When income between teachers and strippers emerges, the conversation really takes off, and you can't help but laugh. Learn a little economics today, and put a smile on your face. Check it out, and have a good weekend.
The winner for best internet comments section this week goes to Mises.org and their post, "What the Wage Equality Crusaders Don't Understand." The article itself is great, a logical takedown of the foolishness of assuming everyone should make the same amount of money regardless of the myriad life choices that go into selecting a career. It's an article every student should read. But the real gold can be found in the reader replies at the bottom.
When income between teachers and strippers emerges, the conversation really takes off, and you can't help but laugh. Learn a little economics today, and put a smile on your face. Check it out, and have a good weekend.
A recent post on the discussion forum Quora has restored a sliver of my faith in the education system. A student asked the question, "Is it okay for a teacher to use me as an example of what not to do?" And I don't think she received the answer she was looking for.
She claimed that she was a victim of harassment and wanted everyone to stop being so mean. But the people who responded, most of them one would assume are teachers, gave it to her straight and put in her place, and deservedly so.
I'm always amazed at the things students complain about these days, as I know I never would have had the temerity to speak to teachers or expect things of them in the way young people do today. I'm not even that old, yet when my teachers gave grades, there was no discussion. When my teachers told me I did something wrong, that was the law. It seems everything in a classroom today is up for debate. It's just the teacher's opinion what a student's grade should be, always open for adjustment if a complaint is forceful enough. It truly is a different world.
But I'm proud of those who replied to this youngster. They were honest and fair and unmoved by her whining, precisely as teachers should be. There's hope yet.
The longer I teach, the more I grow bothered by the phrase "rough draft." I'm not sure if it has always been this way, but it seems increasingly common that when students work on rough drafts, they take that to mean really rough drafts. As if it's a license for turning in garbage, students believe rough drafts are simply opportunities for getting something on the page, regardless of what it looks like, knowing that it will just be changed later anyway. This is completely the wrong perspective.
Rough drafts should be the student's absolute best attempt at properly completing the written project at this specific moment in time.
In fact, in my classes, I emphasize "first version" in place of rough draft, in hopes of getting students to take that step in the writing process more seriously. Yes, there will be changes. Yes, a student may end up scrapping entire sections of her work. And yes, doing a good job at this early stage is difficult and time-consuming. But that's what should happen. That paper should be as perfect as she can possibly make it, as of now.
I've discovered that students don't just cut corners on their actual essay when we refer to rough drafts, the body paragraphs, argument, and other key components in the main text. They also avoid doing the simplest of tasks--name in the proper place, effective title, source list properly formatted, and more. I'm always baffled at this. These are the easiest parts of the assignment--why not just do these simple elements right the first time, so they won't require attention later?
I tell my students to envision that I'm grading their draft, and their entire semester grade depends on their score on it--even though we will go through several steps of revision. That usually helps a bit, but it's still not ideal. But getting past the term "rough draft" is a step in the right direction for both students and teachers. There should be nothing rough about writing. It should be excellent from the start, and together we will work to make it even better before the final due date. The goal is to make the subsequent stages, from major revisions to minor copy-edits, as small and painless as possible. But that can't happen if we keep doing "rough" work. Use "final version" instead, and get students writing better earlier.
A piece appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week that has had me stewing. I wasn't quite sure how to respond until I collected my thoughts and took some deep breaths. But today is the day to add my two cents.
A professor posted an article about being called a racial slur on campus. There are several fuzzy elements to her story: she claims to remember the precise time of the incident, but can't seem to remember any other details; her article states that she couldn't identify who was the culprit (since it happened behind her), but she was sure of what she heard; she knew the person was an athlete wearing team attire, but she didn't know what sport; however, in her notes on her personal website, she suddenly was able to identify the sports team; she didn't do anything about it during the incident, and instead waited to voice a complaint; there were no other witnesses, apparently, despite there being plenty of other people around the scene; and she repeatedly uses the odd case of past perfect verb tense in her article, when standard past tense would be more logical. But I'm not attempting to accuse her of false reporting. I am willing to take her at her word, as all people, and especially a respected teacher, deserve our initial trust.
But there's something much more sinister happening in her account of the incident. First, she is more than willing to stereotype and prejudge others, just as she decries when it happens to her. She describes being afraid upon hearing the slur, strangely noting that she is only 5'2" tall. What exactly is this meant to imply? That anyone somewhat tall is a violent threat to physical safety? Isn't judging someone's propensity toward violence based on their size just as superficial and fallacious as making a judgment based on race, or any other physical characteristic? She then digs deeper by noting that she could have gone to get help at a nearby building, but since it was a construction trailer, likely filled with working men, they "might espouse the same kind of hate." Yes, she seriously put that in print. It takes a special kind of hypocrisy to seek sympathy from the world about being discriminated against while discriminating against other people.
But the bigger problem here extends beyond this singular incident and this singular professor. It is her reaction that is indicative of so many young people today, and we can see where they are learning it: from their teachers. Upon hearing a derogatory comment, she didn't just ignore it. She didn't approach the students, tell them she was bothered by what they said and demand an apology. She didn't immediately call the coach of the athletes and devise a resolution in which an apology could be elicited. This is what reasonable people would do--they would work on solving the problem at the level at which it occurred.
But that is not what she did. Instead, she went home and wrote an essay, which she then shared publicly that very evening. She chose to tell the story before resolving the problem. What if she had misheard? What if it were black students using the word, not white students? What if there was literally nothing going on that warranted her reaction? It's too late--she wrote an essay and told the world about it. The truth is out there, even we don't yet know just how true it all is. She then wrote the school president and every other high ranking administrator with her account of the incident. And, of course, she posted her story on Facebook. This is what we do now--we post, we email, we share with anyone we assume will sympathize. But we don't go to the source. The professor was stunned to learn that the players' coach didn't learn of the accusation until three weeks after the day in question--when she could have called him 30 seconds after the incident!
We have created a generation of passive-aggressive youth who think they "have a voice" just because they have Twitter. This professor chose to go to the highest level of authority to solve a problem that required the minimum amount of confrontation. This is like getting upset with your neighbor for not putting her recycling bin away and deciding to call the state governor's office and demand her arrest.
We constantly hear about groups wanting to start a "dialogue" or a "conversation" about some issue or other. However, these are very often the same groups who avoid actually talking to people. This professor had a great opportunity to address inappropriate behavior head on, and she chose to slink away and have others do the tough work for her. Have someone else make a rule that punishes everyone. Create new training seminars that no one cares about. Devise safe spaces so no one ever says anything you disagree with ever again. This is passive-aggressive authoritarianism at its finest. Make everyone else bend to your will without taking the first step yourself.
This happens in classrooms across the country these days. A student doesn't like a grade? Don't have a conference with the teacher; go the dean of the university and complain until you get your way! You think someone said something vulgar in the dining hall? Don't tell them to shut their mouth and act like a grown-up; run to the Gender Equity office and demand a sexual harassment hearing! Our campuses have become training grounds for avoiding interaction with others, where we promote fear and loathing rather than honesty and resolution. Joining a "story circle" (yes, this is one of the professor's ideas--whatever that is) has replaced a good ol' fashioned, "Hey, knock it off." And bureaucratic paperwork is a more feasible answer than...you know...just walking away from idiots who say stupid things.
If this professor's story is true, it truly is a shame, and I hope the name-callers end up apologizing. But her reaction could have been so much more powerful if she would have actually addressed the problem when it occurred. All she taught them was that if they wait long enough and keep denying the accusation, it will all go away eventually. And every other innocent person will be forced to attend "sensitivity workshops and...in-depth educational programming on microaggressions." You guessed it, more of her ideas. She got what she wanted--her name on a major education website and a lot of taxpayer money likely spent for her social justice causes. Passive-aggressive responses sure do pay.
The brilliantly funny critics at the Wisecrack YouTube channel have done it again, this time with an awesome analysis--just released yesterday--of one of my favorite films of last year, Arrival. Almost no one can combine humor with legitimate film study as well as they can. Take a look...
Tomorrow is Tax Day, and just as I've done the last two years (you can scroll to previous mid-April posts at right), I feel the need to help students everywhere understand what some of their views on taxation really mean.
It's nearly as common on public university campuses to hear students call for taxing wealthy people at an arbitrarily higher rate as it is to hear professors...well, call for taxing wealthy people at an arbitrarily higher rate. Yes, public universities are not the bastion of diverse thought they claim to be. This economic belief is almost the default position for many college students who want more money diverted to causes they happen to prefer. We want stuff? Get the rich people to pay for it! I remember one student even telling me and the rest of the class that the government should fund more programs by increasing wealthy people's taxes because "they won't notice that their money is gone."
Let's analyze such a position for just a few of its myriad flawed premises.
1) The assumption that wealthy people "don't notice" changes in their income belies how many of them became wealthy in the first place and stay that way over time. The old adage is pretty spot on: "Watch your pennies, and the dollars will follow." Wealthy people aren't stupid--they notice.
2) This assumes people never adjust their behavior when faced with penalty. Trust me, even middle-class folks find ways around paying their maximum tax liability. If even middle-class folks do it, you can be assured that wealthy people do. Incentives matter, especially negative ones. When people see a cost coming, they don't accept it willingly. And when people with important jobs start working less to avoid such penalties, everyone becomes worse off. As someone who has cut his teaching load in certain years to avoid being pushed into higher brackets, students are the ones who get hurt. If Bill Millionaire decides to slow his hiring, production, or innovation, his customers and employees pay the price. Taxes on the wealthy are always passed on to those that they serve.
3) Most importantly, such a view of taxation is contradictory to the ethos of millennials. For a constituency that can't go five minutes without protesting in favor of "equality," to literally hand-pick a group they don't like and punish them is a despicable irony. Here's another way of thinking about it: Asians have the highest household income of any ethnicity, including whites. Progressive taxation is therefore a de facto disproportionate and legally enforced penalty on a particular racial group. How is anyone okay with this? Once more: if you claim that one group can single out another group and, by the use of force, treat them in a way that is not equal to what other groups of people must endure under the law, that is the very definition of discrimination.
Regardless of what we think we want or who should pay for it, we must remember that there are real humans behind those plans. And learning how to treat everyone, even those who have more than we do, is part of a real education. It's important for young people to understand the complete logic of their views, and college is the best place for wrestling with these complicated ideas. We can only hope that such mental exercises are still occurring on campuses today.
I've recently begun reading a great biography on a sports icon, baseball player Ty Cobb. While he earned more Hall of Fame votes than Babe Ruth and still holds Major League records, nearly 90 years after retiring, he is not thought of fondly. His story is filled with legends and lies, which has severely damaged his legacy over the decades.
Name-calling and accusations aren't just hurtful in the here and now--they can ruin a life, even after the person is gone. The old Jewish story of the sack full of feathers is a good reminder of that. We live in an inflammatory era, where seemingly anyone can be called greedy, bigoted, homophobic, misogynistic, racist, evil, and other terrible adjectives, particularly if they are in the public eye. It makes us feel good to put people down and to discredit their accomplishments. And this spiteful rhetoric is even more pernicious when such slurs are completely unfounded. So be careful in assuming what you hear is true. Do the proper research, analyze contexts, and be objective in your assessments, whether you are doing a project for class or just learning about baseball. Here's a good summary of Cobb's story:
I'm not thrilled about infringing on private property, but this dude might be my new hero. There's a vigilante stalking the streets of England in the dark of night, correcting poor language skills. He doesn't seem to be too worried about being charged with defacing property. As he says, the real crime is the incorrect grammar in the first place. Cheeky fellow. Here's a quick clip below, but the fascinating full story on BBC Radio can be found here.
There was a great piece on 60 Minutes last night about the worsening problem of cell phone use, especially among young people. Tech companies are programming their devices to be addictive, tapping into our primitive brain structures to keep us checking those screens countless times a day, like slot machines spitting out a randomized reward. This is an important message for young people, so check it out here.
The most important skill a writer can have, and what I spend most of my time teaching in my college classes, is to be clear. After all, the purpose of writing is to communicate; if there is a barrier in communication, then the action becomes too difficult and, eventually, pointless. It is our job as authors to convey our message to our intended audience, ideally an audience as broad as possible. If our readers don't understand us, it is our fault.
Often, particularly with younger writers, the problem with clarity may manifest itself in mechanics--poor grammar, awkward sentence structure, clumsy paragraphs. But at higher levels of scholarship, jargon--arcane concepts and technical language--tends to be the main culprit. In an article on Inside Higher Ed yesterday, new research is showing that science publications are becoming increasingly difficult to read. There are several possible, and understandable, reasons for this, but the main problem with a disconnect between author and reader is that the valuable information that can inspire, inform, and advance humanity may be ignored by the general public--those who may benefit most from such writing.
And it's not just the sciences that have this problem. As a literary theorist, I can assure you that Derrida, Foucault, Spivak, and a host of others are just as guilty of obfuscatory writing. By the way, obfuscatory means purposefully complicated or confusing.
I'm a firm believer in a quote from Albert Einstein: "If you can't explain it to six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself." This may be a slight exaggeration when it comes to scholarly writing, but the point remains. Clarifying our language does not mean that we should talk down to our audience or pretend they are too dumb to grasp complicated ideas. But when only an elite few can understand written material, it demonstrates not an impressive authorial intelligence, but rather a condescension toward others and an ignorance of what writing is actually for. When we write, we should want as many people as possible to participate in that exchange. So whether you are a young student or an experienced scholar, when you are writing, be thorough but brief, informative but simple, detailed but clean. Clarity is the key.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and New York Times author Frank Bruni recently discussed the lack of intellectual diversity on college campuses and the "stunning fragility" of today's students. They say this is reducing wisdom, which is exactly what colleges should try to impart, and further increasing the divide between people, which is exactly not what colleges should inspire. This is a valuable discussion on the state of the modern university and is worth a listen.
We've been hosting the Final Four here in Phoenix, with the National Championship culminating this evening. And this hopefully ends the tourist season here in the desert, because if I have to drive behind another white-haired woman from Minnesota going 15 miles under the speed limit with her blinker on for 12 blocks, I'm going to lose my flippin' mind. Until it happens all over again next winter. But I digress.
With the influx of visitors in town for the tournament, hotel prices have jumped up substantially. Rooms across the city are priced about double their normal rates for this time of year, and those near the University of Phoenix stadium in Glendale are going for more than four times the standard rate. When I was reading about these increases, many internet commenters were furious over perceived "price gouging." We usually only hear that term when prices increase during natural disasters, but it has also come up in recent months with disputes over Uber's price increases on New Year's Eve or during the violence in New York City last fall.
But businesses taking advantage of increased demand are not "gouging" customers; they are, yes, trying to maximize profit, but more importantly, they are signaling the potential for decreasing supply. And this signal is important for other potential suppliers. When prices increase, it's a flashing sign that there is money to be made, which, in turn, entices other providers to join in and seek financial gain. But more importantly, when others emerge to snag some of those dollars, they provide rooms that would have long been sold out had the prices from the existing hotels never increased. After all, four buddies on a basketball-watching road trip might have bought four individual rooms at the cheaper rater. But the higher price helps them change their mind to sharing just one room, which opens up more rooms for other guests. Lower prices would have meant thousands of people coming to town with nowhere to stay. Raising prices forces people who truly want/need a place to stay to buy, while others need to make other arrangements that may be fulfilled by alternative lodging. This leads to more Airbnb and other private vacation rental offerings that wouldn't exist without the increasing prices, which then stabilize the pricing signal.
High prices induce competition, which then eases the prices back down--sometimes not as much as we would like, but that's always going to be the case no matter the price. So don't get upset when prices go up; that's just the market telling you that supplies are running low and you'll need to decide whether the product or service you want is really worth the higher price. And it's also telling everyone else that others may want to get in on the money-making opportunity to satisfy your desires. You may feel "gouged," but paying for a comfortable hotel room sure beats sleeping in your car. And next time you want to attend a major event, don't blame those who are trying to serve you. Without their goal to make money, they wouldn't exist to help you in the first place.
My favorite poet is probably John Donne, who died on this day, March 31, in 1631. I was asked to give a guest lecture in a colleague's class recently, and I enjoyed discussing Donne's incredible intelligence and dynamic use of language to students who aren't very familiar with poetry.
Even if you don't like Donne, he is probably the most interesting person and poet of his time. And while he was a contemporary of Shakespeare, Donne’s poetry is superior to Shakespeare's. Donne’s abandonment of romanticism and classicism created a more intellectual approach to poetry that tackled large themes (like love, death, and God) in new and insightful ways--later referred to as metaphysical poetry.
So how did Donne develop such a unique and complicated sensibility? He watched six of his twelve children die, as well as his wife. He also saw several friends pass away. He was poor for much of his adult life. He was denied several important career opportunities because of institutional discrimination. (Those who claim religious discrimination today would do well to learn about 17th-century England's actual policies against certain forms of faith.) And he faced horrendous illness that nearly cost him his life on several occasions. If anyone had a reason to ever doubt his Christian faith, John Donne would be that guy.
As a student and young adult, Donne was kind of a wild man. He was a bit of a womanizer; he traveled a lot and spent lavishly. And these themes are easily seen in his early poetry, which tend to be rather free-spirited and even blatantly sexual in nature.
Contrast that with the other side of his life. Donne was born into a Roman Catholic family during a period in which Catholicism was illegal in England. Donne practiced law and took an unpaid position as a member of Parliament, eventually taking up poetry as a way to make a little extra money. He eventually left Catholicism for the Anglican church and became an ordained minister. In fact, though his poetry is great, much of it is overshadowed by the power of his sermons and religious essays. Some of his most famous included lines like, "no man is an island," and “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,” which are still referenced in modern literature.
During these two distinct stages of his life, his struggles with his own identity and in facing the enormity of God and salvation are what create a complicated language and themes of his poetry, particularly his Holy Sonnets. Donne's sonnets reveal a man deep in spiritual crisis, due to his rough circumstances, detailing every aspect of faith--God's love and forgiveness contrasted with His wrath and judgment; the paradox of earthly mortality and Heavenly immortality; the violence of damnation absolved through the violence of Christ's suffering. Donne expresses fear, even as a devout believer, of his own salvation and is bold in showing how human it is to question our worthiness of Christ's promise. In Sonnet 14 (my personal favorite) he opens with “Batter my heart, three-personed God.” He wants God to violently save him from his wicked ways and uncertainty in life. Then, he’s much more passive as he asks God in Sonnet 9, "But who am I, that dare dispute with thee?" His spiritual struggle is clear in his poems.
We often only see the product of people's brilliance, and we assume that intelligence and creativity are natural for them and lead to a comfortable life. But Donne's humanity is what I enjoy most about him. He is a man who was honorable and devout, yet he still struggled to understand the vast complexities of life here and beyond. It is his struggle that makes him relatable, even though he lived 400 years ago. If you are ready for a mental challenge from one of history's greatest authors, track down some of John Donne's writings this weekend.
I saw an article today that continues to prove how insane our public university professors have gotten, but it also offers a useful lesson for students.
At Northern Arizona University--one of my alma maters, I'm somewhat embarrassed to say--an English professor deducted a point from an essay when the student used the word ''mankind" instead of a preferred gender-neutral noun, such as humanity, human-kind, or people. The professor claims that "mankind" only represents men and presents linguistic assumptions about the power dynamics of the world that are not accurate or adequately representative of those being discussed. I'm sure Neil Armstrong would be surprised to hear that he should've never uttered those famous words, "...one giant leap for mankind," because he was only referring to men and, therefore, must have been one of America's most famous misogynists. I wonder if the many female astronauts that followed Armstrong's passion for space travel would concur with the NAU professor.
While the professor is correct that our language should always strive to be specific and useful for our audience's understanding, she (the professor is female, by the way) also seems very interested in protecting her own level of authority over language.
In a letter to her class, she begins by saying, "Dear Students," which clearly sets up a power structure by segregating herself as "professor" from everyone else as "students." If she truly believed in equality among people groups and breaking down barriers that signify imbalanced and hegemonic influence, she should have used something like "Dear Fellow Course Inhabitors." At the end of that letter, she furthers her desire to demonstrate authority by adding the ridiculously pompous "President's Distinguish Teaching Fellow" to her signature, a title she proudly uses to further separate herself from not only her students, but all other teachers. The professor then uses the word "we" in many of her points of defense for her class policy on gender-neutral language, but is unclear as to whom "we" refers. In some cases she means those in her class, in others she seems to mean those who are NAU faculty, and in still others she means those affiliated with the Modern Language Association. However, the word "we" is quite complex. After all, I have an affiliation with NAU, am a fellow English professor, and am also a current member of the MLA, and I don't agree with her criticism of the term "mankind." So who exactly is the "we" she is talking about? In psychologist and language expert James Pennebaker's excellent book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, there are five distinct uses for "we." Therefore, one could deduce that the student's use of "mankind," which has only two potential meanings--all men and all people--is actually a more linguistically clear word than the teacher's preference for "we."
What is also intriguing in this scenario is that the student she penalizes happens to be female. Therefore, the young lady who wrote the essay was obviously not offended by "mankind"--she chose it. This creates another power dynamic for the professor to exploit because she places her own female desire for gender neutrality above another female's, implying that the student's female perspective of the world must be incorrect, and the professor's must be correct. Thus, females must not only fight against the institutionalized sexism propagated by men; they must also adhere to a specific female perspective from which no deviation is allowed without reprimand.
Lastly, the professor is clear in telling her students that they must look beyond "preset positions and ideologies" in her course. This assumes, of course, that the professor does not have any preset positions or ideologies herself. Quite a convenient position this professor has created for herself, I must say. She can never be challenged because she has placed herself in a position of power for which no criticism is possible.
But the professor isn't the only one at fault here; let's also hold this student responsible for her actions. The professor, wisely, told the students that she expected gender-neutral language on all writing assignments, even specifically citing "mankind" as a word to be avoided. The consequences of inappropriate language would be a deduction of points on the paper. Therefore, the teacher made her requirements clear, and the student chose to challenge them. The student has every right to do so, and I commend her for doing so. However, she must also take her medicine and accept that she disobeyed a class directive. As foolish as the teacher's rule is, she is in charge of the class, and it is up to students to adhere to those stated guidelines or risk penalty.
So there's something here to learn for everyone involved. Students need to follow the rules of the course. And teachers should avoid making stupid rules for students to follow.
As a writing teacher, as an English speaker, and frankly, as a human being, I have a fair amount of concern about the latest in a long line of methods for ruining language. Have you seen this new commercial?
I'm no historian of linguistics, but it seems like the first human-developed pictographs were in Mesopotamia around 3500 BC. Humans then moved toward an early alphabetic form somewhere around 1200 BC or so. A recognizable form of English (for us today) wasn't common until nearly 1400 AD. So we've only been using our current form of written English for about 600 years. It has obviously gone through numerous revisions, and as with most forms of evolution, increasingly toward a better and more clear iteration.
However, with the prevalence of emojis and now Apple's "Stickers," it appears as if we are beginning to regress toward the language of our ancient ancestors. This seems ironic as Apple constantly (and annoyingly) reminds us how innovative they are and of their desire to push human culture forward. But this smartphone app seems like an enormous leap backward. As someone who reads thousands of pages of text every year written by young people, I can tell you that, despite 600 years of English that has come before them, they struggle with communicating in basic sentences. We are now making it even easier for them to avoid expressing themselves clearly using words--you know, like people. Our most defining characteristic that distinguishes us from other species, our ability to use language, is being reduced to the black mirror equivalent of clumsy indents on clay tablets. Congrats, Apple--you're making our young people as intelligent as cave dwellers.
Earlier this week, the funny folks at Cracked tore apart some of the most beloved sitcoms of my youth...using math. Why is Friends so bad with pregnancies? What would Norm's bar tab at Cheers really be? Take a look at their insanely thorough deconstruction, and have a great weekend.
For those who reside in the Phoenix area, an intellectual opportunity will be available on the campus of Arizona State University this evening from 6:30 to 10:00--TEDxASU. The theme this year is "Innovation Worth Sharing," but as with all TED events, speakers will discuss how creativity and technology influence art, education, science, and larger social environments.
Both students and faculty will share their ideas on a variety of emergent discoveries and methods for affecting our communities and the world beyond: "At Wednesday night’s event, topics to be discussed include autonomous decision-making systems; Arctic ice preservation and carbon dioxide emission; the future of multidisciplinary education; the next revolution in physics through biology; and the future of space exploration."
Learn more about the event here.
While I was disappointed to go a dismal 12-13-1 in my NCAA point spread predictions this weekend, I learned about a pretty cool new development in the field English. A Boston College literature class is integrating technology with literature by developing a virtual reality game based on James Joyce's masterpiece, Ulysses.
The class has figured out a way to make the reader more of a participant in the famous novel based on a day's journey through Dublin. The game is not set up to earn points or defeat antagonists, but rather to explore the city and visualize what Leopold Bloom, the book's main character, experiences during his travels to certain locations in town. The professor of the course gives the credit to his ambitious students, who have built the project themselves using their various skills and backgrounds in different majors. This sounds like a cool new way for students to learn to love literature, and I look forward to the similar technological advancements soon.
Read more about the VR Ulysses project here.
I'm constantly trying to tell my students why proper grammar matters, and we spend extra time discussing one of those tiniest and, to my students, seemingly inconsequential marks in our language, the comma. An article in yesterday's New York Times reminds us why a comma could cost you millions.
In the field of English, we use the MLA style guide, which employs the Oxford comma (or the serial comma). This is the comma that connects with the conjunction that precedes the final item in a series. Some formats do not use this comma, such as the AP style that newspaper writers use. However, a recent court case has proven that this puny punctuation can be a very big deal. One company will be paying its employees millions of dollars more than they had planned because of a missing comma in its contracts.
Commas help provide clarity, and I believe the MLA style is correct. Here's why:
When making a list, you need to clearly distinguish the elements in that series. When listing your heroes and referring to them individually, the Oxford comma becomes especially useful. The above image, which omits the Oxford, seems to sound as if Superman and Wonder Woman are the names of your parents, rather than just names of people you find heroic. Very confusing. When you are writing papers, you should follow the rules of your teachers. But if any of them tell you that you shouldn't use the Oxford comma, remind them of this cartoon, and share with them the article link from the Times. That comma is valuable in more ways than one.
Tomorrow starts my favorite four days of the year--the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. (While play actually began Tuesday night, we traditionalists don't really count these preliminary games.) Today's post won't have anything to do with English, but there will be a fair amount of math involved, so if you need to do some brain calisthenics before making your predictions, this is the time to do it. When it comes to sports, I'm a bit of a statistics nerd, which was heightened for me by Michael Lewis's great book, Moneyball, and I've adapted some of those theories to other sports. Since I was a college basketball player and coach in a former life, that's where my most of my interest lies. To be able to make consistent predictions requires a decent amount of mathematical and logical skill, and I've been pretty successful over the last few years. I make my guesses based not on winning/losing, but on point spreads because it makes the games WAY more entertaining to watch. After all, North Carolina blowing out Texas Southern by 27 points is not a fun game to watch. Wondering if they will will by more or less than 27 points keeps your interest until the final buzzer. My accuracy against the Vegas point spread is around 62%--anything in the 58-60% range is considered excellent. I won't divulge my secrets, but I will offer what I think are the best mathematical options for the first two days of the tournament. My picks are in bold, and my numbers (for fairness) are based on Wednesday morning's lines rather than the opening lines. Any games not listed were too close to make a valuable prediction. Get your pencils ready!
Villanova vs. Mt. St. Mary's (+26.5)
Wisconsin vs. Virginia Tech (+5.5)
Baylor vs. New Mexico St. (+12.5)
South Carolina vs. Marquette (+1.5)
Duke vs. Troy (+19)
Gonzaga (-22.5) vs. South Dakota St.
West Virginia vs. Bucknell (+14)
Maryland vs. Xavier (+2)
Arizona vs. North Dakota (+16.5)
Miami vs. Michigan St. (+2.5)
Oregon vs. Iona (+15)
Michigan vs. Oklahoma St. (+2.5)
Louisville vs. Jacksonville St. (+20)
North Carolina vs. Texas Southern (+27)
East Tennessee vs. Minnesota (+1)
UCLA vs. Kent St. (+18)
Wichita St. (-6) vs. Dayton
Remember that these are not win/loss predictions, but rather predictions against the spread (estimated point differential). The tendency is for the public to overestimate favorites. In reality, tournament games are, on average, closer than one would expect, so picking underdogs is usually a good strategy against the spread. I doubt many of these underdog teams, those with a + number, will actually win, but I do think they will keep the games relatively close. Again, games not listed here are because my numbers are just too narrow to decide on a prediction. These are all based on mathematical equations, not emotions or allegiances or particular teams I'm rooting for, so we'll have to see if my streak of moderate scientific success will continue.
On to the games!
Writing is a representation of how you think. If you can't write in a coherent fashion, you probably don't think straight either. This clip is from one of North America's most famous professors at the moment, and even though he's a psychologist, this is great advice for those of us who work in the English field. This is at the end of one of his recent lectures, and a student is asking him about how to improve critical thinking. Take a listen...
There was a lot of political activism this week, and some of it spilled over to schools across America. There were classes cancelled in some places because women went on strike to demonstrate their importance. I was curious about this, so I reached out to a successful businesswoman for her take. This was our short email exchange:
This week there was a “Day Without Women” demonstration. Did you know about it? I heard the goal was for women to 1) take the day off from paid and unpaid labor, 2) avoid shopping for the day, and 3) wear red in solidarity with women. Did you have any interest in taking part in any of those things?
No, to both questions. It’s the middle of the week, and work doesn’t just stop because I want to take a day off to protest. No one else does my job, so it won’t get done if I’m not there. It’s not a holiday, so if we are talking about equality, then I should be working just like everyone else...so we are equal.
Equality seems to be a main point of discussion among these types of protests. Are there any rights that men have that you feel like women don’t have? What do you think these protestors are looking for when they demonstrate for “equality”?
I don’t feel like there are any rights men have that women don’t, but I can’t speak for all women. I think they are just arguing to be a voice that’s heard and for respect but not really for equality. Doing equal things makes you equal. Just asking to be equal doesn’t make it so.
You mentioned how important your role at your job is. I read one of the organizers saying that the protest “is just as much about women not being present as being present and visible. It’s about showing what society looks like when women don’t actively participate in it.” Following that line of thinking, wouldn’t it have been a valuable lesson for your company if you skipped work as a way of showing how vital you are?
I think my employer knows how vital I am, and that is why they hired me in the first place. I’ve spent years obtaining skills, innovating, and making myself valuable in my field, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be replaced. I need to continue to show up and show my value so that my employer continues to think I am valuable. Feeling like I need to “take a stand” by being gone just opens the door for someone else to show up and do my job better. I don’t think anyone is arguing that the world would be a better place without women, so what exactly are we trying to prove by not being present in the marketplace?
As you know, I work with college-aged people every day, and they are a population that tends to get enamored by activism like this. Do you think the “Day Without Women” demonstrations are a good cause for young women to support?
I am all for women’s rights and for young people getting involved in causes they find important. People should defend whatever they want. But don’t join a cause just because you want to be part of a crowd.
Is there a better way than striking to show the importance of women’s roles in our society?
Be better. That’s how you show equality. By not showing up, that seems like a passive-aggressive way to make your point. Prove yourself valuable by doing your job to the best of your ability. And if you feel like other people aren’t recognizing your value, do more to make yourself even more valuable, or move and change your circumstance to where people do recognize you. Don’t rely on others to determine your value. Always be marketing your own value.
Sounds like that is good advice for either gender, right?
I would certainly think so.
I read an article the other day about how millennials are searching for a key component to their working life: impact. They want to feel their job matters, that they and their company are making a difference in the world. While I think this is mostly common sense--after all, why would anyone do any activity if they didn't think there was some practical or even metaphysical level of meaning behind it?--I think this can lead young people down a dangerous path. Young people, for a while at least, shouldn't be concerned with "making an impact" on the world; they should allow the world to impact them.
We hear a lot these days about privilege for certain groups, but I can think of nothing more privileged than being able to say, "I only want to take a job where I am making an impact on the world." I'd be willing to bet farmers who toiled in the sandstorms of 1930s didn't get out of bed each day thinking, "I'm going to hoe my field with my donkey because I feel like I'm impacting the world." There's no way early 20th century coal miners in Kentucky or factory workers in Michigan headed to work optimistic about their influence on humanity and their grand purpose in life. They went to their jobs because that's what people do to support themselves and their families. And our country succeeded because of those back-breaking and emotionally unfulfilling efforts. Try telling one of your grandparents that you are holding out for a job that makes you feel special inside and see what kind of look they give you.
We all want careers that offer us more than a paycheck. In fact, research shows us that money is not a primary motivator. Your purpose is extremely important--we know that. But at age 22, that can't be your only aim. Your aim should first be self-sufficiency. Live on your own, pay your own bills, and don't accept any government assistance. That is step number one. Once you can cover those bases, you are ready to pursue higher goals of job satisfaction and emotional fulfillment. Ideally, we should all find work that makes us happy and feels worthwhile, that we are truly doing something important. But we also need people to empty trashcans and mow lawns and serve sandwiches. These jobs are very important, though they may feel, in the moment, less impactful. Do not ignore opportunities for self-reliance simply because they may not, at a particular moment in time, satisfy your lifelong dreams. I've had plenty of jobs that were pure drudgery. And each one I did to the best of my ability during that time, while I also continued to look for more meaningful paths to pursue. To the surprise of many, these two types of work can co-exist at necessary times. And there's no way to learn about what really matters unless you've tried a variety of other experiences.
Let the world work on you for a while. Don't expect your dream job that satisfies your passion to fall in your lap at age 22. There is actually plenty of evidence demonstrating that "pursuing your passion," a similarly harmful twin to "making an impact," is exactly the wrong way to go about finding work fulfillment. (See Cal Newport's great book, So Good They Can't Ignore You, for more on this.) Yes, by the time you are in your 30s or 40s, you should probably be in a field that is personally important to you and allows for some self-actualization of your life purpose as a worker. But don't let your 20s go by waiting around for it to find you. You may need to have a decade-worth of mindless inanity keeping yourself afloat, and there's nothing wrong with that if you allow yourself to gain valuable life lessons along the way. Learning to be on time, to be accountable to bosses, to work with difficult to colleagues, to solve problems--these may not be sexy, but they are incredibly useful skills that can only be acquired by actually working in any job, not just ones that satisfy you. And it is only when you have these skills that someone in your dream career will ultimately be willing to hire you.
Only picking jobs where you think you are "making an impact" will most likely turn you lazy, picky, and unreliable. No one will want to work with you because they will see that you aren't committed to anything but yourself, and that you'll soon ditch them to find something more fulfilling. Embrace every opportunity in which the world can impact you. And then you can impact it, in return, when you are more ready for that type of responsibility.
I went to a great show over the weekend at the Mesa Amphitheater, where the Phoenix Symphony performed the hits of, in my opinion, history's greatest rock band, Led Zeppelin. There are few better ways to spend a Saturday night than listening to awesome music under the stars on a 70-degree winter evening in the desert.
The orchestra accompanied lead singer Randy Jackson, a bassist, guitarist, and drummer, mirroring the four-man setup of Zeppelin's original Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, and John Bonham. Performing popular classics, such as "Black Dog," "Whole Lotta Love," and "Ramble On" along with lesser known songs, such as the quiet ballad "I'm Gonna Crawl" and the bluesy "Since I've Been Loving You," the musicians exhibited the disparate rock sounds that made Led Zeppelin so influential back in the 1970s. The acoustic classic "Going to California" and the instrumental tribute to Bonham's unsurpassed talent on drums, "Moby Dick," built to a crescendo with the iconic "Stairway to Heaven" closing out the show. For fans of Zeppelin, like myself, the symphonic accompaniment heightened the fluid melodies and pulsating bass notes on beloved songs, and for those less familiar with the band, the concert provided a nice sampling for appreciation.
Though the band didn't cover perhaps my favorite Zeppelin song, "Tangerine," there were a few particular high points. "All of My Love" and "Kashmir" were the two songs that most showed off the band's defining blend of rock and classical sounds and have the most recognizable orchestral components in the Zeppelin catalog.
Jackson's vocals were strong throughout the show, offering a serviceable reflection of Plant's unmistakable range and squealing falsetto. But one of the great performances of the night was guest violinist Renee Izzi, who stood out front on many songs, but she truly shined in the solo of "All of My Love" (clip below) and matched the ferocious guitar licks on "Stairway to Heaven" note for soaring note. Standing next to grizzled rockers, it was the pretty and petite violinist who rocked as hard as any of them.
A great time was had by all, and the show was an excellent reminder that an appreciation for classical music can show up in a variety of ways. Taking young people to such events can be an ideal way of introducing the best of what music can offer, showing how even a clarinet player can become a rock star on certain nights. The Phoenix Symphony will be producing similar shows in the coming months, with tributes to the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney later this spring. Support your local musicians and take in a concert if you live in the Phoenix area.
The University of Washington at Tacoma caused a stir last week, which I've been stewing on since. The school's writing center released a statement that claimed English grammar as "racist," that because language is constantly changing, there can be no standardizing and thus no enforcement of "proper" usage. Such proclamations continue to confirm my belief that parents should avoid public universities at all costs.
Let's consider the implications of such stupidity. While it goes without saying that English is an ever-evolving construct of linguistic tools, this does not exclude the reality that there are basic structures that allow us to communicate with one another with efficiency and accuracy. To consider such patterns as racially determined ignores what language actually is: a method for taking action in the world.
We don't use "thee" or "thou" anymore, and we invent words like "vlog" and "selfie" in order to more clearly participate in social engagement, to narrow our focus of meaning and to minimize potential confusion. The same goes for grammatical structures. We follow a few basic rules, which are always arrived at through market forces rather than a particular authority, organically rather than legally. And we have these rules so that we all know we are all playing the same game.
I often use this game metaphor in my classes. Imagine if a group of friends gets together to play basketball and one team thinks a basket is worth two points, but the other deems a basket worth five points. Imagine if one team doesn't know what "traveling" or "double-dribbling" means. Those teams cannot play the game. They may attempt to play something, but it will no longer be basketball. As stipulated, rules do change over time, but almost always toward improvement for the success of the game. Dunking didn't used to be allowed--thank goodness everyone agree that rule needed to be changed.
So it is with English. We place our subjects, verbs, and modifiers in certain locations within the sentence in order to convey a message efficiently and accurately. We employ commas and semi-colons for the same reason. Grammar has rules, irrespective of how they came about or who propagated them, because if it didn't, our world would be so difficult to navigate, relationships so difficult to form, that life would become worse for all of us, regardless of what social group we tend to inhabit.
By this university's logic of grammar as racist, we must then also consider other languages racist; after all, every nation or cultural group has a predominant language. Therefore, if I, as an English-speaking American, travel to Mexico, I can claim that Spanish is a racist language because it does not conform to my personal comfort. Mexicans would not have the right to correct me when I made an error. The same would be true with those speaking/writing Farsi in Iran, Swahili in Africa, Urdu in Pakistan, or Chinese or Japanese in the Far East, or any other language with any other ethnicity. I could always claim that the people who speak it are simply reifying their own hegemony and excluding all Others who attempt to adopt or alter such languages. Good luck trying to form friendships, operate with basic cultural norms, assimilate into a new group or location, or even engage in respectful dialogue with such a perspective of language. When you view language as a consistent force of oppression, rather than the social tool it is, why would anyone ever attempt to communicate with one another?
We could also explore this concept in other subject areas. Since Euclid, Newton, and Einstein were all white guys, UWT would have us believe their mathematical principles must have been shaped by their race and place in their respective dominant cultures. After finally seeing the excellent movie Hidden Figures last week, something is now dawning on me: those poor African American ladies at NASA should have just refused to operate by the guidelines of those scientific forefathers. They could've simply invented a "Black Math" or a "Female Math" or a "Virginian Math" or any other subset with which they felt more comfortable. The formula that saved the day in the film, from Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (another horrible white guy we must assume), should have been ignored in favor of geometrical functions that weren't written by meanies. I'm sure John Glenn would've been a bit more hesitant hopping on that rocket.
When we diminish the value of grammar, we endorse a more confusing and more segregated culture. Language brings people together, but UWT seems to prefer boundaries between people. Instead of participating in a common linguistic culture in which we can all pursue our own goals, choosing to disregard the most important method for such a pursuit is in opposition of what a college education is supposed to be.
Dr. Spivey is a college English professor and lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.