Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Another Funny Study

I have no idea why I keep coming across these hilarious scientific studies today, but here you go.

A group of researchers just proved that thinking about money makes most people unhappy and less able to enjoy life:
Psychologist Jordi Quoidbach of the University of Liège in Belgium and his colleagues divided 374 adults, ranging from custodians to senior administrators, into two randomly assigned groups. The first group was shown a picture of a stack of money; the control group was shown the same picture blurred beyond recognition. Then the participants were given psychological tests to measure their ability to savor pleasant experiences. The results showed that people who had been shown the money scored significantly lower. A second test showed even more dramatically how the thought of cash spoils savoring. Participants were given a piece of chocolate after being shown a picture of money or a blurred photograph. Then an observer timed how long the person savored the morsel of chocolate. Women savored the chocolate longer than men, but regardless of gender, individuals shown the picture of money beforehand spent significantly less time savoring the chocolate—on average, 32 seconds versus 45 seconds.
I have an explanation for this phenomenon as well. When people see a picture of money, they often theink not about money per se, but about their own lack thereof. Show me a picture of a wad of bills, and I immediately remember that I forgot to pay the electricity bill and the cell phone bill will be due in a week. Is it any wonder that this kind of thoughts makes one less interested in any savoring chocolate or anything else?

Some scientists spend tons of money and resources on proving things that are truly self-evident.

A Lot of Alcohol Is Better Than None

Turns out it's better to be a heavy drinker than to abstain from alcohol completely:
Even after controlling for nearly all imaginable variables - socioeconomic status, level of physical activity, number of close friends, quality of social support and so on - the researchers (a six-member team led by psychologist Charles Holahan of the University of Texas at Austin) found that over a 20-year period, mortality rates were highest for those who had never been drinkers, second-highest for heavy drinkers and lowest for moderate drinkers.
Researchers will, of course, look for their own explanations of these findings. For me, however, the reasons for this phenomenon are clear: people who prissily abstain from alcohol altogether are as likely to deprive themselves from other good things in life such as, for example, sex. So it's no wonder that their bodies give up on this pleasure-free lifestyle sooner rather than later.

Monday, August 30, 2010

I hate reading!!

This is a sentence every literature professor hates hearing. I can torture my students with endless lab assignments, written exercises in their workbooks, oral presentations that need to be prepared in their free time, and all kinds of boring, time-consuming activities. They bear everything patiently and almost never complain. When, however, I mention that we will be reading something, a collective moan of "I hate reading!" is the most frequent response I get. The best way of having students drop the class at the beginning of the semester is by announcing that there will be a lot of reading.

The funny thing is that most of them don't really hate reading. When we start reading texts, they obviously enjoy it. Most students offer really interesting, original interpretations of texts, and the ensuing discussions are always lively and exciting. In a way, it feels like they say they hate reading because it's the expected, acceptable reaction.

The anti-reading, anti-intellectual propaganda in this country is very strong. People who like to read appear in TV shows as objects of ridicule. They always look strange, have poor hygiene, and their personal lives are miserable to non-existent. Often, their bookishness leads them directly to madness. (One example, is Detective Goren of Law and Order: CI, whose favorite way of spending his free time is to go to the library and who suffers from one mental breakdown after another. Need I mention that this character has no personal life whatsoever?)

Since being an intellectual, well-read person is presented as unattractive and weird, the younger generation feels obligated to profess an intense hatred of reading. As a result, they get all their information from stupid TV shows that offer nothing but endless streams of propaganda.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Who Is to Blame for Low Enrollments in the Humanities?

Since I started working at my current university, there has been one aspect of my job that made me feel blessed: the Chair of my department. We are not very used to having great bosses in academia. A person can be a great scholar, a fantastic colleague, and a talented pedagogue but that doesn't mean they will make a good leader of people. There is a certain set of skills and a certain way of relating to others and to your workplace that make a great boss. Academics not only don't get any training in how to lead their colleagues effectively, but the very nature of what we do on a daily basis usually makes very lousy bosses out of us. Just think about it. A teacher is a person who is used to students shutting up and taking notes of everything s/he says. A teacher knows that a student will only speak when they get a permission. A teacher imposes her own class plan every single day of class and never even imagines that any dissent on that subject is possible.

When an academic becomes the Chair of their department, they are expected to forget miraculously about all these aspects of relating to others. If we often bring this way of interacting with people to our friends and families, we can hardly be expected not to do so when interacting with our colleagues. This is why good departmental Chairs are so few and far between.

Our Chair is an amazing exception to this rule. She is a true leader of people who makes our department a place you want to be even when you don't really need to. The force of her personality is enough to make people perform above and beyond the call of duty. Her enthusiasm for what we do is simply infectious. She defends the interests of her faculty and instructors with a true passion. One would think that with a Chair like this, the university administration would just count its blessings and let her do her job. If that's what you expect, then you really don't know how the academia works.

Yesterday, we were told that the administration wants to remove our Chair from her position and bring a new departmental leader from the outside. The reason why this is happening, is that under the leadership of the current Chair, we haven't been able to raise the number of Majors at our department from several dozen to several hundred. I don't expect much from the intellectual capacities of our administrators but this is way too stupid even for them. The economy has been completely in the toilet for the past few years. The unemployment (at least in this area) is stuck at 10%. The number of people who are underemployed is scary. Colleges keep cutting funding and staff in the Humanities across the country. In view of all these factors, the idea that the number of students who don't want to major in, say, French is the fault of our Chair is mind-boggling. Next thing we'll know, she will be blamed for single-handedly causing the Recession as well.

Our department often gets informed of job offers in the area that can be of interest to our graduates. In May, for example, we were asked to direct our students to a job opening at the US Bank. They required a person who had a double Major in Spanish and Business. We told several of our recent graduates about this job opening, and they applied. Then, they were informed of the salary they could expect there. It is $15,000. Per year. Seriously.

Should we really wonder after this why so few students want to pursue a Major in Spanish, French, and German?

Sadly, our administrators are incapable of seeing the very obvious reasons behind the stagnating enrollments in the Humanities. They are trying to feed their obsessive interest in enrollment numbers through some really useless policies like inviting outside Chairs. The only result of this plan is that we will lose our great boss and will be forced to deal with an unwanted newcomer. Who is extremely likely to be a lousy boss.

I can't begin to express how sad this makes me.

Buying Real Estate

Check out this brilliant post on why buying real estate in this country is a truly bad idea.

I know that this isn't the kind of news that anybody wants to hear, but the reasoning in this post is unassailable.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Racism in Russia

Racism, anti-semitism and xenophobia have always defined both external and internal politics of Russia. The Russian Empire was notoriously oppressive towards the peoples it subjected and exploited. Pales of settlement for the Jews, prison sentences for Ukrainians who dared use their own language in the classroom, ridiculous accusations of human sacrifices against the Udmurts, the list can go on forever. Still, the Russian intellectuals, writers, thinkers, artists hated racism and saw it as a painful reality of their country that needed to be changed.

Neo-nazism in Russia is on the rise
Today, things have changed. Russia is plagued by a profound sense of inferiority caused by its tragic XXth century history. The result of this is an insistent cultivation of the idea of Russian exceptionality. This idea is not new, of course. Educated, intelligent people in Russia, however, always ridiculed those who insisted on the exceptional nature of their country. Nowadays, it has become fashionable even among the most educated, liberal-minded people to proclaim Russia's superiority to everybody else.

This way of thinking is, of course, accompanied by the rise of racism, anti-semitism, and xenophobia. You can barely visit a Russian website, read a blog, watch a television program without being bombarded by a string of vicious and ridiculous statements imbued with hatred towards some group of people that is not Russian.

Racism is fashionable today in Russia. It is as if people almost competed in who could come up with a greater degree of hatred and with the most sophisticated kind of insults towards every other ethnic group in the world.

I can't begin to tell you how much this saddens me.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cell Phones in the Classroom

At the start of each semester, college professors often entertain themselves by starting endless discussions on weird topics. Somebody would get bothered by something really insignificant and send an e-mail to every other professor on campus. Then, people would start sending responses exaggerating the insignificant issue beyond all reason. As a result, our mailboxes would be flooded by dozens of e-mails discussing the insignificant issue ad nauseam.

The most recent topic under discussion has been the use of cell phones. It started with a complaint about students using cell phones to send text messages and check their Facebook accounts in the classroom. Then, the discusison moved on to condemn the teachers who do the same thing while boring meetings and functions. At this point, we have reached the stage where people are explaining their belief that cell phones are evil by nature and shouldn't be used by any one under any circumstances.

What I find to be especially curious in this discussion is the latent desire to control and discipline others simply for the pleasure of it. Educators often spend insane amounts of time and effort to impose on their classrooms rules that, in the grand scheme of things, are pretty meaningless. As an educator, I have always resisted all attempts by the administration and my colleagues to turn me into a truancy officer or a policewoman. Honestly, I don't care less if students skip class, show up late, or spend the entire class time texting. This isn't high school, this is college where our students are adults. They can decide for themselves whether they need to attend class or listen to the teacher. If they end up making a poor choice, well, that's their problem.

The actual reason why college educators get so angry about the use of cell phones in the classroom and during meetings and functions is because people who use them serve as an unwelcome reminder of a few self-evident truths. The professors who text during boring meetings and blog during useless functions remind us that, even though all of us hate wasting time on such gatherings, only a few of us are free from fear of displeasing the authorities enough to be doing what we want during these meetings. The students who find their Facebook page more fascinating that our lecture remind us that we are failing at making what we do in class interesting enough for the students.

Yesterday, I delivered this really good lecture on the Black Plague. The students were riveted, and no one preferred their cell phones to the information I was delivering. Next week, when I fail to make my class as engaging, the students will, in all probability, plunge right back into their cell phones. Of course, I will be tempted to blame them as ignoramuses who are incapable of seeing the beauty and the importance of my lecture. But honestly, if people prefer their cell phones to my classes, it can't be only their fault.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Who Has a Right to Rest?

This is one of those shocking lists that shows how exploitative the US system of labor is.

Legally required minimum leave by country:
Australia As of 27 March 2006, 20 work days (4 weeks). 2 weeks can be "sold" to employer. Additional Long service leave is also payable. 10 public holidays as well are payable to employees.

Austria 5 weeks
Belgium 20 days, premium pay

Brazil 30 consecutive days after 1 year employment, of which 10 can be sold back to the employer

Bulgaria 20 working days

Chile 15 working days

Colombia 15 working days for every year, vacations can be accumulated for up to 4 years (up to 60 working days of vacations)
China 11 working days.
Czech Republic 4 weeks

Denmark 25 work days
Estonia 28 calendar days

European Union at least 4 weeks, more in some countries

Ecuador 14 days
Germany 4 working weeks

Greece 20 working days or more depending on the years in the company

Guatemala 2 working weeks

Hong Kong 7 days[2]

Hungary 20 working days (increasing up to 30 with age)

Iceland 24 days[3], not including 13 official holidays.
Iran 4 weeks
Israel from 10 working days for the first year to 24 days for 14-th year and on, not including official holidays, sick leave, etc.

Italy 20-32 working days (exact amount depends on contract details), plus 12-13 public holidays.
Kazakhstan 24 calendar days[6]
Latvia 4 weeks

Lithuania 28 calendar days [7]

Netherlands 4 weeks

New Zealand 4 weeks as of April 1, 2007, plus 11 paid public holidays.

Norway 25 working days

Pakistan 15 working days

Paraguay 14 days

Peru 14 days
Portugal 22 working days, up to 25 without work absences in previous year.

Puerto Rico 15 days
Russia 28 calendar days, plus 12 public holidays[8]
Saudi Arabia 30 days
South Africa 21 consecutive days

Spain 30 calendar days

Sri Lanka 28 Working Days - 14 Maximum Annual, 7 Casual and 7 Sick Leave [9]

Sweden 25 work days minimum

Switzerland 28 calendar days (= 20 work days)

Tanzania 28 calendar days

Turkey 12 work days

Tunisia 30 work days

Ukraine 24 calendar days

United Kingdom 5.6 weeks (28 work days), including 8 public holidays[10]

United States none

US law does not require employers to grant any vacation or holidays and about 25% of all employees receive no vacation time or holidays.

See the complete list here.

Midwestern Eating Habits

So yesterday we went to celebrate the first day of classes at this really nice restaurant here in town. The food was great and the service was good, albeit way too friendly for my liking, as is common here in the Midwest.

The only thing that was very weird to me is that at 9:30 we were practically pushed out of the restaurant, even though we kept ordering expensive drinks. This is one of the Midwestern habits that people from Europe find very hard to adapt themselves to. You are supposed to have dinner at surprisingly early hours, and just when the fun is supposed to begin, you are asked to clear out. My friends from Spain who normally dine at 11 pm always suffer greatly because of this strange habit.

One of the hardships of existence in small American towns is that they practically die out at sundown. This is why life feels so tedious and gloomy in small-town America.

Monday, August 23, 2010

My First Day of College

Seeing my overwhelmed and terrified first-year students made me recollect very vividly my first day as a college student in North America. I had attended a university for 5 years before that back in Ukraine, but the college experience in Canada (which is where I got my BA and eventually my first MA) was not only diferent but often the exact opposite of what I was used to.

I brought with me a lot of myths about the system of education in North America, and it took me a while to figure out how everything worked. Here are some of the things I discovered on my first day (or in my first couple of months) as an undergrad in Canada:
  • To begin with, I was absolutely convinced that the admission to North American universities was not competitive. I believed that anybody would be admitted to any university, as long as they could pay tuition.
  • I believed that writing an essay consisted of copying every single word from books and articles. Only my complete ignorance of where the library was located and how one could gain access to it prevented me from proudly submitting a plagiarized essay. Which, of course, would mean the end of my academic career.
  • I had no idea that expressing my opinions (which even then were very strong and worded in a very forceful way) was actually a good thing that would turn me into a stellar student.
  • I was strongly convinced that all North American students were stupid and I would shine brightly among them. The very first day of classes disabused me of this silly notion. I came out feeling vastly inferior in knowledge to my classmates, most of whom were several years younger than me. This feeling of intellectual inferiority was very productive for me because it made me want to work hard to catch up with everybody.
  • I expected everybody to be a feminist (another myth that traveled with me across the ocean) and was shocked to discover that people were terrified that anybody would suspect them of being feminist.
I'm sure there is more but I have to run to my last class of the day.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

You Are Muslim? How Insensitive of You!

The opponents of Cordoba House (that they ignoranty refer to as "Ground Zero Mosque") have realized that their protests against its construction go against the constitution of this country. Unable to defend their opposition to the mosque on constitutional grounds, they have found another way to justify their bigotry. Now they refer to the decision to build a mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero "insensitive." Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.) was one of the first bigots to use the insensitivity argument. Now it is being gleefully picked up by every racist and Evangelical fundamentalist in the country.

The insensitivity argument is mind-boggling in its shamelessness. Americans wreaked unparalleled devastation on many areas of the world. To accuse of insensitivity a group of people who simply want to organize a place of worship is incredibly cynical. Equating Islam with terrorism is ignorant and simply wrong.

It has become painfully obvious that there will be no reasonable discussion about Cordoba House with these bigots. They don't dare to state openly that the only thing motivating their protests is hatred. So they keep coming up with convoluted arguments to explain why praying next to Ground Zero is wrong. Or, in this case, "insensitive."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Maintain Eye Contact at All Times

The academia is engulfed in bureaucracy. For every professor who teaches students and does research, there are several administrators who need to justify their ridiculously high salaries by pretending that they are doing something. They come up with series of useless activities and with convoluted justifications why those activities are crucial. Then, they search for any opportunity to attach themselves to a group of academics doing work and bother them with inept directives and advice.

Yesterday, I was present at a review committee, which was hijacked by the representatives of the university administration. For two hours, they tortured us with advice that was so inane that it bordered on offensive. Here are the instructions we received on how to talk to our colleagues at the department under review:
Listen - Learn the respondent's story
Be a good listener (Yes, it's that repetitive.)
Avoid interrupting but seek elaboration
Show interest - maintain eye contact
Maintain eye-contact with respondent - show interest in his / her story
Pay attention to body language and verbal cues
Allow the respondent time to think and process (be comfortable in silence)
Use prompts to encourage the respondent to keep talking. For example: "uh huh" or head nod, "Can you say more about that?" "How did you feel about that?"
Keep the wording clear and concise
Ask one question at a time
Take notes while still looking at the respondent (emphasis in the original)
I swear I didn't change a word. There were a lot more instructions that were pretty much the same. These instructions were handed out in writing and then delivered to us orally with a lot of elaborations normally reserved for three-year-olds on their way to visit strangers for the first time in their lives. And to add offense to injury, there were two administrators present to deliver this complex message to a group of fifteen academics.

We are days away from the beginning of the semester, so you can imagine why the scholars who were subjected to this idiocy for two hours fumed. You go to a university for over a decade, get a handful of degrees, publish a stack of articles, learn to speak several languages, read a mountain of books only to have some administrator teach you to maintain eye contact and say "uh huh." If that isn't offensive, I don't know what is.

We keep hearing that universities across the country have suffered from the recession. We are told that funding for education is being cut, while tuition is on the rise. Our research funding, our travel money, our merit pay have all been frozen for over a year. Silly stuff like new books for the library or new equipment for the computer lab has been on the backburner for months. Talented students from indigent families have lost their scholarships. In the midst of this economic devastation, the only thing that maintains a robust pace of growth is the administrators' remuneration. They keep getting paid higher salaries whether there is a recession or not. They represent a huge drain on the academic world in terms of resources, time, money, and the patience of faculty and students.

The time has come to take the academia back. We need to remember that college campuses belong to us: the teaching faculty and the students. Administrators should only be there to make our lives easier. We need to stop obeying and start resisiting. Our tolerance of their practices gives them licence to keep milking the system of higher education until there is nothing left for the process of teaching and learning. We, the academics, are all pretty smart people. Administrators, on the other hand, are failed academics who couldn't make it in research and abandoned it in order to make loads of money by abusing their colleagues. We ought to be able to figure out how to resist them.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Female Desire

Here is an excerpt from a fantastic post by Hugo Schwyzer demonstrating the damage done by the lack of freedom for women to express their desire openly:
For better or for worse, most young women grow up with a cultural awareness that their generally speaking, women’s bodies (though perhaps not their own) are intensely desirable to boys and men; strategies for managing that desire are much-discussed facets of women’s magazines, the advertising industry, and conversation.

But we don’t have a culture in which many young men grow up with the experience of being seen and wanted, in which young men grow up with the sense that their bodies are desirable and beautiful as well as functional. Our cultural discourse about young men teaches that managing their own (presumably insatiable) sexual desire is the defining task of their adolescence. A “jock discourse” that encourages young men to “score” with as many women as possible and an “abstinence discourse” which encourages young men to restrain themselves heroically have essentially the same perspective: your job as a man is to channel your libido, either into sexual conquests or radical restriction. Both discourses center male desire, just as most discourses aimed at young women teach teenage girls how to gain, manage, and direct that same titanic force. The missing element, of course, is the idea that female desire can be directed towards men in general, and towards their bodies in particular.
So many straight men have no experience of being wanted. So many straight men have no experience of sensing a gaze of outright longing. Even many men who are wise in the world and in relationships, who know that their wives or girlfriends love them, do not know what it is to be admired and longed for for their bodies and their looks. They may know what it is to be relied upon, they may know what it is to bring another to ecstasy with their tongue or their touch, but they don’t know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye but worthy of longing.
Read the rest of this great post here.

As any woman knows, being an object of desire can be many different things: infuriating, flattering, annoying, titillating, disappointing, exciting, and everything in between. What we don't know, however, how it feels not be an object of desire, not to imagine that one can possibly be desired physically.

I like Hugo's posts because they demonstrate perfectly why the patriarchy is as damaging to men as it is to women.

Many Americans Think Obama Is Muslim

According to recent polls, the number of Americans who think President Obama is Muslim is growing:
Nearly one in five people, or 18 percent, said they think Obama is Muslim, up from the 11 percent who said so in March 2009, according to a poll released Thursday. The proportion who correctly say he is a Christian is down to just 34 percent. . . Pew analysts attribute the findings to attacks by his opponents and Obama's limited attendance at religious services, particularly in contrast with Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, whose worship was more public.
The only reasonable answer to the question about the president's religion is, of course: "I don't know and I don't care." In the last few years, Christian fundamentalists have taken this country hostage to the extent where politicians are now required to participate in showy acts of piety in order to persuade fanatical and ignorant voters that they are worthy of being elected. As anybody even remotely familiar with the origins of this country knows very well, there is hardly anything more un-American than these attempts to conflate politics and religious fundamentalism. It's mind-boggling that people would be interested in how often a political leader visits a religious service.

The funny thing, though, is that people who are actually Christian (unlike fundamentalist buffoons of Sarah Palin's and George W. Bush's ilk) know very well that absence, rather than presence, at public rituals of worship makes one a true Christian:
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites [are]: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen [do]: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. (Matthew 6: 5-7)
The words of Jesus on the matter of public worship could not be clearer. People who pray in religious buildings and in public are hypocrites and only do so to gain an earthly reward. Jesus exhorts his followers to engage in prayer secretly.

Spiritual matters are a deeply intimate affair. People who make a public show out of their presumed spirituality, in truth have none. It's sad that voters often prefer candidates who prostitute their souls by performing religion they know nothing about.

An interesting report on the issue from http://www.newsy.com/:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Before the Semester Begins

This year I will be celebrating 20 years of my career in language teaching. I taught my first language class when I was 14. Since then, I have taught people of all ages and different ethnic origins. I have taught little kids (extremely rewarding but incredibly difficult), older people (a little awkward and often intimidating), teenagers (draining but fun), and college students. I love teaching and believe that it is one of the most exciting, rewarding professions in the world. Do you know this beautiful feeling of being slightly buzzed, when your inhibitions fall away and you feel like you are about to take off and fly? Teaching provides me with this feeling that people search for through alcohol and chemical substances. Not everybody experiences this amazing feeling of a contact with your student audience that goes beyond words. But once you do, you will not want to give it up.

There is, however, one huge downside to teaching. It's the week before the Fall semester begins. No matter how much teaching experience you have, the week before classes you feel terrified. All you can dream about is how you will enter the classroom on the first day of classes, and everything will go wrong. You keep replaying your class plans in your head obsessively, which is something you never do for any but the first-day classes. Many teachers stop sleeping and eating because they are so nervous. Many start having panic attacks. On the first day of classes, you can observe educators with decades of experience walking around white-faced, wth their hands shaking and their teeth chattering in fear. Of course, all that disappears the moment you cross the threshold into your classroom and connect with your audience.

My classes start on August 23. I will be teaching all of my classes on that day and I'm already shaking with terror.

What's Located Close to Ground Zero?

Here is what's located at the same distance from Ground Zero as the Cordoba House. A "gentlemen's club", OTB, McDonald's, bars, stores, coffee-shops. And this is what Sarah Palin refers to as "hallowed ground'? Seriously?

The amount of hypocrisy surrounding this topic is very telling. There is so much starry-eyed, flag-waving, chest-thumping quasi-patriotism around. Of course, it's easy to wave flags and screech about your love for America. It's a bit more difficult to familiarize yourself with the American Constitution and live according to its tenets. For those who have forgotten, this is the text of the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Freedom of religion lies at the foundation of this country's existence. Somehow, it's become acceptable in the recent years to insist that one is ultra-patriotic while stating that the US is "a Christian country." The founding fathers are surely turning in their graves every time such statements are made.

I'm glad that we finally have a president who is familiar with the constitution and who reminded people that his duty is to defend everybody's right to practice their religion freely:

We can be proud of the President's stand on this issue. Especially, when we remember how the previous administration spit on the constitution every time it got in the way.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Ground Zero Mosque"

God knows I wanted to avoid addressing this egregious instance of right-wing propaganda. But that became impossible when my mother called me from Canada all terrified to ask: "Is it true that Obama is building a mosque on Ground Zero?" It took me a while to explain why the American President is not in charge of municipal construction projects, but even that didn't help lower her concern.

The following picture summarizes my attitude to the whole "Ground Zero Mosque" hysteria:

I found it here. There is hardly anything more one can add to this intelligent post and the great illustration.


This hilarious collection of immortal statements by our resident political clown #1 just came out. As Jacob Weisberg, the author, states in the introduction, it's more difficult to create a book of Palinisms than a collection of Bushisms. While Bush sounded hilarious because of concrete grammar and factual mistakes, Palin simply sounds incoherent most of the time. Still, the author of Palinisms: The Accidental Wit and Wisdom of Sarah Palin managed to bring a semblance of order into the chaos of Palin's written and oral expression and presented his readers with a great collection of Palin's most ridiculous statements.

In this day and age, to be a successful politician, you have to be an entertainer and a relatable character first and foremost. Gone are the times when we expected our leaders to be well-versed in history, geography, foreign relations, constitutional law, and boring stuff like that. Today, people vote for whomever they would like to invite for a beer, no matter how many silly things that person can spew per minute. Of course, economically and politically this approach to selecting our leaders leads us into one disaster after another. But the upside is that we will never be bored while politicians like Sarah Palin are around.

In this book, you will find your favorite "Palinisms", as well as some that might have escaped your notice. The sources from which these Palinisms have been gathered are Palin's public speeches, newspaper and TV interviews (including the most famous ones), and Palin's hilarious autobiography Going Rogue: An American Life. I never read the autobiography but the quotes from it that Weisberg offers in Palinisms: The Accidental Wit and Wisdom of Sarah Palin are priceless.

Here are a few Palinisms to brighten up your day. Or make it sadder if you are given to philosophical reflections about the future of this country.
If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?" (Going Rogue).
I always remind people from outside our state that there's plenty of room for all Alaska's animals—right next to the mashed potatoes. (Going Rogue).
I know that John McCain will do that and I, as his vice president, families we are blessed with that vote of the American people and are elected to serve and are sworn in on January 20, that will be our top priority is to defend the American people. (ABC interview with Charles Gibson, September 11, 200)
I can do my part in doing things like working really, really hard to get a natural gas pipeline. Pray about that also. I think God's will has to be done, in unifying people and companies to get that gas line built, so pray for that. (Speaking at the Wasilla Assemblies of God church, Wasilla, Alaska, June 8, 2008)
I can do my job there, in developing our natural resources, and doing things like getting the roads paved, making sure our troopers have their cop cars and their uniforms and their guns, and making sure our public schools are funded. But really, all of that stuff doesn't do any good if the people of Alaska's hearts isn't right with God. (Speaking at the Wasilla Assemblies of God church, Wasilla, Alaska, June 8, 2008.)
The last one is kind of scary rather than funny. But in a way, aren't they all scary as hell?

A Dreamy Campus the Week Before Classes Begin

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T


I've talked before about how sad I found the Americans' complete (and often imaginary) dependence on their cars. But I keep seeing things that make me realize that the problem goes even deeper that I could have imagined. To give an example: there is a convenience store close to my house. It takes me about 4 minutes of very leisurely walking to get there. Just today I saw a young woman who lives across the street go in the direction of the convenience store. In a couple of minutes, she returned, holding a soft drink. The shocking thing is that she went there in a car. There is no logical reason why one would prefer to drive in a car that has been standing outside, in a scorching heat all day long, instead of simply walking this very insignificant distance. Are we now at the point where such a possibility doesn't even occur to young people?

I especially love it when my students tell me that they missed class because their car wouldn't start. When I inform them that there is a very good and reliable public transportation system in this area, they look at me like the idea of taking a bus is completely alien to them. And then we wonder why the obesity rates are growing and people are getting less and less healthy.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

"It's a mighty little old world"

When would you say the following was written?
I know an Esquimau in Upernavik who sends to Cincinnati for his neckties, and I saw a goat-herder in Uruguay who won a prize in a Battle Creek breakfast food puzzle competition. I pay rent on a room in Cairo, Egypt, and another in Yokohama all the year around. I've got slippers waiting for me in a tea-house in Shanghai, and I don't have to tell 'em how to cook my eggs in Rio de Janeiro or Seattle. It's a mighty little old world. . . The terrestrial, globular, planetary hunk of matter, slightly flattened at the poles, and known as the Earth, is my abode. I've met a good many object-bound citizens of this country abroad. I've seen men from Chicago sit in a gondola in Venice on a moonlight night and brag about their drainage canal. I've seen a Southerner on being introduced to the King of England hand that monarch, without batting his eyes, the information that his grand-aunt on his mother's side was related by marriage to the Perkinses, of Charleston. I knew a New Yorker who was kidnapped for ransom by some Afghanistan bandits. His people sent over the money and he came back to Kabul with the agent. 'Afghanistan?' the natives said to him through an interpreter. 'Well, not so slow, do you think?' 'Oh, I don't know,' says he, and he begins to tell them about a cab driver at Sixth avenue and Broadway.
I recently discovered that many people believe globalization is something that started happening a very short time ago. Actually, a perception of a "mighty little old world" has been around prety much forever. The quote above is from a collection of stories by an American writer O. Henry published in 1906. You could find references to how tiny our planet is pretty much at any stage of the existence of humanity.

Every generation of people thinks they have invented their sense of self, their fears, anxieties, their worldview. They couldn't be more mistaken. Take, for example, this apocalyptic feeling that the world is about to end which informs so many of the things we say and do. Well, this sense of impending planetary doom has been around since times immemorial. People of the early Middle Ages were as convinced that the end is coming as we are.

The most difficult thing for any human being to accept is the realization that they might be completely insignificant, ordinary, with no special meaning to their existence. In what concerns entire generations, this fear of insignificance translates into a belief that everything we experience is radically different from anything that came before. At the same time, the idea that after we die the world will go on undisturbed by our disappearance hurts our sense of self-importance. As a result, we come up with strategies aimed at convincing ourselves that we are both more unique and more significant to the existence of the planet than any other generation.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Why Is Eat, Pray, Love So Popular?

We have already discussed the imperialistic and racist dimensions of Eat, Pray, Love. Today, a movie based on this book is coming out and it is predicted to be a huge success. So why is there such a huge (mostly female) following the book and movie about what one reviewer calls a "pampered princess on constant display" with a "petulant, overblown ego"?

Female life choices are still pretty limited. Marriage and babies are touted as an only acceptable path for women from the TV and the movie screens, newspaper and magazine pages. Even within this limited model there are further limitations: planning the wedding the right way, giving birth the right way, breast-feeding the right way, bonding with the baby the right way, even holding the baby the right way. Female weight, appearance, mode of behavior, drinking habits, the volume of women's voices, etc. are endlessly policed. We are routinely stopped in the street by complete strangers and exhorted to smile, lose weight, quit smoking, and (as happened to me the other day) stop reading.

It is no surprise that women are sick and tired of this restrictive model. They gulp down rubbish like Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia because it offers a celebration of an escape from the obligatory marriage and motherhood, from the ubiquitous and unattainable standards of female thinness, from the condemnation of women who put their own pleasure before the that of men and children.

What saddens me is that this female discontent is not being channelled in the direction of political activism. Feminism does not have much to offer to these women since "choice feminists" have made the movement completely toothless. "Choice feminism" proposes that the greatest freedom women can desire is the freedom to be obedient little consumers. It is terrified of questioning any aspect of the gender status quo. The two major ruling parties in the US (which are mirrored by regional equivalents petty much everywhere in the West), have no use for women. Hatred of women is part of the Republican agenda. As for the Democrats, the first thing that Obama did when he came to power was to sell out women. Politically, such topics as parental leave, accessible and affordable daycare, equal pay, etc.  are dead. If politicians talk about women at all, it is to patronize us and condescend to us. Women are needed to come to the polls, vote, and shut the hell up afterwards. Which is what women do because, as usual, the eternal female role is to do what men want them to.

Until there is a legitimate political force interested in channeling female discontent into activism, women will have no alternative but to escape into idiotic fantasies like the one offered by Eat, Pray, Love.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

You've Got to Love Degrassi

Finally, my favorite show about teenagers started to address transgender issues.

I'm never more proud of Canada than when I watch this show. Issues of teenage sexuality, gender identity, body image issues are discussed in an honest, progressive way.

As I said before, I watch Degrassi religiously. It offers such beautiful lessons in kindness, tolerance, and self-knowledge. This show is sponsored by the government of Canada. What a contrast to the idiotic government-sponsored abstinence classes in the US. Also, the show couldn't be more different than vapid shows about teenagers made in the US.

Canada seems so close but in some aspects it's light years away.

Will Palin Quit the Race?

Based on Sarah Palin's track record, people are predicting that she will start a her 2012 presidential bid with a splash but will fizzle out midway:
Palin is an attention monger, selling herself as a big runner with a splashy magazine layout in a premier running magazine. Yet given the chance to actually, you know, run, she couldn't even finish a measly 5K run. Is there a better anecdote to illustrate the essence of Sarah? So watch, she'll make noise about running for president in 2012, but when push comes to shove, she doesn't have the work ethic to actually campaign. She'll bask in the attention, sell lots of books, and get $100K per speech. But the second it becomes hard work, she'll call it quits.
Do you think this is what will happen? I mean, if she's just out for money and fame, then we could all stop worrying, right? If she's doing all she's been doing just to fatten up her bank account with no desire to achieve actual political power, that's a huge relief.

I Love An Empty Campus

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Why the Libertarians Should Divorce Themselves from the Republicans

Courtesy of Izgad (a true Libertarian), here is an interesting article on why Libertarians should distance themselves from the Republicans as fast as possible:
A clear-eyed look at conservatism as a whole reveals a political movement with no realistic potential for advancing individual freedom. The contemporary right is so deeply under the sway of its most illiberal impulses that they now define what it means to be a conservative.

What are those impulses?
First and foremost, a raving, anti-intellectual populism, as expressed by (among many, many others) Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. Next, a brutish nationalism, as expressed in anti-immigrant xenophobia (most recently on display in Arizona) and it’s-always-1938-somewhere jingoism. And, less obvious now but always lurking in the background, a dogmatic religiosity, as expressed in homophobia, creationism, and extremism on beginning- and end-of-life issues. The combined result is a right-wing identity politics that feeds on the red meat of us versus them, “Real America” versus the liberal-dominated coasts, faith and gut instinct versus pointy-headed elitism.
This noxious stew of reaction and ressentiment is the antithesis of libertarianism. The spirit of freedom is cosmopolitan. It is committed to secularism in political discourse, whatever religious views people might hold privately. And it coolly upholds reason against the swirl of interests and passions. History is full of ironies and surprises, but there is no rational basis for expecting an outlook as benighted as the contemporary right’s to produce policy results that libertarians can cheer about.
I couldn't agree more with everything said here. I'm glad to see that there are Libertarians who are clear-headed enough to see that the Tea Party movement does not offer any hope for the advancement of their convictions. This is a bunch of religious fanatics whose talk about their opposition to "Big Government" is code for their hatred of a black president. They are very much in favor of a very strong government when it bans abortion, contraception and gay marriage, invades Iraq, and hands out billions to corporate moochers.

Commenting on This Blog

Dear Readers who wish to leave a comment:

all comments submitted to this blog are manually moderated. This means that I have to read the comments and press the "publish" button before they appear in the comment section. This has to be done because I've had problems with trolls visiting the site. So on those occasions when I sleep in (as today) the comments have to wait until I wake up and moderate them. I'm sorry for the inconvenience but I don't see any way around it.

Unless your comment contains racial, homophobic, anti-semitic, etc. slurs it will be published irrespective of the degree of my disagreement with it. So there is no need to submit the same comment over and over again. I promise, it will appear on the blog as soon as I get to moderating it.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Noam Chomsky Justifies the Tea Partiers

I'm disappointed by Noam Chomsky. Listen to how he justifies the poor, "exploited" tea partiers:

Surely, Chomsky can't be so blind as to miss that the only "real grievances" of the tea partiers arise from their racism and misogyny. But then again, communists and fascists always felt a very strong attraction to each other, so maybe I shouldn't be so surprised at his affected blindness.

Why Are Shows on Cooking and Design So Popular?

Project Runway, Top Chef, Top Chef Masters, Kitchen Nightmares, Masterchef, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern  -  the list of shows where people make exquisite food and beautiful clothes can go on forever. Why are people in this country willing to sit there for hours staring mesmerized at food they can't taste and clothes they can't wear?

The answer is simple. Existence in the United States is bereft of what one would call "the finer things in life." Many people can't afford to eat anywhere other than the horrible McDonald's or Taco Bell and buy their clothes anywhere other than Walmart. If you are lucky enough to belong to the dwindling middle class, then maybe you can afford to visit The Olive Garden every other week and wear the horrible concoctions sold at Gap. Buying exclusively fresh produce and meats is likely to bankrupt pretty much any family with a regular income.

The most paradoxical thing about life in the US is that people strongly believe that they live in the richest country in the world while eating the kind of rubbish that a European person wouldn't feed to their dog and wearing clothes only fit to wash the floor.

What's curious, though, is that this is not entirely a class thing. Throughout my Ivy League experiences, I met many very wealthy people. And still, they mostly ate junk and wore rubbish. Granted, their junk and rubbish were expensive but the fact that they paid a lot for it changed nothing.

The reason people choose (when it is a choice and not a matter of limited means) to eat and wear stuff that tastes and looks horrible is what they call "convenience." Buying pre-processed foods at the deli is more "convenient" than making something yourself from fresh ingredients. Wearing jeans, T-shirts and sneakers everywhere you go is more "convenient" than assembling outfits and accessories that will reflect your own style and your state of mind every day.

At a first glance, this explanation seems to make sense. Cooking from scratch, assembling outfits. Who's got the time for all that stuff? But if yout think about it, isn't there something really disturbing about not having time for such things? Almost since the day they are born, people in this country are told that they have to be productive at all costs all the time. Engaging in things that are not directly related to productivity is seen as frivolous and dispensable. People have neither time nor energy to savor and enjoy the finer things in life. Having time to themselves makes them feel so guilty that they hang out at work long after it's perfectly OK to go home, invent useless activities at work, sign up for endless duties that leave them exhausted at the end of the day.

As a result, they are left with jeans, hamburgers, television, and very little less. Besides work, work, work, of course.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

If You Get Raped, It's Your Own Fault!, Cont'd

Like any blogger, I get my fair share of trolls and nasty, offensive comments. I don't let hateful comments be published because, as I explained before, I don't feel like providing trolls and hate-mongers with a platform from which they can insult people and get access to wider audiences. Still, I was not prepared for the outporing of unmitigated viciousness that descended on me for writing about victim-blaming in cases of rape. Some really crazed weirdos felt it was necessary to leave their disgusting rape fantasies in the comments to the post.  This served to remind me how unhealthy the attitude of our society towards rape still is.

Rape is a topic that often brings out the monster even in some seemingly nice people who might even insist they have feminist sympathies. I believe that the collection of essays Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape can help weed out closet woman-haters in one's life. At the start of a relationship with a man, I think it makes absolute sense to recommend this book to him and then discuss it with him. If there is any anti-women jerkdom in him, it is bound to come out then.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Forest Fires in Russia: When Will the Russian People Finally Have Enough?

As horrible fires devastate the European paart of Russia, it is becoming more and more obvious how corrupt, inept, and contenptuous towards its own people is the Russian government led by the prime-minister Vladimir Putin and his puppet Dmitri Medvedev. 

The fires are moving closer to the nuclear facilities and the danger of a nuclear accident is growing in spite of the half-hearted attempts by the authorities to protect at least these crucial nuclear facilities.

A thick smog has descended on Moscow, forcing hundreds of offices to close down. People have taken to wearing masks and pouring water in the streets in an attempt to protect themsleves at least somewhat form the noxious fumes. The air in Moscow has become ten times more toxic than usual.

As a result of horribly repressive governments that have ruled them for centuries, the Russian people have learned to put up with pretty much anything. There is no viable resistance movement to oppose Putin's shameless authoritarianism. Everybody knows that the elections are so corrupted as to be nothing but a formality, yet people make jokes about it and do nothing. Every kind of repression has been visited on the Russian people in the past century, yet they bear up and carry on heroically.

I strongly believe that the Russian people deserve better than the profoundly corrupt system that robs them blind, guarantees them no human rights or dignities and in return only offers them jingoism, chauvinism, and neo-Nazism as consolation prizes. This is why I want to believe that maybe these disastrous fires and the complete indifference of the Russian government towards the people's suffering will finally serve as a wake-up call for the Russians.

According to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, the Russian president was greeted in Nizhni Novgorod by the citizen's irate promises to "hang him by the balls." Hopefully, the Russian people will finally find the strength to carry out this promise.

At this point, the Russian government is conducting business as usual by concealing the number of victims of this tragedy:
New revelations suggest Moscow's record heatwave and heavy smoke from forest fires may be far deadlier than Russia has admitted so far. Extreme heat and heavy smoke from forest and peat fires has doubled Moscow's death rate, according to the head of the city's health department, Andrei Seltsovsky. Mr Seltsovsky has revealed about 700 people are dying a day, which is twice the usual number. "In usual times 360-380 people are dying each day. Now it is around 700," he said. There are also reports the city's morgues are running out of room. The increase coincides with a record heatwave and the shroud of heavy smog in the city.  But Russia's federal health ministry has disputed the figures.
The cynicism of the Russian government is, as usual, undefeated. I hope that the people of Russia will finally decide that they have had enough.

If You Get Raped, It's Your Own Fault!

Dallas Police Chief David Brown is worried about the 25% increase in reported rapes in Dallas over the past year. As a police officer, he decided to battle this crime by dispensing advice to its victims because who else is to blame for rape? Definitely not the criminal, right? So it has to be the victim. Here is what Chief Brown had to say:
We’re needing to create a message to the victims of these types of crimes...related to, you know, first date, second date, someone you don’t know that well, but you’re at a club, you have a little bit too much to drink, having friends or someone help watch you, and maybe have someone that doesn’t drink in the group
As you can see, according to Chief Brown, women are responsible for preventing their own rapes. How can you do that? Well, by staying at home, of course. (And preferrably barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.) If you go on dates, have a couple of drinks and, God forbid, don't have a chaperone the entire time you are out, prepare to get raped. It is your own fault if a rapist attacks you because you dare to inhabit the public space as if it were yours to enjoy. Far be it from people like Chief Brown to blame rapists for committing the crime of rape. At the same time, the Chief seems to be unaware of the fact that most rapes and sexual assaults are visited upon women in their own homes by people they know very well. Recognizing that would make it hard to criticize women for going out, so Chief Brown avoid mentioning it.

Rape is the only crime where victims are routinely shamed for being victimized. There is a lot more compassion and respect towards victims, say, theft, vandalism, robbery, or any other crime. With rape, however, the authorities always come up with ever more convoluted reasons to blame the victims: she was out at night, she drank, she was on a date, she dressed provocatively, she is a whore, so she must definitely deserve it.

All this is so outrageous, yet so familiar.

Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape is a great book on the subject of the socially constructed vision of rape, where this mythology that women bring rape upon themselves by going out is perpetuated in order to keep women in the state of permanent fear and subjection. I think it would be a great idea to have every aspiring police officer read it while in training. That would help them avoid these offensive myths about women getting raped because they behave "inappropriately."

If You Hate the Hype Around "Eat, Pray, Love" As Much As I Do

As if it weren't enough to be bombarded by incessant advertising for Elizabeth Gilbert's insipid Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, Hollywood now made a film based on it that' starring Julia Roberts. Now one has to be persecuted by the pushy advertisement of both novelistic and cinematic versions of this cultural imperialist journey.

If you are as annoyed by the whole eat-pray-love phenomenon as I am, check out this great post that analyzes the imperialist ethos of this book/movie.

I can't resist adding a great quote from this talented blogger:
There is a vampiric assumption among white class-privileged U.S. people that the rest of the world is, variously: our backyard; our playground and war (battle) ground; our swimming pool; our diamond mine; our lumberyard; our petrol refueling station; our garbage dump; our marketplace and mall; our international cafe and restaurant; our summer home and winter resort; our sea-shell collection site; our South Pacific and Caribbean get-away paradise; out dating hot spot; our sex club and brothel; our predatory child-, transgender-, and woman-rape is-not-a-crisis centers; and our wage and sex slave trafficking post--actually there are hundreds of international stop-and-shop "trading" locations.
Read more at the link above.

Bigger Rock Means Bigger Balls?

Follow this link for great posters and billboards making fun of one of the most ridiculous traditions of this culture.

Thanks to my reader V. for sending me this hilarious link!!!

My readers are the best.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Terrorism Quiz

My reader Geo brought to my attention this great quiz on terrorism prepared by Dr. Jeffrey Rudolph who was the Quebec representative of the East Timor Alert Network. The quiz gives answers to the following questions:
1. Who made the following statement? “To watch the courageous Afghan freedom fighters battle modern arsenals with simple hand-held weapons is an inspiration to those who love freedom.”

5. How many suicide bombings had Iraq experienced before the 2003 US invasion?

13. True or False: The majority of terrorists come from the lower classes.

17. True or False: The religion of Islam is an important cause of terrorism.

21. True or False: A majority of the people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates support al-Qa'ida's goal of creating an Islamic state.

22. True or False: In 1997 a declassified CIA training manual detailed torture methods used against suspected subversives in Central America during the 1980s.
Find detailed and informative answers to these and many other questions here. Some of the answers might surprise you. I, for instance, was convinced that most terrorists come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Feel free to tell me what surprised you the most from the information provided in the quiz in the comments.

And thank you, Geo, for sending me the link! You are a fountain of information.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Petition for Net Neutrality: Urgent Action Needed!

Make sure you sign Al Franken's petition for net neutrality here.

I hope I don't need to explain why a merger between Comcast and NBC will be a disaster for the freedom of information everywhere. If you want to preserve the Internet the way it is now, if you are terrified of the possibility that Fox will control how fast progressive sites are loading as opposed to conservative sites, you need to join us in taking action NOW.

The corporate takeover of the Internet needs to be stopped. Otherwise, five years from now the kind of Internet activism and progressive blogging that is being done right now will not exist any more.

People Worth Following on Twitter

So I'm still trying to figure out how Twitter works and how it can be made more productive. It takes me a while to get a hang of new things and I don't expect to know all about it immediately.

Still, I would welcome advice from my readers on interesting people to follow on Twitter. Feel free to nominate yourself and I promise to check it out.

Leave your suggestions in the comments or send them to clarissasblog@hotmail.com .

And don't forget to follow this blog on Twitter at @Clarissasblog.

Giving Advice to Women

I'm preparing this completely new course for the Fall semester. It's the kind of a course that has never been taught not only at my university but also at any other university where I worked. It's going to be completely innovative and contain a number of very original activites that I worked on all summer. In short, I am very proud of this course and can't wait to start teaching it. When some of my male colleagues heard about it, they immediately started offering me detailed advice on how to teach this course. The funny thing is that only one of them is even remotely related to language teaching. The others have never taught anything resembling this course in their entire lives. The unwanted advice I received was copious and delivered in very sanctimonious tones.

Women regularly receive tons of unsolicited advice from people we barely know or from complete strangers. How many times, while walking down the street or waiting at a bus-stop, was I admonished to smile, lose weight, quit smoking, stop drinking so much coffee, stop reading while I walk, and avoid fast food? When my sister was pregnant, scores of strangers would stop her everywhere she went and bombard her with advice on what she needs to eat and do and how she should prepare to give birth. When I would mention my sister's pregnancy to people I know, they also asked me to give her lists of advice from them.

I've asked many of my male friends whether they receive unsolicited advice regularly. From their confused reaction to the question I gathered that this advice-giving frenzy is mostly reserved for women. Patriarchal societies infantilize women through a multitude of strategies. Women, of course, often consent to this infantilization and even welcome it because it liberates us from many unwelcome responsibilities. As a result, we end up with the societally accepted image of a woman as a perennially childish, helpless creature who needs to be offered aid with every aspect of her life.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tenure and Academic Solidarity

Every academic lucky enough to get an exceedingly rare tenure-track position arrives at their first "real" job with one hope: to get tenure. For a scholar, getting tenure is that happy moment when you can finally start saying what you really want, teaching what you really love, and writing what you really think. At least, that's how the mythology goes. Tenure requirements are usually extremely convoluted, complex and designed to make your life as miserable as possible. The amount of paperwork you have to fill out all the time is daunting. The necessity to please every senior faculty member and ever administrator is painful.

Obviously, the institution of tenure serves important goals of preserving academic freedom and protecting established scholars from the anti-intellectual practices of the university administrators. The 6 years a young academic suffers through on her way to tenure also have a purpose. I believe that this purpose is to alienate tenure-track academics from the rest of the teaching community, defeat any inclination towards independence they might have, and ingrain in them a habit of subservience towards the administrators and senior faculty. On the tenure-track, you spend 6 years in the position of a deer in the headlights, constantly searching for opportunities to please everybody and show just how compliant you are. Tenure becomes this Holy Grail that we struggle to deserve with a single-mindedness that borders on the obsessive.

Tenure-track faculty are often groomed to despise the part-time teaching faculty. At the same time, senior faculty often take out the frustrations of their own endless years on the tenure-track on the junior faculty members who are beginning the same journey. As a result, tenure-track academics bolster the sense of their own importance by bossing around the part-timers, adjuncts and graduate students.  This creates a sense of resentment between all groups of academics and it would be naive to expect this resentment to disappear suddenly the second tenure is awarded.

Another aspect of the tenure-track process is fear. We are terrifed that we might antagonize anybody who will later on turn out to be crucial for the process of tenure review. So we learn to self-censor, shut up, not question and comply with everything. We turn ourselves into willing tools used by the coroporate-minded administrators to destroy academia. Often, we even anticipate the quantification and standardization measures that will end up of robbing our profession of any meaning.

Don't get me wrong, I don't advocate giving up tenure. It's one thing that protects us from being tossed out of academia because of our political convictions, our ideological stances, or our inclination to practice freedom of thought. What I suggest is that we lose the single-minded obsession with improving our chances for tenure to the exclusion of everything else. Getting tenure in a university gutted of true intellect, freedom of thought and creativity will not be worth much anyways.

While recognizing the importance of tenure, I believe we need to learn to value our academic solidarity with our colleagues. Instead of marginalizing the part-timers by letting them know how much more important we are, we need to realize that the only difference between us is sheer luck. Instead of exploiting grad students, we need to remember how difficult grad school was for us and lend them a helping hand. Instead of complying with every ridiculous demand of the administration, we need to analyze its ramifications and present a united front in our resistance to these practices of casualization and corporatization.

For now, we, the academics, are losing this battle everywhere. Gradually, universities are turning into the worst kinds of corporations. While we are sitting there locked in our offices frantically trying to bolster our tenure dossier, the academia is being overtaken by managers eager to bring their corporate practices into our world. We need to wake up and realize that by the time we feel ready for our tenure review, there might be nothing but ruins all around us. We might even lose the very institution of tenure.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Hateful and Bigoted Proposition 8 Is Finally Defeated!

The day when the horrible Proposition 8 was passed in California barring same-sex couples from marrying was a day of mourning for all progressively minded people not only in this country but everywhere in the world. Now, finally the US District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker struck down this ridiculous Proposition 8. This is what he said to explain his decision:
Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite- sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.
I'm especially happy that Judge Walker addressed the irrationality of Prop 8. California that, from what I hear, used to be a hotbed of activism, dissent and progressive thinking, at a certain point went in a completely different direction. The state became an international laughing stock when it elected the dense Arnold Schwarzenegger as its governor. Since then, California's economy has been destroyed, its world-famous education system is in ruins and its government is boggled down in the kind of bureaucracy that only a Republican governor is ever able to create. The result of this kind of a mess is, as we all know, popular resentment and a consequent search for a group that can be marginalized, persecuted and made to suffer. In the midst of their economic misery and bureaucratic martyrdom, Californians leashed out against same-sex couples.

At least now we know that there is one jurist in California who is still willing to uphold reason and act in a rational way: Judge Walker. I congratulate Californians on this great judicial decision that moved California back to the list of civilized places.

Free Word Games available for Kindle 2 and Kindle DX!

If you thought that your Kindle couldn't get any better, here is great news for you: now two free word games are available for your Kindle 2 or Kindle DX. For now, the games are only available for those of you whose Kindles are registered in the US.

Just go to your Archived Items, and the games should be there. Make sure your wireless is turned on at least for a couple of minutes in case you haven't turned it on yet today.

If you can't find the games among your Archived Items, you can find them here: Shuffled Row and here: Every Word.

Here you can find all the information you need about these free games.

Have fun!!!

A cheaper, smaller Kindle has now been released. You can see the picture on the left. Make sure you check it out. As a passionate Kindle lover who was one of the earliest adopters of the device, I can tell you that you don't know what you are missing if you don't have a Kindle.

If any of my readers feel like writing nasty things about the Kindle in the comments, please don't. Unless you have owned a Kindle for as long as I have and know it as well as I do, I'm sorry to say that I'm not really interested in anything bad any one can tell me about it. I kind of trust my actual experience more than anybody's hypothetical and baseless musings.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Standardization and the Death of Academia

I have already written about quantification (Post I and Post II) as a scourge visited upon academia by college administrators recruited from the ranks of corporate managers. These anti-intellectual and, frankly, unintelligent people have no idea what it means to engage in intellectual pursuits. Their only goal is to run universities according to a business model. As I explained in my posts on quantification, they are very numbers-oriented. Words mean nothing to these haters of literature and language. Hence, they go out of their way to force academics to follow them down the path of quantifying the unquantifiable.

The amount of time educators spend nowadays trying to calculate, count and quantify is ridiculous. Every semester, for example, I have to write a report which quantifies how much time per week I spend on each of my work-related activities. It's obvious that there is no way for me to predict how much time I will spend thinking. In their push to quantify thinking, college administrators follow a worthy predecessor: Comrade Stalin. In his brilliant autobiographical novel In the First Circle: The First Uncensored Edition, Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn tells a true story of intellectuals, imprisoned by Stalin and forced to do research in jail for the benefit of Stalin's regime. There, scientists also had to account for how many hours each day they spent thinking, inventing, reading work-related literature, etc. Just like these prisoners of Stalin's regime, I realize how ludicrous such practices are and simply invent numbers to put on my report. This, of course, creates mountains of useless paperwork, makes us waste time we could spend actually working, but who cares? As long as our administrators feel that the intellect they fear and hate so much is firmly under their control, they are content.

Quantification is not the only strategy administrators employ to bring the unhealthy corporate environment to university campuses. They hate the freedom and creativity that historically have always defined academia. They don't want us to nurture our students as free-thinking, independent, intellectual people who can form and articulate their own opinions. And, of course, they don't want us to help students arrive at a decision to act on those opinions. This, God forbid, might loosen the corporate grip on this country, and that perspective is deathly to these ambassadors of the corporate world.

The new, business-minded college administrators want us to churn out obedient robots who will produce endlessly, follow orders perfectly, and never entertain a single thought of their own. Standardization is another practice that administrators use to curb freedom of thought and creativity on campuses. Professors are required to conform their syllabi to a single model in ways that border on insane. For instance, I have to make sure that phrases from our college's mission statement are copy-pasted directly into the syllabus. And paraphrasing is not good enough: our administrators cannot be expected to draw their own conclusions. No, the exact (and extremely tortured, might I add) verbiage of paperwork created by linguistically challenged administrators has to be used.

The saddest thing is that educators so often don't understand the true goal of standardization. They would appoint course coordinators who would make sure that the way one teaches courses conforms to some silly model as much as possible. I have worked in environments that were so heavily standardized that any initiative by the teacher was punished severely. We were given class plans created according to the standardized model aimed to please unintelligent administrators and were forbidden to depart from it. The model would look something like the following: "Page 60, exercise 2 - 10 minutes; page 61, exercises 3 and 4 - 15 minutes," and so on. And woe be unto a teacher who, tired of doing boring exercises from a boring textbook, would try to do something fun and creative with students. She would be forced to offer humiliating explanations of why she dared to defy the Plan. Once again, Comrade Stalin would be happy.

Instead of making the administrators' task of turning universities into corporations easier, we need to resist these strategies. Colleges only exist because there are teachers and there are students willing to be taught by them. The next time we are told to put our teaching within the rigid framework devised by some clueless administrator, let's just say no.