny and based on two completely outdated premises:
1. Mary leaves a guy whom she dated for two years because he didn't propose to her. Everyone on the show agrees that two years is practically an eternity to date without getting married.
2. When Mary wants to leave the above guy and "start a new life" as a single career woman, she moves to Minneapolis.

Times change quickly. (Even more so when one considers that color was only introduced into the world around 1978.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Promotion of other people

Alex has an article about how advice columns are America's social glue in Doublethink today.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In Soviet Russia, cat lols you

Soviet lolcats have not yet mined the great and prolific subject of tractors, but there is much potential.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

An open letter to the U of C

Dear U of C,

You are dead to me.

No love,
Miss Self-Important

Saturday, February 14, 2009

On the shortcomings of meritocracy

"I ask you, Count--who will be heads of the departments when everybody has to pass examinations?"
"Those who pass the examinations, I suppose," replied Kochubey, crossing his legs and glancing around.
So far, the best lines in W&P.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Further reflections on living with idiots

My roommate is a disaster. If I simply described to you his inability to cook or clean or pay bills on time, his habit of sleeping on a mattress on the floor because he forgot to buy a bed (and this is after it took him two months to buy the mattress), the amazingly illiterate facebook status updates, the fact that his parents have to come in from out of state to bring him frozen meals they’ve prepared and take him to the grocery store or else he’d never eat anything at home, you’d think he was a total loser. But that would leave out the important fact that all this apparently contributes to his great success with women. He is always bringing girls home with him, and not only do they sleep with him, repeatedly, they also cook his meals, clean his room, and even occasionally clean our kitchen (thanks, random one-night stand girl!).

How is this possible? Never having been male, I find it difficult to penetrate the male psyche and do not often try. But I have seen women behave this way before. My roommate is not the first male I have encountered whom women apparently see as an epic improvement project--the diamond in the rough who, with a little tender prodding (and sex) from a patient woman, can be weaned away from his pathetic neediness and shaped into a great man. And the woman, in turn, having reclaimed him from the wilds, will have the honor of being his partner. I suppose all women attempt to improve and civilize their men to some degree, which is understandable enough if they're starting from a decent level of pre-existing civilization--like they know to sleep in a bed, but not to make it in the morning, or they know how to cook, but only spaghetti. But these spectacularly doomed efforts at domesticating mountain gorillas are of a different caliber, I think.

Most of my roommate’s hook-ups appear to be of the conventional twenty-something PR or HR assistant variety, but I have talked with a girl who came once to tend him when he was in the hospital (allergic reaction, possibly from drinking too much) who had just graduated from UPenn and started a job as a consultant and told me that, while she liked her job ok at the moment, she had just informed her boss that if it didn’t get exciting soon, she was going to have to leave, because, “People with my kind of education don’t just settle for having a job if it’s not exciting, you know? I’m not like the people at my office from, like, Penn State, who are content with a 9-5 job that pays well and lets them go home every night to spend time with their friends. I need something bigger.” It was really impressive that she had condescended to hook up with my roommate, who (barely) graduated from a university ranked even lower than Penn State, but I haven't seen her around recently, so I guess that didn't work out for long.

I find it mildly annoying that this person (my roommate, not the UPenn snob) will likely be extremely successful in work and life, despite being a callous moron, but all signs do point in that direction. He has a probably impressive job, though I can't really discern what he does because he speaks mostly in catch-phrases. He has a lively social life. Plus, the girls. Recently, while a girl was over cooking dinner for him, they had the following conversation about an issue of the Economist that had arrived for him:
Girl: Oh, do you read the Economist?
Roommate: Um, I’m starting to.
Girl: You should! You’d be so smart!
Roommate: I know; I love the covers they have.

I guess this is what I deserve.

Abetting my descent into crazy cat lady-ness

I just applied for a custom credit card with this photo of Nigel on it and 2% cash back on groceries. Now I can stop paying $150 to redeem my "free" airline ticket rewards and I can look at Nigel's sweet face every time I buy coffee. Win.

Monday, February 09, 2009

To do list for spring

1. Finish W&P! This was, unfortunately, a bigger undertaking than I anticipated. At least two characters have already risen from the near-dead. I thoroughly expect Lise to suddenly re-appear somewhere down the road.
2. Finish Will's supposedly greatest work of political thought of the century so far.
3. Wear heels more often when it gets warm.
4. Buy a dress to replace my favorite dress ever that Nigel destroyed.
5. Read James Baldwin. (Alex--recommendations?)
6. Drink at the Hay-Adams.
7. Write something for moneys.
8. Convince my students to listen to me and respect mah authoritah. (Actually this is optional, because I suspect I will fail, and I hate not being able to cross off my attained ends.)

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Uninteresting weekend write-up

I had planned several distractions for this weekend, but they were rendered less distracting by Friday's news, so I enjoyed them more than expected. On Saturday, Seb and I went to Baltimore for the first time even though it's only an hour away from DC, and ate many crabs:

Baltimore seemed strangely empty for a great American city; it seemed like there may have been more churches than residents, or maybe more JHU students than residents. However, the crabs were good, and the weather was nice, and I considered how sad it would be to leave behind real springs, the Chesapeake, the hills, and Maryland crabs next year to go somewhere inevitably colder and less lovely than this area. I suppose I can believe that better work is done in colder climates for lack of other diversions, but still. I will only have been here for two years, and I have already concluded it was the best place in America, and my bourgie life would be complete if I could have a row house in Old Town Alexandria and spend my summers on the Eastern Shore. I am too susceptible to these attachments.

Today, Alex and I went to see the Oscar-nominated shorts, which featured the billionth German film about the Holocaust, made even worse by heroic Jew-saving schlockiness. Alex thought it was a good movie, but I wish the Germans would put a moratorium on Holocaust art and consider other important events of the twentieth century for their material--remember the fall of the Berlin Wall? Good times, guys. And, accordingly, Goodbye Lenin and The Lives of Others--good movies. Or how you now have tons of immigrants whom you can't figure out how to assimilate? This is an interesting topic. Or even non-political movies. Anything but the Holocaust and how you are really sad about it. Anyway, the Danish film about the pig painting was by far the best. I think Alex agreed.

Bringing the conspiracy to facebook

I learned today from my facebook newsfeed that the Committee on Social Thought is a Facebook group whose members are only visible to each other. "This is a closed group. Members must be invited or approved by an admin." Does this not strike you as the most fitting possible use of facebook for Social Thought?

Friday, February 06, 2009

The first news is good news

A certain history department in New Haven says yes.

I'm going to attempt to behave like a rational adult who takes such things in stride, but actually, I'm super excited and jumping up and down on the inside.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Two random questions and a prediction

1. Is support for classical republicanism plus commercial growth basically the Whig political platform?

2. Let's say Aries is right about the invention of childhood innocence in the sixteenth century. Let's say Locke and Rousseau both worked from this premise. Can we then conclude that, broadly speaking, Locke took childhood innocence to mean incompetence, which reinforced the moral authority of adults, whereas Rousseau took it to mean authenticity, which undermined the moral authority of adults? Going further in our generalization, can we say that our modern understanding of childhood innocence is based on both these internally conflicting ideas, and therefore is itself internally conflicted?

I predict this post will receive zero comments.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Blessed are the educators for they shall survive the economic downturn

Several years ago, when the economy was still good and I was still a resentful high school student who spent unhealthy amounts of time on teh internets, I stumbled on a website called the Champion, which was dedicated in part to publicizing the salaries of Illinois public school teachers (the other part was devoted to drowning government in the bathtub). For the first time, I learned exactly how much my teachers made, and it was an eye-opening moment.

My teachers, it turned out, made tons of money. They made more money than many of their students' parents (some made more money alone than their students' total household income), and their students were rarely poor themselves. Plus, there are the health benefits, the maternity leave, the summers off, and the sweet, sweet pension. Given the national popularity of the underpaid teacher trope and the frequency with which my own district's teachers threatened to strike, I assumed that I had discovered some secret fount of truth here. There might be no convincing other people that teachers were not starving or that paying them more does not clearly improve student achievement,* but the one benefit of my secret knowledge was that all this public naysaying might keep other people out of teaching, leaving me room to swoop down after college and claim my $40k starting salary prize.

Well, now the economy has tanked, and everyone else has begun to notice that, in fact, teachers make a lot of money. Not just teachers, but also administrators, including those at my high school. And there is outrage! $400,000 for superintending! No fairs! I sympathize with the indignation, and maybe these exciting new revelations of the shockingly comfortable level of public education pay will elicit some demand for teacher accountability or something civic-minded like that. But my first reaction is still, how can I get this sweet job?

*MGC makes this argument here--per-pupil spending disparities across affluent and poor districts (Lake Forest and Maywood) point to the cause of differential student achievement. It's true that there are substantial funding disparities between Maywood and Lake Forest, but do they account for the disparities in educational outcome? In order for that to be true, an affluent district like New Trier, which outscores somewhat less affluent Niles West on every state test, should be outspending Niles West in proportion to its academic edge. But according to the IL School Report Card data from last year, that's not the case. District-wide, average teacher salary and per-pupil expenditure at New Trier were $89,138 and $10,265, respectively. At Niles West, those numbers were $87,909 and $10,598. (Though I'm assuming the teacher averages are including administrator pay.) So what explains the difference in outcomes? (Also, a more minor consideration--does comparing per-pupil spending across states, especially states like New York and Utah, make any sense when the cost of living across these states is so different?)

Monday, February 02, 2009

Important events of February

Sebastian, who takes Groundhog Day very seriously and considers it among the "important events" of February that fill up one's schedule, sends along this excellent video. Special attention should be paid to the guy behind the guy reading the speech, who appears to be having an extended conversation with the groundhog. Also, according to Wikipedia, Groundhog Day is, rather than a completely absurd ritual celebration of a fat, subaltern rodent, actually an ancient and nearly universal Western rite of winter. Who knew?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Amazon commenters ftw!

There are very few instances in the universe when internet comments are anything more than utterly moronic and expendable. If there were a blanket ban on them, I'm pretty sure no one would be worse off. (Even the majority of Miss Self-Important's vast crowd of fans could just email me or talk to me in real life.) The worst offenders are newspaper comments (on which there should unquestionably be a blanket ban), but blog comments also mostly suck, as Phoebe knows. Message boards would seem to exist only for comments, but if we erased message boards from the face of the planet, who would be objectively harmed? Think of how many 4chan and metafilter-ites could be channeled into healthier and more productive activities! Now, I will admit that product reviews can be beneficial, because otherwise how could I know which leather waterproofer will keep my feets dry? But I could part even with them if I could be assured of a site dedicated to reviewing leather waterproofers in their stead.

But then, Amazon commenters put aside writing angry ideological rants in the guise of book reviews for five minutes, and write these reviews intead (via UD). Possibly even better than Alpheus's toy reviews.

EDIT: I realize this post implies that you should not comment on it, but don't take that message too much to heart, dear readers. Negative capability!