This Blog is Stolen Property

Monday, March 17, 2008

Troy Davis

I've been an absentee blogger. Busy times in Feemusland.

Here's my take on the primaries:

Shut up, Geraldine Ferraro.
Shut up, Bill Clinton.
Shut up, John McCain.
Shut up, Ralph Nader.

Here's my take on the Spitzer scandal:

A thousand dollars????


Shut up, Dershowitz.

But here's something important. A possibly innocent man, and one who certainly has gotten shafted by the "justice" system just had his appeal for a new trial denied. There's no physical evidence and 7 out of 9 eyewitnesses have recanted their testimony.

Even if one supports the death penalty, this is a gross misapplication.

Here's a petition to get this man the new trial that he deserved.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Put the Plastic Right Inside the Machine

I have had a strange month. I have been away from home now for 29 days. I haven’t slept in the same bed for more than two nights in a row. Some of this was a week’s planned vacation, which, due to a variety of circumstances, got flanked by other travel plans.

One of these other circumstances was a campus visit in Los Angeles, at a job I’d interviewed for in December. They offered me the job.

I live now in the Northeast, but I’m from the Northwest. And if you’re from the West, and anywhere north of Monterey, I think it’s encoded in your DNA to believe that Los Angeles is the place where quality of life and human decency go to die. It's all smog and gangs and plastic titties as far as we're concerned.

I've noticed that there's not quite the same antipathy to SoCal in New England, where California is still sort of aspirational. But then again, New Englanders still eat something called "boiled dinner," so there's no accounting for taste.

I'm kidding, sort of.

So while I was wrestling with the decision about the job I went on my vacation, which coincidentally was a hiking trip in California's central coast area. My hiking buddy is an old friend who lives in the Northwest but is French. We got to the top of some very pretty mountain which looked out over a beautiful valley, the sparkling ocean, and about four other gorgeous mountain ranges, and he asked, "So why exactly is it that everyone hates California?"

My first reaction was to clarify: "We don't hate California, we hate Southern California." But he pointed out that two years ago we had an equally terrific hiking trip, and a more visually stunning one, in the Mojave. He also pointed out that I actually like Los Angeles when I'm there, just not when I think about it.

So I tried harder to explain why we have this fascination with and simultaneous antipathy toward Southern California.

I thought through all the stereotypes and all the resentments and all the (admittedly unfair) generalizations.

California is too big. It's too powerful. It has too much say in the government.

California has an enormous rich/poor gap. Rich hypocrites go on about meritocracy while hiring labor at less than a living wage.

California is violent. Drugs and racial hatred run rampant.

California is shallow. It cares only about appearences. It's a cultural wasteland that churns out garbage that we consume only to hate ourselves for it.

Then I realized something. I told my friend: "California is for us what the US is for Europe." If Oregon is California's Canada, then California is America's America: big, rich, powerful, and vulgar.

But hell, I like America. I like California. I am taking the job.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Do I Need Anger Management, or Does the World Need to Be a Less Annoying Place?

I have been on eight airplanes in the past seven days. Not for vacation. I am crabby.

Seriously, what's up with people?

On one flight, I sat next to a young woman, about 19 or 20. The flight attendant asked everyone to turn their cell phones off. The young woman continued to text-message with glassy-eyed urgency. The stewardess came by and asked her to turn it off. She raised the "just a minute finger" until the stewardess walked off. And she continued to click out her life's story as though the fate of the world rested on her getting out: "lol ur funny i cnt w8 2 c u." The flight attendant asked AGAIN for everyone to put their phones away. But this girl never did. She tried a couple of times, but it was like the Ring--it just kept exerting some dark and inexorable force over her. She'd try to put it in her bag, but then she'd flip it up again and text some more. She continued to text all the way through take-off until, presumably, she had no more service. But she kept checking and clicking throughout the flight. She tried to read a book at once point, but after 30 seconds, she flipped open her phone again and clicked out some more crucial messages. Was it really for this that we have opposable thumbs?

On another flight, I sat next to the whistler. He didn't whistle a tune. Or even a note. Just this hollow monotonous whine. Was it wrong to want to stab him with my plastic fork? If so, how wrong?

My next travelling companion was an aging Lothario, the kind of middle-aged straight white guy who still wears a moustache. The kind of guy who wants to talk about money and business. And, in this case, who wanted to keep ringing for the stewardess so he could flirt with her. Which is gross. BUT the stewardess hung around in the aisle (the flight was only about 1/2 full) and flirted back. And then kept going to the intercom thingy and flirting over the loudspeaker so that the whole cabin had to be subjected to comments like: "You guys are just the most fun passangers. Even if [giggle] some of you want to [giggle] tease me. You know who you are." Sweet Savonarola on a Spit, what a nauseating pair.

At this point, a hijacker would almost be a welcome sight.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Gregor Samsa, You've Been Very Bad!

New favorite sentence from a student essay:

"Greek tragedy is full of rape and insect."

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

My Worst Student

There are a lot of bad students out there. There was the kid who never came to class and then questioned my commitment when I refused to hold extra private sessions to get him "caught up."

There was the student who I think was stalking me. That guy really hated me. He would make chopping motions near his throat whenever I saw him.

There was the student who thought that her B- reflected my lack of understanding how hard she worked on her final project and not (as was the case) my infinite generosity in the face of banal and sloppy work. After her first request for a new grade, I emailed her the portion of the university handbook on how to appeal a grade. I assured her that I would be happy to cooperate with the preceedings. She declined. She didn't want to appeal the grade, she said. But she still sent me another ten emails about how she wanted a higher grade.

There are the kids who don't wear shoes and put their feet on the seminar table. There are the kids who text their friends during lecture. The various assortment of wheedlers, whiners, and grade-grubbers. There are the keeners who think they are too smart for the class (they mostly think they are too smart for education). There are the slackers, the absentee jocks (um, I mean "scholar athletes"), the entitled prep school douches.

But the worst student I ever had didn't fit neatly into any known "bad student" category. She had elements of many incongruous categories (part keener, part slacker, part system gamer) and added modes of badness I had never seen before. She was truly one of a kind. If I've written about her before, I apologize. But someone asked me the other day about my worst student, and I can't get her out of my head (not in the good way).

Her cell phone rang at least once ever single class. She brought her laptop to class, despite my asking them not to bring laptops to what are fairly small classes that emphasize discussion. She sighed dramatically when I asked her to ease up on the techno-intrusions.

Her essays were both incomprehensible and pretentious. These did fit into a known category, the students who, rather than thinking closely and critically about the material, instead spit out some fancy-sounding nonsense resulting in a pseudo-sophisticated mush of makes-me-want-to-die. Here's a hint: throwing Wittgenstein into a shitty paper doesn't make it better, it just makes it embarrassing. And why does it never occur to them that I might actually have read Wittgenstein? And that I can see that they don't know what the fuck they're talking about?

Ok, so she wrote these really dreadful essays. But she took her B- without complaint, which was a pleasant surprise. But then she started haunting office hours. Now, I encourage students to come to office hours. I often find that some of the best teaching and learning happens outside the classroom. I like to talk to students one on one--it's a great way to help a struggling student or challenge a really bright one. But this student wanted neither help nor thoughtful discussion. She would just come by and ramble about Wittgenstein or whatever. I tried to steer these "conversations" into more focused or profitable channels, but no dice. I began to dread office hours. She would also wait for me after class. I would tell her that I didn't have time to chat, so she would follow me to wherever I was going. She once followed down into the subway station (and I wasn't even going to take the train--I was just trying to get away from her!).

Then the absences started along with the increasing absurd medical claims. I have all kinds of sympathy for illness. And frankly, I have sympathy for students who sometimes just feel too overwhelmed to come to class. What I don't have any sympathy for is students who fabricate illnesses. And this girl fabricated a doozy. She didn't just have the flu. No, she had some rare and mysterious neurological disorder for which she was seeing an osteopath, a neurologist, and a psychiatrist. I was fully on board with this last one.

Her illness was suspicious on the face of it. These suspicions were confirmed when I saw her, after receiving a frantic email about how she couldn't come to class because of a flare-up of her illness which was keeping her confined to the infirmary, lighting up a cigarette outside a bar. I walked past and she chased me down to tell me that she'd just gotten out of the hospital. Whatevs.

But what sets her apart from all the other loonies is the excuse she had for why her final essay was late. She wrote me to say that she had been working on her paper for days, despite her weakened condition. She bravely soldiered on through her fake illness to try to write her paper. But when her disease-ravaged mind finally cleared, she reported, she found that she had written the whole thing in German.

That's some fancy disease, Missy.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Yes, It's Still the Economy, Stupid

It's ALWAYS the economy, Stupid.

The media is busy telling us that the parameters of the campaign have shifted. It's now about the economy. What are the candidates saying about the economy? Who has the best plan for the economy? Who can reassure people about the economy?

Well, it's never not been about the economy. But whenever politicians and the media talk about the economy, they use the term in both the most parochial and obfuscating manner possible.

It was, of course, the defining moment and image of Bill Clinton's campaign. James Carvill's slogan served as a reminder to his candidate that whatever Bush Sr.'s superior resume on foreign policy, the country was in a recession and all the Gulf War victories in the world didn't really matter to Joe Sixpack if he didn't have a job.

True enough, as far as it goes.

But this rhetoric conceals the fact that the wars (both Bush Sr.'s and Jr.'s) are about the economy. They are about enriching corporations at the expense of human rights, human life, the environment, and longterm planning about what kind of country we want this to be.

To divorce issues like war and social justice and the environment from "the economy" serves politicians and the media well. Because it ultimately really serves the status quo, and mainstream politics of whatever stripe is really about status quo-ism. So they pretend that "the economy" means that the subprime mortgage market doesn't tank or that people can afford their prescriptions.

It does mean those things. And those things are vitally important. But until we start seeing these economic issues as related to the economic structures that are poisoning the atmosphere, putting workers in unsafe conditions, starting wars, and shifting the tax burden down the social ladder, we're not going to make much progress.

The economy doesn't start and stop with one's own bank account. Pretending that it does only enables the tacit alliance between government and corporations.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"The Tragic Tale of Feemus's Forehead," or "The Devil You Know"

Would you like to hear a story about my forehead? No?

Well, it's the only story I have today.

The story of my forehead begins in the mountains. It was a lovely summer hiking trip, and our hero (that's me, minus the heroics) was thrilled to be in the out-of-doors. Fresh air, vigorous exercise, pleasant companionship--what could be nicer?

It was very nice. Except for what happened to my forehead.

Now, I always wear lots of heavy-duty sunscreen and usually a hat and if I am outside when the sun is shining. Because I am a burner. I can burn through my clothes. I routinely burn despite 45 spf sunscreen.

After snorkling once, I discovered a series of tiny blisters along my arms at the water line. That was a funny looking burn--the half of me that was in the water was white and the half that was out was bright red (and slightly blistered). I saw lots of pretty fish, though. And I got slammed into a coral reef by a crazy riptide. Which was sort of fun. And sort of bloody.

Anyway, I take the whole sun thing pretty seriously.

But in the mountains in July, there's only so much one can do. The atmosphere is just so thin and the sun is so intense that sun damage happens. I didn't get too badly burned though. But something new happened: I spotted. I got these brown blotches on my forehead. I guess they're freckles, except they're not polka-dotty. They're solid. And fairly dark.

And....they are in the shape of horns.

No shit. They are almost entirely symmetrical, one on either side of my foreheard. And they look like horns.

I got home. I waited for them to fade. They didn't fade.

So I kind of just forgot about them. No one said anything, so I just figured that no one else could see them (this is one of the drawbacks of being single. There's no one to say, "Honey, I love you, but that Mark of Cain you're sporting on your mug is starting to creep people out."). I went on like this for months until I visited my family.

First thing out of my niece's mouth: "Uncle Feemus, you have HORNS."

"Oh that's nice, kid," I said. "Well, I didn't want to bring it up, but you're short. What are you, like four feet tall? I hate to break it to you, kiddo, but that's short. You notice I didn't bring it up, though? That's the polite thing to do. But you, you open with the horn thing. Real nice. And you know what? When I first met you, you were bald. Completely bald--total cue ball. And you couldn't even hold your own bald head up. But I didn't say a word. Polite thing to do."

She stared at me. "I know you're trying to be funny, Uncle Feemus," she said. "But you still have horns."

So I thought, well maybe it's just my niece who can see them. Maybe it's just the angle (she's short, after all). But then I see my Mom and she's all, "You got something on your face." And then she starts making for me with the dread bespittled thumb.

"Stay away from me with that thumb, you miserable harridan," I said.

"Oh sweetie, I know you're trying to be funny. But really, you've got something on your forehead."


I explained what it was. And my mother bought me some--get this--bleaching cream. For age spots. AGE SPOTS??

I am young enough to get attacked with spit-thumb, but old enough to have age spots? What the fuck?

Anyway, I am home now. And a little alarmed that I've been walking around with horns for six months and no one's said anything.

But I am a little reluctant to use the bleaching cream. It just seems so...I don't know...disturbing.

What's next? Calf implants?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Take Backsies

Can I take back what I said about Huckabee? He's crazy. How vigorous must one's bigotry be to want to reshape the Constitution to conform to it?

What is with all the candidates having to prove how aggressive they are? Whether it's the terrorists or the immigrants or each other, virtually every candidate is behaving as though the single most important quality in a president is willingness to spoil for a fight.

It's embarrassing to watch so many intelligent and educated people admitting that belligerence is all they they have to offer.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Vanity of Vanities

I've been thinking a lot lately about the book of Ecclesiates. It resonates so thoroughly in our culture that we don't always perceive it. It's like Shakespeare or Benjamin Franklin or Alexander Pope, where we quote it without realizing that we're quoting.

On the one hand, I find this phenomenon fascinating from a purely structural standpoint: when we say "Hope springs eternal" or "It's Greek to me" or "there's nothing new under the sun," what are the structural properties of the utterance? These phrases are so familiar and so well-worn that we typically don't think of them as citations.

It's a different situation (by degree, at least) from if we say something like: "Sound and fury signifying nothing." In this phrase, I think, we recognizing the phrase as citational. We might even know that it comes from Macbeth, or at least from Shakespeare. At the bare minimum, we recognize that it is a literary quotation; that it's different from ordinary discourse; and that someone, once upon a time, put those words together in that particular fashion.

I don't think we do recognize that with citations such as "It's Greek to me." Or at least I don't. Phrases like that just seem to get absorbed into what we apprehend as "ordinary" language.

The great linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, said that lanugage is a "system of difference without positive terms." Which just means that linguistic sign only have meaning in relation to one another. Every word we choose (Saussure calls this process of word selection the "paradigmatic" axis of language) derives its meaning from the words we exclude. If I tell you that I think oak trees are beautiful, you understand my meaning by understanding everything I've excluded: aspens, beeches, Douglas firs, maples, larches, lampposts, kittens, etc. "Oak" has no meaning that is not relational.

Saussure also discusses what he calls the "syntagmatic" axis of language, which is the combinative work--how one orders those paradigmatically selected words.

But what goes on with a phrase like: "It's Greek to me"? Both the paradigmatic and syntagmatic processes precede utterance. So the selection happens at the level of syntagm, I guess. We choose to say, "It's Greek to me," rather than, "I find it incomprehensible" or something like that. What I find interesting though, is how these phrases get in under our "citation radar."

Certain theorist, such as Roland Barthes, argue that ALL language is citational. Which is, of course, right as far as it goes. All language is pre-owned, so to speak. Even neologisms use known parts of other words. Using language entails a submission to its forms.

But we forget this. We have to forget it, or we'd go a little mad. That's why, I think, it's a little unsettling to discover the "origin" of a phrase that we use without recognizing its citationality. I think I laughed the first time I read Julius Caesar and saw "It was Greek to me."

No point to this, really, just thinking some stuff through. What I'm really interested in is why Ecclesiastes has this kind of pervasiveness in our culture. More on that later.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Primaries Are Enough to Make Anyone Cry

I find it disturbing that the campaign season is now almost as long as a Presidential term. It's the old magicians' trick: keep your eye on the presidential hopefuls while the real government takes away your civil rights and your children's futures.

But what's really about to make me cry is how the vicious insipidity of the media is almost making me support Hillary Clinton.


So she cried. Whatever. Bob Dole cried, and no one asked whether it was authentic and no one suggested that it betrayed psycholgical instability (because frankly, Bob Dole would have kicked your ass for suggesting it. Bum arm and all). Hillary cries, and we are treated to endless punditry about whether they were "real" tears or whether the "ice princess" was just acting.


But what really gets my goat is that her New Hampshire win gets attributed to her tears, because the tears mobilized "the women's vote." How much do I hate this phrase, "the ____ vote"? It's never, "the straight vote" or "the white vote" or "the men's vote." It is almost always used to (however subtly) discredit or denigrate whatever gains the candidate has made: "Hillary's win in NH is attributable to the women's vote." What's lurking in statements like these is that the win doesn't mean quite as much, because she didn't get the "real" voters. She just got the women's vote.

Because women like tears, I guess. Whatever.

Phrases like "the ____ vote" also have the effect of making the _____ into an unthinking monolith. It denies plurality of opinion, circumstance, and principle to the ______ group. It denies that there is any difference of opinion among gays or women or hispanics or blacks or whatever. And that these groups vote only on issues that relate directly to the feature that has them slotted into "minority" status. "Women's issues." Blech. Only straight white guys, apparently, have thoughtful, wide-ranging, and nuanced political minds.

It almost makes me want to support Clinton, just out of annoyed outrage. Well, until I remember that she voted for the war and the Patriot act. And that she and her husband play into some very icky pseudo-liberal racial stereotypes when they call Obama a "dreamer."

In related news, I wish Huckabee's politics were different. I kinda like him.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Happy New Year

So, I made a resolution this New Year. I don't usually make resolutions. One reason is that I figure that if something is worthwhile, I might as well just start (or stop) doing it immediately and not wait until Jan. 1. The main reason, though, is that I don't like taking stock of my life. Because, you know, yikes!

But this year, I made a resolution, and I am giving myself the whole year to keep it. It's to finish things. I resolve to finish everything that is worth finishing and get rid of everything that isn't. I resolve to finish all the half-read books, all the half-written articles, all the projects around the house that have been started over the years. I am going to finish unpacking boxes, some of which haven't even been opened in five moves, seven years, and 3000 miles.

And here's the hard part: I am not going to start anything new (within reason, of course) until I have finished everything that is worth finishing.

It's going to be a long year.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Dear Crazy Coed

Dear Crazy Coed,

You have very nice legs. I will grant you that.

But it's 4 degrees out. It's -13 with the wind chill factor. Please stop wearing shorts.


Out of the Mouths of Babes

I went out to dinner last night. I was by myself and I brought some work along. The waiter seated me - despite the fact that the restaurant was nearly empty - in a table jammed between two other occupied tables. So instead of working, I eavesdropped. Sort of unintentionally.

There were a man and a woman having a fight. I was seated next to the woman, so I only heard her side of the conversation:

No....I'm not doing this'm not doing this in public...No....because I'm just not discussing this in India Palace.......fine, fine, you wanna do this here? let's do it....

After several minutes of rancourous back-and-forth, she said something that would have been hilarious, if it weren't so sad. She said, with a kind of frustrated weariness:

I would be more fun if you ever did the dishes.

The Bickersons settled their tab and left, so I started (inadvertantly) listening to the conversation at the next table. It was much more cheering. And man and his 10 or 11 year old son were talking about books and religion and culture and all that. I got the impression that they'd recently been to visit a Christian friend of the dad's, and the son had questions.

It was a really capitivating conversation (even if I hadn't been forcibly capitvated by sitting about 7 millimeters away). The father was intelligent and knowledgeable. The son was quick and curious. The father explained the common heritage of Christianity and Islam with Judaism. He mentioned similarities with other religious traditions, all without lapsing into platitudes or muddle-headedness. He didn't try to elide religious difference, just put it into intellectual and historical context.

The son asked pointed and thoughtful questions throughout the conversation. At one point, he asked: "So, do they have, like, the Talmud? Or the Midrash?"

The father told him that many Christians and Jews don't acknowledge the deep connections between the New Testament and the teachings of Jewish oral tradition. He told his son that Jesus was, in many ways, the greatest popularizer of Jewish thought in history.

Without missing a beat, the kid said, resignedly but without resentment:

"Because nobody listens to the Jews."

I was glad the dad laughed, too, because I couldn't entirely suppress a giggle.

Cutest. Kid. Ever.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Political Agenda at Microsoft????

My spellcheck doesn't recognize "Royalism" but it DOES recognize "Parliamentarianism."

Which is funny. To me, anyhow.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Total Recall

I had dinner at a friend's tonight. We were having a pleasant time, chatting of this and that. As people do.

Then I glanced at her coffee table. And sitting on it was a very familiar book. A very familiar library book. And I said, "Say, are you reading Landscape, Liberty, and Authority? Did you happen to have recalled it recently? Say, for instance, LAST THURSDAY???"

She had, indeed, recalled the book from me. Which is, of course, ok. It was a funny moment, though. We all recall books, but it's a practice that generates a fair amount of resentment.

Because our university library permits one to recall books from other patrons even if that other patron has just checked the book out that very day (I had, in fact, had the book for about 36 hours when my friend recalled it). And then the library charges the recallee $2 a day if they don't return it. And the system permits one to recall a particular copy of the book, so people will recall a volume that could easily be found in a different branch of the library just because they're too lazy to walk 1/2 a mile to get it.

But even beyond these quibbles with how the recall policy is implemented, it can just be downright frustrating to have a book taken away from you. Doubly so if there is a pattern of recalls, if all the books on a particular subject started getting summoned. Newness is key in academia and it can produce a kind of paranoia to think that someone is working on a similar project. And the last thing this place needs is more neurosis and anxiety. I had a colleague once confess that he had recalled a book from himself without realizing it. And then had a small crisis because he needed that book.

Once upon a time, the library here used to tell you who was recalling your books. They thought it would foster scholarly community. They stopped this practice when they realized that it was more likely to foster scholarly stabbings.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

David Brooks is Still a Moron

It's been a long time since I've done a "David Brooks is a Moron" post.

I thought I'd spend an hour or so this Sunday afternoon with a second pot of coffee and some ridiculous I-heart-the-rich-and-powerful column by the New York Times' leading lover of the status quo. Lately, I especially enjoy the way Brooks is ever so slightly (and with ever so little self-awareness) distancing himself from the Republicans. Just to prove that he's an equal opportunity suck-up.

He loves the rich and powerful of any political stripe.


Well, I fired up LexisNexis (I'm too cheap to buy the Times anymore) and searched for his latest column, ready to pick apart his rhetoric and point out the banality of his positions to possibly comic effect (Brooks writes most of the comedy himself).

I couldn't get past the first few sentences:

The 2008 presidential election has fundamentally shifted, but it hasn't been because of events in Iowa and New Hampshire. It's because of events everywhere else.

In Washington, the National Intelligence Estimate was released, suggesting the next president will not face an imminent nuclear showdown with Iran. In Iraq, the surge and tribal revolts produce increasing stability. In Pakistan, the streets have not exploded. In the Middle East, the Arabs and Palestinians stumble toward some sort of peace process. In Venezuela, a referendum set President Hugo Chavez back on his heels.

What stopped me wasn't the horrifying suspicion that Brooks was going to argue that the past several years of US foreign policy have made the world SAFER (I don't know if he did argue that--I really had to quit reading).

What stopped me was the mention of Iraqi "tribalism." This word has crept increasingly into discussions of the situation in Iraq. It's revolting and it betrays the paucity of our historical imagination.

Tribalism? Who can use this word without cringing? This is the word that Europeans used to describe conditions they helped create in Africa and then to legitimize colonialism.

Of course there were groups in Africa before the slave trade and colonialism. Yes, these groups were sometimes hostile to one another. But tribalism? That was a European invention. The discourse of tribalism grew out of nineteenth century anthropology--the primitivist implications of the term constructed Africa as a barbarous place that could only benefit from imperialism. This rhetorical strategy was followed by policies that produced and codified "tribalism."

This is not to say that Africa was a utopian paradise and that everything bad in the world is the invention of white guys. But the discourse of tribalism is enormously damaging and after a couple of centuries of it, we've almost entirely naturalized it. And the violence in Africa after the decline of the colonial powers bolsters its claims. But we've largely inversed the causal relationships.

So now we're doing it again. Not that Iraq doesn't have it's ethnic crises. But they didn't arise in a vacuum and calling them "tribalism" isn't going to help. It's arrogant. It's ignorant. It's destructive.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Tag Part 2-In Which Feemus Learns an Important Lesson

I often use this blog to vent about the ridiculous and outrageous behavior of some of my students.

The 2am emails asking me to proofread an essay that's due at 10am. Followed by indignation when they are reminded that (1) I'm not their proofreader and (2) I am typically ASLEEP at 2am. Or at least not answering email.

The emails asking where Smith Hall is. How the hell should I know?

The emails saying: "I was running late for class today and didn't have any way to let you know. Can you give me your cell phone number in case it happens again?" WHAT????

The emails asking "Can you tell me what the main causes of the English Civil War were? I can't find anything about it online."

The emails saying: "cldnt mk it 2 clss 2day. cn u tell me wht i missd? thx."

The emails asking "Hey Feemus, you forgot to tell us what we're supposed to read. Do I have to do the reading? It's Monday and we meet tomorrow." Hmmm...the syllabus might help.

So one day, I get an email asking if I can provide "pronunciation brackets" for the characters' names in a French novel that we were reading in translation. Not my job, really. But not the most unreasonable request I'd gotten that day. What it was, though, was about the 37th such request I'd gotten that day.

I forwarded it to my friend Dave, who has a knack I lack for dissuading such e-requests but who is typically sympathetic to my plight. So I forward him the email with this, my own commentary, appended:

Hey Dave--

check out this email I just got--is this unbelievable, or what?? and considering that he will hear a lecture on this tomorrow, this is about the most relevant email since Ralph Nader wrote to ask what time he should show up for the debate.

how fucking lazy ARE these kids?

Here's how I feel like responding:

Dear Mr. Johnson,
I appreciate your enthusiasm for such a crucial feature of the work. I cannot
tell you how flattered I am to think that of all the resources available to
you, I am the one to whom you turn. Rather than waiting until lecture, or
consulting a French pronunciation guide, or asking a dorm-mate who speaks
French, I am honored that you have chosen instead to privilege MY opinion on
this serious matter over any other authority.

I am also flattered by the implicit compliment that you pay to my time
management skills. I am honored and humbled by your assumption that I am so
caught up with my own work as an educator and a scholar that I have nothing better to do than act as a consultant on questions that could be easily answered through any number of means. I am also so pleased to see you have the mental flexibility to not take "office hours" at face value. Anyone can drop by during office hours, but it takes a special cognitive fluidity to understand that "1-3 Tuesdays, 9-11 Fridays, or by appt." REALLY means "whenever I feel like it as long as the technology is available."

It also gives me great pleasure to note that you have not restricted your
question in anyway. I am certain that this will lead to many more delightful
email exchanges, when, after I send you a list of characters with "pronunciation brackets," you email back to query, "but what about..." Oh, Mr.
Johnson, I do see an enchanting conversation to come!!

Hope all is well, and please let me know if you need your dry-cleaning picked up
or your steak cut.


Which was a little harsh. But Dave has heard worse rants from me.

Ok, except I had NOT forwarded the email. I had hit "reply."

When I realized what I'd done, I actually threw up. This was several years ago and I STILL feel sick about it. I did a search through my "sent mail" for this exchange in order to write the post, and reading it is still like a punch in the gut. I am such a dick. That is an actual verbatim copy of what that student received (except that his name isn't really Johnson and mine--you may be shocked to hear it--isn't really Feemus).

As soon as I realized what I had done, I wrote an email containing what is quite possibly the most sincere apology ever written. Because in the instant that I realized what I'd done, I realized what I knew all along--that this kid was just trying to get by. Like all of us. Sure, if I answered every email that I got along these lines I'd never get anything else done. But he doesn't know what my inbox looks like.

I wrote to him and explained that I was a jerk. That my frustration had very little to do with him and that I had just used his email as an excuse to vent and to feebly attempt humor. That while I never ever meant for him to see my fake reply, it was still wildly unprofessional of me to be forwarding it to my friends. And I asked him to come see me during office hours or at his convenience so that I could apologize in person.


I waited out a couple of the most tense days of my life. And then finally I heard a soft knock on my door. He walked in and said: "Sorry not to come see you sooner. But I was having a hard time figuring out what was going on. I mean, you seem so nice. And I don't know any Dave."

He let me apologize and he accepted graciously. We talked a little, and I only felt worse to discover that he was a transfer student from a less competitive institution (we get virtually none of these) and I got the sense that he was feeling a little anxious about being at a new school. Which, you know, ouch.

He turned out to be a really terrific guy and one of the most genuinely motivated students I've ever had. I'm not sure he ever really trusted me (can you blame him?), but he put more into getting an education than the rest of the class combined.

Although honestly, he could have done next to nothing and I would have given him an A.

Oh, the guilt.

I wish I'd learned some lasting moral lesson. That I'd learned patience and tolerance, to understand that each email that tries to extend my working day to 24 hours potentially has a really great person behind it who maybe was having a rough day themselves. I wish that was the case, but that mostly wore off in about two months worth of "Hey Feemus, my roommate didn't wake me up when he said he would. When can we meet to make up the class I missed?" Didn't wear off entirely, but mostly.

What I did learn was to double and triple check before sending a forwarded email.

Good luck to you, Mr. Johnson, wherever you are. I am still really really sorry.

And that is the story of one of the worst things I have done.

Oh Dear God

The Mormon missionaries on my bus are getting dumber. Which scarcely seems possible.

I've written before about these chipper little mouth-breathers. These good-natured boneheads that sucked so bad at missionary school that they got sent from one US city to another US city. These were the missionary cadets who couldn't learn another language or comprehend cultural difference. So here they are. With me on the #8.

The last time we checked in with these eager little converters, they were asking the homeless for restaurant suggestions. You wouldn't think it could get worse.

You would be wrong.

Today, I am sitting on the bus trying to read my book. When I hear a gratingly cheerful voice that I know without looking is coming out of a scrubbed face which is sitting on top of a black suit. I can't hear the other guy's part of the conversation. I glance over and I can see him doing the math in his head: "if the bus averages 1 stop every two minutes, we'll get to the Square in 16 more minutes--can I go this long without punching this guy?"

But I don't hear him say a word. Just the missionary's very loud part of the conversation:

-What are your plans for the holidays?

-I am with the Church of Jesus Christ. Have you heard of the Latter Day Saints?

-I am from Utah. Where are you from?

Then there's a pause. I don't hear the other guy's answer. But the missionary says,

v e r y s l o w l y,


Wow. You're all the way from England? Your English is VERY good.

Save us all from salvation.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Tag--I'm It. Again.

Thanks, Benticore.

Well, I'm crazy busy at the moment, so I think I'll take this tagging as an opportunity to write seven self-indulgent biographical posts.

That'll teach Benticore! I guess the rest of the class will just have to suffer for what he did (I learned that one from you, Mrs. Husby!)

So this post is going to be about education.

I have a very conflicted relationship to higher education. And not just because my students are annoying.

Although they are annoying.

I mean with the whole institution. Don't get me wrong, I think that college education is wonderful. I think that it offers (to the one student in ten who's not a total tool) a unique opportunity for intellectual exploration and reflection and rigor.

But it's so freaking expensive in this country (even state schools) that it becomes implicated in class hierarchy. And that sucks. That sucks a lot.

It's not that only the middle-on-up classes pursue higher education, but that these are the groups for whom it is most accessible. A huge number of students are, like me, from the working classes. And they feel, like I did, that they don't belong.

I am not the first person in my family to graduate from college, but pretty close. For those of you in a similar situation, you know what this means: you are simultaneously living out your family's social mobility narrative, with all the attendant American-dream-crap pressures, but you have no model for how it works and no money to make it happen. Your family fetishizes education, but in the abstract. For every degree earned, you are met with pride but also with suspicion. There is a subtle strain of "so I guess you think you're better than us now" for every academic achievement.

Middle class kids get money for college, not necessarily because their families *have* money, but because their families know how to *get* money. They understand grants and scholarships and loans, etc. Working class kids get the imperative: "go to college." What they don't get is any kind of support to make this happen. They often go to high schools that aren't geared toward college-bound students. My PSAT scores made me a semi-finalist for a National Merit Scholarship. Not one person in my high school, no teacher and no administrator, suggested that I submit the necessary materials to try to become a finalist. I didn't even know that there was someone whose job it was to help with college. The only thing any of us knew about our school guidence counselor was about his drug habits, because he frequently bought from students. I had never even heard of an AP exam until I started teaching students who had taken it. I didn't even know how to get a college application form.

After not completely finishing high school, I tried community college. I was working full time and was ill. I lasted a year and a half before I thought: "fuck this. I don't need this upward mobility crap."

After several years waiting on table and tending bar, I finally went back to college. Not for a degree, but just because I wanted to know shit.

The first time I stepped on campus, I nearly burst into tears. I am man enough to admit it. I had never been on a university campus before. This was a campus built in the academic gothic style, with lots of pointy stone buildings. It looked like something out of a movie. A movie about horrible prep school boys. I am not an emotional guy (unless you count annoyance as an emotion), but I was utterly overwhelmed with the feeling that I didn't belong here among all these pointy buildings with all these smart people who had graduated high school and who knew about the right fork from learning how to eat not from learning about how to set the table for people who were going to eat. And at the same time, I felt like I had never been more at home. I know how corny that sounds, but it was an intense few minutes. I wiped my eyes and my nose on my shirt sleeve (you can take the boy out of the trailer park, but....) and got on with it.

It was cool. I learned shit. I was making good money, and unlike the rest of my colleagues in the bar biz I didn't have a major cocaine habit. So I could spend my spare change on learning Ancient Greek. With the added bonus that my septum is still intact.

I loved it. My professors liked me (will wonders never cease?) and I liked school (unbelievable!).

After many years of doing this, someone from the university called and said: "you know, Bub, you have a degree. Take it already."

So I did.

Nothing changed. I still took classes and still tended bar and all was well in the world of Feemus.

And then one day, I broke my leg. Ouch. So I thought, why not do something different? Why not do something that doesn't depend on your body (which, frankly, wasn't getting any younger). So I went to graduate school.

And I saw that most people in academia were just like me. Two of the senior faculty members where I am now are from coal mining families. A few have fathers who are mechanics. Very few people come from money.

But we're all still implicated in this middle-on-up class structure. Because that's the culture. That's where most of the students come from. And they have profoundly internalized the customer service model of education. And we let them get away with it. In part because we are a little in awe of their glamour and stunned by their entitlement. And because we've been trained to respond to the desires of the "consumer." Shame on us, you know.

Education shouldn't be about selling degrees to those who can afford it. To those who are only at the college because they are legacies or because the library is named after their grandma.

And it kills me that I have to argue with kids who tell me that they shouldn't get a B because they pay $40,000 a year (yeah, sweetie, YOU pay it. sure) and then hear from people who WANT to get an education and can't because of financial considerations. That just sucks.

This wasn't meant to be a poor-me post. I've been very lucky in my life. I've gotten more breaks than I deserved. But I do believe that until we make education more equally accessible, from K-12 on up, this whole meritocracy discourse will remain bullshit.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Happy Birthday

To John Stewart, Anna Nicole Smith, Claud Levi-Strauss, and Feemus.

If anyone needs me, I will be weeping softly in the corner.