the problem of place

This post is not about living in the gods’ forsaken middle of nowhere. I actually don’t mind that, truth be told. Yes, yes, I miss Trader Joe’s not being within 100 miles of me, I miss ethnic food other than americanized Mexican and almost-but-not-quite Thai, and seeing indie movies in a theatre, but by and large, it’s not bad. I have a whole house, replete with claw-foot tub, my own laundry room, and a huge kitchen, for what I’d pay for a room in the OC. So this is not about geography.

This is about being at a place in my life. A place a lot like here, but just a wee bit further down the path. I thought I’d have a house by now, and a dog, and an office. A place where it wouldn’t matter quite so much that it took me a couple of years to meet people, because I knew I’d be here a while. A place where I could feel…settlted.  Instead, I am not quite done with my PhD (although I am going to finish it, if only as a big FU to certain folks…and because I’ve invested far too much time to stop now), my career is in stall mode (adjuncting, while it — barely — pays the bills, isn’t exactly my dream job), and I’m alone far more often than I’d like to be. I’m not lonely, per se, although yes, I do get moments where I’d love to see more familiar faces, and have somewhere to go on a Friday night, but I spend an awful lot of my time alone in my head. With my thoughts chasing each other around like weasels chasing …well, whatever it is weasels eat (chickens, maybe?). And then I arrive at this place, where I can’t sleep and I’m too tired to do anything substantial, like, say, work on that aforementioned dissertation.

But in the end, this is the place I’ve come to, both mentally and geographically, and it is up to me to make the best of it.

Published in: on June 30, 2011 at 3:42 am  Comments (2)  

Grayling’s enterprise

When AC Grayling announced his London-based New College of the Humanities, I didn’t think much about it, truth be told. it was in England, which has a quirky way of doing things, education-wise, and it just wasn’t on my radar. Some people lauded the effort, but the majority thought on it seems to be that Grayling’s private college, with its tuition somewhere around £18,000 a year (which, if you think about the traditional 2 for 1 ratio the pound seems to have, is about on a par with private universities in the US), is downright wrong, largely because it allows the British government to point to it and say ‘see? we can stop supporting the universities so much.’ Grayling’s response, as one would expect, says that the NCH isn’t going to stop the government from defunding higher education.  Both Grayling and his critics are right, and they are both wrong.

Let’s start with what his critics got right. One states that students who ‘should have gotten into Oxbridge’ (‘Oxbridge’ being an amalgam of Oxford and Cambridge) are the target audience for NCH. That’s sort of like saying the students who ‘should have gotten in to Harvale (you’ll figure it out). The problem with this is that there are other many fine schools in England (the University of London comes to mind for me), and what about those schools? Is Oxbridge the end all, be all? Should it be? But like the Ivies in the states (and a few others, such as Berkeley), the cachet is irresistible. The same critic adds that an NCH degree will look, in her words, ‘bought and paid for.’ Certainly, there is an element of the old boys’ club to that sort of thing, but unlike, say, Yale, there’s no history of legacy admitting at NCH. It’d take a while to get there (200 years sounds about right). Another critic finds the whole enterprise ‘odious’ because the price tag means poorer students will have no chance. It’s a fine point (although strongly worded), but the same can be said for many state schools on this side of the pond. With state support being cut, tuitions are climbing higher and higher…the UC system has topped the $10,000 mark, and while some state schools still remain affordable, the figures from 2004 are simply pipe dreams now. Access is being restricted across the US, largely because schools are finding it necessary to raise tuition at rates far above inflation simply to cover the staggering loss of state funds. For instance, in my small corner of the world, our state funding was cut nearly 80% in one year. There are only so many ways to make up for such losses, and tuition is one of them (perhaps the easiest one, but at some point, even that will break). The letter in the Guardian from University of London faculty argues that in the face of such cuts, academics have to stick together, and the mere fact that the NCH exists gives politicians an ‘out’, if you will, in supporting education.

Grayling’s response, that the economic and political reality is that funding is going to get cut, and he wasn’t going to wait around for the education system to collapse, is certainly forward-thinking. He’s right — the ‘chronic underfunding’ of higher education has been going on for years; the recent economic crisis in many countries around the world has simply accelerated the process.

What remains unspoken, in both the critics’ and Grayling’s letters, is that the humanities have become something of a target. How many times do we in the humanities have to hear some variation of ‘the humanities cost more than they bring in’ (despite the fact that it’s a flat out lie, mind you)? The skills we teach — critical thinking, argumentation, cogent writing and an understanding of how we got here — are vitally important, but undervalued. The NCH is an attempt to change that view, to put the humanities, such as they are, back on the map.  While I don’t know that I agree with the way Grayling is going about it, I do sympathize with the impetus behind his plans. Cultural knowledge, the kind fostered by the study of history, classics, and philosophy, has declined.

Certainly, in a globalized world, only knowing the history of the West is a bit narrow. But it’s still something that should be taught. I find myself dismayed at the lack of historical knowledge my students bring to the classroom (or don’t bring, as the case may be). They know about WWII, but they have no real idea, other than ‘Hitler was a bad guy’, what the causes were. They know that there was a USSR, but don’t know how or why it collapsed. They know China is an economic powerhouse, but don’t understand the role of communism (both positive and negative) in that expansion. And although they know that India is a cheap place for call centers, they have no idea why that might be. When I ask my students to research a topic in American history between 1492 and 1865, I get asked if it’s okay to research the Civil Rights Movement. In my writing classes, not a single student can look at a sentence and tell me what the parts of it are.  They don’t know an adverb from an adjective. Heck, I learned that watching Saturday morning cartoons (hello, Schoolhouse Rocks)! So I understand where Grayling is coming from.

And by the way, sir, you don’t have any openings for someone who enjoys teaching, and loves history, do you? Because I’m looking.

Published in: on June 23, 2011 at 10:09 am  Leave a Comment  

on feeling, well, defeated

Tom Morrissey, the county chair of the Republican Party in these parts, never misses a chance to use Obama’s middle name. Yeah, it’s Hussein. Which is sort of like a Middle Eastern version of, say, Kevin. Maybe not in the top 10 baby names, but certainly not unusual. And Tom? Trump didn’t FORCE anyone to do anything…it was more a matter of ‘hey, we have more pressing things to deal with, so here, LOOK at this thing, sit down, and shut the hell up unless you’re going to say something meaningful.’

And what is meaningful these days? We should be having conversations about the fact that our education system is crumbling. I’m not talking ‘gosh, there’s 35 kids in a classroom’ crumbling, I mean falling down around our ears and in crisis mode crumbling. The Detroit school for pregnant teens got a reprieve just days ago.  This school gives girls who would otherwise never have much of a chance to get out of poverty at least a fighting chance…why  would we even consider closing it? I’ve posted here before about the myth that teachers are overpaid…and every single bit of evidence proves that myth to be a huge, huge lie. Why are we still talking about it as if those claiming teachers only work 9 months a year, have summers off, only work 6 hours a day, blah blah blah have ANY validity whatsoever? Why are we even giving them the time of day?! Every last bit of economic information says that slashing the tax rate of the wealthiest Americans won’t do a damned thing for our economy, that giving them a tax holiday would hurt, not help, and 30 years of evidence shows that trickle-down economics is, to put it bluntly, the ‘voodoo economics’ Bush I said it was. So how is it that Tim Pawlenty can be considered a serious contender for the presidency?

So I’m feeling a bit defeated. In the 1950s, 60s, and even 70s, we were a nation of people who got things done. People who sent people to the moon, people who built bridges and dams and roads and created art and music and literature that was up there with the best. We were once a nation that gave a shit about students knowing our history. We once thought the Founding Fathers were really great guys who had some great ideas, but understood that a well-to-do gentleman farmer in Virginia in the 1770s couldn’t have foreseen everything. That the Constitution would have to be interpreted because he couldn’t. We understood what we were fighting for (okay, well, Viet Nam was a bit of blip on that radar, but). We understood that America was a big ass country, and that different opinions on things were just that — different opinions.

Back in WWII, Walt Disney made a series of propaganda films for the government showing how silly the Nazis were. And there are certainly thousands of propaganda posters out there showing some really incredibly offputting images of the Japanese and Germans. But we were at war with them. Now it’s okay to say the president ‘hates’ America, or even ‘white people’. People who don’t agree with Glenn Beck are painted as communists, socialists, haters. It’s okay to put a Hitler mustache on a picture of the president, or to claim that those who disagree with you are agents of Satan. These are your fellow Americans. These are the people with whom you might fundamentally disagree, but are they really evil? And does that mean we at war with ourselves, then?

Published in: on June 20, 2011 at 4:04 pm  Comments (2)  

a break from the bruhaha

I was thinking about all the stuff I could write about this week…new books on the end of tenure, the continuing downward spiral of the housing market, the reports on student loan debt, the looming debacle that is the debt ceiling…oh what else is there? Sarah Palin’s rewrite of history (and her fans’ attempts to rewrite the Wikipedia page to prove she’s right.  Sorry, history doesn’t work like that) and Anthony Weiner’s…well, weiner.

In fact, this last week has been filled with so much political and academic Chicken Little’ing that it’s all rather …too much for my little dissertating brain to deal with.  Okay, that’s not true. I *could* deal with that, and even go on a nice little rant against Paul Ryan’s use of ‘demagogue’ as a verb, but instead, I thought I’d reflect a little on the escape from reality that is a Comic Con.

Memorial Day weekend, me and The D went to Phoenix Comic Con.  While not the giant behemoth that is San Diego (or DragonCon, for that matter), it was pretty damned respectable; somewhere near 25,000 people attended. Me, I volunteered to moderate panels. Had a blast doing that, by the way, and one good thing about Phoenix is that because someone like, say, Johnny Depp (or gods and goddesses forfend) the Twilight cast isn’t running around, there are far fewer handlers, agents, blah blah blah. So I got to meet some pretty cool people. Max Brooks was there (and suddenly, that haunting familiarity I felt every time I looked at his image made sense…he’s Mel Brooks’ son.  Next time, Max, bring Dad. I wanna chat with him, too!).  Adam Baldwin was there (and despite what he said, I’m still hoping for that Firefly reboot).  Aaron Douglas and Paul McGillion were damned funny.  And if you ever have a chance to go to a Con and listen to George Takei, I highly recommend it. Articulate, funny, and tells the best damned stories. After all, It’s Okay to be Takei! (and I do wish he’d brought the shirts with him…I’d have bought one!)

But even better than the famous people (damn, Stan Lee looks good for his age!) were the artists, writers, and fans who made Phoenix Comic Con such a wonderful place to be. I never worried that The D, at 15, was in any danger, and after a bit, told her to go wander. She had a blast, hooking up with fellow fans of Hetalia Axis Powers and other anime, and meeting Vic Mign…something!, one of the voice actors. We attended the Steampunk Ball, and the Geek Prom (which raised over $10,000 for Kids Need to Read, an organization dedicated to getting books into the hands of kids…a worthy, worthy cause!).  I met Jacques LaGrange, a native American comic book author with a native American hero. Albert Morales, who works with the HERO Initiative, which helps comic creators get access to the help they need, such as medical services and housing in their old age (for those who didn’t know, many of the creators of the classic comic books were paid next to nothing, and had no insurance or benefits).  Cherie Priest, who really is one of the nicest authors I’ve ever met, and was lovely enough to sign my copy of Boneshaker as she waited for her panel to start. The Moderators, a group of excellent, hard working folks who really do love helping out. The vendor who gave me tips on what household items in thrift stores provide the best gears for steampunking, even though I didn’t buy a thing.  My friend Galen, who fed my kid one night, and walked her to the Con Saturday morning. All the people who saw my Volunteer badge and assumed I knew something who were incredibly cool when I said ‘sorry, but let me walk you to the info booth.’  Randy Milholland, Danielle Corsetto, and Spike Trotman, who made moderating the panel on webcomics beyond easy…has anyone seen Randy’s beard? It’s awesome. The guy who bought me a soda because he saw my badge and thought it was cool I was volunteering. Louise Bourgeois’ Art is the Guaranty of Sanity.  In fact, it was a wonderful weekend, and a wonderful time.

Now back to your regularly scheduled program.


Published in: on June 8, 2011 at 12:01 am  Comments (2)