Monday, December 12, 2011

"You will remain there, incommunicado, until you are able to resume the exam."

TAs are required to read a script containing exam rules to all students before administering a final exam. It's quite long, but the best part is,
If you become ill during the exam, immediately contact an instructor. Note that a student who is present for any part of an exam is never entitled to a make-up exam. If you are too ill to continue the exam in the exam room you will be sent to University Health Services and will be seen by a doctor. If you are admitted to the Infirmary, you will remain there, incommunicado, until you are able to resume the exam. If you are seen by a doctor but the doctor does not feel that you are ill enough to be admitted to the Infirmary, you must go immediately and directly to the Science Center, room 112, and you will compete your exam there.
It goes on with detailed instructions about how to respond to a fire alarm ("stay together but do not discuss the exam"), but I've personally never managed to get past the part about being held incommunicado--either as reader or hearer of this text--without dissolving into giggles. I wonder if anyone's ever made it to this "room 112" during finals week.

Monday, September 12, 2011

"Like any language, Latin seeks to be understood"

This is a line in my ($75!!!) Latin textbook. It's not clear why this is a thought worth writing, no less publishing, but nonetheless, there it is. One imagines the scene in which this line might be spoken, with a teenaged Latin embroiled in a heated dispute with his hypothetical parents, Indo and European.

Indo: Why are you always out causing trouble? Why do I keep hearing from other language families that you're stealing their usages? I was on the phone with Etruscan for hours yesterday, getting an earful about your disgraceful behavior!
Latin: I just want to try new things! Experience the world's possibilities! Dispense with definite articles!
European: Why can't you be more like your older brother, Greek, who stays close to home and minds his parents' rules? One day, you'll realize how important definite articles are and you'll be sorry you didn't listen to us!
Latin: Ugh, you're too old! You just don't understand!

And, for those of you keeping track at home, it seems that there is a certain logic to the usual course of studies whereby one learns Latin before Greek and not vice versa. The good news is that, if you happen to reverse this order, your serial Greek failures might someday be vindicated by the euphoria of coasting through introductory Latin. So far, at least.

Tomorrow: TAing for the first time. Pretty excited. Going to try to avoid making dramatic exhortations about "the virtue of a human being and citizen."

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Department of Bad Ideas is now offering a course on its greatest hits

The Crimson reports that there will be a new freshman seminar option this fall variously called "Big Ideas" and "Great Big Ideas" (a confusion which is actually not the paper's fault since the course site also uses both names). The course will consist of videos of professors lecturing about their field paired with the sparsest of readings (often of the professor's own work). The purpose of this course is largely unknown, since all the descriptions of it available consist entirely of educational buzzwords. According to the Crimson,
"One of the goals of Great Big Ideas," Hopkins said, is to expose new students to as many different areas of knowledge as possible, helping them connect relevant ideas from multiple disciplines and guiding them in their own decisions about future academic paths...This is a course for everybody...To do one thing well, you need to be able to connect the dots between disciplines, see the big picture, and understand how seemingly different concepts relate to each other. You need to have a diverse toolkit to confront challenges that are out there.”
"Expose" "Areas of knowledge" "Relevant ideas" "Multiple disciplines" "Academic paths" "Connect the dots" "Big picture" "Diverse toolkit" "Confront challenges"-- Are you wondering what the actual content of this course might be? If so, perhaps you will be enlightened by the description included on the syllabus [requires university login]:
This course serves up a mezze-plate introduction to the world’s most important ideas and disciplines. It is the conceit of this course that there are precious few important ideas that have relevance beyond their specific disciplines, but it is these very ideas that comprise the sine qua non of a modern education. A wide range of subjects will be covered including Psychology, Economics, Biomedical Research, Linguistics, History, Physics, Politics, Statistics and more. Within each topic, we will discuss the most current, innovative ideas in the field, dissect them, and look at how they impact not only the world-at-large, but our own lives as well. How does Demography predict our planet’s future? How is Linguistics a window to understanding the brain? Each of these lectures will be presented by top experts from top institutions around the country, and will be delivered via the Internet. The course is designed to give students an introduction to a variety of concentrations in a way that allows them to explore unfamiliar territory and ask leading questions, and look at different subjects in a new light, before choosing any predetermined field of concentration.
Oh, did that not clarify anything? Maybe what you're failing to grasp is that this course is about Everything, or the subset of Everything known as Every New and Hip Thing, and so has no specific content? Let's look at the weekly assignments and see:

The first week will be an overview of the syllabus itself. This is understandable because the syllabus is 12 pages, four of which contain the biographies and color photos of the professors in the videos.

The second week is called "The Classics," and the topic of the video lecture is, "Contemporizing the Classics: Why Homer, Plato and Dante Still matter in the Modern World." You might imagine that this session will include readings from--at least--Homer, Plato, and Dante. But, no. Instead, some chapters of How to Read a Book and Education's End--a recent pop lament of the decline of the liberal arts--are assigned, as well as evidently the entirety of that ageless classic, All Things Shining, which came out about two weeks ago and is reviewed here. So I guess after this session, students will be "exposed" to all the "relevant areas of knowledge" in literature and will have "connected the dots" to see the "bigger picture" of the entire history of Western literature, and will be sufficiently equipped with the requisite "diverse toolkit" to determine whether an English major ought to be their "academic path," right?

The rest of the syllabus proceeds in much this way, the only difference being that most of the other sessions assign readings from the latest works of the professor featured in that week's video lecture, some newspaper or magazine articles, or a single chapter of a random textbook in the field being "exposed"--economics, statistics, etc. The reading is on the nonexistent side of light, which I suppose is reasonable since these ideas are either "big" or "great big," and in either case, obviously expansive enough to warrant a week's dedication to their contemplation unencumbered by such distractions as "books." The week dedicated to philosophy has the most extensive requirements, listing the readings to be discussed as:
Thomas Hobbes, Selections from Leviathan
• Book I, chapter XIII, paragraphs 1-14
• Book I, chapter XIV, paragraphs 1-5
• Book II, chapter XVII, paragraphs 1-15
Robert Nozick, Anarchy State and Utopia
• (Optional) Preface, entire (pp. ix-xiv)
• Chapter 7, Introduction (pp. 149-150)
• Chapter 7, Section I, up to “Sen’s Argument” (pp. 150-164)
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
• Chapter I, opening paragraph (pp. 3)
• Chapter I, section 1, paragraphs 1-2 (pp. 3-4)
• Chapter I, section 2, paragraph 1 (p. 7)
• Chapter I, section 3, paragraphs 1-8 (pp. 11-16)
• Chapter I, section 4, entire (pp. 17-22)
• Chapter II, section 11, entire (pp. 60-65)
Given that this is a course on Great Big Ideas, this may seem like a Great Big Lot of reading, but look closer, and you'll realize that it's fewer than 50 pages in total. So no worries, freshmen, nothing is easier than learning Everything!

UPDATE: This absurdity has a website, which sports their logo, which doubles as their message to students--F U.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Overheard during freshman move-in day

Said by a freshman to her new roommate: "This is the greatest place in the world to be a brilliant and motivated young person...That's our room [pointing to a dorm window]. It's amazing. We're going to be sitting there in January, drinking coffee and watching snow fall in the Yard. Then we're going to change the world."

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

If it were possible to be a fan of reviews of things in general, I would say that I am a fan of Emily Hale's reviews of things--books, lectures, battle re-enactments (as the case may be). I usually lack the requisite interest in the particular genre of mid-century women writers who convert to Catholicism to seek out the books she reviews, but in a universe of infinite time, I might read them based on these reviews. But recently, she reviewed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and it was clear from her description--Calvinism! teacher-student relations!--that this was a book I needed to read, pretty much as soon as possible. So I did. And it was, as I expected, completely mesmerizing. You can read Emily Hale's summary of the book so I don't have to repeat it here. "Teacher-student relations" is a politic way of getting at what the book is about, which is something more like the erotic nature of teaching, and its limits in forming people. Everything about this book is, as teh catz would say, relevant to my interests, which are soon to become my dissertation. (After the completion of which, I might have no further interests.)

Emily Hale thinks Miss Brodie's failing "is that she attempts to make her students into her own image." This is true in that she seems to have a narrow sense of what is acceptable for the best women to become--not "team spirited" believers in popular platitudes, not unthinking young wives, not technical experts like the upper school teachers, and so on. Basically, not anyone else they encounter in school except herself. But it's not clear that her criticism of the narrowing tendencies of conventional schooling is entirely misplaced. She tells her girls, "Miss Mackay [the headmistress] retains [a poster of a former Prime Minister] on the wall because she believes in the slogan 'Safety First.' But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first." Is that not an accurate summation of the imperatives of schooling vs. the imperatives of living? And Miss Brodie is additionally right to resist various efforts to send her to "the more progressive schools," sensing that the education she offers can only be effective against the backdrop of tradition, not in the absence of it. But I think the main problem is not that she wants to make her girls into herself as that she wants to make to make them all Anna Pavlovas (her ideal of passionate dedication) of whatever vocation she discovers in them. But she is first more fallible than she assumes in her ability to identify the girls' vocations. And the Calvinist idea of secular vocation can't bear the weight of her demands (even before she extricates it from its original relation to an omnipotent God). It turns out that "vocation" can't be secularized at all, that in the world it can only lead to disappointment because it's incommensurate with the smallness of human lives, which can rarely be as single-minded and committed as vocation demands.

Miss Brodie wants to instill passion in her girls in order to "lead them out" (her translation of education--"ex duco") so that they may discover themselves in the world, which is to say, so that they may take up their vocations. But vocation demands that individuals become exceptional in some way simply by taking their rightful places in the world, and this doesn't account for our relative smallness and the world's galling bigness. All of Miss Brodie's girls go on to respectable but unremarkable things--one becomes a typist, another a nurse, a third a scientist. Spark tells us all this right away, just as she introduces the girls, so that there is no suspense about what will become of them or what effect the tutelage of Miss Brodie will have. She even emphasizes the smallness of each girl's youthful talents--"what she was famous for," as she describes it. One girl is famous for doing somersaults, another for being desired by boys, a third for having remarkably small eyes, and a fourth for being hapless. These are not auspicious beginnings for identifying vocation, for leading what is already inside the girls out.

And the great gulf between the "potentiality" (a word Spark seems to like) of their childhoods and their adult fates is so blunt as to be shocking--the first outcome we learn about is that of the hapless and stupid girl, Mary, whose hapless and stupid death in a fire is described in maudlin detail. Why does Miss Brodie so to speak "elect" such a pathetic girl to her set? What is the meaning of election if one must live and die like Mary? Did Miss Brodie see some spark or potentiality in her, or think it a challenge suitable to her prime to improve someone as dull as her? But for the reader, the girls are always destined, or predestined for their smallness in the world. Jenny, the prettiest of the Brodie set and thought by Miss Brodie to have much potential until she unaccountably "becomes insipid" sometime in her mid-teens when she discovers acting, and ends up only "an actress of moderate reputation," contentedly married for 16 years when she comes across an Italian stranger with whom she falls in love, but "there was nothing whatever to be done about it." This--both the mediocrity in a life of imitation and the unthinking unwillingness to pursue an illicit love--was not imagined in Miss Brodie's plans for the girls. Only the main girl, Sandy, whom Miss Brodie is always saying will go too far one day, achieves a kind of strange acclaim, a place in the world for a psychology book she writes, but that only after she converts to Catholicism and rejects the world to enter a convent. "What a waste. That's not the sort of dedication I meant," says Miss Brodie when she hears about Sandy's vocation. Ironically, of course, Sandy--the one who is famous for nothing more than her small eyes--turns out to be the only one of the Brodie set to have any capacity for a vocation at all.

One might also ask how well Miss Brodie herself lives up to her vocation, which she declares several times is her students. It is clear that she loves her students and they love her, but she doesn't realize that if it's to be a vocation, this love must be exclusive. When she starts an affair with another teacher, the girls, and Sandy most of all, feel betrayed. The other girls turn their attentions more to the world outside Miss Brodie, while Sandy starts up an imaginary affair with a policewoman, whom she helps to gather evidence of Miss Brodie's crime. This is a great moment in the psychology of modern eros, by the way. In Emile, Rousseau argues that, in order to educate children in a world without any legitimate authority (the fear of punishment being a perversion of authority to which we resort for lack of other means), a teacher must dedicate his whole existence to a single child. Authority can only be established contingently on a child's sense of the adult's perfect benevolence to him, which requires unstinting attention to the child. The impossibility of living up to this demand is in part what makes Emile a Lockean comedy rather than a serious guide to childrearing. But we get an image of Emile gone wrong in Miss Brodie, who sets out to do exactly what Emile's tutor does, but never realizes that the temptations of "her prime" must be seen as mere distractions from her vocation rather than the arbiters of her own happiness. This is of course an impossible demand, but Calvinism makes it.

Also this book is wonderfully written, mimicking the rhythm of children's thoughts with their endless repetitions while the girls are young, and picking up as they grow older. Emily Hale is also right that, despite the sort of whimsical narration and plot, it's ultimately dark. I finished it in a state of low-grade gloom, quite convinced that I ought to lay off the Calvinism for a while.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Urban wildlife

This visitor was spotted in a neighbor's driveway:
I know wild turkeys are common in New England, but I just can't get over the novelty.

And this is an update on my fungi:
Apparently, I can't even keep hardy invasive species alive on my windowsill. The whole indoor herb plan is doomed.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

“GGG”: The best conservative argument for marriage ever

Why doesn’t my husband fill my cavities or cut my hair? Because, according to Dan Savage via Mark Oppenheimer, he isn’t GGG for these activities. Fortunately, we never had to negotiate this particular outsourcing of extra-marital labor, because we already live in a society so accepting of the primacy of our dental needs and hair-styling desires that it makes expert providers of these services commercially available to us outside our marriage. So why doesn’t it accept that our exotic sexual interests ought to get the same professional—err—touch? If I would like sex to involve donning a pink bunny suit and being whipped by a clown on an elephant while hanging upside-down from a trapeze, but my husband, who lacks trapeze and elephant-riding training, can’t or won’t accommodate that, why shouldn’t I seek out someone who can? And not someone who will replace my husband, who is perfectly acceptable in other, non-trapeze respects (he makes great scrambled eggs!), but in addition to him? Our marriage isn’t the least bit undermined when I get my teeth cleaned by a dentist or my hair cut by a stylist, so why should getting my sex from the circus be any different?

Even if my husband offered to make a sincere effort at the elephant-and-trapeze, he’d unlikely surpass a professional in his skill. And I don’t select my hair stylists or dentists based on the sincerity of their effort, but on the final product. So why should I settle for DIY sex when I could have professional results? Just as society doesn’t expect me to stick with one hair stylist for life and call that person my husband, it should relax its expectations about sex.

If you are skeptical of this proposal, perhaps that’s because you’re wondering what the point of staying married to someone is if I’m getting trapeze satisfaction from someone else? Maybe that’s a sign that the marriage ought to end? [Clarification: Phoebe points out that she only means pre-marital relationships here.] But whoever said that sexual exclusion was some fundamental aspect of marriage? I don’t want a divorce, just a circus in addition to a marriage! Oppenheimer doesn’t really say what the purpose of marriage is because I guess that would counterproductively narrow the choice-iness that Savage stands for, but whatever it is, sex is no necessary part of it. Still, Savage is “conservative” about marriage because he wants to keep marriages together even if we don’t know why they are formed in the first place. Well, that’s a kind of conservatism, I guess, though a strangely ungrounded one for someone whose argument relies so much on rational contract-making. So we may not know why we get married, but we do know that once we do, we have individual rights to sexual satisfaction (which is to say, the satisfaction of any sexual desire we might entertain, so long as we think through what we want rationally) and these are pretty sacred, if not yet legally actionable. So it follows that if our spouses don’t satisfy these desires, we are within our rights to find other means to their satisfaction. There is no more necessary connection between spouse and sex than between spouse and hair styling.

And what will become of our spouses once we start shacking up with the circus? Potentially, there are the children, though these need not be strictly connected to spouses either. Oppenheimer channeling Savage seems to think it’s somehow psychically better for children to be strictly connected to spouses, though their interests are so unfortunately contrary to the “nonmonogamy” preferences of adults (pesky children!). But it has been pointed out that nonmonogamy may also lead to children who will lack such psychically beneficial spousal connections, and moreover, when individual sexual rights are pitted against the psychic goods of children, we can’t always expect the kids to win out even in the most flexible nonmonogamous arrangement. (At some level of nonmonogamy, do the psychic benefits to children of their parents staying together begin to erode? Like when I install the circus in my backyard?) So, if all else fails, I guess we will still have the scrambled eggs! Long live marriage.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Photographic representations of mid-summer

1. I have been trying for two years with remarkable un-success to grow herbs indoors. Every single thing I've attempted to nurture has died with the sole exception of catnip, which I can't even eat. Given that the cat for whom this nip is intended is a determined destroyer of all my other potted plants, the survival of the catnip is doubly ironic. Anyway, I got a new batch of herbs last April, and the oregano has been looking droopy and brown since June, but then I woke up this morning and found this horrifying development:
WHAT IS THIS??? It's so repulsive that I refuse to touch it with even a stick or a projectile, but I'm afraid that if I don't remove it somehow, I will have a whole pot of them by tomorrow. How can I evict this slime??

2. The best sidewalk stencil I've ever seen, spotted in Watertown en route (or, getting lost en route) to Target:

3. I'm doing research on monarchist and sovereignty theories this summer for a professor. Being paid by the hour to read and digest early modern tracts is kind of an ill-fitting adaptation of the wage labor model for scholarship since, on the one hand, I can't read fast enough to justify my hourly wage, so I am overpaid, but on the other hand, I have to read all the time to produce the quantity of notes that merits my hourly wage. Here, Nigel is helping me with research by making sure that none of extra desk space goes unused:

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

An open letter to unemployed scholars who know French and Latin

Dear unemployed scholars,

Did you know that Jean Bodin's complete Six Books of the Republic has not been translated into English since 1606? That, as you may have noticed, was a long time ago. English has changed a lot since then. Plz get to work.

Miss Self-Important

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Skokie in the NYT!

Admittedly, a passing mention in an otherwise uninteresting article, but I'll take what I can get:
The Rev. Michael J. Garanzini, president of Loyola University, a Jesuit university in Chicago, said of Mr. Patel’s group: “They don’t have the knowledge base or experience in theology, but they have provided the data on where our kids are. The world we grew up in was all Irish, Italian and German. Now it’s Vietnamese, and Poles and Jewish kids from Skokie. We are not automatically able to reflect on their reality.”

Thursday, June 09, 2011

YA lit: The only genre whose public discourse has not changed in 40 years

Last week, this eminently reasonable op-ed about YA lit appeared in the WSJ:
It is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.
The same op-ed has appeared every few years in various newspapers and magazines since about 1969. It always generates the same outraged response from YA authors, ostensibly in the name of the children.* No one should be surprised that YA lit feeds off of book banning outrage--the genre was born from it. Book censorship had a decent history before YA lit came onto the scene in the late '60s, but no one remembers that history. Public libraries removed Communist and other politically incendiary stuff from the shelves from the '30s through the '50s, and many of these removals were challenged and overturned. Why then does the phrase "book banning" immediately make us think of Judy Blume and The Catcher in the Rye, while memories of those poor leftist tracts have totally faded from our consciousness? Mid-century Communists, whatever their other failings, at least had a political project, a project whose circulation was perhaps slightly diminished by library removal, but which did not exist merely for the sake of library circulation. Anyone can read Marxist ideas and remain unconvinced--a failure for the project. But YA lit of this "realist" strain has no argument except the exposure imperative. Children must be exposed to it or they will remain forever naive. This excuses every excess and failure of style and skill. The writing might be total crap--all the better. That's more real. Real people, after all, are inarticulate, and bad writers. The main thing is to describe in lurid detail ever more exotic forms of misery. (All things I've written about before.) The next step is to wait for adults to object to the lack of moral and aesthetic judgment contained in the work, and then launch the Typical YA Lit defense, which goes like this:
Think of the children! They must learn of the facts of life--the "real things" that happen to "real people" in the "real world"! These include, but are not limited to, the following forms of misery: racism, drug abuse, eating disorders, rape, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, incest, murder (preferably by gangs). These are the constitutive elements of reality (if your life does not feature them, it might not be real), from which you prudish parents have unjustly been shielding your children by such evasions as selectively introducing them to people who don't engage in these behaviors, moving to neighborhoods where these problems are uncommon, and encouraging them to avoid these fates themselves. This kind of "sheltering" is not only foolish, but it is downright negligent. That is why we, YA authors, are here to save your children from your misguided moralizing efforts by exposing them to these realities early without passing judgment. Only sufficient exposure can bring about understanding. And this is what the children themselves want to read. (We know this because they send us fan mail!) Wait, what now? You want to prevent your children from being exposed to our important work? This can only mean that you prefer to abet abuse, disorder, rape, and murder! Censorship! Censorship! We are being muzzled! The very fact that you object demonstrates how very important our work is--you are trying to hide the truth from your children, while we are revealing it! We are heroes!
This rhetoric merged with the supposed illiteracy crisis of the 1970s (it's hard to believe this was a real event) to create an entirely amoral argument for YA lit: kids these days don't read anymore, and non-reading leads to academic failure, school dropout, juvenile delinquency, and death. Therefore, we must encourage kids to read! Reading anything is better than nothing! And this is the key: somehow, the actual benefits of reading literature were never raised in all the sloganeering, and what remained was basically a call to force children to scan words with their eyes. If they pronounced some books "boring" then and refused to lend them their eyes, the solution was to find something more visually captivating that still contained words. YA lit, which made no pretense to be literary at first, was a natural candidate for this exercise. Thus, we get this tale of miraculous literary awakening from a 1972 issue of the Phi Delta Kappan (a journal for teachers and ed school monkeys):
In a local school, a student teacher purchased and took two paperback copies of Paul Zindel's The Pigman into a junior class of "nonreaders," and overnight two students read the novel. Returning the next day, they commented that this was the first book they had ever read and asked where they could find more like it… Their reading began with a few of the now young adult novels but led away and for a few, eventually, included some of the Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Stephen Crane found within the approved school sources.
If you are my age, you will perhaps recall how your teachers pinned similar hopes on such illustrious works as the Goosebumps series: "At least they're reading something! Who knows--maybe RL Stine will nourish a lifelong passion for Shakespeare!" I bet it will.

Which brings us to Alan Jacobs's very good point:
According to these writers, YA fiction has achieved something no other human invention has ever achieved: it is capable of doing extraordinary, glorious good, and cannot do any harm at all...What I’d like to see from these YA writers is less panicky defensiveness and more actual thinking. Admit — please — that some books are bad for some people. Admit that writers can make aesthetic misjudgments, so that certain scenes, or even whole books, can have effects on many readers that they don't intend. And admit that some writers — yes, even YA writers — are nasty people who write nasty books. And then try to think about what distinguishes a book that is likely to help most of its readers from a book that isn’t.
The reason that it is commonly thought that YA saves is because it's widely believed that reading saves. Reading is the opposite of illiteracy. Ergo, even reading the phonebook is a step in the right direction. This view is so entrenched in Jacobs's commenters that they can't even think of a book that could possibly do any harm. Even reading total crap apparently "helped develop my critical facilities." I'm hard-pressed to think of another activity that merits such unstinting praise that we can't even discern failure in it. Imagine if we felt this way about music: Even listening to tomcats howling in an alley helped me by showing me what disharmony sounds like. I now seek out alleycat wailing to experience this pleasure again and again. Jacobs offers a perfect example of harmful teenage reading--Ayn Rand--and even this is rejected because apparently reading Ayn Rand is valuable in helping us to see what is wrong with Ayn Rand.

What seems to be lost here all sense of what it means for a book to be harmful. Jacobs's readers, and YA's defenders generally, are mired in the rhetoric of book banning and seem to think that if they admit that a book is harmful, that means it will either kill you or move you to kill someone else, and it should therefore be burned. But that is of course not what a harmful book is, and no one is proposing a ban on such books. The effect that harmful books have is either that they cement pernicious views of the world that adolescents are already inclined to hold, or simply that they waste time that could be spent on better books or better experiences. This is not world-shattering harm, of course, and perhaps that's why it's hard to notice against the supposedly self-evident good of reading. But growing up is a complex process of perceiving the reality of the adult world, and small things that do no more than draw one's attention away from one emphasis to another still play their part in forming these perceptions. When all the books marketed at adolescent girls are about eating disorders, high school social tyrannies, and sex, these topics form their intellectual horizons. Is being encouraged to inhabit such narrow horizons--to think there is nothing to do or contemplate beyond reputation-honing and calorie-counting and shopping--not a form of harm? It's not clear how spending three hours reading a trashy novel is superior to spending those hours playing video games or watching paint dry, but the act of eyes scanning words on a page has come to be thought a morally upstanding activity.

*Do you want to know how old and tired this rhetoric is? Below the cut is a short history of Judy Blume and her reception in the 1970s from a paper I once wrote on this topic but will not impose on you involuntarily (complete with archival research--thanks grad school!):

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bear lair

Following on the gnome home, a photo of the bear lair next to the Science Center:
It was actually vandalized recently, having previously looked like this. The sign next to it says the new door is courtesy of the generosity of the Eeyore Restoration Fund or something like that.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The history of political thought: a pictoral tour

My exams--by which I mean generals/comps/quals/whatever they were called in your department--are next Thursday. In preparation, I've been reading and going over my old notes and such things, and it occurred to me that perhaps you too would like to learn about my exam field: political theory--ancient, medieval, and modern. Technically, it only includes one medieval author--Aquinas--and only tiny excerpts of him at that (excerpts of the excerpts!), so I personally am in favor of abolishing the pretense that anyone in my department has actually studied something called "medieval political thought," although I did once pick up a copy of John of Salisbury's Policraticus, but I flipped open to a long discussion of whether witches are real (no) and got bored and put it back down. So much for that. Also, by "modern," we only mean to "up to Nietzsche," since everything after him is called "contemporary" and, in an unusual display of pedagogical reaction on the part of the department, we have not been made responsible for that. Conveniently, my notes contain many useful illustrations of the subject matter we do have to cover, which I will share with you below the fold. As you will see, these illustrations touch on all the main points of these texts.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A modest serious proposal for inter-apartment internet-sharing arrangements

I live in a building with at least 18 units, and each of these seems to have its own wifi network. Most of them have figured out how to secure their networks, but as is always the case with oldsters and large samples, not everyone is so adept. So Seb and I have been mooching off the weak signals of various neighbors for the entire year. This isn't all that convenient, since the connections vary in strength depending on where in the apartment one stands. (The bathroom is a particularly good location, but it's hard to stream Buffy episodes from the bathtub.)

Not that we're averse to paying for internet; we're just averse to paying Comcast $60/mo for internet when there is so much unused bandwidth floating around on all sides. I have proposed to Seb, who is always complaining about the unreliability of our stolen connections, that we send a letter to our next-door neighbor offering to pay half his Comcast bill if he gives us his wifi password. He is old and lives alone, and I doubt he's spending his hours on bandwidth-devouring activities like World of Warcraft (although that would be an amusing revelation). He has plenty of internet to go around.

Seb thinks this is a bad idea, but I think it's eminently rational. I suppose one could worry about personal data theft in such cases, but I for one don't have the skillz to steal anyone's data even when it's naked, and financial sites are encrypted, so I would have to possess the additional skillz of decrypting the stolen data. Using a university network on any given day is much more dangerous than sharing your wifi with Miss Self-Important. Maybe I will add this point to the letter.

In any case, this is my proposal. I think it could be implemented in many multi-unit buildings, and if bandwidth use were a threat to the environment like every other human activity seems to be, I could even make my neighbors feel guilty/virtuous for declining/participating in it. Has anyone tried this? Or, more importantly, would you try it if you received a note under your door from me asking you to?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Big and small potatoes

My high school district recently decided that private schools have no right to hog all the alumni love and dollars in America, and began soliciting donations and sending out an occasional alumni newsletter with updates on the lives of some tiny proportion of its graduates. If nothing else, this newsletter demonstrates just why it is that these kinds of materials should be limited to private schools, particularly those where competition and self-promotion are more thoroughly ingrained. The newsletter informs me that someone from the class of 2005 won a local mural contest and someone from the class of 1987 self-published his self-help book. Someone from the class of 1992 works at a pizza restaurant and someone else works in the district administration. And several people from various classes are dead--announcements which are indelicately interspersed among the sunnier news.

By contrast, the much glossier UChicago alumni magazine offers a picture of lives lived and promoted on a larger scale (as well as a segregated morgue). Research scientists and international journalists and...the Oregon State varsity basketball coach? The back matter feature book publications, promotions to law firm partnerships, world travels culminating in gallery openings, and so on. (The older alumni make a point of emphasizing their world travels, as if to dispel any suspicion that their age has slowed them down. I suppose this is what instills jealousy among the 60+ crowd the way that making partner is the 35 year-old's way of grinning smugly in 20 words?)

But. District 219 reminds us that it has one alumnus of note who will put all of UChicago's feverishly competitive strivers to shame. He is featured in every issue of the alumni newsletter, and his success is apparently not intended to diminish the rest of us toiling away at our pizza restaurants and writing our self-help books, but rather to lift us up with him. His triumph gives us all a name. And who is this great-souled being? As it turns out, the guy who founded is a Niles West alum. But that's not all. Not only did he found, but he has also recently launched a new Verily, through him, we touch eternity.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Undergrad marginalia call-and-response

Notes in part II of Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality from my first (enthusiastic) and second (tempered) reading:

Spring break plans for extraordinary goal accomplishment (paper! article! presentation! generals reading!) totally ruined by onset of the flu.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

I need a new category for Styles Style

We've discussed Styles Style here before--that brilliant NYT approach to simultaneously glorifying and demeaning the city's wealthiest residents. You may scoff at this clever innovation on society pages, but I happen to know that there are only so many new spellings of Qaddafi/Khadafy/Ghadhafi/etc. that you can absorb before you find yourself clicking through to personal interest articles like this about the travails of young New York socialites struggling to reconcile arbitrary exclusivity with their thoroughgoing bourgie-ness. Now, this article isn't even personally interesting to an audience wider than five people, and yet, thanks to the gem about slow-minded middle America that the writer has managed to get out of one of his subjects, it has something even for me. The NY-specific class resentment of journalists joins forces with America's generalized aversion to snobbery to produce #1 most emailed articles on topics relevant to no one in America except the person interviewed for the article. Consider this brilliant quote:
To Anne de la Mothe Karoubi, 24, who went to the Marymount School, it’s an intellectual precociousness. “When you grow up in New York City, our minds develop faster,” she said. “You’re not from Wisconsin, you’re not from the middle of America. We’re international, we’re focused, we’re driven.”
The craft involved in this! A reporter got this presumably educated, culturally-aware woman to utter these words on the record to an NYT reporter!

And notice the elegant pairing of the subjects' illustrious prep schools with their humdrum colleges: Dalton, Trinity, Browning (which I'd never heard of before--new knowledge!) goes to Lafayette, GWU, Trinity in Hartford and studies that greatest of all thoroughly middle-brow vocational majors in the world--marketing. I mean, you may as well get an AA in dental hygiene. The reporter delights in all this obviously--he probably went to Brown or Cornell or someplace with an acceptably selective admissions policy and thinks, my SATs were double yours, you airheaded clown in a checked Burberry suit. And just to prove it, he demonstrates that he too knows about "sipp[ing] Côtes du Rhône at sidewalk cafes" and which are the most exclusive enclaves in the Hamptons, so there.

The great tragedy of this article is that the reporter never vindicates the characters in Metropolitan, who are infinitely more interesting than these people, and he doesn't follow the potentially promising line of questioning that may begin by asking exactly what a 23-year-old "art dealer and consultant" actually does, or what is entailed in being a "stylist and fashion designer" at 22. But we'll cut him slack for that if it bought him that Wisconsin quote.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The closest to a podcast that this blog will ever come

Miss Self-Important on the radio (very briefly). And yes, after hearing "Our baby is Hartford," I'm done with this topic, for now.

Friday, February 25, 2011


The entire month of February has gone by, and all I've done is study Greek so that someday soon I might be able to produce better translations than this. Did you know that if you learn a new Greek verb form every day for an entire month, you still won't know them all by the end of that month? You will, however, develop a kind of low-level, permanent exhaustion from waking up at 7 AM every day to try.

This leads me to wonder:
1. Is any currently-spoken language as inflected as Greek, and how did anyone in the 5th century speak it correctly?
2. A friend points out that grammars seem to simplify over time--Attic Greek to Koine, for example, or classical Latin to modern Latin--but why would that happen? Shouldn't they become more elaborate instead? Or does the proliferation of vocabulary serve the elaborating function?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Aggressive undergrad marginalia

A note found in my copy of The Prince, next to the part of ch. 3 about the Roman conquest of Philip and Antiochus:
Pre-emption: take the war to the terrorists before they bring the war here
Grrr! What must we have been discussing in first quarter sosc?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Greatest hits of the '60s, '70s, and now the '80s"

This is the new tagline of the Boston oldies station, at least since the new year. There are two problems with this change. First, I happen to like the greatest hits of the '50s and want them back. Second, I was alive in the '80s. Oldies have always been an expressly historical genre, representing pop music that happened before I existed and thus was of interest to me for purely antiquarian reasons. (I mean, it's hard to explain how I was an antiquarian at age six, when I first started listening to the radio, but suffice it to say, I was.) Now, oldies and I have apparently converged. History has fused with the present! What outrage is next? My present will be the present's past? Oldies will represent my personal nostalgia instead of the nostalgia of old people? I WILL BE OLD???


Friday, January 21, 2011

Final thoughts in support of Amy Chua, who will disappear from the internet any minute now

As I predicted, the controversy immediately turned into a heated racial conflict in which white people applauded themselves for loving their children more than Asians and Asians complained that Chua rekindled memories of their own childhood traumas and was reinforcing pernicious model minority myths just when it seemed like Asians drug dealers and hip hop dancers might finally get their place in the limelight. Since I still don't care about these things enough to worry that China will eat us or think that Asian children are merely deformed versions of our infinitely well-adjusted non-Asian American children (back pats all around), I only want to answer some final comments on the previous post and clarify my original endorsement of the argument for making your children do things they don't want to do on completely Western grounds (which are Chua's grounds too), since I have no idea what the Chinese grounds would be.

Last week, I played tennis a couple of times for the first time in probably six years. At first, I couldn't quite master the size of the court and the height of the net, but a few minutes in, the old rhythm returned, and I was able to keep up (though not beat) my much more recently-practiced companions. And it felt quite satisfying and, in Chua's words, fun. And this could not happen unless I had started playing tennis when I was eight and kept at it for 10 years, and I wouldn't have done that had my mother not pressured me to.

That pressure was not always or even mostly well-received--I liked tennis well enough and was objectively better suited to it than many other activities (I tried basketball about the same time, but was alas doomed to be 5'2), but I did not like having to practice it in any sustained way. Thus my childhood tennis career featured many tantrums on my part, much parental resentment, waking up at 7 am on Saturday mornings to get to lessons, and then four years of varsity team regimens, the last year of which was combined with my last-ditch effort to get into a selective college that involved taking so many courses that I didn't have a lunch period but still had to stay to play tennis until 6 pm every weekday and all day Saturday and never sleep. And all this was to maintain a very low level of competitiveness--my high school team sucked and my parents realized that my future was not going to hinge on tennis and never sent me to tennis camps or farmed me out to private instructors so that I could compete at a higher level.

The result of all this is that now I can play tennis tolerably well. And what is the value of that for a political theory grad student, you ask? Because it is fun to be good at things, and most things are only fun when you're good at them. People who take up tennis as adults are extremely unlikely to become even as tolerably good as me, in large part because it is very difficult to master the correct stroke form as an adult, and improvement in tennis is based almost entirely on good form. When adults try to improve their game and their form is wrong (you may have seen old dudes trying to hit really hard while basically punching the ball at your local community courts), they develop sports injuries. And when you're not good, tennis is an extremely frustrating waste of time--all your shots fly into the sky or fall into the net, and you can't keep a satisfying rally alive. The same principle applies to many satisfying kinds of knowledge and activity--music, languages, sports--they can only be mastered if one gets an early start, and one can only get an early start if parents pressure. (Sure, there are some children who will practice diligently out of pure love for the activity and will not need any external pressure, but they are rare and more likely to make a vocation of the activity rather than a hobby.)

Parental pressure can backfire--hence the stories of all the resentful forced pianists who now avoid piano on pain of death as a result of being pressured as children. But, given that they would also not play as adults if they hadn't been pressured at all, that outcome seems to be a wash. Not playing piano because you hate it and not playing because you don't know how put you in the same non-playing place. If we account for the haters and the ignorant, we are left with a sizable middle portion of pressured children who will come out of the experience with a tolerable competence in the activity, and that seems to be the goal of most parents who override their children's indolent wills and demand that they practice or rehearse.

The other arguments against parental pressure--that it breeds resentment and diminishes the time left to the child to imagine and play and find himself or whatever--seems equally biased towards the extremes. This might be true if a child is being forced to practice violin or whatever 20 hours a day, but most parents, including all the Asian parents I've ever known, are not that demanding. They know their children and realize quite quickly, like my parents did, that, unless their child shows remarkable early talent, violin or tennis or French is not going to be the whole of that child's future and so doesn't warrant the kind of full-time dedication that a vocation would. Those who oppose parental pressure because it monopolizes childhood time seriously underestimate how much time there is in childhood. I spent 10 years playing tennis regularly, and yet I could basically forget about the entire experience until last week's tennis playing reminded me. There were so many other things that happened in those 10 years that tennis is not even among my primary memories of that time.

As with time, so with parental resentment. The fights I had with my mother over tennis had also faded from mind until I thought about this Amy Chua thing. I still don't understand quite how she got her daughters to go along with her regimen since I was not so amenable to much milder versions of that kind of pressure and could be moved to tantrums by much slighter provocation. But even by high school, I had pretty much forgotten any resentments I harbored against my mother for making me play tennis in the years prior. Again, one might point to extreme cases of festering child-parent resentments born of parental pressure, but I don't see how they demonstrate the intrinsic evil of pressure, since never overriding your children's preferences can result in an equal degree of resentment that you never gave them opportunities or developed their potential and left them with no long-practiced and developed skills in adulthood.

A final argument against this kind of pressure is that its objects are chosen arbitrarily. Why violin and not ice hockey or French or bassoon or Japanese or carpentry? How can you know that the activities you choose for your children now will serve them as adults if you can't know their future occupations in advance, or even that they will be able to enjoy these activities later? (If they don't have access to a piano, for example, they can't play it.) Rousseau acknowledges this same problem in Emile as a fundamental difficulty of all modern education:
In the social order where all positions are determined, each man ought to be raised for his. If an individual formed for his position leaves it, he is no longer fit for anything. Education is useful only insofar as fortune is in agreement with the parents' vocation. In any other case it is harmful to the student, if only by virtue of the prejudices it gives him. In Egypt where the son was obliged to embrace the station of his father, education at least had a sure goal. But among us where only the ranks remain and the men who compose them change constantly, no one knows whether in raising his son for his rank he is not working against him.
For the most part, the problem of the unsuitability of the education one gives to children for their future needs is insurmountable. We simply can't know any longer (if we ever could) what our children will be and what they will need to know in advance. Nonetheless, we can't not educate them for this reason. So, unless you take this as a reason to follow Emile's curriculum, which is expressly designed to educate the universal human being who is prepared for anything that comes his way, you have to make arbitrary choices for your children. You can justify them with some kind of argument about how piano or basketball or Japanese will teach them fundamental "life skills" of some sort, and it's true in some cases. Diligence and persistence are good "life skills" that might be learned from almost any childhood activity diligently and persistently pursued, but that's just the problem--any activity. So which one to impose on your children?

The answer, I think, is that it doesn't much matter, so pick whichever activities are 1) the most conducive to your children's individual natures and temperaments (says Locke) and 2) the most demanding and satisfying, and 3) most worth preserving for the future of our civilization. There is no great shame--contra many Chua detractors--in selecting something that will also look good on a college application, since in large part, college admissions does value those skills that are actually difficult to master and valuable for the world, even if it does for superficial and instrumental reasons. Which leads us to the final point--pressure to do well in school.

Look people, it is important to do well in school, both for short term ends like getting a job and for long-term goods like happiness, understanding, and self-knowledge. Pushing your children to master the middle school math curriculum when they would rather get C's is not a form of cruelty or an impossibility--middle school math is not that hard and far more children can master it than currently do. I know you all know of dozens of people (including yourselves) who are geniuses despite their indifferent academic records, but you and those people would not be less brilliant if they'd also done well in 10-grade geometry. It is easy enough for kids like me, who quite liked school, to decide at age eight that they're good enough at reading and writing, so don't really need to also be good at math and to promptly stop trying for the next 10 years. This was a mistake. Yes, things have so far turned out fine despite this mistake, but it was no less a mistake. It is as important to understand mathematics as it is to understand any of the other constitutive structures of our society (language, literature, history, etc). It's too bad that I constitutionally suck at math, yes, but I could've sucked somewhat less if I hadn't simply given up in grade school. Whether the suckage differential would've been significant in any way, I don't know, but at the very least, it would not have hurt to try. Childhood is long and its petty injustices are easily forgotten, so a few more math problems would hardly have made a dent.

On the other hand, of course, spilt milk. Childrearing as a political question has historically been a matter of on average (for Locke and Rousseau), and is now a matter of in aggregate. It never offers much assistance when one is faced with an actual screaming child. So good luck with that, peeps. Consider Greek and Latin instruction at an early age.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Speaking of gym class

In a serendipitous moment, just as Alpheus tries to candy-coat the futility and cruelty of gym class, my own high school district finally relaxes the class's iron grip on students.
The plan as voted on will reduce staff in the physical wellness department by incorporating health–now a one-semester stand-alone class–into sophomore physical education classes, cut drivers education, and schedule junior and senior electives more efficiently...

After listening to teachers talk about the importance of physical activity and drivers education, Superintendent Nanciann Gatta pointed out that while physical activity is important, the district now requires eight semesters of physical education and one of health–and only six of math and four of science.
I suppose I should not get worked up over the fact that these requirements have been in place--in that ratio--for at least a decade. One semester of gym class for every semester of high school enrollment--and no exceptions for such irrelevant substitutes as varsity sports participation. (Although that last rule may have changed since my tenure.)

Sure, I would've preferred to have a lunch period my senior year instead of standing out on a softball diamond in shorts and a t-shirt in November for 40 minutes a day. I probably could've found something better to do with my time instead of a summer school health class I was forced to take because it too was required for graduation on top of all that gym time, during which I spent eight weeks watching powerpoint presentations depicting the symptoms of chlamydia that the instructor had outsourced to the students so that he could get paid to surf internet sports sites. (He also told us he invented the cheese hat that Green Bay Packers fans wear and became a millionaire from it.) One day, when we look back on the successes and shortcomings of NCLB, the elimination of the colossal waste of time that was health class at Niles West will rank among its triumphs.

It's true that things worked out ok for me in the end. Now, maybe they will also work out better for other people. After much searching, I finally found the actual restructuring plan. (Notably, the revamped school "newspaper" has opted to forgo coverage of teacher firings and curriculum changes in order to whinge more extensively about how unfair the school ban on Facebook is.) While I am deeply dismayed to see such illustrious traditions as "Fashion Workshop," "Sports and Entertainment Marketing," and "Interior Design 1 and 2" (we had this???) bite the dust, I find it difficult to be upset about increased emphasis on real subjects at the expense of such otherwise edifying and important instruction as "Chlamydia 101, or How I Became Rich By Selling Cheese Hats."

Sunday, January 09, 2011

A study in comparisons: How fun should learning be?

As a long-time proponent of both not freaking out about teh Azns and not permitting pedagogy to surrender to juvenile interests in video games and texting, the contrast between this:
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up.
...and this:
A.P. teachers have long complained that lingering for an extra 10 or 15 minutes on a topic can be a zero-sum game, squeezing out something else that needs to be covered for the exam. PowerPoint lectures are the rule. The homework wears down many students. And studies show that most schools do the same canned laboratory exercises, providing little sense of the thrill of scientific discovery.

All that, says the College Board, is about to change...A preview of the changes shows that the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests and provide, for the first time, a curriculum framework for what courses should look like...In biology, a host of more creative, hands-on experiments are intended to help students think more like scientists...The new approach is important because critical thinking skills are considered essential for advanced college courses and jobs in today’s information-based economy. College administrators and veteran A.P. teachers familiar with the new biology curriculum believe the changes...might bring some of the excitement back to science learning.
greatly pleases me. Except I realize that, in approximately seven seconds, Teh Internets will tear Amy Chua to shreds for 1) not authentically representing Chinese people everywhere*, 2) exacerbating negative cultural stereotypes about Smart Asians, and 3) being tyrannical, repressive, and possibly psychotic, whereas the changes to the AP exams will be lauded as beneficial and progressive. But I maintain that there is nothing about the supposed Chinese/Asian/ambiguously ethnic attitude towards education that is not wholly in keeping with fully mainstream American values, which, if you need to be reminded, do actually include hard work, persistence, discipline, and parental obedience. I have no doubt that ideas truly foreign to us do prevail in China, but these ideas don't make it to Scarsdale High without undergoing some congenial modifications. The real question is, how did Amy Chua get her children to obey?

*Sometimes, I am glad that there are, numerically, very few Jews in the world so that I will never be held to the standard of accurately representing the views of one billion people.