Friday, September 28, 2012

Horticultural updates

In the pros column of California living is the incredible speed with which my balcony plants sprout. 
Jalapenos and arugula - two weeks. I am skeptical about the longevity of the basil; my previous track record with basils has been dismal. But maybe this one will suffer through. I hope to make a dedication to Athena in this Mediterranean climate and grow an olive tree soon. But so far my research has not yielded much information about how that might be done, and Athena does not seem to be a popular local deity, judging by neighboring gardens.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

"The unlived life is not worth examining."

"Good writers 'add detail,' 'stretch their words,' and 'spell the best they can.'" So maybe this explains why I had college students who wrote things like this:
"Congressmen and wamun attempt to determine what the ideals of the median voter are before proposing legislation. Before elections it is common for Legislators to shit their ideal..."
Good writers spell the best they can. Yes. 

But, this is the pedagogical approach of College Summit, and it does work well in very short bursts (the kids just have to crank out one essay). Maybe if you only have to examine your unlived life once in all its 17 years, you can dig up something. Incidentally, one of the best essays (only, like Pondiscio, we are not permitted to call them that, because the word may scare the kids off) that I saw in four years was about how some girl's dog died. Let's jut say she "added detail" and "stretched her words."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Beating dead horses, meritocracy edition

So now everyone who's anyone, left and right, paleo and neo, is against the meritocracy. Well, fine then. Me too! I'm not just against it, but I'm more and better against it than everyone else, so like me best, ok? I mean, I even discussed it before them, except for those who discussed before me, but the club has to have more than one opening, or it wouldn't be a club. So can I be admitted?

If not, then I think "being against the meritocracy" is too easy and will hold out on the median of ambivalence until compelled to one side of the road or the other. I have nothing against Helen's suggestion of professing monarchism while you're perched at Yale or Harvard (where, indeed, the main current of campus conservatism did seem to be Catholic monarchism merged with Austrian economics - a phenomenon for which I would still appreciate an explanation), except that it precisely doesn't serve as an antidote to meritocratic thinking or meritocratic doing. Everyone is already against the meritocracy, and the monarchists just allege a different evil consequence. Undergraduate monarchism is another species of looking around at your peers and concluding that their deranged, possibly Adderall-fueled productivity has caused them to grow into twisted things, all lacking some aspect of character that would conduce to your preferred image of human wholeness--compassion or (ugh) "real passion," self-direction, depth of inquiry, correct use of otium (the latter being the monarchist contribution).

But all of these ways of thinking about what's wrong imply that, whatever it is, it's them and not you. Everyone else has been deformed by the competitive machine that miraculously left you untouched. Meritocracy's bunk, sure, but you basically deserve to be where you are because you get what it's really about - (insert here: passion, self-direction, deep inquiry, otium, whatever your priority) - while everyone else is just in it for the money/status/girls. So you have real merit, and everyone else is a fraud. When actually, if you got what it was really about, you'd do what naturally follows from Helen's claim that, "Politics works best when there are many different centers of power, but meritocracy concentrates power in a single ivied pipeline": that is, you'd take your big brains and enroll them at Eastern Tennessee State.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


Miss Self-Important was back in Cambridge for a few days to participate in this and mope about my exile. There was of course perfect New England autumn weather, the kind of sun-warmth with frigid edges that elicits the best wardrobe choices by the shining children of Harvard, and the cafes were all full with start-of-school energy. Leaving again was melancholy, though being there was also melancholy because the leaving would imminently commence. Miss Self-Important is evidently a permanent, inconsolable malcontent. 

Cute barbarians at the gates:

Monday, September 17, 2012

Public sector unions and public safety

This is for Phoebe
The Chicago Public Schools system sought a preliminary injunction on Monday morning to end the city’s teachers’ strike immediately, maintaining that the walkout, now in its second week, is illegal and represents “a clear and present danger to public health and safety.”
 Compared to FDR's letter to the Federation of Federal Employees (1937):
All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress... Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable. It is, therefore, with a feeling of gratification that I have noted in the constitution of the National Federation of Federal Employees the provision that "under no circumstances shall this Federation engage in or support strikes against the United States Government."
I'd thought the public safety issue had gone by the wayside (unless we're talking police strikes) so that public sector strikes were now the order of the day, and the remaining problem was only that a public sector union had no effective counterweight, but apparently no, you can still claim a threat to public safety.

Monday, September 10, 2012

In the grand tradition of impostordom

Internet friend Tim alerts us to (the unnoticed presence among us of) our annual Ivy League impostor, this time at Columbia. And so early in the year! This woman does not seem to have gotten nearly as far as Adam Wheeler or the nattily-attired Abe Liu, or my favorite impostor, Azia Kim, because judging by this article and the comments, everyone who encountered her immediately found her to be at least strange, if not outright deranged. Two weeks on campus isn't long enough to make a big impostor-y splash in the usual ways that cause everyone to express histrionic panic about campus security and outrage at admissions/administrative incompetence. But it generated a little bit of the usual:
“I was so freaked out when I found out she didn’t go here,” Smith said. “I always saw her on campus. She had different sets of clothes. She even had a big backpack during the school week.”
I know, that is so freaky. What is with people who have different clothes and backpacks? Anyway, not much seems to be known about this woman, so we'll let this be until more info surfaces.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Online education

In doing some experiential research, I've been watching various free online "courses" and confirming my preconceptions of their ineffectiveness as a replacement for college and their similarity to many American efforts at "continuing education" - providing enrichment and a dilettantish sense of edification for adults. In the nineteenth century it was lyceums, in the early twentieth it was workers' groups, then community college and "extension" courses, now the internet. Everything is going to replace elitist traditional colleges with their high costs and selective enrollments, until it doesn't. This looks a lot more like the past than the future to me.

But anyway, that is not the point. The point is that watching videos of people lecturing is remarkably boring, perhaps because they're conveyed by a medium I expect to provide me with print and so get impatient when it instead delivers talking that is slower than my reading. (When I hear them "live," I can usually keep my eyes open better.) So I've read lecture transcripts instead. And mostly, meh, but I do have to say that Paul Freedman's Yale lectures on the early Middle Ages are surprisingly absorbing (in transcript form). Continuing ed and dilettantish edification for Miss Self-Important, who knows nothing about the Middle Ages, anyway.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Every cheater is a unique snowflake

Le Crimson, which has nothing much to report on in the first week of school, is milking this cheating scandal dry. In the process, we learn many exciting things about the workings of Harvard, such as its "reformed" options for addressing academic dishonesty:
Before the reform, students found guilty of academic misconduct by the Ad Board would have faced three possible punishments: a warning, a probationary period, or a requirement to withdraw from the College, typically for two to four semesters. 
But due to a change approved by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in May 2010, the Ad Board has two additional, arguably less severe, ways to punish students which it may use for anyone found guilty of illicit collaboration in Government 1310. 
In cooperation with the board and the chairs of their department, professors now have the power to dole out “local sanctions” to students guilty of academic dishonesty, including required tutoring, a mandatory re-do of the assignment in question, or a grade penalty. 
The Ad Board also now has the power to “exclude” guilty students from Government 1310, a transcript notation equivalent to failing the course. Matthew L. Sundquist ’09—a former Undergraduate Council president and member of the Committee to Review the Administrative Board, which recommended those and other changes to the Board in a 2009 report—said his committee’s recommendations were intended to fix a one-size-fits-all approach to punishing cheaters. 
“[The committee] wanted to have more nuanced abilities to use meaningful outcomes in the educational process,” Sundquist said. “People should be given a second chance—we thought that was the most educational way of doing it.”
The important thing about cheating is not that it be discouraged, diminished, or punished, but rather that it be a "meaningful" experience for all involved. How many times have people cheated only to find that it didn't in the end satisfy their thirst for meaning and desire for education? So many times. This is why Harvard will seek to improve the cheating experience by offering individually-designed responses to incidents of cheating that will facilitate the personal enrichment of those implicated. For example, how is a cheater improved by simply being thrown out of school for two years? Not at all! (Even Plato knew that.) Suspension causes feelings of shame and possibly even guilt, and ashamed, guilty cheaters are far worse off than happy, confident cheaters. That is why instead of merely punitive measures that do nothing to improve the individual, Harvard will offer its cheaters self-enriching options like tutoring and re-doing the assignment in question.

This is surely the most educational way of giving cheaters second chances because, in addition to learning how to cheat from their experiences, they will also learn the material covered by their tutor. (This may even be very the material they plagiarized in the first place, thereby ensuring that cheating does not pose any  trade-off between learning course material and learning to cheat on course material.) Right there we have two chances to learn! And, they will receive grades for both activities - in cheating they will perhaps have to be given low marks on account of having been caught (although to avoid this blemish on their transcripts, we can consider giving credit for effort), but they can compensate for this disappointment by receiving higher marks on the re-done assignment. In this way, Harvard's cheaters will enter the world more accomplished and versatile than the merely failed, suspended, or expelled graduates of  more reactionary and benighted institutions.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

When gardening gets tough, the tough call in cement trucks

Is lawn maintenance getting you down? Southern California has a solution for you: fill in your lawn with concrete, then paint it green. In addition to exhibiting all the virtues of a real lawn, this method also conserves water and repels insects.

This is one of several houses I've passed that has adopted this brilliant tactic, although the others fell slightly short of excellence by failing to include the green paint. Evidently, those vulgar materialists just wanted as much driveway space as possible for their five cars (but only two bedrooms). Surely this scene in what I am told is pricey Mission Hills qualifies as an example of what Joan Didion calls "a housing market in which even the least promising bungalow can sell for several hundred thousand dollars."