Thursday, March 26, 2015

David Brooks Could Not Be a Bigger Piece of Shit

That David Brooks is a complete moron is neither a new nor noteworthy thing to say. A simple cursory google search for his name turns up literally thousands of think pieces about how backward and idiotic basically everything he says is. He's the kind of guy who makes Thomas Friedman look intelligent (well, more accurately, he's the only thing in existence that makes Tom Friedman look intelligent).

But he may have outdone himself in a way even his most ardent critics could not have conceived of. Recently he has been repeatedly (in what is supposedly our nation's leading newspaper) explicitly calling for the support of probably unsavory groups as our way to defeat ISIS (and by extension, Islamic extremism in general).

Because David Brooks has apparently never read a history book or newspaper, here's a quick and handy primer on why that's not a good idea. Remember when the Soviets were trying to take over Afghanistan, so to fight that scary enemy we trained and funded a group that many critics noted was probably a bit shady? I'll give you a hint: the group was led by a Saudi businessman named Bin Laden, and they turned out to not be super great.

Ah, but Brooks is specifically calling for nationalist groups, which put their faith in a state rather than religion, so the Bin Laden comparison isn't fair, one could argue. Ok, it might not be the exact same thing Brooks is calling for. But you know what is? This one time we funded and supported one side of a protracted war, the side that was "nationalist," as a way to defeat a scary enemy. How did that one turn out? Maybe you can ask Donald Rumsfeld, pictured below meeting this nationalist leader who would solve all our problems in the Middle East and certainly never go on to do anything unsavory:

Totally turned out great!

UPDATE: I was wrong. Brooks doesn't manage to make Tom Friedman look smart, because here's Tom Friedman suggesting that we should arm and fund ISIS. God damn, you can't even satirize this shit.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

UNI Fight! (Or: Rank Hypocrisy is Fun!)

Fresh on the heels of complaining about the horrid cartel which is the NCAA, let me take a minute to talk about…NCAA basketball.

As you can see from the graphic there, my beloved Panthers finished their season ranked in the top 10 in the nation and are on their way back to the big dance for the first time since Ali Faroukmanesh scored one for the literal and figurative little guys with possibly the gutsiest shot in the history of college basketball. And as the top 10 ranking attests, this year's squad is significantly better than the one that went to the Sweet 16 five years ago.

The ironic thing is that now that I have a big boy job with a real income, I've been able to splurge on a fancy cable sports package, which has allowed me to watch more Panthers games this year than I did when I was in college living about two blocks away from the gym.

And while I'm excited about the upcoming tourney and think the Panthers at least have a shot to make some noise, maybe even make it further into the tournament than they did last time, this is one of those situations that reminds me how silly it is to judge a sports season on whether the team won a championship or not (though I guess they technically kinda won a championship by winning the MVC tournament, but not the same thing).

I've written a lot in this space about how cheering for small-market teams means you have to necessarily have a different metric for success, but the longer I've lived with it, the more I've come to see it as the superior way to view sports. For instance, look at Kentucky atop that list -- undefeated, full of A-list players, and with the weight of years of tradition, if they don't at least get to the Final Four, this will be remembered by many as a wasted season for them.

But with the Panthers, Final Four speculation is probably a step too far, and a championship run, while it would be the coolest thing I've seen in a very long time, is pretty much entirely out of the question. And while that might be discouraging for some sports fan, it's actually kind of nice. Because the Panthers have had an amazing year so far, but more importantly, they've just been super fun to watch. The play a gray game of basketball that features a lot of really well-designed plays, off-ball cuts, sharing the rock, and all that which is, to this humble blogger, far more entertaining than the 5 guys clearing out so they can play one-on-one that seems to dominate the bigger programs.

So with neither the weight of a winning tradition nor inflated expectations, I've been able to just sit back and watch some kids play some awesome basketball this year. With the added bonus of my tiny li'l alma mater occasionally being mention on ESPN (sometimes they even correctly note it's located in Cedar Falls, not Cedar Rapids as most of the national media seems to think. Must be because CR has the airport.).

If nothing else, when UNI goes on a magical run this year and becomes the darling of the tournament (hey, it could happen), I get to say I was there before the bandwagon formed. Even if that doesn't happen…well, at least it gives me an excuse to get drunk in the middle of the day on a Thursday in March, because you have to cheer on the ol' college...

Thursday, March 05, 2015

It's a Snowy Day and the NCAA is a Horrid Cartel

I hate you. I say that not out of anger, but as a fact. It's 67 degrees outside, and I hate you.

The massive East Coast snow storm has got me quite literally trapped at home today, so in addition to shoveling and baking, I figured it would be time to dust off an old nugget I've been meaning to get to for awhile: the fact that the NCAA is one of the worst organizations in the world (I'd put it above NAMBLA, but probably neck-and-neck with the Klan).

When I say how horrible the NCAA is, it's not because something particularly terrible has happened recently (well, the NCAA is always doing something pretty damn terrible, but nothing gallingly out of the ordinary lately), it's because it's just an empirical fact that it's a horrid organization. Much like in the clip above.

So I figure a snow day in which I'm going slightly crazy from cabin fever (the biggest downside to living on the side of a mountain is that I've had a number of days this year in which I've not been able to get my car out of the driveway), I figured it was time for a rant about the evils of the NCAA. If nothing else, it will help salve my conscience as I watch hundreds of hours of college basketball games over the next few weeks, hating myself the entire time.

Why is the NCAA so damn evil? Other than the fact that they constantly make up rules that make no sense and then punish college kids for not intimately knowing their code, which approaches the US legal code in length and obtuseness?

Well, for one, they insist that we simply cannot pay college athletes. Sure, NCAA football and basketball are both literally billion dollar industries. But how could anyone ever pay the people actually responsible for generating that money? For a full breakdown of how stupid that argument is with all sorts of math and details and whatnot, read this. But for a much simpler way of understanding it, just note that during his last contract restructuring, Nick Saban (currently head football coach at Alabama) was reportedly offered $100 million to take over the program at Texas. This would have made him the highest paid sports coach in the entire world. Not the highest paid college coach, not the highest paid American coach, but the highest paid coach in any sport in the whole fucking world.

I don't think it takes a super math genius to note that if one college team is able to shell out 9 figures for one person, they can probably figure out how to slide a few dollars the way of the people who risk permanent injury and life-long debilitating degenerative brain problems.

But no! You can't pay them! In fact, if the NCAA finds out you so much as gave a player a bagel with some schmear, they'll come straight after you. Even in the most ridiculous cases that only a stone-hearted asshole could even think were plausible. Like the case of a homeless Baylor football player who got booted by the NCAA because one of his relatives helped him afford an apartment. You know, so he didn't have to sleep outside and be homeless. For the record, Baylor's head coach will earn over $4 million this year alone. But he sure as shit better not give any of that to any homeless football players! Well, as long as they're not current football players, like the UNC football alum who is now homeless and scraping by, despite helping bring a good chunk of revenue into his university.

But of course, if the school wants to pay money to anyone but the player to make sure they can play, that's totally ok by the NCAA. Like Texas A&M, who paid a $60,000 insurance policy for a star player so he'd return for another year. Which is fine, you see, because the player didn't get any money, just an insurance agency.

And don't you feel more comfortable with that? I sure as shit don't want kids working 40+ a week smashing their brains to nothing getting money for it. That might lead to some sort of unsavory outcome...

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Mocking Bad Students From A Bathroom Stall (Or: I Rarely Trust a 'Sconnie)

There's been an article making the rounds of Facebook (well, at least my Facebook, which is full of academics) concerning the Dear Student feature in Vitae. Dear Student is a somewhat humorous collection of profs venting about common student bullshit and often takes the form of the emails most profs wish they could send to their students. But since such honest replies would typically get one fired, they're instead collected at this little niche website read only by academics.

As with anything even slightly amusing in the academic world, of course the humorless scolding had to come sooner rather than later. This specific humorless scolding comes from a dude named Jesse, so I feel a special need to comment, so as to attempt to save the reputation of academics named Jesse (we're not all humorless scolds! I promise!).

You can read the piece, but the gist of it is that students are special magical snowflakes and anyone who ever says anything bad about them, no matter the reason, is a horrible person who hates the idea of education. I think. It's kind of a disjointed piece that tells us a lot about what we shouldn't do, but completely glosses over the fact that these are real issues which require some sort of response. But then again, moral grandstanding is rarely oriented toward practical activity. So it goes.

I'll leave aside the fact the piece in question was written by a white guy at an elite institution chiding a column organized by a woman of color, which regularly features many contributors of color, and is almost completely populated by academics at less prestigious institutions, because at this point, no one should be at all surprised by the tone-deaf instructions of our social superiors telling us how to behave.

But the fact that dude is working at one of the most prestigious public universities in our nation (UW-Madison) is actually pretty important to understanding the rank hypocrisy and uselessness of dude's complaints. For instance, when chiding profs for being upset that students try to add a class 6 weeks into the semester, pretending nothing of importance could have already happened, and if it did, could sure be made up in a day or two, he writes : "The work of gatekeeping is anathema to the work of education. Our classrooms should have more doors and windows, not less."

Which is a really easy argument to make when you teach in a gated community! Hey, you don't need to do any gatekeeping, great for you. But that's because your university has already done the gatekeeping for you! Contrast this with my institution -- when we fail to meet our enrollment quotas for the year, our administration fully admits they dip into the stock of applicants who (and again, this is fully admitted in the open, no matter how unconscionable it may be) are neither college-ready nor expected to finish their degree. I haven't researched the application requirements of Bucky, but I'm guessing you won't find many students at UW-Madison deemed not college-ready by their own administration.

He similarly scolds profs who are upset by student grade-grubbing, writing grades are "a red herring. Any teacher that regularly gets caught up in power and control struggles with students over grades has missed the point." Cool, thanks man. You're so zen. I bet at the end of every semester, you write the registrar telling them to take their grade bullshit and shove it up their asses instead of submitting your final grades. Anyway, here's where I assume that teaching at an elite institution means he probably has TAs that take care of such emails for him. But even if he doesn't, what exactly does he suggest I then do instead of engaging with the students who complain about their grades? Maybe I should calmly explain to them that grades are not the point and they should't be concerned about them. Well, I can report that is not an effective tactic, because I've tried it repeatedly. Maybe instead I should point them to this column with the advice that some dude says we shouldn't be arguing about this, so discussion over, I guess?

But what really takes the cake in this missive is the incredibly snotty coupling of these two paragraphs:
Everyone that comes into even casual contact with Vitae’s “Dear Student” series is immediately tarnished by the same kind of anti-intellectual, uncompassionate, illogical nonsense currently threatening to take down the higher education system in the state of Wisconsin.
The word "entitlement,” used pejoratively about students in two of the four articles, needs to die a quick death. College students ARE entitled -- to an education and not the altogether unfunny belittling on display in the “Dear Student” series
It would take years to unpack everything wrong with this hyperbolic handwringing, but I'd like to note that I've met several people who have read the Dear Student series and they don't appear to be tarnished at all. But dude seems to a literary person, so I'll forgive some rhetorical flourishes. But the second part there really sums up my problem with his kvetching, as I think he's got in entirely backward.

Complaining about students who have no interest in their education is not anti-intellectual -- it's a defense of the importance of education. It's a defense of the idea that learning takes real effort and sacrifice. It's a defense of the idea that if you come into a class 6 weeks late, you're not only doing damage to your own ability to learn, but harming the general dynamic of the class and hampering your fellow students (who are also dealing with all the same life problems and whatnot) because they have to wait for you to catch up. Saying I should bend over backward for that student for no reason other than that they're a super special snowflake is horridly anti-intellectual, because it assumes all that missed information is unimportant and unnecessary. In fact, I can hardly think of anything more anti-intellectual than saying "So what, the student missed half your class? Whatever, they'll be fine. Can't have missed that much in multiple weeks of class time and readings."

Saying students are entitled to an education is the complete exemplar of Scott Walker's consumerist model -- these kids paid to be here, given them the commodity they paid for! Sorry dude, I'm not going to commoditize education no matter how snotty you are.

Saying students are entitled to an education belies the most fundamental misconception of what education even is; I can't "give" someone the education they're "entitled" to because education is not something that can be given. Education is something that can be guided, can be encouraged, can be assisted, etc., etc., but it can never be given. It's something that has to involve extensive work on the part of the student. Saying otherwise is like saying signing up for a personal trainer entitles you to be physically fit. No, it entitles you to someone who will help you get fit, but you've got to do a lot of work. And if you ignore all of their advice, belittle the methods and techniques they're trying to help you learn, and constantly skip your meetings with them, I think the personal trainer is well within their rights to decide they don't want to help you anymore.

He ends the piece by noting that teachers need a safe place to vent. However, like the rest of his diatribe, while he never says where that could be, he does make sure to tell you all of the places it shouldn't be. In the following places, according to Jesse "Not The Fun Jesse" Stommel, it is inappropriate to complain about your students: your office, your teacher's lounge (do universities even have those? Maybe at the elite places, I guess), the library, the bar.

As someone who loves to complain about bad students, this really leaves me in a bind. If I can't complain in my office, in my department, or at the bar, you've eliminated about 90% of the spaces I ever occupy. So where is this safe place you claim profs can have? What about my own personal blog read by about 6 people? No, if my office is too public, surely this is too public. What about in the comfort of my own home? No, that can't be. If my office, with my door closed and no students present is too public a place to complain, then my house must be, too. What about when I'm in the bathroom? That's the most personal, non-public place I can think of (and no student has ever been in my bathroom. Well, none has ever been to my house, but maybe outside the bathroom they could be walking by a window and hear me or something?). That must be it. If only a humorless scold were here to tell me whether I was right or not!

But I kid. Kinda. I read things like this with a weary sigh and remind myself that this is the kind of thing I for some reason voluntarily signed up to deal with when I became an academic. So if you need me, I'll be in the bathroom complaining about stuff. I think it's ok in there...