Friday, August 31, 2012

Weekend Reading: Labor Day Edition

cross-posted from Dagblog

What better novel for Labor Day weekend than Joshua Ferris's brilliant debut, And Then We Came to the End? It's truly the Labor-Day read for our time. It's formally masterful in its first-person-plural narration, with a collective officeplace "we" who does the narrating, like this:

 “We thanked each other. It was customary after every exchange. Our thanks were never disingenuous or ironic. We said thanks for getting this done so quickly, thanks for putting in so much effort. We had a meeting and when a meeting was over, we said thank you to the meeting makers for having made the meeting. Very rarely did we say anything negative or derogatory about meetings. We all knew there was a good deal of pointlessness to nearly all the meetings and in fact one meeting out of every three or four was nearly perfectly without gain or purpose but many meetings revealed the one thing that was necessary and so we attended them and afterward we thanked each other.”
But perhaps more impressively it gets into the slowly dying heart of a certain kind of American workplace. If the book seems eerily in tune with our current atmosphere of economic anxiety and depression (and it certainly does to me) just remember that it was published in 2007, a year before the Smaller Depression began.

But not all work is done in offices with computers. In honor of working with one's hands, here's a prose poem by the great Kimberly Johnson: poet, Renaissance scholar and, as Steve Martin used to put it a perrsonaallll friendamine:

As crickets geiger-up for spring, we corral the ram lambs. They stutter and dense against the fence wheezing for the ewes. Down wince, down retch: up one and flip his back to mud, knee to sternum. The banded tail will black to wizen, prune off easy. But marking is all trespass: thumb the soft belly to pop the scrotum out, then lunge and turn the mind away, teeth working, working, to snap back and spit. I try not to taste but I am all mouth, all salt blood and lanolin. I hear their bleatings through my tongue. They call it marking for the tooth-scars on the belly, but when I speak tonight, my words will sputter and decay, and when try to say your name I will pronounce it elegy.
(As a bonus, following the link allows you to hear a recording of Kim reading this poem.)

Happy Labor Day, all!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

What Did You Do in the Crisis, Mitt?

cross-posted from Dagblog

All that talk about how many years of tax returns Mitt Romney will release obscures the real question. It's not how many years he won't give us. It's which years.

What Romney doesn't want to give us, most of all, are his taxes from 2008 and 2009, the years of the crash and the bailout. Those returns tell us how Romney's personal fortune weathered those years, how much he might have lost, and how much he might have profited.

Had Romney been the Republican candidate in 2008, or been chosen as McCain's running mate, he would have been releasing his returns from at least 2006 and 2007, and likely more. (McCain would doubtless have insisted on more, and even the 2012 Romney is willing to release one or two returns.) Whatever clean-up his accountants and attorneys may have done before this year's run were presumably done before that year's run. If he was ready to release those returns four years ago, he has no reason to hide them now.

It's the ones between then and now that Romney wants to hide. It's not that he told his accountants to let it all hang out in 2009; Romney's been planning to run in 2012 since the day he realized he wouldn't win in 2008. But the 2008 crash changed a lot of plans. There's one theory that Romney lost so much in the 2008 crash that his accountants could "carry over" the losses and wipe out his 2009 tax bill. But it's also possible that Romney's business interests were helped, directly or indirectly, by government action to stop the crash. And those theories aren't even mutually exclusive: Romney could have lost tens of millions, excusing him from paying taxes, AND profited from taxpayer dollars to the tune of more millions. The bailout money stopped the bleeding for big investors, and kept them from larger losses; Romney could have lost a bundle (without missing it from his daily life) and also been saved from losing even more because the taxpayer bailed him out.

[What's the worst thing that could conceivably be in those returns? What would destroy the entire rationale for Mitt Romney's candidacy? TARP money.]

Either way, those tax returns tell a story about Mitt Romney and the financial crisis that's still hurting the rest of America. It didn't affect him the way it did us, because he lives in a different world. He did not go through that experience the way his fellow Americans did. He is not one of us. Whatever he says in his convention speech Thursday night, that's the truth.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Civility Is Not for the Little People

cross-posted from Dagblog

What is "civility?" The media daily bemoans its absence from our public discourse. How uncivil! How rude! On the other hand, people are allowed to libel certain public figures with impunity and no complaints.

This morning, Chris Matthews got tired of the pearl-clutching and accused RNC chairman Reince Preibus, who was bemoaning the "incivility" of the Obama campaign, of leading a party that's playing the race card at every hand. (Video below.) He did this because the Republicans have been playing the race card at every hand.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates notes in disgust, a number of other panelists on the TV show were trying to interrupt Matthews, to "calm him down" (or in fact, to shut him down), although he had a pretty good point and Preibus had no defense. In fact, it was all the more important for the other talking heads to defend Preibus because he could not defend himself. Because let's remember what civility is.

"Civility" here means politeness among perceived equals.

Calling an equal out for mistreatment of people who are imagined as social inferiors is taboo as "uncivil." The rule is that you don't give offense to people of your own class, which includes not being "rude" about how they treat people "below" your class.

It works like this: "How can you make such a terrible fuss and ruin everyone's evening over the way your hostess treats her maids? What do you care about her maids? You owe your hosts some proper courtesy!"

Or: "Why would you throw away such a good friendship over one little remark to a beggar?"

Or: "Isn't it a shame that these abolitionists are trying to turn white people against each other, just for the sake of a few Negroes. We should do everything we can to promote harmony between the states."

This is why calling someone a racist is currently taken as the ultimate social transgression among prosperous, educated Americans, where actually being a racist is often politely ignored. Except, of course, when the person being accused of racism is black. Then they need to be publicly punished in the name of good manners.

This form of "civility" is not about how you treat people you consider below you. The little people are not entitled to it. It is a respect given only to one's equals.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Weekend Reading, August 24: Back to School

cross-posted at Dagblog

Well, it's that time of year. Fall classes are about to begin, or have begun, and I'm definitely sure I saw at least one batch of red leaves this week.

So, with that anticipatory autumn sadness in the air, my book recommendation this week is Paul Murray's novel Skippy Dies, set in an Irish high school. If the title hasn't spoiled it for you already, the title character meets his demise in the first few pages:

Skippy and Ruprecht are having a doughnut-eating race one evening when Skippy turns purple and falls off his chair. It is a Friday in November and Ed's is only half full; if Skippy makes a noise as he topples to the floor, no one pays any attention. Nor is Ruprecht, at first, overly concerned; rather he is pleased, because it means that he, Ruprecht, has won the race, his sixteenth in a row, bringing him one step closer to the all-time record held by Guido "The Gland"  LaManche, Seabrook College class of '93. 

It's a marvelous novel, funny and sad, and pulls off the very difficult trick of writing about characters in their early teens, no longer in children but years away from even resembling adults, without either condescending to them or losing sight of their absurdities. Murray takes the kids seriously enough to let them be ridiculous, every bit as laughable and as mortal as their elders.
 And since, Skippy, like all of us, is mortal, my short-story recommendation this week is Donald Barthelme's classic, "The School," about a grade school where everyone dies, starting with the classroom pets and working its way up:

Well, we had all these children out planting trees, see, because we figured that ... that was part of their education, to see how, you know, the root systems ... and also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible. You know what I mean. And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn’t the best. We complained about it. So we’ve got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant and we’ve got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.
It wouldn’t have been so bad except that just a couple of weeks before the thing with the trees, the snakes all died. ...

By the end the absurdity reaches the point of painful truth, and introduces a lesson which brings no convenient plan and no answers from the back of the book. Enjoy.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Teaching Journalism at the University of Georgia

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, basically the whole staff of the Red and the Black, the University of Georgia's student newspaper, walked out after the newspaper's Board of Directors promoted the paper's non-student "editorial adviser" to "editorial director" and gave him complete veto power over the student staff. The Red and the Black has always been a student-run newspaper, independent of the University itself, where students have final say. So the walkout is predictable and even laudable.

The final straw seems to have been a draft memo, which has been put on line by the students who walked out, which laid out the new standards, such as an emphasis on "more GOOD than BAD." (caps original) The memo is ragged, not always coherent, and spells "libel" as "liable," all of which is forgivable in a draft but maybe less so when you're pontificating about basic standards. Even less forgivable is using the word "journalism" in scare quotes when addressing student journalists. As in:

- Content that catches people or organizations doing bad things. I guess this is "journalism." I think we are aligned on Crime and "who started the year off with a police record". And that the freshman class lacks some minority demographics".

If in question, have more GOOD than BAD.

What's really striking about that draft memo is that it's very much aimed at teaching students how to create a certain kind of newspaper: a small-time local newspaper. The emphasis is on feel-good stories, running as many feature photos of readers as possible, having a generous letter column, and so on. If you grew up in a small town, like I did, you know the type of newspaper I mean. It covers Little League games and church suppers. It's a perfectly respectable enterprise. But I have to ask: if you were a student journalist at a flagship state university, would you only want to be trained for jobs at that kind of newspaper? Because, let me tell you, it's pretty hard to make a living at those places.

And this is where we run into one of the larger problems in pre-professional education: sometimes an emphasis on "practical" skills that students will be able to use in the "real" world, ends up teaching them skills that are only practical in a small corner of the world. You teach your journalism students how they do things at a "real" newspaper, but what you teach them limits them to jobs where they'll never be able to advance much. (Lots of "pre-professional" undergraduate majors teach students to do exactly one kind of job, usually a decent but not glamorous job which will keep them solidly in the lower middle class. Nothing wrong with learning to be an x-ray technician. But you have to know that x-ray technician school never takes you to any job except being an x-ray technician.)

Here, the focus was going to suit students well for gigs at the Bedford Falls Gazette or the Daily Mayberrian, but leave them unprepared to even apply for entry jobs at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, let alone the Washington Post or New York Times. Try getting a gig at one of the big places when even your undergraduate clips look like they're from a small-town daily. Here the teaching approach, however well-intentioned, strongly favors the weakest (or least ambitious) students, the ones who the teachers don't expect much from, at the price of limiting what's possible for the more ambitious students. The memo represents a shift of focus to lowest-common-denominator "professionalism," training students for jobs that even the weakest of them could probably get, at the expense of what the better students might be able to do someday.

The memo also brings up one of the constant struggles with teaching writing, or any of the other arts (broadly speaking): the tension between assigning tasks that the students are 'ready for' now and can complete successfully, on one hand, and on the other setting tasks will inevitably end up being the student's first, imperfect try.

The logic of giving assignments that the students are "ready for" is pretty obvious. They understand what they've been asked to do, they mostly end up doing a good job, and they're generally a lot happier. The down side is that they don't stretch, and if there's too much of an emphasis on students "succeeding" at things they can already do well, they don't get much better. I've certainly met students who seemed, from my point of view, to have been badly served by earlier teachers who only taught them simple tasks. Some of those students seemed totally unprepared for more advanced classes.

There are some things that are very much worth learning that are impossible to do successfully on the first try, or even the third. You have to learn them by trying them, and it can take a while to improve. One of the reasons colleges exist is to give students a place where they can have the first and third and fifth tries they need to master a complicated set of skills. Most jobs don't have a place for that. That's why an emphasis on producing a quality product at the Red and Black seems misguided to me. That's not a full education. Helping students turn out an unambitious but "successful" paper will teach them a little. Letting them turn out a flawed but ambitious daily paper teaches them a hell of a lot more. And that's what's unforgivable here: losing sight of the education.

Student journalists are supposed to care about turning out the best paper they possibly can, and as budding journalists they're supposed to focus on their readers. But the adults involved should never mistake pleasing the readers, or the quality of the morning broadsheet, with the actual goal. The world doesn't actually need the newspaper. What matters is that the students learn. A campus newspaper that makes everyone who reads it happy but doesn't force the students to stretch is a criminal waste of everyone's time.

When I teach writing to undergraduates, I go in with the knowledge that none of them are going to write anything, this semester, that anyone else would ever pay to read. Understanding this reality is one key to my job. I could assign them writing tasks that they already have the skills to do well, and everyone would feel good about themselves and I could pat them all on the heads. The reason no one would ever pay money to read those "successful" assignments is that the things the students already know how to produce are, by their nature, not worth a stranger's time. ("Oooh, look! A summary of the plot of Othello! Just what I've been looking for.")

On the other hand, I could assign the students to undertake tasks that they aren't yet capable of completing perfectly, and maybe even that they won't be able to do without two or three more tries. The results won't be worth a stranger's time to read, because even the best will have some problems and one or two will be a hot mess.  But I will read them, at least two or three times apiece, because it is my job and because what I'm interested in is not what the student wrote this semester so much as what the student might write down the road. My job is to get them further along the road, no matter how bumpy reading through any stack of assignments seems. That also means, of course, that I talk to my students about things that are holding their writing back. But when you worry mainly about "results" and "quality" you've taken your eye off the ball. You've stopped being an educator.

The point of student writing is what it does for the student. It isn't to make it easier on my eyeballs when I sit with a stack of papers on the coffee table, and it isn't to make the nice folks of Athens, Georgia happier with their morning copy of the Red and Black.  It's to move the students closer, one unsteady step at a time, to producing a piece of writing that will hold a stranger's attention and do its writer some good in the world: the writing sample for graduate school, the published story, the  portfolio that gets you hired at the Journal-Constitution or Newsweek. The "results" a teacher gets paid for worrying about aren't coming tomorrow, but years in the future. But that future, as every year teaches me, comes very fast. You can't ever stop preparing for it.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Two Americas, Two Centers

cross-posted at Dagblog

I'm not going to add to the discussion of the Ryan pick except to say that Romney did it to placate his base. No, not the conservatives. The other Republican base: political reporters and "non-partisan" op-ed writers. Self-described "centrists" in the media love love love them some Paul Ryan, although actual middle-of-the-road Americans don't especially. That needs thinking about.

We have two versions of the political center in this country: one for the elite and one for the rest of us. There is a political "center" on the op-ed pages of the New York Times and Washington Post which doesn't bear any real relationship to what most moderates or independents out in the rest of the country seem to want. Paul Ryan's treatment in the press is a glaring demonstration.

Ryan is very popular on the right wing of the Republican Party, and widely loathed on the left of the Democratic Party. As Sara Libby puts it, " Republicans finally got their dream pick , and Democrats get their dream opponent." This is the definition of a polarizing figure. And Ryan advocates things that a majority of voters oppose, like privatizing Medicare and slashing almost all domestic spending. He also advocates getting rid of Social Security, but the other Republicans kept him from putting that in his so-called "budget plan." If your major proposals are widely unpopular with moderate voters, you really can't call yourself a centrist.

But the press calls Ryan a centrist all the time, and they stubbornly enamored of his radical budget plan. (Michael Grunwald explains this best (h/t Jamelle Bouie).) Ryan is firmly in the center of the Beltway-dinner-party conventional wisdom, in which the true mark of a "moderate" is opposition to almost all entitlement spending and a "daring" resolve to make deep cuts in Medicare and Social Security benefits.

Maybe the peddlers of this conventional wisdom have no idea how stingy those benefits really are, if you actually need them. After all, none of the people peddling these ideas expect to need Social Security, even as the third leg of a retirement stool, or to need Medicare. Or perhaps the wise men of the dinner-party circuit do know how small those benefits are, and are simply unable to imagine that sums that can small could ever be anything but extra money. Social Security pays so much less than their pensions and their IRA accounts that they themselves would hardly notice if it were gone. So to them it's obviously just a frill. Who could possibly live on a monthly payment like that?

Out in the rest of the country, people are all too aware of how little Social Security pays. And far too many know far too well what it means to try to get by on Social Security payments alone. Those people don't traffic in the version of "fiscal realism" that's popular among the punditocracy. They deal with basic economic realities instead. The middle of the road looks different to the middle class, because they have a different road to walk.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Weekend Reading, August 10: Occupy Mars!

I'm going to start a semi-regular series of "recommended weekend reading" posts. My recommendations will inevitably be all over the place, and I don't expect to focus on anything except things I happen to like. Ideally, each installment would have both a book recommendation and a link to a short story or poem available (with the author's permission) on the web.

So, in honor of the recent landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, let me start by recommending Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, starting with Red Mars.

Robinson wrote his epic about the colonization of Mars, and its gradual transformation to a world with a viable ecosystem for humans,  in the early nineties, just before the first Mars rover missions, so the book's science is no longer quite up-to-date. But Robinson does put the science in science fiction here, drawing extensively on the many sciences (physical and social) that would come into play in colonizing a new planet: geology and climatology and material science, medicine and engineering, psychology and architecture, sociology and ecology and politics. And while you'll learn as much about the Martian regolith as you ever wanted to know, or more, you're also reading a novel of genuine epic sweep: the three books together make a kind of interstellar War and Peace.

It's also, nearly twenty years on, remarkably prescient in its lefty politics and its grim predictions about the direction international capitalism was likely to take after the Cold War.  Every novel about Mars is really a novel about Earth; Robinson's Mars novels, which take the physical reality of Mars more seriously than any of the hundreds of Mars novels before them, could have been written from the heart of the Occupy movement except that they were written two decades earlier. They are books about occupying Mars, in every sense of the phrase.

In a perfect world, this post would end with a link to one of Ray Bradbury's beautiful stories from The Martian Chronicles. He's only recently left us, and it was Ray who first demonstrated the truth that fictions about Mars are fictions about Earth, with his indelible sense of poetry, at the close of that book. But the Bradbury stories available on-line are all pirated, one way or another, and I don't want to begin this little series by picking a dead man's pocket, even for a dime.

So, if we can't have Bradbury, I'd like the recommend the next best thing: Kelly Link. She, like Bradbury, is the great short-story fantasist of her generation, and like Bradbury, one of her generation's handful of genuinely great short-story writers. If Bradbury was Poe in a cheerful mood, Link is Poe with most of the tricks hidden in her sleeve, doing her magic with sly misdirection and deadpan comedy. She is what Bradbury might have been if he had been able to grow up reading Ray Bradbury: funny, allusive, evocative, and sexy.

Link also (generously, shrewdly) puts a few of her stories on-line for free. So, courtesy of the author, here is a link to one of her first published stories, and one of my favorites, "Flying Lessons" from the collection Stranger Things Happen. It begins like this:

I. Going to hell. Instructions and advice.