Thursday, April 30, 2009

Daily Kos

Daily Kos is a great political blog. One of the things that make it especially enjoyable is the kind of signatures that people who leave comments choose for their posts. I hope the good people of Daily Kos will not mind if I post some of my favorites:

I don't drink, fornicate, smoke, or cuss. "Dammit, I left my cigarettes at the gay bar!"

I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. - Jane Austen

Have you forgotten about jesus? Don't you think it's time that you did?

We have always known that heedless self interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. - FDR 1936

80% of Republicans want Palin to lead the Republican Party and 100% of Democrats want her to lead the Republican Party." Bill Maher

"I can't believe you can get pregnant from sex that lousy." From one-woman play "Exit Cuckoo".

The Republican brand: "Consequences, schmonsequences, as long as I'm rich"

I would rather have the freedom to live in a state of fear, than to live in fear of losing that freedom to the state.

When people show you who they really are, believe them." - Maya Angelou

If you've lamented the slipping morality of America while snorting cocaine off a male hooker's back during the filming of "Jesus Camp", you might be a Republican.

And the defining principle of my life: Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect -- Mark Twain.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Obama's News Conference

You gotta love listening to Obama. Finally, there is a leader who speaks well and looks good. He even has a sense of humor. The most important part of the press conference for me, of course, was when he said the following (there might be some tiny difference in the original quote):

Women are in a better position to make decisions about abortion than members of Congress and the President.

Finally, a reasonable male politician who acknowledges that this is not a male issue and that men have no business legislating female bodies. At last, we are going in the right direction.

This is what Obama has done for women so far:

JANUARY 23: Overturned “global gag rule,” which will help re-fund international family-planning groups

JANUARY 29: Signed Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, restoring women’s ability to sue for pay discrimination

FEBRUARY 27: Moved to rescind the Bush administration’s “conscience” clause—which could have let health-care workers deny patients abortion and contraception

MARCH 2: With the choice of Kathleen Sebelius as Health and Human Services secretary, appointed a total of seven women to Cabinet-level positions

MARCH 6: Instituted a new ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues

MARCH 9: Lifted restrictions on stem cell research

MARCH 11: Restarted U.S. contributions to the United Nations Population Fund Reinstated low-cost birth control availability at college health centers and at some 400 clinics serving low-income women

And it's only the first 100 days. I'm expecting so much more!

Beauty and Entertainment

I'm getting sick and tired with some people's self-righteous outrage over the public's initial reception of Susan Boyle (the dorky winner of Britain's Got Talent.) Ooooh, how could any one notice that she is not very attrractive? The horror, the horror!

Come on, people. The woman wants to be an entertainer. Physical appearance is part of the package. Audiences want to look at attractive entertainers. What's the big deal? Those who work in corporate environments have to observe a strict dress code. As a teacher, I always come to class in shirts that are as unrevealing as possible. Even when it's very hot. I even tied my hair for job interviews. And that is a major sacrifice for me.

Why any one would want to turn the Susan Boyle situation into a feminist issue is beyond me. Remember the overweight winner of American Idol? Everybody talked about his appearance but it never occurred to any one to turn it into a gender issue. Remember the disgusting hue and cry about Britney Spears daring to show off her body after giving birth to her second child? Where was the feminist outrage then? How is Spears any less worthy of a feminist defense than Boyle?

The Teaching Cure

This morning I woke up sick. It must be the end-of-semester exhaustion kicking in. I barely found enough energy to drag myself to class. I felt so weak that even standing up was painful. My throat was sore and I kept coughing. I was sure that I would have to let the students go early.

However, as soon as the class discussion started, I began feeling better. By the end of the class, I felt strong, healthy, and energized. I could have gone on teaching for several hours more. It has always been this way for me. Teaching is my favorite cure. Last year, when I didn't have to teach, I was sick very often. I thought I must be getting old but now I know the reason.

Blogging (or any kind of diary-writing) is also very therapeutic. This is what the Wikipedia says about the positive effects of blogging:

"Scientists have long known the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal experiences. Blogs provide another convenient avenue for writing about personal experiences. Research shows that it improves memory and sleep, boosts immune cell activity and reduces viral load in AIDS patients and even speeds healing after surgery."


There is, of course, a form of therapy called "writing therapy":

Maybe somebody needs to introduce the term "teaching therapy."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Kafka and the Regular Folks

Somebody wonderful just sent this to me. You have to click on the picture to be able to read it well but it's worth it. Read the part on "A Quiet Car Pool." It's nice to see that Kafka is still relevant to people's everyday lives. And deaths.

Women's "market value"

Have journalists conspired today to annoy me? Mark Regnerus of The Washington Post just came out with the following gem: "Women's "market value" declines steadily as they age, while men's tends to rise in step with their growing resources (that is, money and maturation)." Of course, every aging man, whose sexual prowess and attractiveness decline with every passing year, has to feel the need to bring women down with him.

Mr. Regnerus, do you honestly believe that your money and "maturation" (meaning, drooping sexuality) really make you more attractive? Keep dreaming, my friend! As much as your resources might "rise", the very language of your article demonstrates that nothing else is "rising" all that much for you anymore.

Here is the link to Regnerus's "I'm-so-terrified-of-impotence" rant:

Higher Education Reform

The current economic crisis has brought to light the problems that have plagued higher education for years. Immediately, everybody decided to propose their own plan for the reform of higher education. Today, The New York Times published an article by Mark C. Taylor, the chairman of the religion department at Columbia. The title of the article is "End the University as We Know It," although a more appropriate title would have been simply "End the University."

Here are some of the author's suggestions:

1. Universities must be "rigorously regulated" by trustees and administrations. According to Taylor, "many academics who cry out for the regulation of financial markets vehemently oppose it in their own departments." The funny thing is that he then proceeds to decry the narrow specialization that plagues academia. Evidently, Taylor hasn't been able to avoid this problem himself, since he so blatantly disregards any differences that might exist between the world of finance and academia. According to Taylor, if we can regulate one area of our existence, then why not the other? I wonder why he doesn't insist on bringing the practices of the criminal justice system to the academia. Let's establish jail sentences for any infraction within the college system. That would make our world easy to understand and keep under control.

2. The second brilliant suggestion is to "abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs." These programs should be organized around "practical problems." Of course, if you can't make your field of research "practical" enough, then who needs you? Evidently, as a chairman of the religion department, Taylor doesn't believe that teaching students to reason, analyze, and express their opinions is practical enough.

3. The next suggestion is so weird that I can't even paraphrase it: "Let one college have a strong department in French, for example, and the other a strong department in German; through teleconferencing and the Internet both subjects can be taught at both places with half the staff." The only reason any one would make such an idiotic proposition is because they need to really suck up to the administration of their educational institution. How is this going to happen in practical terms (which should be so near and dear to Taylor)? Who will decide which college deserves to have a French department and which doesn't?

Notice, also, that he immediately goes after modern languages and literatures. Taylor never comes close to suggesting that the departments of religion (such as his own) might only be needed in one college out of 20. But languages are totally dispensable, aren't they? On the other hand, we (the people in modern languages departments) should be honored that pseudo-intellectual charlatans of Taylor's caliber would find us so dangerous.

4. Taylor also wants to help the graduate students: "Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education." Observe how there is no attempt to analyze why "most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained." Maybe it's because of the proliferation of the horribly exploitative postdoc and non-tenure-track positions? Maybe if we stopped the horrible practice of hiring people without the possibility of tenure, with very low pay, and without any benefits, there would be more good tenure-track positions for graduate students to look forward to?

5. This ridiculous piece of intellectual ass-licking ends with the expected suggestion to abolish tenure. Without it, Taylor would have never felt that he had thrust his tongue deep enough into the anuses of his bosses.

Here is the link to this exercise in brown-nosing to the administration:

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Can Almodovar Become an Even Bigger Sellout??

Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown will be adapted for American television. It is going to be turned into "a suburban drama about a group of women who have known each other for a long time." To add insult to injury, the show will be written by the author of Grey's Anatomy. Who is producing this stupidity? Well, who do you think? Fox TV Studios, of course.

Almodovar has, of course, made a painful turn towards extreme Hollywoodization, producing such vapid monstrosities as All About My Mother and Talk to Her (I stopped watching Almodovar after this movie because it was too painful. I shudder to think what he might have created since).

We could, however, still think about Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown as an admirable work of art. Now Almodovar decided to sell out completely and turned one of his best films to Fox. The idea of Almodovar's movie as a new version of the idiotic Desperate Housewives is truly terrifying.

Is it a symptom of my undying idealism that I still find it hard to believe that Almodovar would do something this vile? I've seen his inane Talk to Her, why should I be surprised by anything he does? Still, this piece of news causes me actual physical pain. Is there some kind of a protest people could organize against this rubbish?

Another question is: why is he doing this? For money? Doesn't he have tons of money already? It's not like he is a starving artist who needs to sell his manuscripts to toilet-paper makers.

The sources for the news:

Friday, April 24, 2009

Valenti's The Purity Myth

As I have said, Jessica Valenti's The Purity Myth is a very good book. Its main idea is the following:

"The lie of virginity - the idea that such a thing even exists - is ensuring that young women's perception of themselves is inextricable from their bodies, and that their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality. . . While boys are taught that the things that make them men - good men - are universally accepted ethical ideals, women are led to believe that our moral compass lies somewhere between our legs."

Everything that Valenti says here is certainly true. It does, however, sound extremely dated. How sad is it that in the XXI century a developed society would still need a book-long discussion that virginity is a patriarchal myth.

Although I agree with the central message of Valenti's book, I do have a criticism to offer. On several occasions, she refers to "our sex-saturated culture" and "our porned culture." One of the chapters is even titled "A Porned America." Valenti insists that "pornography is pervasive in America. . . we're simply inundated with it." It is sad that a generally lucid feminist writer would slip into these tired puritanical cliches. I don't know where Valenti manages to see all this sex and porn around her. I somehow never see it unless I specifically search for it. As for being "simply inundated with porn," this is just wishful thinking.

Job Search

Another weird job search related event just occurred in the bathroom of our department. A colleague stopped me as I was trying to enter the bathroom stall and told me that she received a call about me from my future employers who wanted to know whether I am friendly or not. This colleague was not on my list of references, I barely know her at all. It seems that the Dean of the hiring institution was calling people randomly to ask them about the level of my friendliness.

Being detained on your way to the bathroom does not make for a lot of friendliness on the part of the person detained. I did, however, try very hard to be as friendly as possible (under the circumstances) with this nice colleague of mine who, apparently, gave me a nice recommendation.

Purity Balls

I'm discovering truly scary things from Valenti's Book The Purity Myth. Turns out that there is such a thing as "purity balls." In 2006, more than 1,400 of these federally funded freak shows were held around the US. This is what happens during these events:

"Fathers escort their daughters to these promlike balls, where at some point. . . the girls recite a pledge vowing to be chaste until marriage, and name their fathers as the "keepers" of their virginity until a husband takes their place."

The reciting of the virginity pledge is often accompanied by a girl giving her father a little pink box (honest to God!). The fathers of these poor creatures, in turn, recite a pledge that goes as follows:

"I, [daughter's name]'s father, choose before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity."

Cover?? For some strange reason, Valenti refers to these insane practices as "pseudo-incestuous." It's hard for me to see what is "pseudo" about them. These are fully incestuous rituals.

Now, there is a similar type of event for young men and their mothers. It is called an integrity ball. The young men are not expected to pledge their virginity to their mothers. Instead, they promise "not to sully someone's daughter or future wife."

Isn't it just totally bizarre that the taxpayers end up funding this idiocy? If some weird people (this is the mildest sounding expression I could find for them) want to participate in these purity/integrity balls, good for them. But why should the taxpayers foot the bill for this?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What counts as sex?

Jessica Valenti's great book The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women (Seal Press, 2009) offers the following beautiful solution to the perennial problem of what should "count" as sex:

It isn't sex unless you've had an orgasm. That's a pleasure-based, non-heteronormative way of marking intimacy if I've ever heard one. Of course, this way of defining sex isn't likely to be very popular among the straight-male sect, given that some would probably end up not counting for many of their partners. (21)

I have been present at way too many discussions of what should or should not be considered sex, and this definition seems perfect. I need to go and rethink some aspects of my life now that I have accepted Valenti's definition of sex.


I first went to Cuba in the summer of 1999. The goal of the trip was to see what Cuba was really like, so I decided to forego the regular touristy choices of beautiful resorts and package trips. I chose a hotel in the center of Old Havana, right next to this beautiful San Cristobal Cathedral. During my stay in Havana, I explored both the old colonial and the new post-revolutionary parts of the city. On many occasions, moving around Havana involved avoiding the police officers whose goal is to contain the tourists in certain areas.

What is happening in Cuba is tragic. Old Havana is crumbling, in spite of the half-hearted efforts by the government to repair at least the most famous buildings of the colonial part of the city. The carnival is a pale shadow of its glorious historical self. There is nothing for the people to celebrate, so they just move listlessly down the Malecon for the benefit of the tourists.

The poverty is obscene. Even more so is the people's indifference towards the dirt around them. You would see a group of people in their 30ies or 40ies sitting next to a heap of rubbish and drinking rum in the sweltering midafternoon heat. Far be it from me to condemn Cubans for this attitude. Nothing around them belongs to them, so why should they care? The prostitution is shocking. It feels like all people do is attempt to sell their own or anybody else's bodies. Even when you manage to establish a genuine personal contact with a Cuban, a moment will come when yet again you will be seen as a potential customer.

It is fashionable to blame the embargo. It is also incredibly US-centric (yes, I looked it up, and this word actually exists.) Whatever happens in the universe, the root must inevitably lie in the actions of this all-important country. Well, in Cuba's case this explanation is just silly. It is absolutely obvious to me that if the embargo had never existed, the result would have been exactly the same. It is not about the US absence from Cuba, it is about who was there. The Soviet Union managed to transform the Cubans into the Soviet people. While I was talking to the Cuban people, observing their actions, hearing their opinions, listening to their dreams and life goals, I couldn't believe what I was seeing and hearing: these were the Soviet people. They just spoke a different language.

The cynicism, the indifference, the belief that prostitution is the best career and is more respectable than any kind of a job, the emotional detachment from everything and everyone, the dog eat dog mentality - all of this has nothing to do with the embargo. This is the legacy of the country where I was born.

Many people still analyze things through this warped Cold War mentality: the US bad, the Soviet Union good. This is so wrong. The Soviet Union destroyed Cuba. Maybe (even probably) the US wouldn't have done much better if Cuba had spent the last few decades under their inflence. But we need to lay the blame where it belongs. In the case of Cuba, the current horrible state of things can only be blamed on one place: the USSR.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Religulous is a great documentary by Bill Maher. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. I have watched it four times already and I have a feeling there will be more viewings in my future. Religulous is smart and extremely funny. Here are some quotes from this great film:
Bill Maher: You're a senator. It worries me that people are running my country who believe in a talking snake.
Senator: You don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the senate though.
Bill Maher: Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking - it's nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable it, and elevate it, are our intellectual slaveholders - keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction.
Bill Maher to a Muslim religious leader: Women in your culture seem not to be as equal to men as they are in our culture.
Muslim religious leader: (Points to a lone female worshipper on the other side of the room) You see, we have women here. They have a special corner.
And this last quote is the best in my opinion: "This is why rational people, anti-religionists, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves. And those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you actually comes at a terrible price."


Dave Cullen's Columbine (New York: Twelve, 2009) marks the 10th anniversary of the Columbine High shootings. Initially, it seems like one more attempt to capitalize on the tragedy. Of course, if that were all the book represented it would not bother me at all. Oprah is dedicating a week's worth of shows to the Columbine, so why shouldn't Cullen make some money off the shooting as well? Far be it from me to get all self-righteous about some people's attempts to make money in such a way. If there is a demand for these books and TV shows, there should definitely be a supply of them.

What is really scary, though, is the explanation Cullen provides for the Columbine massacre. Don't blame the bullies, he says. Forget about blaming the shooters' parents. Don't even think about analyzing how the gun-loving and violence-extolling culture might have influenced Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. According to Cullen, the real reason behind the tragedy is simple: some people are just born bad.

So, relax, my friends. Don't look for clues that will allow you to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Stopping school bullying, limiting access to guns, talking to teenagers to see what might be bothering them - it's all useless. Some people (like Eric Harris) are "born psychopaths." They are especially good at leading people to believe they are nice. They can neither be spotted nor helped. Let's not waste our time trying to change things. Let's just sit back and wait for more shootings to happen.

This is one more example of how pernicious this "brain hard wiring" ideology is. It promotes passivity and lack of social accountability. Some people are born good, some are born bad. Some people are born smart, some are born stupid. It makes no sense to try and change anything. You are "hard wired" this way. I already wrote about the utterly fictitious and ideological nature of this "hard wiring" mystique. Now we are seeing how it manages to pervade all aspects of our lives.

Sexting in Vermont

More good news from Vermont. The State Senate passed legislation exempting sexting teens from child pornography laws. (For those who do not watch Dr. Phil as often as I do: Sexting means sending sexually charged pictures of yourself over the cell phone).

It is cute to watch how freaked out American parents get at the slightest suggestion that their teenage children might be engaged in something that is remotely connected to sex. A whole set of urban myths has appeared as a result of this fear. The Dr. Phil show is especially dedicated to promoting the whole "my-17-year-old-might-have-heard-the-word-sex-this-is-the-end-of-the-world" hysteria.

Somehow, technology always ends up getting the blame for the manifestations of sexuality that some people find scary. The parents of sexting teens receive the profound advice to take away the child's cell phone. In a recent Dr. Phil episode, a young woman confessed to prostituting herself in order to pay her college loans. Who got blamed? The Craig's List. Suggestions were made to close down this website in order to prevent women from prostituting themselves. Apparently, in some people's minds teenage sexuality and grown-up prostitution did not exist before the invention of the cell phone and the Internet.

So, why blame technology? In my opinion, people who resist the idea that our society is inevitably becoming more sexually open fear any kind of change. Technology is a symbol of a changing world. Internet, of course, is particularly scary, since it cannot be censored or controlled in any way. For many of the Dr. Phil viewers (or McCain/Palin voters), the idea of change and transformation is unbearable. The fluid content of the Internet, the daily technological advances are proof that change is unavoidable.

Here is the source for this piece of good news:

Monday, April 20, 2009

Ciltural Differences

One of the best ways to observe cultural differences is through comparing the different versions of the same show produced in different countries. Take Kitchen Nightmares, for example. This show is not only fun, it is also a perfect way to gauge just how unlike the British and the Americans are. Or, rather, how unlike the viewers' expectations are in the two countries.

The traditional structure of the British episode had to be changed to suit the US audience. In Britain, chef Ramsay always has to overcome the initial distrust and sarcasm on the part of the restaurant owners he is trying to help. They make snide remarks, refuse to follow his advice, and even try to get rid of him.

The American participants of the show are almost often extremely grateful for any help. They thank chef Ramsay for any suggestion he is willing to offer. They cry and say how much he changed their lives (I have never seen anything approaching tears of gratitude in the British version of the show. At most, some restaurateurs might emit some semi-grateful grunts.)

Another difference is the ubiquitous makeover that seems to be indispensable to any American TV program. Ramsay's team transforms the restaurant overnight. In one of the episodes, Ramsay even sends the restaurant owner to a spa for a personal makeover. This tradition is absent from the British version of Kitchen Nightmares. If any work needs to be done on the restaurant's appearance and decor, the employees of the restaurant do it on their own. There is no "team" to perform a miracle and change the restaurant in a few hours.

All in all, I prefer the British version. The American show is too predictable: tears of sadness, a miracle, happy gasps, tears of joy.

Obama and Forgiveness

During the Summit of the Americas, President Obama made the following statement: "I am very grateful that President Ortega — (applause) — I’m grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old. (Laughter.) Too often, an opportunity to build a fresh partnership of the Americas has been undermined by stale debates."

This was in response to the speech by the Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who denounced a century of US terrorism in Central America.

Obama's comment is one of the most offensive things I have heard for a while.

Juan Carlos, the King of Spain, found it necessary to express his regret for the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Not only did he not participate personally in the expulsion, he is not even a descendant of the kings who ordered it. Nevertheless, 500 years later the King asked the Jews to return to Spain, promising that "never again will hate and intolerance provoke desolation and exile."

Pope John Paul II publicly apologized to the Jewish people for the persecutions by the Catholics. He also apologized for the Holocaust and left a note pleading for forgiveness in the Western Wall. Nobody suspects the Pope of personally participating in the persecutions of the Jews. He did, however, offer a personal apology.

Unlike these leaders, the US President can't find it in himself to recognize the horror that his country has inflicted on Latin America over the last century. He is looking for a "fresh partnership" where the trauma is still very recent. As a representative of his country, he cannot seriously take the position "I didn't participate in the genocide personally, so don't address your grievances to me. "

There can be no fresh start until the US recognize the harm they have done to Latin America. Offering an apology would show to the people of Latin America that the current administration does not support the genocidal policies the US have been supporting in their region. These are not "stale debates." This is not the way to address people victimized by your country's violence.

Here is the text of the entire speech:

Friday, April 17, 2009


I love to cook. It's my hobby. I collect recipes, watch cooking shows, and love exploring new cuisines. For years, I have felt that I needed to conceal this hobby from people around me. I would go to the supermarket and constantly look over my shoulder to make sure nobody saw me buy the ingredients I needed. I would only bring store-bought stuff to potluck dinners. I would start yawning in a very affected manner any time people would discuss cooking. In short, I behaved like a CIA agent on a dangerous spy mission. As a result, everyone who knows me is convinced that I can't even boil water.

The root of this neurotic behavior lies in an experience I had when I first started grad school. One day, my colleagues and I stayed at the office after classes. We ordered food, had some drinks, and spent several hours talking about our teaching, our research, and our intellectual pursuits. When the party was over, every single woman (except me) immediately got up and started cleaning. Every single man (and me) stayed put and continued talking about the meaning of life. To me, it was a profoundly disturbing experience. Here we are, discussing intellectual topics and ostensibly feeling like equals in every possible way. Then, in a second, half of the group gets up and starts acting as if they were the servants of the other half.

Another upsetting thing that I noticed was the kind of contribution than men and women would make in class. Men would speak a lot (even if they had nothing of value to say) and very loudly, they would have no problem interrupting women, they would dominate the discussions. Women, on the other hand, would make their comments in a tentative little voice (even when their ideas were way stronger than anything their male colleagues could ever hope to contribute). When challenged by men during the discussions, they would immediately withdraw their opinions in an apologetic way.

But these women cooked. All the time. They would bring baked goodies almost to every class. This was very upsetting to watch. It was as if they felt that they needed to buy their acceptance to these intellectual discussions and placate the men in the course by feeding them. It was as if they had accepted that nobody would ever expect them to contribute anything of value to the course. Anything other than what their traditional roles dictate, that is.

I decided then and there that I will never give my colleagues an opportunity to see me as a cooking and cleaning machine whose only purpose in life is to make their existence more comfortable. If they sit in a room surrounded by dirty dishes and wait for somebody to clean up for them, so will I. If they expect somebody to feed them, so will I. If they interrupt their colleagues and disrespect their opinion, I will interrupt and disrespect them.

I have been told that this attitude on my part is anti-feminist because I allow gender expectations to define my behavior. I have been told that the chauvinists win if I have to modify my way of being in order to prove something to them. In my view, however, this is a specious argument. When subaltern subjects engage in mimicry in order to confuse the colonizers, they upset the existing balance of power. When I behave like the biggest macho in the group, my conduct represents a sort of a mirror where chauvinists can see themselves in an exaggerated way.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Teaching Philosophy

When you apply for an academic position, you are often required to provide a statement describing your teaching philosophy. Sadly, this important exercise always turns into an employer-pleasing collection of platitudes. You talk about culture content, multimedia integration, versatility, and boring stuff like that.

So here is my real teaching philosophy. I think it works because even in a worst class I have ever taught (during my last campus visit) I managed to establish rapport with the students. Besides, I have yet to receive one negative student evaluation.

1. A class should be fun both for the students and the professor. My general rule is: if the students haven't laughed at least once during a class, this class has been a total waste of time. If you need to sacrifice the amount of information you manage to impart to laughing and telling funny stories, do it. The students will absorb whatever you teach them that much better.

2. The students learn better when they like and feel comfortable with the teacher. Some people make the mistake of trying to impose their authority by intimidation. This never works. Fear prevents people from learning. If they spend time stressing about the class, they have no energy left to absorb information and analyze it.

3. Your best teaching tool is your personality. You can spend hours glorifying the importance of intellectual pursuits, but all this talk will fall on deaf ears if the students see your life as boring and pathetic.

4. I never bug my students about absences or tardiness. We are all adults, and we know that, simply put, shit happens. You oversleep, you feel too exhausted, or you just don't feel like going to class on a certain day. So what is the purpose of forcing students to humiliate themselves by providing explanations for why they happened to be absent? How would that help the learning process?

5. Sometimes, the most important things we learn come to us during unplanned, spontaneous discussions. Who cares about the class plan if an interesting discussion begins (even when its subject is unrelated to the topic of the class)?

The fact that

Yesterday I had to look at some of my own writing from several years ago. The first sentence that I noticed started as follows:

The fact that the novel ends this way is explained by the fact that...

And it is not just an accidental mistake. The rest of the writing is even worse. The moral of the story: there is nothing more humbling than going over your own intellectual production from some time ago.

Price of Marriage

So I wanted to withdraw money from my pension account. I was told that if I were married, I would have to bring my husband's written permission in order to withdraw my money from my pension account. This is one of the most barbaric things I have heard recently. A permission? Like I'm some kind of a wayward child who can't make decisions about her own money? This just sounds so wrong. What if you've had a fight? You will be punished by losing access to your own money?

This is one among several practices within society that aims to punish those who work and make a living.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Faking Orgasms

One of my favorite feminist blogs just posted the following discussion thread:

It truly shocks me to see that what passes for the feminist line of thought in this society is an attempt to defend "women's right to not have an orgasm." Actually, the patriarchal society has always preferred anorgasmic women for the simple reason that a woman incapable of experiencing sexual pleasure will never "betray" her lord and master simply because she finds another man more sexually attractive.

This is one of the reasons why the feminist movement has become so discredited.

Friday, April 10, 2009

I loves my Kindle :-)

An introductory disclaimer: I do not sell Kindles. I do not work for Amazon. I am not affiliated with Amazon in any way or manner. Nobody has offered me any incentives to promote my enthusiasm for the Kindle. My love for it is one of the most disinterested and sincere emotions I have ever experienced.

It will soon be a year since I first held my Kindle in my hands. When I first found out about it on Amazon, I wasn't sure whether I wanted it. No electronic reading device can substitute the feel, the smell, and the texture of a real book, I thought. Little did I know that a couple of months later I would be ready to inflict grave bodily harm on anyone who would dare to refer to my Kindle as "an electronic reading device" or, even worse, "a gadget."

It is the most amazing thing ever. It allows you to carry all of your books, dictionaries, articles, newspapers, magazines, and blogs with you wherever you go. It weighs next to nothing. It allows you to subscribe to newspapers, magazines, and blogs. It has a free Internet connection. You can buy books directly from Amazon or upload all of the free content from the Internet (Project Gutenberg, Instituto Cervantes, etc.) Version 1 of the Kindle allows you to insert memory cards, which makes the number of books you can carry with you absolutely limitless. If you decide at 2 a.m. that you want to read or sample a particular book, you don't have to wait for the library or the bookstore to open. You can start reading it in matter of seconds. And, in all probability, it will be cheaper than at the bookstore. When a new book by your favorite author comes out, you don't have to wait until it appears in paperback (I mean, what kind of a maniac can afford to buy hardcover editions?) or try to read it in the bookstore. All new books cost lest than $10.

You can look words up in the dictionary right from the page you are reading. You can highlight passages and write your own comments. And as if that weren't enough, it automatically places everything you highlighted into a separate file. Then, you can just copy-paste the quotes you need into your own article or essay. And it always remembers your page.

Best of all, you will never be stuck anywhere without reading matter. I've been looking for some downside of using the Kindle. But as of now, I just can't see any.


I controlled my desire to write about the Bildungsroman genre as long as I could. But, of course, I was destined to fail. Every time I have looked at the Kindle bestseller list (by Amazon), the first several spots on the list were occupied by Stephenie Meyer's The Twilight Saga. I'm neither planning to read it, nor suggesting that anybody should. I am glad to observe, however, that this representative of the Bildungsroman genre is hugely popular among teenagers.

Critics have been announcing the imminent death of the genre for decades. The only problem with this prediction is that the readers and the writers do not seem to care. Bildungsromane continue to appear in print and sell in huge numbers. This means that my field of research will never stop being relevant.


When I first moved to the United States, I kept discovering what I thought were comedy channels. First, I stumbled upon this beautiful parody of a news program. The newscasters were screaming at the people they were pretending to interview. They perverted every news item they could find in the most exaggerated outlandish fashion. There seemed to be a sort of a competition over who will manage to make the most outrageous statement. I laughed so hard it hurt. Then I discovered that this was an actual news channel and the viewers were expected to take everything that they saw seriously. This was, of course, Fox News.

Later on, I discovered another hilarious late night program. It parodied religious discourse in a shockingly funny manner. One of the comedians would say, for example: "You think Jesus is a loser? You think Jesus is a freak? Well, I'm here to change your mind and show to you that Jesus is not all that stupid!" The people on stage were screaming, running around, crying, laughing, singing, and misquoting the Bible to make it sound funny. I loved this show. Then a friend told me that these were actual preachers and they were dead serious.

Then, I found a channel that left no room for doubt as to its purpose. It was called "Comedy Channel." Good, I thought, finally I will be able to listen to actual comedians. After spending some time watching this channel, however, I discovered that it was no match for the comedic impact of Fox News and the Evangelical preachers. For instance, there was a comic who went on for an hour saying things like: "Women are too emotional, you can never hope to understand them (a weird example). Women just have no logic, you shouldn't try reasoning with them (another weird example). Women can never be friends, they would betray each other in a second for a guy (no example whatsoever)."

I'm really losing hope of getting what is considered funny and why.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Who needs gender stereotypes?

I've been trying to define why people are so attached to gender stereotypes and the whole discourse of the so-called male/female differences. It is self-evident that we will never be able to discover any gender differences that would transcend cultural, religious, linguistic, social, racial, class, educational, etc. divisions. As hard as we might try, we will never manage to prove that all women (or men) on the planet share anything whatsoever except the obvious physiological distinctions. Why, then, do people enjoy the stupid "Men are from Mars, women are from Venus"-type books, articles, TV shows, and stand-up comedy routines?

The first reason for this silliness is, of course, that it simplifies our understanding of the world around us. We divide the entire population of the planet into 2 huge groups, assign a list of characteristics to each of them, and immediately feel that the world has suddenly become so much more comprehensible. Who cares if these distinctions and the characteristics we assign to the genders have no basis in actual fact? Who cares if real people suffer their whole lives by trying to inscribe their complex personalities into the normative vision of gender? At least, we now feel so much more in control of the universe.

The second reason is, in my opinion, that this worldview gives people with miserable personal lives an explanation for their lack of personal happiness. Instead of looking at what they might be doing wrong in their emotional and sexual lives, they can put all the blame on gender differences. "Who can understand women?" they say. "Women are just too weird (emotional, incomprehensible, unreasonable, etc.)." Of course, women do the exact same thing.

Such people are particularly invested in promoting the discourse of gender difference. If this discourse gets debunked, they will have to deal with the unwelcome realization that their personal lives suck not because men and women are "essentially" different, but because they never took the trouble of learning how to confront their own personal issues and construct relationships with other people.

There might be other reasons for the almost religious belief in gender differences and I will definitely keep looking for them.

Left and Right

We are used to thinking about political convictions in terms of left and right. In our minds, we see a straight line that accommodates political and ideological stances from the most progressive to the most conservative. However, I often feel that the range of political beliefs is best represented not by a straight line but by a circle. The further you go to the right, the likelier you are to arrive at the extreme left. Sounds paradoxical, doesn't it?

I was reading Scheibeler's The Merchants of Deception when I noticed a striking similarity between the ideological position of the extremely conservative, fiercely Republican group of people that he describes (Amway employees) and Marxist ideology. Just consider the following quotes from the book:

"There were several examples that were frequently used to reinforce the group’s
paradigm that employers were oppressive" (42).

In their opinion, people who worked "were relegated to a lifetime of servitude to an employer who would forever control both their time and their income" (68).

"Many distributors actually began to detest their employers for taking advantage of
them and reaping the harvest of their employees’ labor. People often spoke of how hard
they worked for years with little or no respect only to have the owner and his wife go to
Hawaii, while they stayed back to watch his business" (79).

As we can see, these hardcore Republicans arrive at Marx's questioning of why the employer should be entitled to the fruits of the employees' labor. Move a little further in this direction and you will undoubtedly arrive at the necessity for a social revolution.

Now let's take an example of a radical feminist and a die-hard male chauvinist. As different as their political agendas undoubtedly are, it is entirely possible for both of them to proceed from the same ideological assumption: women are different. See how we have come a full circle by going in opposing directions?

Another example: an atheist (not to be confused with an agnostic) and a profoundly religious person. You'd think they have nothing in common. Not so. They actually share an extremely important conviction: they both KNOW for sure. A full circle yet again.

Fascism is supposed to be located at the right end of the spectrum and communism on the left. However, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had a lot in common. Stalin admired Hitler, while Hitler learned a lot from Stalin. A circle, not a straight line.

Academic Job Search

There are so many books on the Internet about how to handle every single aspect of the incredibly painful and absolutely interminable process of looking for an academic position. Some of them offer extremely detailed accounts of everything you should or should not do to succeed in the search. They provide lists of hundreds of questions that you might be asked and give suggestions about what you should answer. They tell you how to dress, how to act, what questions to ask, what information to provide, and so on.

Even though the desperate candidates love acquiring these books for the sense of psychological comfort they offer, the only good advice I can give is: Forget about it! Studying these publications and following their advice offers us a false sense of having some degree of control over the process. It is very comforting on the emotional level but it is based on an illusion. Remember one thing: we have no control whatsoever over the job search. None. The candidate selection is neither reasonable nor logical. It cannot be understood on a rational level. Any attempt to analyze how it actually works will leave you frustrated and doubting your own mental capacities.

So these are some of the things that I have experienced personally in the job search process:

1. There was a position that I was absolutely perfect for, even to the point of specializing in all 6 precisely defined narrow areas of expertise specified in the job posting. I was not contacted for that position, not even for a preliminary interview. Then I saw an opening in an area completely different from mine and applied for it out of sheer desperation. The next time I heard from the university in question was when I received a contract ready for me to sign. I had not spoken to anybody from that school prior to receiving the job offer.

2. Phone interviews: You might prepare for a phone interview for weeks, read the books and articles of people who will interview you, do brilliantly at an interview and get rejected. You might forget who the interview is supposed to be with and fail to answer most of the questions - and end up being asked for a campus visit.

3. As for the campus visits, as we all know, the amount of stress, hard work and sacrifice that normally goes into them is immense. We kill ourselves to prepare the perfect class and the perfect job talk. We buy clothes we cannot afford to make a good impression on the prospective employers. The results, however, are absolutely unpredictable.

There was a campus visit that I thought went perfectly. I did all I could to impress the people at the department in question. And I thought that I succeeded. Then, they chose someone else for the job and rejected me in a pretty rude fashion.

My next campus visit was a disaster. The class I had to teach was the worst I have ever done. I basically ended up teaching (or, rather, trying to teach) some material that I had never seen before. I ran out of exercises 40 minutes before the end of class. The job talk was miserable. Nobody in the audience had the slightest idea what I was talking about. The question and answer session that I had with members of the department was even worse. I was tired and indifferent and basically refused to answer the last portion of the questions. The concluding part of the visit consisted of me responding to everybody's comments with grunts or monosyllabic answers. The result? They decided that I was perfect for them.

The only conclusion I can draw after going on the job market for two consecutive years is: relax, don't try too hard, and it is entirely possible that your worst effort will provide you with your best result.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Male Circumcision

One of my favorite blogs, Bitch PhD, recently published a post defending male circumcision and expressing the view that "fundamentalist god-fearing people" would oppose this practice. Opposition to circumcision was also connected to anti-Semitism. This was very shocking to me because I believe that circumcision is one of the most barbaric castrating practices known to humankind (I need to clarify here that I'm talking exclusively about non-religious circumcision.) So this is what I wrote in response:

Historically, circumcision has been one of profoundly sexually repressive practices. In 1888, Dr. Kellogg advocated circumcision for boys as a remedy against masturbation. In 1936, L.E. Holt proposed male and female circumcision for the same reason. As we can see, fundamentalist "god-fearing" people are very much in favor of this and other castrating techniques. It is mind-boggling to me why parents would inflict this on their newborn child. Why not allow him to make this decision for himself when he grows up? Do you need to mess with his penis the very moment he is born? Are we as a society that terrified of our genitals?

I believe that the argument about circumcision reducing the incidence of HSV and HPV is completely specious. If we follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, we should advocate cutting off women's breasts to avoid breast cancer. If a body part has a capacity to get diseased, let's just lop it off. What sense does this make?

My conviction that to perform circumcision on people without their consent is wrong stems not from antisemitism (as some people have suggested) but from my profound belief in the inviolability of human body. The traditionalist, puritanical forces in this country do everything they can to prevent women from being in charge of their own bodies. Aren't we accepting their logic when we state that parents have a right to inflict circumcision on their sons?

Love and Money

So I was reading Eric Scheibeler's Merchants of Deception yesterday and there was a passage that seemed really shocking to me. It represents the most screwed up definition of love I have ever encountered. The author is talking about a certain group of people that he desperately wishes to join:

The women would speak of their husbands with a reflective level of admiration and would comment on how thankful they were to be married to a real man. These men were heroes in their own homes — men of integrity who were good providers. . . Something stirred deep within me. I would have given anything to have Patty feel that way about me. (28)

He would actually want his wife to love him because he is "a good provider"? He would want her to love him in exchange for money? Isn't this the most bizarre statement ever? If a man were to tell me that he loves me because I "provide" for him, I would be deeply offended. Isn't that the only normal reaction?

So, what's up with these people? Is their self-esteem so low that they come to agree with the view that they have to buy love? Is there no other way for them to reaffirm their gender identity (notice the passage about being "a real man")? Are they just spouting this garbage because everybody else does and it seems like the right thing to say? Observe the profoundly emotional tone of the statement I quote. This is not some half-hearted acceptance of a common cliche. This goes much deeper.

The entire book is a desperate account of this poor man's efforts to become "a good provider" for his wife who is dying to buy a mink coat. As a result, he drives himself into a corner, both financially and emotionally. At no point, however, does he come to question the reasons that drove him to adopt this sad vision of life where his only value as a human being resides in how much money he managed to make. So sad.

Later on in the book, we can see how the inability to provide destroys this man's identity and his sense of self:

I was unable to see myself as the man of the house, because I could not even get a stinking, lousy J.O.B and provide for my family. I was worthless. My mind was tormented with a raging stream of conflicting thoughts, feelings, and emotions. I did not know who or what I was. I felt no normal emotions. I wondered if I would ever become the same man I was years ago. I could not even conceive what happiness felt like. I literally could not remember the emotion. (156)

How wrong is it that gender identities are so tied up with these senseless cliches that a person would have to go through an emotional crisis of such incredible proportions.

Friday, April 3, 2009

What's happening to The Nation?

I used to love The Nation. It was such a well-written, informative journal. I would learn something new from every single issue. I would admire the language that was a lot less cliche-oriented than any other publication currently in print. I would feel happy that there are some people who share at least some of my political beliefs.

And then it all came to an end. An otherwise great event took away my favorite journal. As strange as this may sound, this event was Obama's election. For a couple of months before the election, almost every article listed what Obama should do if he gets elected. Afterward, every single article listed everything that Obama should do now that he is elected. If anybody tried counting the number of times the word "should" was used in The Nation over the last six months, I am sure that the result would be staggering.

Do the otherwise lucid journalists who write for The Nation really fail to see that these endless lists of what the President should do look very silly? Don't they realize that this makes for extremely boring reading, especially when it's done week after week after week? Aren't they forgetting that at least part of their job consists of providing us with information? Enough already with what Obama should do. Tell us what he actually is doing.

Of course, it would be great if Obama fixed the economy, the environment, the international relations, and in the process managed to remove the spots from the sun. And of course, he should learn to turn the water into wine and walk on water (hasn't he already? Were we wrong to elect him?) . But while we are waiting for him to achieve all that, can we get some information about what is happening in the world?

Vaginal Plastic Surgery

From a BBC documentary that I watched last night I discovered that the fastest growing area of plastic surgery is vaginal plastic surgery. It is mostly done by young women, sometimes as young as 16. The go in for this kind of surgery because they believe that their vaginas are "not pretty enough."

As shocking as the story was (I mean, who even knew this was happening?), the worst part of the documentary was the journalist's analysis of the reasons why this procedure is so popular. Instead of trying to understand where this comes from, the journalist relied on the rhetorical device I call "the media is the devil." As soon as I heard the worn-out and deeply annoying mantra "We are daily bombarded by the images of perfect women," I turned off the television. Perfect women, maybe. But perfect vaginas? The only place you can find images of vaginas is porn. And porn's attitude normally is: "Any vagina is a good vagina."

There must, of course, be a reason why young women dislike their sexual organs so much. I believe that a responsible plastic surgeon would be well advised to send these women to counseling in order to find out whether they have been victims of rape or sexual molestation. There is no doubt in my mind that the majority of these patients have a history of sexual assault. It would have been great if the documentary at least tried to go in this direction.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Nadia Suleman Obsession

If Nadia Suleman didn't exist, we should have invented her. In this moment of deepening economic crisis, she serves an important purpose for the American society. It is kind of comforting to see someone who is in even bigger trouble and even more financially irresponsible than we are. So what if I have a mounting credit card debt with no hope of paying it off in the next decade? Look at the Octomom, her life is so much more hopeless than mine. Instead of getting angry with the people who got us into the recession in the first place, we can safely and easily direct our anger towards this woman.

It is shocking to see the kind of anger that people exhibit against Nadia Suleman in the media. Do Gloria Allred and the like honestly want us to believe that their hysterical outbursts against this woman are caused by how much they care about the babies? There are so many children all over the world who die every day of hunger, lack of fresh water, and preventable diseases. Somehow, I never see anybody get all worked up about that on Dr. Phil's show. Nadia Suleman's kids are definitely better off that the kids dying of AIDS in third-world countries. And nobody seems to get all that emotional about their plight. All of this song and dance about the octuplets is nothing more than self-congratulatory hypocrisy.

Our Brain and the Mystique of "Hard-wiring"

How often do we hear or read statements like "This is the way his brain is wired" or "We are just hard-wired to act this way"? I encounter these expressions almost daily. Television and print media are especially keen on these mystifying phrases.

In a well-researched and truly fascinating article titled "Brain Sex: How the Media Report and Distort Brain Research," Janet Bing discusses how the talk about "hard-wiring" in the human brain is often used to promote the essentialized view of the so-called male-female differences.

Here is the link to this impressive piece of research:;jsessionid=JTQKzGYqzhDHxJkPv7dv6Sd1GdTC77

I always assign this article to my students and enjoy observing the shock they experience as they discover that the intense media blabber about male-female differences being "hard-wired" into our brains has no basis in actual scientific research.

The groundless mystique of brain hard-wiring is always used to achieve certain ideological goals. By using this phrase we buy into the ideology that goes with the concept. People talk of brain's wiring to suggest that some things cannot be changed. They just are. You are depressed? That's how you brain is wired, all you can do to deal with it is just swallow some pills. But don't ever hope to change things permanently and become depression-free for good. You are a woman? Then just accept that your brain is wired a certain way and accept all of the behaviors that your culture traditionally associates with being female. You are autistic? Don't try to look for reasons behind that, don't ever hope to analyze your condition rationally. It's wired in your brain, that's all you need to know about yourself.

Talking about brain hard-wiring does not provide us with answers. It is just a way to avoid having to look for answers to tough questions.

P.S. It seems that the link to the article stopped working in the time that has passed since I wrote this post. So here are some of my favorite quotes from Bing's great piece of research:

"Research showing difference is generally published because academic books and journals have a bias towards reporting differences and against reporting negative results. . . Investigators are much more willing to report differences between groups (and journal editors are much more eager to accept such studies) than they are to publish negative or "no-difference" results. Critics have suggested that journals contain only the tip of the sex-differences-in-laterality-research iceberg and that the majority of studies with negative results are never published. "

"Biological sex itself has turned out to be much more variable and dynamic than we ever imagined. And brain-organization patterns are even more variable from person to person, and probably even within the same person at different times. Further, on most tests of cognitive ability there is enormous overlap of men and women."

"The "facts" that the media present on any subject, however, are often those that reinforce prevailing ideologies. "

"In addition, even when facts contradictory to general beliefs are reported, readers may ignore them. People often ignore any information that conflicts with their beliefs or preconceived ideas. Schaff (1984) calls this tendency to disregard any facts and opinions that conflict with prevailing beliefs cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) and offers a summary of some of the research about it. Schaff (1984:96) explains that: "in conflict situations, if the opinions and attitudes (in the sense of readiness to act) of a human being concerning certain issues, primarily social ones, are at variance with the realities of life and if neither those realities can be brought into agreement with the said opinions nor those opinions modified without ruining the ideology of their carrier, then a psychological defense mechanism is put into operation to make one's mind immune against inconvenient information." Schaff claims that facts inconsistent with previous beliefs and biases can be intellectually acknowledged, but "emotionally blocked," overlooked, and not assimilated. "

Why I decided to blog

I have opinions. This is the main scourge of my life and it is also hugely annoying to the people around me. As a scholar of literature, I believe that everything that surrounds us is a text. Books, newspaper articles, movies, buildings, human beings, and even candy wrappers can and should be read and analyzed. I cannot watch a TV show, go to a restaurant or a grocery store without analyzing everything I see in ideological terms. It's a lot of fun for me but a little less fun for those who accompany me in these activities.

Initially, I thought that the academic world would provide me with a space to express my opinions. Then I discovered that some of my articles cannot be published because they are considered politically incorrect. I was told that there are subjects that I should not discuss with my students because they (the subjects? the students? both?) are "too sensitive." I also realized that many of the things that bother me should not be aired not only during the departmental meetings but also in informal discussions with my colleagues.

As a result, I bugged the hell out of the people in my life with my opinions, attempts at analysis, grievances, and complaints about the academia. In an effort to remove - at least partially - the burden of having to deal with my critical zeal from my loved ones, I have started this blog.