Saturday, April 30, 2011

Grading Observations

I know that these observation will not surprise anyone, but I've been grading for two days and feel that I need to share.

Students are exceptionally good at memorizing stuff. They can reproduce huge chunks of my lectures verbatim. It is even kind of scary to read your own statements repeated back to you so flawlessly in several dozen exams. As somebody who can't memorize worth a damn, I'm very impressed with this capacity.

Now, the part of the exam that requires expressing one's own opinions or analyzing a passage from a text is a lot more painful. Many people prefer simply to leave this part blank. This is quite strange because one would think that expressing one's opinion about the text one read and discussed at length (and a passage from which is provided in the exam) would be the easiest part of the assignment. That's not how it is for the students, though.

Those who chose to answer the questions asking them to analyze an excerpt that was provided did one of two things: a) simply copied some part of the excerpt into the answer box, or b) found a more or less relevant quote from me among their list of memorized quotes and reproduced it.

Only two students out of those whose work I've graded up to now provided an actual analysis of the texts and wrote their own stuff rather than reproducing mine. Both of them are Latin American.
I still have 15 more exams left to grade, so we'll see if this trend bears out in all of them.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Ernesto Sabato Died

Ernesto Sabato, a famous Argentinean writer, died at the age of 99 today. Sabato may not have been the most talented Latin American writer (which is not surprising since the amount of literary talent in Latin America is overwhelming), but if I had to recommend a single Latin American novel for somebody to read, I would recommend Sabato's short novel The Tunnel

I don't claim that the literary quality of this novel is higher than that of many other amazing Latin American writers. However, the importance of The Tunnel resides in the profound insight it offers into the nature of machismo. (The feminist in me will always defeat the literary critic, the academic, the educator, and every other facet of my personality, and I confess this freely.) The workings of the mind of a woman-hater, whose main goal in life is to perpetuate his passionate belief in female inferiority, are described in minute and terrifying detail. As you look into the diseased mind of Castel, the women-hating protagonist of the novel, you realize exactly where the horror of machismo comes from. 

As I have written on various occasions, I was initially going to dedicate my life to the study of Latin American literature. Soon, however, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to deal with how machista the entirety of Latin American literature is, so I switched to Peninsular Studies. So many extremely talented authors from Latin America celebrate and prettify male chauvinism that it just gets tiresome. Sabato, however, goes so deep into the mind of a woman-hater that all you can do as a reader is shrink away in horror. That, I believe, is extremely valuable because I cannot think of another Latin American writer of either gender who does anything even close to this.

On a personal level, The Tunnel was one of the first novels in Spanish I ever read. I was in my early twenties, and the novel really helped me to understand what informs and nourishes male chauvinism. Many things that I was seeing around me became very clear. Actions of some of the men I knew transformed from highly mysterious to crystal-clear in their machismo. I strongly believe that this novel should be required reading for all young women. There are aspects of machismo that, at a first glance, might even seem (and often do) attractive to many young women. Understanding how male chauvinism works would be an invaluable skill for the life of any woman.

A Russian Joke

A son of a Russian billionaire got married. On the next morning, the billionaire catches his son sneaking into the house. Since he knows his own son very well, the billionaire exclaims,

"You just got married yesterday and already you went out whoring! Do you have no shame?"

"Well, Dad, it's like this," the son explained. "I woke up this morning and looked at my bride who was sleeping next to me. She looked so beautiful, so peaceful and gentle, and I felt that I love her more than words could express. So how could I interrupt her sleep just to save a stupid hundred bucks?"

The Benefits of Growing Up in a Non-Religious Environment

1. Your body belongs to you. You can do whatever you want with it and not what some guy in a confessional or behind a pulpit decides.

2. You can eat and drink whatever you like whenever you like without feeling the need to consult some incomprehensible ancient book by people who have been dead forever.

3. There is no need to wake up early on Sunday and schlep to a building where equally sleepy and annoyed people engage in weird rituals together.

4. The idea that there can be anything wrong or shameful about sexual pleasure sounds bizarre.

5. Activities like enjoying food, procrastinating and expressing emotions freely do not lead to intense feelings of guilt.

6. In your romantic relationships, you consult your desires, not dusty tomes.

7. You save a lot of money because nobody hits you up for a donation every week.

8. You don't have to waste hours of your life hearing some individual pontificate in a pompous and boring manner every week.

9. If you do kind and charitable things it's because that's what you want and not because somebody guilt-tripped you into it.

10. You don't have to make a fool of yourself by questioning the most basic advances of science.

11. If you fall out of love, you can split up instead of forcing yourself suffer through a loveless relationship.

12. If you are a woman, you don't grow up with constant reminders of how inferior you are.

13. If you are gay or transgender, you don't get demonized and rejected for that by a group of people who respect somebody's interpretation of some old book more than they respect actual human beings.

14. As an adult, you can evaluate all systems of belief and decide for yourself which one suits you best, which is always a lot more convenient than people having decided that for you when you were a baby with no will of your own. People who pontificate about the atrocity of arranged marriages forget how easily most of them contracted an arranged marriage with their own spirituality. Their parents decide for them on the basis of custom and tradition, and then they are condemned to be spiritual in a way that they might have never chosen if they had any say in the matter.

P.S. If you want to write a response on the benefits of growing up religious, feel free. All I ask is that you try to do it without mentioning the word "community."

Friday, April 29, 2011

Opinions About Ortega y Gasset

OK, I just have to share it because it's too good to be kept from people. One of the questions on the final exam was "Express your views about the political views of Ortega y Gasset."

One of the students wrote in response [the translation is mine]: "Ortega y Gasset really understood the nature of democracy. He realized that the masses are stupid but they are still necessary for a nation to exist."

Somehow, I just can't lower the grade for this.

End of Semester Correspondence

I wonder why some students choose the end of the academic year to get on a prof's nerves in the most inventive ways imaginable. It has to be pretty obvious that a professor will be extremely thankful to anybody who doesn't waste her time in any way and might even cut such considerate students some slack. Apparently, most students don't see it this way because I keep receiving emails from students that would try the patience of an early Christian saint. Here are some examples of what I've been dealing with in the past two weeks.

A) Dear Professor Clarissa, You said that today is the cut off day for the lab and I know that the lab is worth 25% of the final grade. I haven't done any lab since the beginning of the semester and I'm getting kind of worried. Should I worry about it or is it OK?

B) Dear Professor, I'm writing to tell you that you are the bestest, most amazing prof ever. I absolutely LOVED your class this semester. Your lectures are always so interesting and fun!!! I know I missed 11 classes this semester (out of 24) but I know that if I'd been there I would have loved them. So I hope that you don't hold my absences against me.

C) Hi. I'm wondering what my grade is at this point. Please send me what my grade is before the final exam. I need to know how much to prepare for the final exam. Thanks.

D) Dear Clarissa, I know you talked about the final exam in class today but I wasn't listening. Could you tell me what it is you said?

E) Hi prof, I know I missed the oral exam today and I'm sorry. Is there any way I could do a makeup exam and submit it to you by email?

F) Dear professor, I know that I spoke a lot of English during the oral exam today and that resulted in a very low grade. I just wanted to explain to you why that happened. I really love Spanish and want to learn it but speaking English is so much easier! So that's why I spoke it during the exam.

G) Hey Clarissa, thank you for giving us this great study guide for the exam in our literature course. I find it very helpful. The only problem is that I can't find the answer key. Did you forget to hand it out or did I misplace it?

I've been trying to figure out which one is my favorite but it's too hard to choose one. Which one do you like the most?

The Weirdest People Out There. . .

. . . are the ones who actually care about something as inane as the royal wedding. I read online that there are people who get together and organize royal-wedding-watching parties. I find this to be just mystifying. There is so much stuff going on in the world, so many important events, so many books to read, music to listen to, ideas to discuss. Who on earth has the time, the energy and the interest for some stupid ceremony commemorating a relationship of complete strangers? Strangers who haven't even done anything interesting with their lives other than being born to a certain social group. I barely had the time to interrupt a fascinating discussion of class relations to let the judge do her spiel during my own marriage ceremony. Why would I want to waste my life on somebody else's?

Who the Hell Is Neruda?

In answering the question whether Pablo Neruda received any international recognition, a student informed us that nobody knows who he is besides people who are really into poetry.

Serves him right, too. Neruda was a brilliant poet but that, in my opinion, is not enough to redeem him from his horrible machismo. Just take this atrocious beginning of his most famous love poem (translation is mine): "I like it when you are silent because it is as if you weren't there."

It's stuff like this that made me switch from Latin American to Peninsular studies. Spain's Garcia Lorca who created pretty much the only interesting and non-pathetic female character in the entirety of Spanish literature is incomparably better.

And yes, I'm trying to be provocative on purpose here.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Alcoholism and Gender

I'm listening to senior presentations of graduating students in our department right now. One student (who is an absolute star in our program) stated that alcoholism is something that traditionally is associated a lot more with men than with women. I've never heard anything like that. Is it a cultural thing or something?

I'd really like to know if my readers also see alcoholism as more of a male affliction.
Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T


Because of all these meetings that are scheduled back-to-back I just entertained the entire university by running across campus. Running is something I do with the gracefulness of a wounded rhinoceros, so I'm sure that everybody who was outside enjoying the sunny weather really appreciated this spectacle. Well, at least I managed to make people smile on the last day of classes.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Envisioning Goals

I believe that in order to achieve any goal, you need to envision what achieving it will look like down to the smallest details. I don't mean it in the wish fulfillment way peddled by Rhonda Byrnes (or whatever her name is), of course. That's just silly bunk. Envisioning the results of what you are trying to achieve is necessary to arrive at a clear and detailed plan of how to get there. Think, for example, of how the GPS works. If you tell it that you want to go out to have fun, chances are you'll waste a lot of time driving around pointlessly and not arriving at a place where you'd really enjoy yourself. If, however, you enter the exact address of where you are going, then you'll get there fast.

Let's say you are a single person who has now decided that it would be great to be in a relationship. In order not to waste time on endless dates and failed, miserable relationships with people who could never be right for you, I suggest imagining exactly what your ideal partner would be like and how you'd spend your time together.

When I decided that I was ready to stop being happily and ecstatically single and become as ecstatically partnered, I envisioned my ideal partner and my ideal relationship in so much detail that it made people laugh. "You do realize that you'll never find somebody who will fulfill this entire set of requirements, right?" my friends would ask. "Well," I'd respond, "if I can't be in a perfect relationship with a perfect person, then I'll just live in a perfect singlehood." Of course, in the end it turned out that my attitude was completely right and it led me exactly where I wanted.

In my professional life, I follow the same strategy. When I decided I wanted to be "a real professor at a real university", I started imagining what it would look and feel like. In my dreams, I'd see myself sauntering at a leisurely pace into the classroom, looking all elegant with my leather briefcase and chic scarves and shawls. I'd imagine saying things like "Among my publications this year there are articles on the subject of...", going to speak at conferences and shocking everybody with my vast erudition, spending the four summer months immersed in my research. I was so invested in this dream that the first thing I bought when I got accepted into my MA program was a very expensive leather briefcase which looked exactly like the one I imagined. Now that this dream has been fulfilled and I walk into the classroom with my fancy briefcase and cool shawls on a regular basis, I have a new dream that I'm envisioning on a daily basis.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

The Ultimate Career Goal

I think it really helps to know what it is you ultimately want to accomplish in your career. Unless you have a very concrete vision of your ultimate destination, it is hard to avoid making false moves and wasting time and energy on moving in a direction that will ultimately prove to be a dead-end.

I do have a vision of where I want to get in my career. I don't think that something like tenure can be the ultimate goal. For me, tenure is a means to an end. Of course, I will be very happy and celebrate massively when / if I get it. However, that will only be one of the sine qua non conditions that will help me get closer to my goal. There are academics who never look beyond tenure while on the tenure-track. The tenure process is such a time-consuming, complex and often daunting proposition that it often tends to obscure the fact that one will spend many more years in academia after one gets tenure than on the actual tenure-track (which normally takes between 5 and 7 years.) I know several people who experienced a major letdown and a couple who got seriously depressed after getting tenure. For years, the list of tenure requirements was the organizing principle of their lives. Once it was gone, they had no coherent vision of why it made sense to do research and publish any more. (I felt something very similar after I passed my doctoral comprehensives and was left without a reading list that would organize my existence.)

My ultimate goal (and if you want to make fun of its sheer grandiosity, feel free) is to become a female and non-Marxist Terry Eagleton. What I mean by this is that I want to arrive at a point where I will write books on scholarly subjects that interest me (ideology, identity, feminism) for wider audiences. I chose Eagleton as my model because he manages to write in a way that is accessible to any reasonably educated person who is not a literary critic. He does so, however, without compromising the quality of his ideas. Eagleton doesn't dumb down or simplify. Rather, he uses his incomparable writing style to explain even the most complex matters in a way that makes them easier to understand.

Most people believe that academics live in a world apart, that they condescend to those who are less educated, that they can only speak in jargon that nobody other than them can decipher. I can't say that these opinions are completely misguided. The image of the academia as an Ivory Tower is more relevant today than it has ever been. As I said many times before, I am not a Marxist. I don't believe that economic interests guide people's actions and form the basis of everything that happens in society. History has demonstrated time and again that economic interests are nothing compared to the power of ideas. By locking ourselves in our Ivory Towers and excluding everybody not versed in our jargon from gaining access to ideas, we end up creating a society that will eventually expel academia altogether. We are seeing the beginnings of this process already in a slow erosion of tenure and closures of so many programs on the Humanities. 

Yes, politicians do damage to academia and so do anti-intellectual corporate administrators. I love ranting against them as much as the next person. (Read the archives of this blog if you don't believe me.) However, we are to blame, too. There needs to be a greater effort made to bring our ideas to a wider audience. And this is precisely what I want to end up doing.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Scholarly Plans for the Summer

As soon as I got home from my last day of teaching, I sat down and made a list of my grand scholarly goals for the four summer months. And then I made a list of what needs to be done each day or week to fulfill those goals. It isn't a wishful thinking kind of plan, either. I used a calculator several times while creating it. 

And now I got out the list of great ideas and motivational suggestions on how one can optimize one's research that I culled from Stupid Motivational Tricks blog over the recent months and am perusing it at leisure. Look at the following statement, for example:
If you want to complain about how overworked or busy you are, that's fine. You can win the misery sweepstakes. But then what is it you are really winning? You need to be putting in a lot of hours in a competitive profession, but the way you win is by publishing more, not being more miserable.
This couldn't be more true. As a long-time veteran of the misery sweepstakes, I couldn't agree more.

A Republican Reading of the President's Birth Certificate

I found this hilarious picture here.


Apparently, the students in my Intermediate level language class who caused me so much trouble this semester felt very differently about me than I did about them. Almost all of them informed me that they had registered for the subsequent level of Spanish that the course calendar announced as being taught by me next semester. I had to disappoint them by mentioning that my grant gives me a course release from this class.

Their disappointment looked very genuine. Hmm.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

And Finally It's Summer

I just taught my last class of this academic year. Which means that I'm free until the end of August. Four months of delicious freedom await me. There will be a lot of reading, writing, translation, badminton, cooking, and long leisurely walks while listening to my Kindle. And, of course, a lot of blogging.

Freedom, here I come!

P.S. I don't want anybody to think I dislike teaching. I love it passionately. But my vision of a perfect academic schedule includes a teaching-free semester, dedicated exclusively to research and intellectual growth.

I feel happy, people.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Ads on Kindle

Amazon has now released a cheaper version of the Kindle. The reason why it's cheaper is that it features ads. I can just imagine what reading will soon be turned into for those who decide to save a few bucks this way.

"And Don Quijote said to Sancho, "Remember, Sancho, that . . . the new Cottonelle ultra is not only extremely soft but absorbs liquids at a much higher rate than other brands of toilet paper."

"Anna Karenina wept when she realized that. . . Black & Decker household appliances are innovatively designed to not only make your life easier, but to match your unique style all around your home."

"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by me. . . Campbell's Soups are heartier, healthier, and lower in sodium as testified by the American Heart Association."

Words of Wisdom from a Senior Colleague

A senior colleague in a field closely related to mine is about to retire. Here are some excerpts from a personal email I received from this scholar*:
As I look back on my career in academia, the greatest regret I have is that I didn't prioritize my research as much as I could have. I know that I could have done a lot more, made a greater contribution to my field, published more consistently. The world of academia offers so many activities and imposes so many obligations that seem designed to entice us away from our desks, from our unfinished manuscripts, from that eternally terrifying blank page it is our calling and our duty to fill. It is never too hard to find convincing, seemingly valid reasons why this difficult and often painful work needs to be postponed. "Just one moment more, executioner, just one little moment more," we plead in the style of Madame du Barry faced with the guillotine whenever we find ourselves in front of that blank page. This, however, is the greatest mistake made by so many scholars. . . Your are still very young, and your life as a scholar is just beginning. Since you asked for advice, here is the best suggestion I can offer: do everything in your power to make a name for yourself as a specialist in your field. Your record of publications will be the bulwark that will protect you in times of strife and uncertainty, give you security, respect, and ultimately, yes, power. There are institutional humiliations that become harder to accept as you age. . . The only way you can prevent the work of a lifetime from being undermined by these kinds of pressures is by ensuring that your name carries enough weight to shield you.
*Of course, I requested and received permission to publish this text anonymously on my blog. I translated it into English, so all verbal infelicites should be attributed only to me.

The Individual Approach in Teaching

Because I'm a sucker for punishment (a.k.a a very responsible educator dedicated to the intellectual well-being of her students), I allow students in my literature courses to send me rough drafts of their essays as many times as they need before handing in the final version. I go over the rough drafts and make extensive comments on how the essays can be improved. This, of course, makes the end of the semester particularly brutal for me. However, when all that pays off, I feel really fantastic.

There is a student who, for the longest time, couldn't understand what it meant to write an essay in a literature class. Over the course of 4 rough drafts, this student regaled me with statements of the "La Celestina is an interesting work of literature" variety. With every new version of the essay, I kept nudging and pushing the student towards engaging with the text critically, towards learning the difference between describing and analyzing. And this morning, finally, the student sent me the fifth rough draft that has actual analysis of the text. This version of the essay is still not perfect, of course, but it is engaging, lucid and free of trivial observations and annoying generalizations. 

It is my firm belief that all you need is to awaken students' critical faculties once. Just one single time. The moment when a person has their first taste of what it means to become free of the constraints of received wisdoms and produce a critical opinion of their own, they will never go back to regurgitating boring platitudes. This is what my role as an educator really is.

I feel very happy right now. 

Who Matters More, Educators or Administrators?

Educators are being constantly admonishes to cut costs. Funding for conferences is almost impossible to obtain. Library collections don't get updated for years. Some universities remove telephones from professor's offices. In many colleges, teaching faculty have to purchase class supplies with their own money. Many academics buy into this narrative of scarcity and accede to measures that are supposed to save their institutions by cutting corners on vital things. This, of course, is completely silly because all that money we save by depriving our students, ourselves and our universities from crucial education-related materials only goes to feed a growing army of bureaucrats:
 Even at nonprofit schools, top-level administrators and financial managers pull down six- and seven-figure salaries, more on par with their industry counterparts than with their fellow faculty members. And while the proportion of tenure-track teaching faculty has dwindled, the number of managers has skyrocketed in both relative and absolute terms. If current trends continue, the Department of Education estimates that by 2014 there will be more administrators than instructors at American four-year nonprofit colleges. A bigger administration also consumes a larger portion of available funds, so it’s unsurprising that budget shares for instruction and student services have dipped over the past fifteen years.
This is worth being repeated because of how shocking it is: by 2014 there will be more administrators than educators at our nonprofit institutions of higher education. On what planet can this possibly make sense, people? How can we allow even our non-profit universities to become places where a bunch of useless bureaucrats proliferates parasitically by feeding off the hard work of students and teachers? Why are we letting this happen? Why do we sit there like patient dummies while some semi-literate idiot du jour explains to us that we need to drop everything that we are doing and fill out yet another bunch of ridiculous paperwork? Why are we letting these bureaucrats squeeze us out of academia? 

On Obama's Birth Certificate

I was going to blog about President Obama releasing the long version of his birth certificate yesterday but my friend from Nigeria did it a lot better than I ever could:
I am a firm believer in the inner goodness of every human being in spite of their colour. I approached this country and people with the same open mindedness and was – like everyone else around the world – ecstatic and absolved when Obama was elected in 2008 in spite of what many considered his biggest obstacle: the colour of his skin. And then, from then, disappointed as to how every criticism of his policies seemed to come with something more than just a mere disagreement with economic policies. The press conference by Mr. Trump exemplified for me an unfortunate culmination of an underlying culture of intolerance. . . I don’t think that many Americans realize just how bad this reflects on the country to the rest of the world, and that makes it a little more unfortunate. I’m not American and may never try to be one. But seeing how the country treats its own and one of its best leaves very much to be desired. 
You can read the post in its entirety here.

Canadian Conservatives Resort to Anti-Immigrant Propaganda

This is a commercial for the Conservative party that is being run in Quebec. I found it on Canukistani's blog. The commercial is, obviously, in French but there are English subtitles.

I thought the commercial was bad but then I read some of the comments that people left to this video on YouTube and realized that things were much worse than I could have ever imagined based just on the ad. Here are some highlights:

You really have the wrong idea about foreigners. Wish them well but encourage them to make something of their OWN country. If they don't show the Pioneer Initiative OUR ANCESTORS did, they are not worthwhile as people here.

The illegal immigration problem is so blatant. There was a ship from Fujian full of nothing but teen girls. B.C. had to spend money to make them wards of the state and pay 11x more a month per head than they pay a native for welfare. But the intention is for those girls to become WHORES; their families can be threatened by gangs in China. They phone up a girl (who by now has perfect English diction and education) and say, "Start whoring or we cut your mom's fingers off."

 I'm sure oil-executives want to screw over the environment because it's going to create "a better life" and a fatter stock portfolio for their children. Forget the "better life" rap, it's just greed.  No one comes to Canada to work harder and earn LESS, it's always for more. Crime is so easy in Canada with the fat, helpless pigeons we have here, eager to answer telephone scammers with bad accents calling from a boiler-room. 20% of immigrants come here for crime.

I tired of immigrants walking into Canadian asking for money, a house and medicare and we give it to them and they do SHIT ALL! "Don't ask what Canada can do for you, but ask what you can do for Canada".

their family members who (without a proper background check by the government) possibly will come here without the proper necessary skills to contribute economically and a culture that will make them refuse to integrate. All creating a heavy economic and social burden on Canadian society. *Sigh*

The problem with Canada back then (and even now) is that it accepted a huge amounts of refugees and asylum seekers without identifying who these people are, how they can contribute to the country, and how they can settle them probably. These failures resulted in increasing crime, decrease in personal safety, and quality of life in refugee infested neighborhoods in my case. Canada as a prosperous, free, and democratic country has a humanitarian obligation to accept refugees and asylum seekers....

this commercial is not such a bad thing. It is true that criminals and immigrants take advantage of our weakness. It is funny though that people call harper a racist because he wants to crack down on illegal immigration. People who come here on a boat dont just get the tright to stay, its not fair, they should apply for immigration and not just be able to stay here and waste millions our tax payer dollar because they come over in a boat.

And there is a lot more in the same vein. I really didn't expect such blatant hypocrisy, bigotry and sheer unadulterated stupidity from Canadians. Is this what just a few years of Conservative rule do to people?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Yet Another Uninspired Kindle Commercial

For the past few weeks, Kindle owners have been eagerly awaiting the release of a new Kindle commercial. (Yes, Kindle lovers are insane enough to care passionately about a commercial for a product they already own.) Amazon's entire promotional campaign for the greatest product the company has ever released has been very uninspired. This new commercial is a slight improvement on the first one but it still doesn't do justice to the Kindle.

For a long time, the only advertisement we saw for the Kindle consisted of a very weird cartoon where the only advertised function of the Kindle was that you can safely read it under water. Which is completely untrue. The new commercial tries to discuss actual features that the Kindle has, so that's an improvement already. However, it skips all of its best features and, instead, harps on how you can bookmark pages of your Kindle books in a way that even looks like you bent the corner of the page. This is hardly the main feature of the Kindle, especially since it keeps your place in all of your books, documents and games without the need for a bookmark.

I know that my readers must probably be thinking that this is the most boring post I have ever written. I believe, though, that I deserve this little outlet after spending 6 hours and 35 minutes grading today. Now that I got my frustration with Amazon's inept attempts to make people aware of the Kindle, I feel much better.

Thank you, everybody, for your patience and understanding.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

My New Poster

Reading all those Bosch mysteries by Michael Connelly inspired me to buy a poster of my favorite painting by Hieronymus Bosch. It's titled "The Garden of Earthly Delights." 
The painting is not crooked. My photo is

Psychological Hygiene

We brush our teeth twice a day (and some of us even floss) to prevent our teeth from decaying. We wash our hands before eating to avoid getting bacteria on the food. Many people take vitamins and food supplements to stay healthy. Those of us who do sedentary jobs often engage in some form of physical activity in order to preserve our health. We are taught to do these things since early childhood as a way of taking care of ourselves. All of the activities I listed, however, are aimed at preserving our physical health. Very few people in our Western Civilization are taught similar measures aimed at preserving their mental health and psychological well-being.

Pharmaceutic companies benefit greatly from this profound illiteracy that characterizes most of us in what concerns psychological hygiene. Constantly depressed, burned out, anxious people who have no idea why they feel as miserable as they do provide eternal customers ready to swallow handfuls of pills that promise them some relief. Of course, pills always end up requiring more pills to deal with the side-effects of the initial round of pills. And then there is also medication that helps you take medication. And so the vicious circle is created. 

As somebody who views with horror the American culture of popping pills whenever you feel sad, shy, sleepless, nervous, listless, agitated or anything else in between, I take care of my psychological well-being through psychological hygiene measures. Of course, different things will work for different people but I'll just give some examples of what I do to take care of my mental health.

We are now in the last week of the academic year, which is always a very difficult moment. There are endless meetings, tons of paperwork, dozens of emails and visits from students, final exams that need to be prepared, and a lot of grading to do. I have so much stuff to grade that I can't even bring it all home because it's too heavy for me to lift. So I just bring it home in smaller batches. Obviously, this is a moment when one runs a big risk of feeling stressed out, exhausted, miserable and suffering from a burnout. Since I know how dangerous this last week of classes can be to one's psychological well-being, I have planned very carefully my psychological hygiene measures for this week.

Every day this week, I stop working or doing anything work-related by 5 pm. Then, I take a nap. After that, I do things that help me unwind. On Monday, I read an entire mystery novel in one evening. On Tuesday, I spent 4 fours playing Civilization V, which always takes my mind completely off any problems, issues, or work-related concerns. Today, I will reward myself for doing a massive amount of grading by watching several hours of Top Chef reruns and cooking something complicated. Tomorrow, I'm planning to spend several hours chatting on the phone while walking around the neighborhood. Friday will be especially brutal because of all the meetings I will have to attend. Forced sociability always exhausts me like nothing else. So I envision some serious Internet surfing while listening to Latin American rap on Friday evening.

I know from experience that after I do all this, I will wake up on Saturday feeling fresh, happy and ready to leave this academic year behind.

I also have experience of staving off depression successfully. I was told at some point that I had to abandon all the work I had done on my doctoral dissertation and change the topic completely after spending over a year of working on it. (That was a year since my prospectus had been officially approved.) I had most of the research done and had written a chapter and a half. Having to change not only the topic but even the time period I was working on felt like a complete disaster. And, of course, my boyfriend choose that very moment to dump me. And a huge, completely unexpected bill surfaced on that same day. And a very close friend told me that I deserved all this anyways.

Of course, I felt like plunging into the depths of complete and utter misery. However, a new dissertation topic that had to be selected, and I knew I had to start working on it immediately if I was going to graduate when I had originally planned. There is this writer who writes completely trashy and goofy mystery novels in Russian. They are of the kind where you forget the names of the main characters and the plot two minutes after you finish reading. So I took to my bed for three days and  just started reading these novels. I read twenty-two of them over the course of those three days. I did absolutely nothing else. I didn't even shower or wash my face. The novels were so completely silly that they took my mind off everything else. Three days later, I got  up feeling completely rested and ready to start working on my second doctoral dissertation.

Feel free to share your own psychological hygiene methods.

Students with Asperger's in a Language Classroom

What would you do if you strongly suspected that a student in your language classroom had Asperger's? The oral component in language courses is obviously extremely important. There are no lectures in such courses. If a language course is structured the way it should be, the bulk of each class session should be dedicated to students talking and doing activities in pairs and in groups. There are also presentations where you enact scenes or dialogues in front of the classroom. There are oral exams where you are supposed to talk with your classmate(s) while the professor observes and asks questions.

No matter how well you write in the target language, there is simply no way to pass a language course without participating in these activities that are based on talking to people.

So what should one do if one suspects that a student might have Asperger's? What if such a student refuses to participate in any of the group activities and remains silent during the oral exam?

I really understand how hard it is for an Aspie to be in a classroom where you can't just sit quietly in the corner taking notes and where you are constantly thrust into situations that you hate. But I have no idea what I can do for such students if they never came to talk to me about the issues they are having. (Which is also understandable because approaching strangers and starting discussions with them, let alone mentioning your autism, is also extremely painful for Aspies.)

Does anybody have any insights? I feel horrible failing a person for having Asperger's but if a student has no oral exam, no participation, no presentations I simply have no other way to go. Unless I start falsifying grades and giving out points for activities that were not performed, which is something I can't do.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

On Bureaucracy

If the apocalypse comes and the entire human civilization perishes, what will survive will be a lone bureaucrat who will sit among all the rubble filling out forms and churning out yearly reports on the reasons for the demise of humanity. A couple of really appalling instances of bureaucratic idiocy have been on the news recently.

First, there is a case of a woman who is being charged with fraud for enrolling her small child in a kindergarten where she apparently has no right to place her kid:
No one — not a single executive at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley or even AIG — has been charged with fraud for contributing to the financial crash that nearly decimated the country. But there’s one shifty cheat, lying low in a land saturated by financial intrigue, who is being forced to repay what her scheme cost society. Norwalk police recently apprehended Tanya McDowell on first-degree larceny charges. Her crime? The single mother, who is unemployed and homeless most of the time, enrolled her 5-year-old son in kindergarten at Brookside Elementary School using the Norwalk address of his babysitter. She could face 20 years in jail and be forced to pay the $15,686 the year of kindergarten cost the school district, according to the Stamford Advocate.
This entire situation is so hypocritical and atrocious that it truly beggars belief.

And then there is the following story that is taking place in Canada. An autistic student is going to be prevented from competing in an athletic pursuit that has helped him to excel not only in sports but in the classroom based on some bureaucratic technicality that I haven't been able to grasp even after I read the article on the subject twice*:
According to The Globe and Mail, 19-year-old Andrew Towle, a track star for Ottawa (Ontario) Technical Learning Centre who happens to have autism, will not be allowed to compete throughout his senior season because of a technicality which determined that he has been enrolled in high school for too many years. The ruling stems from Andrew being enrolled at OTLC in the 2005-06 school year, despite the fact that he didn't take a single Grade 9 level course in that entire school year. Despite the fact that Towle was a high school student between 2005 and 2007 by technicality alone, the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations ruled that his attendance in a high school building still put him in violation of the association's strict rule that limits a student athlete's eligibility to a five-year span. While the OFSAA might have a strong case to bar Towle if he had used up a full four years of athletic eligibility, that simply isn't the case. The 19-year-old never walked onto a track until his third year at OTLC, when he showed up at a track team practice and was suddenly motivated to improve to be more competitive with his teammates.
Three years, two years, this kindergarten, that kindergarten. These stupid paper-pushers are actually destroying lives and hurting real human beings because of their idiotic rules and regulations. Do you think, though, that any of those folks who keep vociferating about how they hate governmental intrusion into the lives of citizens will have anything to say about these two cases? Somehow, I don't believe that will happen.

*I'm grateful to Pagan Topologist who sent me this link.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What Goes into International Studies

So my university has decided to create an International Studies major to reflect the growing need for specialists who are aware of other cultures and can interact with them productively. The major offers a very wide selection of courses from all kinds of departments: Anthropology, History, Geography, British Literature (that one is really big), and even Music. Only one department is conspicuously absent from the list. Namely, the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature. Which is also the department where most of the faculty are international. Where languages such as Spanish, French, German, Italian, Chinese, Yoruba and Arabic are taught. Where a variety of courses on the literature and culture of places other than Great Britain is offered. 

I guess the general idea is that you can become a specialist in International Studies as a result of sitting in a classroom with a bunch of your fellow Americans and hearing your American professor discuss British Literature before 1789 (which is one of the courses featured prominently on the major.) Learning the languages, the literature and the culture of other countries and continents, however, does not bring you any closer to majoring in International Studies.

Somebody asked me recently on this blog what I mean when I say that the US is becoming more parochial by the second. This is the push towards parochialism in action, my friends.

How Not to Care About the Royal Wedding

As I scroll down the blogroll of the blogs I follow, I see half a dozen of posts that are based on the following template:
Of course, I don't care about the stupid royal wedding. I'm a feminist and I just simply have better things to do that to notice, like other people who are less feminist and progressive than I am, that the bride's dress is [a long description] and her hair is [another long description.] How the hell does she manage do keep that hair so damn shiny, anyways? Although, I, for one, couldn't care less how that is done. And the entire ceremony is [an extremely long description.] But it's not like I'd waste a second of my precious time watching that stupid ceremony along with some silly fans of meaningless royalty.
Based on how many posts people have published about the royal wedding today, they must really and truly not care about it. 


This is a thank you note from a student who is graduating this May. I've had this student in my classes every single semester that I've taught at this university. He will now go to a graduate school at another university. I can't even make myself read the card because I'm afraid it will make me cry.

It's both rewarding and sad to see students graduate and move on with their lives.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

End of Semester Meetings

I decided to stop trying to keep count of all the meetings I have scheduled for Friday, the last day of the semester. There might be 5 or 6 of them, and the number keeps growing. So I'll just show up on campus on Friday morning and let the tide of colleagues take me wherever the meetings are.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Happy Belated Birthday to Pagan Topologist!

Happy belated Birthday to Pagan Topologist whose 
presence on this blog contributes a lot to its continued success.
Happy Birthday, dear friend!

Journal Weirdness

I just received a long email from a journal in my field, explaining that it is taking them too long to review my article because of some issues they've been having and promising to get back to me with a decision as soon as possible.

This is all well and good, except for the fact that I haven't submitted anything to this journal.

This is also a very cruel thing to do to a person who is awaiting decision on two articles she has actually submitted to other journals and who almost faints every time she sees an email with the subject line "Article submission."

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T


As I was walking down the hallway right now, I was greeted in English (twice), Russian (twice), Ukrainian (once), French (once) and Spanish (four times).

It makes me feel really good.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

How to Talk to Students Without Getting in Trouble, Part II

Another important rule of interacting with students is that, no matter how close your relationship with a student is, it is never a good idea to comment on the student's weight or physical attributes. I had this male professor who kept bugging his female students with questions like, "How much do you weigh? Have you been gaining weight? Are you sure you don't eat too much?" I am blessed with having a very healthy attitude towards my body, so whenever this professor greeted me with "You are getting really fat, Clarissa. Why are you so fat?", I had no problem responding in a jocular tone, "Well, I never be as fat as you, professor" or "You know how much I admire you, so I'm trying to emulate you and get as fat as you are." However, students who had body image issues or even had a history of eating disorders suffered greatly. 

It's a good idea to avoid touching students when it isn't absolutely necessary. There was this professor who really liked my hair. I like my hair, too, and I understand how one might feel the compulsion to touch it. However, it would get really annoying to be sitting at the library or working in the stacks and feel somebody grab my hair and tug it. I'm especially sensitive to people touching my head, so it was extremely annoying. I couldn't do the same thing to the professor to teach him a lesson because he had no hair I could tug.

Self-deprecation is a tool that many professors use to show students that they are human and to make the students like them. I, however, believe that self-deprecation is counter-productive in the classroom. Not only all of my colleagues, administrators, staff members and janitors are completely 100% fantastic, but so am I. If there is something that I don't know or forgot to do, I just say so without engaging in a self-deprecating rant that would only make everybody feel uncomfortable. Students are not my therapy group and it is not their job to make me feel better about myself. 

It is often hard to keep one's cool, especially at the end of the semester when work accumulates and tempers get frayed. I saw a very soft-spoken and polite colleague last week yell at a student in a way that made even me feel scared. I'm sure that the student really messed up to make the professor this angry. I also think that yelling is a completely normal and healthy way of venting one's frustrations. However, I believe that it is only permissible to yell at people who have no problem yelling back at you. When you have a person who is powerless in their relationship with you, raising your voice is just abusive. When I feel that I'm about to explode, I just leave and take a walk around the building while trying to breathe very deep. This usually helps to contain the anger. Blogging about it is another great venue of releasing pent up anger.

You can find the first part of this post here.

Male and Female Sleuths, Part II

The reason why I enjoy Michael Connelly's Hieronymus Bosch series is that this writer manages to create a truly complex and ever-evolving male protagonist. This is a risky proposition since it means that the novels in the series have to be read in order. Otherwise, Harry Bosch's personality simply doesn't make sense. I have now read seven of the novels in the series and the main character still manages to surprise me. 

There is, however, one area of Harry Bosch's life where he sadly resembles the classic male sleuths of Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Chesterton. What Holmes, Poirot and Father Brown have in common is a complete absence of any personal life whatsoever. Not only are these characters completely and utterly sexless, they also lack any family members. It is true that Miss Marple is also not known for her wild sexual exploits. She does, however, have a slew of relatives whose stories provide her with clues she uses to solve her mysteries.

The reason why the classic male protagonists of mystery novels lead such sexless lives is, in my opinion, that the authors of these books cannot afford to antagonize their female readers. In the noir genre and the spy novels that are geared mostly towards male readership, male protagonists engage in numerous sexual adventures. Female readers, however, do not appreciate male characters who have too much sex. When recently Elizabeth George killed off the character of Helen, Inspector Lynley's wife, and had Lynley have sex with another woman, a huge number of her readers reacted with outrage. 

Of course, Connelly couldn't have Bosch, a police officer in Los Angeles at the turn of the XXI century, lead a completely sexless existence. Instead, the writer chose the path of turning Bosch into a constant and wistful victim of women who use him, manipulate him and dump him. Every single one of Bosch's love affairs follows the same path: he acts the role of a sad troubadour to a woman whom he keeps serving long after she betrays and abandons him.

Connelly's Bosch novels are an important step in the direction of creating believable, multi-faceted male sleuths. This project, however, is far from being complete, and even Connelly took a huge step back when he introduced his new Mickey Haller series which features a one-dimensional protagonist who follows all of the worst conventions of the genre.

Male and Female Sleuths, Part I

It is extremely rare to find a male detective in a mystery series who has a complex, multi-faceted personality which grows and transforms over the course of the series. Male sleuths tend to be assigned a set of quirky characteristics in the very first novel of the series. Then, references to these quirks and tics are made in the subsequent novels to remind us of what this character is supposed to be like. Even Ruth Rendell, whose greatest talent (among many) resides in creating complex, fascinating characters, fails to do so with her Inspector Wexford. In Rendell's Inspector Wexford series, we see this character over the course of fifty years and can safely say that he experiences absolutely no changes in terms of his personality. For this reason, I have always found this series to be quite boring.

Or take, for example, Elizabeth George's Lynley and Havers series. Lynley, the male sleuth, is always the same. If you have read a single one of these novels, you know all there is to know about this character's personality. Female sleuths, however, fare a lot better. They are given personalities that are complex, profound, growing, changing with every new installment. Barbara Havers, the female protagonist of George's series, differs from her male counterpart Inspector Lynley in that her experiences in these novels help her grow. The Havers of A Great Deliverance (the first novel in the series)  is not nearly the same person we encounter in This Body of Death, which is the most recent installment.

The same could be said about many other female detectives. Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan, Lisa Gardner's D.D. Warren, Tess Gerritsen's Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles are complex, interesting characters whose personalities undergo profound transformations in the course of the series.

I believe that the reason why male sleuths are frequently so flat, cartoonish and boring lies in the tradition of the early classics of the mystery genre. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown are the models on which the entire cast of later male sleuths was built. These three classic sleuths are quirky and original. They are, however, always the same. Poirot's personality is exactly the same in The Mysterious Affair at Styles as he is in Curtain. As for Holmes and Father Brown, I have read all stories featuring these characters (usually more than once) but for the life of me couldn't figure out the chronological succession of these stories.

(To be continued. . .)

Stating the Obvious, Part III

And a truly scary one: "I took this course in the Spring of 2011. It started in January and lasted all the way through the end of April. In this course we read many works of Spanish literature."

I think I need a drink right now.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Stating the Obvious, Part II

I have now declared my struggle to prevent students from using their essays to communicate painfully self-evident things to me to be over. It is a struggle that I have lost. In their final essays, students have informed me of the following:

a) ours was a course on Spanish literature;
b) during our course on Spanish literature we read works of Spanish literature;
c) the works of Spanish literature we read in our course were written by Spanish writers;
d) Spanish writers can be male or female;
e) these male or female writers write their works of literature in Spanish;
f) these works of literature have many differences;
g) but they all share one important characteristic, namely, that they are works of Spanish literature which we read in our course on Spanish literature.

We also watched some movies, but I'll let you imagine how essays analyzing the movies were structured on your own.

Algorithmic Pricing on Amazon

I just discovered the following hilarious but true story about algorithmic pricing on Amazon:
A few weeks ago a postdoc in my lab logged on to Amazon to buy the lab an extra copy of Peter Lawrence’s The Making of a Fly – a classic work in developmental biology that we – and most other Drosophila developmental biologists – consult regularly. The book, published in 1992, is out of print. But Amazon listed 17 copies for sale: 15 used from $35.54, and 2 new from $1,730,045.91 (+$3.99 shipping).
Want to know how that happened? Read the full story here. I still can't stop laughing about this.

Funny Story About Russian Students

To brighten up everybody's day, I want to share a story about my days as a university student back in Ukraine. I will begin with this very old joke about Russian students that my non-Russian readers have probably never heard.

Researchers ask an American student, "How long will it take you to prepare for an Advanced Placement exam in Chinese if you never studied Chinese before?" 

"Well, about 3 years," the American student responds.

"How long will it take you to prepare for an Advanced Placement exam in Chinese if you never studied Chinese before?" they ask a European student.

"Probably about 18 months," the European student answers.

Then, the researchers approach a Russian student who is smoking in front of the university and ask him the same question.

"Do you have the textbook?" the student asks.

"Yes", the researchers say.

"OK, then," the Russian student responds, "let me finish this cigarette and I'll go pass your exam."

When I was a university student in Ukraine, I hardly ever showed up for any classes. It wasn't easy to survive in the Ukraine of the 90ies, and I worked day and night to provide for myself and my husband. In every course, the final oral exam constituted 100% of the final grade. Lectures consisted of professors reading chapters from the textbook out loud. There were never any discussions or anything that even remotely resembled discussions. So, obviously, I, who was a very highly paid translator, considered these classes to be an awful waste of time. Before the finals, I'd just get th textbook, read it, memorize stuff from it, and rattle it off at the exam. I was considered a stellar student, too.

There was this course in International Relations that I didn't attend once during the semester. This course used to be titled "The History of the Communist Party" and was still taught by the same KGB guy who had taught it during the Soviet Union. The exams had this weird structure where you could show up any time over the course of several hours, get a paper with questions from the professor, prepare your answer for 15-30 minutes (without consulting anything, of course), and then recite your answers to the professor.

It so happened that I arrived early for the exam in this International Relations course. The classroom was empty. There was just this professor sitting there. I had no way of knowing whether he was my professor and whether I was even in the right classroom because I hadn't attended a single class that semester. 

"Are you here for the exam?" the professor asked.

"Yes," I responded tentatively. I knew I was there for an exam, I just didn't know if I was there for his exam.

"So come in and get the paper with the questions," he said.

I got the paper with the questions, hoping that the nature of the questions would elucidate whether I was in the right room with the professor who was my professor and not, say, a professor of quantum physics. When I got the paper with the questions, however, things did not become any clearer. I had no idea what the questions even meant, let alone what discipline they could belong to. There was, for example, a question about the combined tonnage of some country's warships during the 20ies. I knew that the only way out was just to bullshit my way through the responses.

When I approached the prof's table, he really saved me by asking in a severe voice, "So are you interested in international relations?" 

"Oh, I love them!" I gushed feeling happy that I was at least in the right room. Then, I made an impassioned speech about how the young people of today were criminally indifferent to the world around them and had no political stance. Our grandparents, however, really changed the world with their passionate Communist beliefs, and so on, and so forth.

"OK," the professor said. "I'm guessing that you have no idea how to answer any of these questions, right?"

"Not a clue," I confessed brightly.

"Fine, you can go," he said. "I'm giving you a B."

So if you think that people in the KGB were all humorless and cruel jerks, think twice.

Children of Rich People

Last night I had a discussion with my sister about the children of rich or well-off people. There are many people we both know who worked extremely hard since their early youth, literally killed themselves working to create better, more comfortable lives for themselves and their children. They succeed and have very comfortable lifestyles.

However, their children very often end up being total underachievers who have no goals in life and just wander around aimlessly and miserably almost completely dependent on their parents, often well into their forties. These people had everything they ever wanted since the day they were born. Expensive toys, gadgets, fantastic schools, trips abroad, clothes from famous brands and later downpayments for houses or condos and expensive cars. As a result, they lack what I consider to be one of the most important skills in life: they don't know how to want things and work towards achieving them. There is nothing more miserable, I believe, that a life without goals and dreams. Not pipe dreams of the "I will become rich and famous without ever lifting a finger" variety but actual goals that a person works every day to achieve.

This is a very strange and disheartening paradox. People who work extremely hard their entire lives and achieve a lot end up unwittingly undermining their children. It seems like one is much better off growing up in a poor family because that gives you the drive and the skills to survive on your own. When I was in grad school, I knew that there was no trust fund and no inheritance from a grandma I could rely on. This was why I worked so hard to graduate in five years and find a paying job as soon as possible. If it hadn't been for the knowledge that I had to fend for myself because there was simply no other option, I might still be in grad school today partying every night and staring lazily at my unfinished dissertation during the day.

All of the leading scholars in my field whose life circumstances I happen to know well came from extremely modest (not to say dirt poor) families. I just can't think of anybody who was born with a silver or even golden spoon in their mouth and still managed to make something of themselves. (Sitting on the board of your Daddy's company or being placed in an academic position by your brilliant mother doesn't count as being successful in your own right.) As I wrote a couple of days ago, it so happened that I've spent a lot of time with rich people, and it's always the same story. Driven, hard-working parents and bored, inept, immature children who keep living through their boring teenage rebellion decades after they reached adulthood.

So my question to everybody is: do you know any people who grew up in families that were very comfortable financially but who still managed to become successful individuals in their own right? And if so, what did their families do to make it happen?

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

College News

It feels very strange to wake up and find out news about yourself from your university's newspaper. I discovered that I have been selected for this program but nobody has informed me of this in person yet. Now I feel kind of weird, even though I love being mentioned  in our college newspaper and I really wanted to be part of the program.

Conspiracy Theorists on Amazon

People love conspiracy theories. They find conspiracies in the most unlikely places imaginable. Some people on Amazon are now accusing me of not writing my book reviews in person but having them generated by a computer (whatever that means.) I suggested that they head over to my blog and check out the dates when each individual review appeared but, still, people prefer to believe in some dark secrets that lurk behind a person's high review rating on Amazon.

It's sad that some people's lives are so empty that they have time and energy to notice other people's ratings on some website. In all the time I've been posting reviews there, I never felt like wasting time on trying to calculate how often other reviewers post. 

Zygmunt Bauman's Liquid Modernity: A Review, Part II

I want to dedicate the second part of my review of Liquid Modernity to those of its parts that I found to be objectionable. My problem with the entirety of Bauman's work is that whenever he talks of people, humanity, or mankind at large, he always ends up making statements that are only true for a certain part of humanity, namely, white heterosexual males. Let's take, for example, the following statement, in which the erasure of women is so complete as to be shocking:
'Work' so understood was the activity in which humanity as a whole was supposed to be engaged by its fate and nature, rather than by choice, when making its history. And 'work' so defined was a collective effort of which every single member of humankind had to partake. All the rest was but a consequence: casting work as the 'natural condition' of human beings, and being out of work as an abnormality; blaming departure from that condition for extant poverty and misery, deprivation and depravity. (137)
These statements are, of course, completely true if by "humanity as a whole" and "every single member of humankind" we refer exclusively to men. For women, the situation was and still is the exact opposite. Working mothers are routinely blamed for causing "extant poverty and misery, deprivation and depravity" of their poor, abandoned children. Women are constantly exhorted to "opt out" of the workplace and demonized for not doing so. Working conditions are geared towards making the life of working women as inhospitable as possible. If we keep this in mind, Bauman's references to "humanity as a whole" become egregiously offensive.

In a similar vein, Bauman bemoans the disintegration of the patriarchal family, which brought about the liberation of all those pesky females he loves to erase. He becomes as preachy as any fundamentalist when he begins to lament the evils of divorce, especially when people who dare to abandon loveless marriages are not rich:
There is little doubt that when 'trickled down' to the poor and powerless, the new-style partnership with its fragility of marital contract and the 'purification' of the union of all but the 'mutual satisfaction' function spawns much misery, agony and human suffering and an ever-growing volume of broken, loveless and prospectless lives. (90)
How dare you, poor and powerless folks, look for satisfaction outside of the confines of the patriarchal family? You need to sit tight, patently bearing your miserable, loveless marriages.

What Bauman prefers to overlook in his anti-divorce rants is that, in the absolute majority of cases in the developed countries, it is women who seek the divorce (in 2010 in the US it was 72% of divorces petitioned for by women to 28% by men). The situation is even more clear-cut among college-educated couples where, according to the data provided by American Law and Economics Review, women file for divorce in about 90% of cases. This is not at all surprising since marriage is still a losing proposition for women even in the most developed countries. Women are still stuck with more housework, the greatest burden of child-rearing and very little gains coming out of being married other than some dubious prestige the TV shows try to convince us exists for women who get married. Married women live shorter lives than single women, while married men live longer than single men. For this reason, in real life (as opposed to what we are being told by television and newspapers) men are a lot more interested in marriage than women. The disintegration of the patriarchal family that bothers Bauman so much is, indeed, robbing men of power. At the same time, it liberates women. Women, however, are not a group that Bauman ever notices. 

It is often difficult for me to distinguish whether on this topic Bauman is being purposefully obtuse or if he genuinely, sincerely does not realize how biased his statements are. This is one of the foremost thinkers of our times. Is it possible that the whole history of women has passed him by? Look, for instance, at the following statement:
It is no longer the task of both partners to 'make the relationship work' - to see it work through thick and thin., 'for richer for poorer', in sickness and in health, to help each other through good and bad patches, to trim if need be one's own preferences, to compromise and make sacrifices for the sake of a lasting union. (164)
Can Bauman really not know that to suffer in silence, practice resignation, trim one's own preferences, compromise and make sacrifices was only and exclusively the task of a woman in patriarchal family structures? Can he possibly have missed the entire history of manuals for married women that proliferated from the Middle Ages until today and that exhorted (and still do) women to sacrifice themselves for the good of the family in the very terms that Bauman employs here? Is he being disingenuous with full knowledge of what he is doing, or is he truly this blind to the situation of an entire half of humanity? Note also the slippage into the Christian rhetoric that is quite unexpected in a Communist and a Jew. Apparently, Bauman's need to push women back into the confines of the patriarchal family structure is so overwhelming that he forgets even the Marxist dogma that religion is the opium of the people.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Philip Roth's The Human Stain and the So-Called PC Police in American Academia

Dr. Calvo's tragedy has reawakened popular interest in Philip Roth's great novel The Human Stain. In several online discussion about Dr. Calvo's suicide, I have seen references to this novel. It is being used as "definitive proof" that some completely fictitious "PC police" operates in American academia and ousts anybody who doesn't comply with its speech codes and rules of behavior.

If you are one of those people who have bought into this line of reasoning, I have a newsflash for you: there is no PC police. What does exist is a concerted Conservative campaign aimed at robbing academia of its intellectual prestige. Examples of the Conservative push to demonize academics and portray them as haughty, irrelevant and completely out of touch with "regular folks" abound. Take, for example, the following book review from The Economist that starts with a ridiculous assault on scholars of literature:
ACADEMICS are rarely reliable guides to literature. The magic that draws eggheads to certain books tends to get bludgeoned by theory, jargon and the need to be obscure.
After this dismissal of academics as people whose job it is to bludgeon all magic out of literature, the reviewer then proceeds to spout a string of extremely offensive stereotypes about the Russian people. A day doesn't go by without a similar nasty assault on academics gracing the pages of our leading newspapers and magazines. What is really appalling, though, is that now the work of a great American novelist should be co-opted as a weapon in this battle against intellect.

First of all, we need to remember that The Human Stain is a work of fiction. It is a great work of fiction, but still, fiction it is. It does not offer a factual account of anything. According to a blurb of the novel at Amazon,
Shocking, intensely dramatized events precipitate Silk's crisis. He remarks of two students who never showed up for class, "Do they exist or are they spooks?" They turn out to be black, and lodge a bogus charge of racism exploited by his enemies. 
 Now, anybody who has actually read the book (and not just skimmed the first few pages looking for "proof" of the evil nature of academia) knows that there is nothing bogus about the charge of racism leveled against professor Coleman Silk. He is, in fact, a racist who severed all ties with his black family and spent his entire life trying to "pass" as white. The seemingly innocuous comments Silk made in class turn out to be an expression of his deep-seated belief in the inferiority of black people. The entire message of the novel, in my opinion, is that no matter how hard you try to hide your racism, it will come out and destroy you in the end.

But, of course, I'm just one of those people who bludgeon literary magic for a living, so why listen to me anyways?

Was There a Conspiracy Against Dr. Calvo at Princeton?

In the aftermath of Antonio Calvo's suicide that followed his humiliating dismissal from Princeton, people have been trying to offer explanations as to how something this atrocious could have happened. It has been suggested that a conspiracy between several graduate students and a lecturer at Dr. Calvo's department led to his contract not being renewed by the university in spite of the wishes of the majority of his colleagues. An article in New York Post states the following:
He wasn't PC enough for Princeton. A vicious campaign to end the unblemished 10-year career of a popular but often politically incorrect Princeton teacher left him so despondent that he took his own life, brokenhearted pals said yesterday. . . Another pal said, "Those people didn't want his contract renewed. The campaign was led by graduate students who teach Spanish who were essentially under Antonio's supervision, and a lecturer also teaching there." At least two un-PC incidents were among complaints about Calvo during the review of his contract -- although his department supported the renewal. Calvo once raised his voice in a meeting with a female graduate student, who interpreted the confrontation as "aggressive behavior," the pal said. Another incident apparently involved a grad student whom Calvo chided, "You're spending too much time touching your balls. Why don't you go to work?"
This push to demonize the female lecturer and the grad students who complained about Dr. Calvo's conduct comes, in my opinion, from a deep-seated reluctance to recognize that what happened is not the fault of a small group of individuals but, rather, a sign of a profound systemic problem in North American academia at large. Of course, it's easier and very comforting psychologically to think about these sad events as the result of a personal grudge that some people might have nursed towards Dr. Calvo. It is much more difficult and disturbing to recognize that his tragedy is the result of a much more general malaise experienced everywhere in our system of higher education. The malaise I am referring to is called casualization. Please remember this word, as you will be hearing it more and more often in the coming years. 

Casualization is a process of a gradual erasure of the institution of tenure, where tenure-track positions are substituted by lecturer, adjunct, instructor and postdoc contracts. Such contracts offer absolutely no protection to the educators. Lecturers, instructors, adjuncts and postdocs have to teach an insane number of hours per semester just to make ends meet. In the meanwhile, they are under a constant threat of their contract not being renewed. It is, of course, easier for college administrators to have an army of underpaid and overworked employees who are permanently terrified of losing their livelihood than to hire tenure-track professors who will have some degree of protection from being summarily dismissed.

I have been teaching at a university level for exactly ten years now. I have taught as a graduate student, a Visiting Professor, and now a tenure-track professor. And let me tell you the following: graduate students and lecturers do not have the power to remove anybody from their job in academia, no matter how much they might try. The idea that people who have worked at a university for 10 years can get fired because a bunch of grad students and a lecturer complain about their loud voice or their use of colloquial Spanish is risible. 

Everybody who works with people generates resentments, annoyances and conflicts. I have no doubt that some of my colleagues, students and supervisors have, on occasion, found me to be annoying. I am sure that in many of those cases they were right to get upset or angry with me. Even the most professional and courteous among us have been known to raise our voices or write an angry email. If you have worked in the same place for ten years and have never raised your voice, then you are either dead or completely indifferent towards your job. However, in the same way as petty bickering between spouses does not always end in immediate divorce, small daily conflicts between colleagues don't always lead to people being escorted from their offices by security guards or to senior lecturers being expelled from the workplace in the midst of the semester. 

Dr. Calvo wasn't thrown out of his office in this humiliating manner and threatened with deportation because a few of the people he supervised didn't like him. Rather, these complaints were used against him by the administration that had decided to get rid of him for whatever reason. This can happen to absolutely anybody. The only way we have to defend ourselves from such things happening is by fighting against casualization. Dr. Calvo's story is only exceptional in that he took his life in response to being discarded by his institution. Such dismissals, however, take place all the time. 

What we need to do is to protest as loudly as we can every time our academic institutions cancel tenure-track positions and substitute them with lectureships and instructorships. Casualization is the most dangerous thing happening to academia right now. Let's stop blaming this tragedy on the non-existent PC-police, the grad students and the lecturers, who are as powerless as anybody in academia can be. Let's lay the blame where it belongs. And that, my friends, is the systemic transformation of academia according to the most egregiously inhumane corporate model anybody could imagine.