Wednesday, August 26, 2015

…And Now Back To Our Regularly Scheduled Curmudgeonry

Well we're finally back into the school year and things have settled down enough for a return to regular blogging. And why not recognize the beginning of another academic year with one of the most annoying annual traditions in higher ed: the completely ridiculous Beloit College Mindset List.

I've complained about this collection of banal observations masquerading as social insight multiple times in the past, but if Beloit can keep cranking out the same thing for page views, why can't I? Now, I know the list largely exists as a shrewd way for the leadership of Beloit College to get people talking about their tiny college in the middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin, but the cynicism of the creators has never before been an excuse for me not to hate something, so I figure it's worth another dive in.

So what are the things that this year's incoming students inexplicably cannot understand because they happened a year or two before their birth? Let's dive in and find out!

3. They have never licked a postage stamp.

This…can't be true, right? I mean, I get that it's there because the stamps with adhesive on the back were probably introduced sometime around their birth, but surely stamps you lick are still available, right? Even if they're not, surely some of them survived to find their way to these young'uns.

9. The announcement of someone being the “first woman” to hold a position has only impressed their parents.

This one is definitely not true. Remember how it was a big deal that the first ever women graduated from Army Ranger school? And remember how that was, you know, last week?

16. Their parents have gone from encouraging them to use the Internet to begging them to get off it. 

I don't doubt the second part, but I very much doubt the first part. Did these kids really need their parents encouragement to use the most ubiquitous means of information and entertainment available?

17. If you say “around the turn of the century,” they may well ask you, “which one?”

Kids these days, so confused by turns of phrase that could apply to more than one thing! People who have already finished college would never be confused by whether you meant this century or the last!

30. Surgeons have always used “super glue” in the operating room.

Well, sure, but it's been used in surgeries dating back to at least the Vietnam War, so this is something that's been true of people entering college for longer than I've been alive. Seems like a cheap one to round out the list.

33. Phoenix Lights is a series of UFO sightings, not a filtered cigarette.

Uh, what? I finished college years before these kids got there, and I have never in my life heard of Phoenix Lights cigarettes. Wait? Am I actually a first year college student? What's happening?

36. First Responders have always been heroes.

I'm assuming this is in reference to 9/11, but didn't most people hold a fairly high opinion of firefighters before then?

39. Heaven’s Gate has always been more a trip to Comet Hale-Bopp and less a film flop.

Again, this movie came out before I was born. Even for this list, which by definition is a reach to make pointless historical trivia into something meaningful, this is a pretty big stretch. Not to mention, the Heaven's Gate cult committed their infamous mass suicide in 1997, which means an 18 year old today would have just been born when it happened. Which presents a weird Beloit paradox, because usually they assume people apparently have no ability to understand anything that happened on or before the year of their birth, but apparently now things that happened when they were born are major events they mark their life by.

47. They had no idea how fortunate they were to enjoy the final four years of Federal budget surpluses.

Ha! Dumbass toddlers, not paying enough attention to macroeconomic trends!

But wait! It gets even worse! This year features a sort of inverse list, in which the obviously out-of-touch middle aged people who compile this list sound even more painfully out of touch by trying to explain the lingo of youth to the olds like me. It is exactly as painful to read as you think it is. They're all pretty hilarious, but this is the best one by far. Remember, this takes place in a section of the list described as "In fairness to the class of 2019 the following are a few of the expressions from their culture that will baffle their parents, older friends, and teachers …with translations."

6. A significant other who is a bit "too Yoko Ono" has always created tension.  
    A partner too hard to handle…hard for your friends to compete with perfection.

    They're seriously arguing that only the kids these days know who Yoko Ono is, and that their parents would't understand referring to a difficult partner by invoking Yoko Ono. Apparently kids these days are really into some small-time indie band called "The Beatles." And no, that's not a spelling error! That's how those rag-toppled boys actually spell their band name! What will these kids come up with next?!?

    Tuesday, July 28, 2015

    Living Life and Doing Shit

    I'm currently on what is essentially a working vacation. Well, every vacation I take is a working vacation, but such is the life of the young academic. Anyway, since it's already enough effort to try to squeeze in both work and spending time seeing friends and family, I typically have to cut out all other non-necessary functions. So while I think I'm going to do things like keep updating my blog, I basically never do unless something really important happens.

    So this is just a round about way of saying no updates for the next two weeks or so. But really, who's wasting their time inside reading blogs during the summer anyway?

    Thursday, July 23, 2015

    Summer Sucks For The Self-Employed

    I've written before about how summer is neither fun nor a vacation for professors. Mostly, it's because during the summer we're basically self-employed; I mean, technically I still work for the same university (although they don't pay me over the summer, so...), but there's no deadlines or meetings or really any externally-imposed schedule. How much I work and when I do it is completely up to me.

    Which is great! In some ways. But in many ways, it's also terrible. Because I still have to get work done, I just have no one to force me to do it. Which leads to times like this, when it's a gorgeous day outside, but I'm inside working. Which I know is how it is for most of the working-age populace, but somehow it's far worse when you're the one doing it to yourself. At least when I had an office job I could curse my boss for making me work on a beautiful summer day, but now I have no one to curse. I am that horrible person making me work on a beautiful summer day.

    So the point is, as always, that adulthood and responsibilities suck. This is, after all, why Funyuns continue to sell so well.

    Friday, July 10, 2015

    Moving Sucks

    Moving sucks. I think that's a concept which is generally agreed upon. I've learned over the past week that moving sucks even more when you have inadvertently rented from a slum lord. The type of slum lord who acts as if you're a demanding prima donna for wanting outrageous things like "a back door that opens and closes" or "a shower that drains through a drain rather than through the light fixture in the kitchen below it" and seems confused when you ask them when they are going to do enough repairs to make the place up to bare minimum legal code. I can't really say too much more about it as I may soon be embroiled in a legal case against said landlord, but pretty much all of my conversations with them have gone like this:

    In fact, here's an honest-to-God, as verbatim as a I remember it snippet of an argument with my landlord.

    Landlord: I don't know what you're complaining about! I built you a beautiful new bathroom!
    Me: Yes, but it doesn't work. Nothing in it works.
    Landlord: How was I supposed to know that?
    Me: Uh…try it? Like, after you install a new water fixture, turn it on to see if it works?

    So anyway, in addition to the regular annoyances that go with a move, I got to add living out of boxes stacked in the middle of every room (because work crews were still constantly in and out of the house for 5 days after I moved in, so I couldn't unpack anything) and no working shower for about a week. It was…unpleasant. In fact, had my super awesome parents not come out to help me move and basically just made all the repairs the landlord is theoretically legally obligated to but definitely had no intention of doing, I'm not sure I would have been able to contain my murderous rage. But fortunately no one was murdered and the place is now almost up to bare minimum legal code, so life is settling back into an almost normal routine. Except now I can finally unpack, so my life more closely resembles this:

    Wednesday, June 24, 2015

    What's The Confederate Flag All About, Anyway?

    I've written before about how concepts like "state's rights" are obviously just coded dog whistles for racist ideals, but possibly the biggest (and most poorly disguised) dog whistle of them all is center stage in the current debate over whether or not to remove the confederate flag at the South Carolina state house (and more generally, to get it out of common public usage).

    Predictably, those defending the continued use of a symbol representing people who staged a violent, treasonous uprising to defend their ability to own human beings try to downplay that part of it all, instead focusing on how it's just a symbol of Southern heritage (while of course, leaving out exactly what that heritage entails). So much like the leaders of the confederacy would have been surprised to learn their treason was not about slavery or racism, given how often they spoke about defending slavery and upholding the racist social order, it would probably surprise the folks who came up with the confederate flag to learn that it's apparently not about slavery or racism, either.

    But how can we know what those folks were thinking? If only there were some sort of written record of their ideas. Oh, it turns out there is. Here's William Tappan Thompson, the designer of the confederate flag, on why he designed it:
    As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause. ... As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism.
    —William T. Thompson (1863), Daily Morning News (Savannah, Georgia)
    It's funny; I've read that quote several times and don't see anything about Southern heritage. I do see a whole bunch of stuff about racism, though. But I thought that flag wasn't about racism! Someone should really inform the guy who designed it.

    Of course, it's very important to remember that flag is just one small token of our nation's horrible history of racism and that removing it is, at best, a symbolic gesture. And furthermore that taking it down simply for pr reasons is missing the entire point. That being said, let's please have a national conversation about race and try to begin to heal the wounds and make reparations. But let's do that without the shadow of a confederate flag flying over us.

    Monday, June 22, 2015

    Why Don't We Have Public Intellectuals?

    Recently I was reading this insightful piece by Michael Schwalbe, an academic I greatly admire. In it, he makes an argument for why we don't see nearly as many public intellectuals these days, at least not in the form of academic professors actually making an impact on public opinion or public policy. He does a great job of detailing how the many economic pressures currently facing universities makes such a position untenable for the great majority of academics. Between budget cuts, a relentless assault from anti-intellectual politicians, and the proletarianization of the academic work force, most academics are so busy trying to get enough publications and funding to keep their jobs that there's simply no time to insert themselves into public debates like they used to. It's a pretty compelling argument, and well worth your time to read.

    But I think there's one factor that's missing from Schwalbe's analysis -- namely, that the position of public intellectual has been over taken by pseudo intellectuals who are not at all beholden to "research" or "basic facts" like academics are. Take one of my most hated people in the world, David Brooks. Brooks obviously fancies himself a public intellectual, and while he is indeed quite publicly visible, the "intellectual" tag can only be applied in the most generous of settings. Really, Brooks is best understood, to borrow a phrase from this great takedown of Malcolm Gladwell, as what a stupid person thinks a smart person sounds like.

    When he's not using banal observations of single cases and pretending they explain large swaths of humanity (as in the comic above), he's often just outright making stuff up. Though often even his "observations" are also completely fabricated, such as his infamous claim that you can't spend $20 at a restaurant in "red America" even though a cursory glance of the menu at said restaurant proves the claim false.

    But more to the point, to give himself the sheen of an intellectual, Brooks is fond of making up stuff that sounds right to those who want to believe it, but has no actual basis in reality. In essence, he's pretty much the living, breathing embodiment of truthiness. Take, for example, this man's bewildering account of attempting to find out where Brooks got one of his favorite academic-sounding anecdotes.

    The anecdote in question, which Brooks regularly cites in speeches and in print, concerns a survey that found in 1950 only 12% of high school seniors thought they were a very important person, while by 2006, that number was up to 80%. Ha! Those millennials and their damned self-importance! It sure sounds right, doesn't it? What with all these think pieces on the kids today and their tweetbooks and facetubes. The problem is, it's completely fabricated. There exists no such survey. And while the linked piece eventually locates some surveys that are kind of talking about the subject, they're so far off from what Brooks claims them to say that it's obvious this isn't a simple case of reading it wrong or forgetting one or two important details. No, this is obviously yet another example of a case in which Brooks just flat out made something up to give his rote condemnation of the kids these days an intellectual veneer.

    Which brings me back to the absence of public intellectuals. If an academic of any field made stuff up as regularly as Brooks, or used one small piece of factual information to represent large swaths of society, they would be laughed out of their job. Yet in the much more forgiving world of opinion journalism, Brooks somehow still has a regular column in what is supposedly our nation's premier newspaper. The problem is that actual research is never as clear cut nor as convenient a story as the kinds Brooks and his compatriots tell; after all, this is why he has to make shit up. But in the chaotic marketplace of public ideas, in which very few readers are fact-checking these arguments, it's pretty hard for the nuanced, ambiguous, and hesitant findings of actual intellectuals to hold court against the pat, decisive, and often demonstrably false proclamations of the faux intelligentsia. So while Schwalbe is no doubt correct about the corrosive effect of draining resources from our nation's universities, I'd argue another important factor in the decline of professors as public intellectuals has been the usurping of their place by people who have the free reign to simply make up a better sounding story when there are no facts to support what they want to say.

    Friday, June 19, 2015

    Teaching Sociology: South Carolina, Charlie Hebdo, Terrorism, and Folk Devils (Part Something in a Never-Ending Pop Pedagogical Series)

    Although the President has weighed in, as he must, on the tragic shootings in South Carolina, you might have noticed there hasn't been much of a world-wide outpouring of grief and rage as there was after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. No sanctimonious cartoons about how white people just don't understand enlightened ideals of freedom, no denunciations of the act as not only bad in itself but as an attack on the very fabric of our society, no gathering of world leaders to express their solidarity for the victims and demand justice for them. Hell, we can't even seem to agree that this politically-motivated attack is an act of terrorism.

    I choose to compare these two events quite consciously, because while the Western world quite quickly came to the agreement the Charlie Hebdo attacks were terrorism, it's quite easy to argue that the attacks at the Emmanuel AME church were actually worse. After all, the Charlie Hebdo attacks followed repeated insults from a group of people who quite specifically set out to provoke an angry reaction from people they viewed as moronic and beneath them. The Charleston attacks, on the other hand, were committed against people who had never intentionally done anything to anger the attacker, and even welcomed him into their church gladly. While both were obviously heinous crimes, would not most of us agree that being murdered simply for who you are is much more of a terrorist act that being murdered for deliberately enraging someone?

    And yet, so many voices are cautioning us not to label what happened in Charleston as terrorism. As Glenn Greenwald so eloquently explains:
    That’s why so many African-American and Muslim commentators and activists insisted that the term “terrorist” should be applied: because it looked, felt and smelled exactly like other acts that are instantly branded “terrorism” when the perpetrator is Muslim and the victims largely white. It was very hard – and still is – to escape the conclusion that the term “terrorism,” at least as it’s predominantly used in the post-9/11 west, is about the identity of those committing the violence and the identity of the targets. It manifestly has nothing to do with some neutral, objective assessment of the acts being labelled.
    The last sentence there really gets to the heart of the matter. The idea that someone attacks innocent people to further a political agenda is a pretty textbook definition of terrorism. However, as the term is employed in the West post-911, it actually means "Brown people harming white people."

    The term "folk devil" was first introduced by Stanley Cohen back in 1972 in his seminal book Folk Devils and Moral Panics. A folk devil, as the name implies, is a person or group onto whom we as a society project our fears and misgivings. They are seen as the literal embodiment of social problems, and through the control or elimination of them, we believe we can solve the issue at hand.

    Importantly, the ascription of the status of folk devil to a group or person only works when that group or person has little to no social power. This is why Muslims serve a great folk devils in the post-911 world; it's not as if they were a particularly powerful or influential group previously, and they have little in the way of social resources to fight back against the label. As such, the actions of a few can be ascribed to the group as a whole, and ridiculously unjustified sanctions and restrictions can be placed upon them with little outcry.

    This is what explains the difference in the reactions to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Charleston attacks: the former featured a suitable folk devil, while the later did not. While I'm sure people were genuinely upset by the Hebdo attacks, it also provided a very handy excuse to yet again condemn and ostracize the folk devil of the day.

    The Charleston shootings, on the other hand, do not. It would be almost impossible to make a folk devil out of white men in America, seeing as they control the government, the judicial system, the media, and pretty much every other outlet and/or manifestation of power. Instead, the dominant story becomes one of figuring out why this one specific white person did something bad. This, of course, explains why the specter of mental illness is almost always immediately raised; after all, it just doesn't make sense. We all know scary, scary Muslims are irrational murder machines, so their crimes need no explanation. But White men are the epitome of ration and reason, so there has to be some sort of explanation for how one of them could have done something so wrong. Obviously, he had to be crazy. After all, he's acting like a Muslim!

    The problem is, by all accounts the Charleston shooter was not crazy, just racist. But to actually grapple with that would mean having to deal with the very fabric of American society, which as Jon Stewart pointed out, just isn't going to happen.