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.
Over my many years as a college professor, one thing I can count on like the sun rising in the east is that students want to feel important and righteous regarding social issues. But it turns out that the moral outrage people exhibit is likely to signify more about themselves than the issues they say they embrace. A new article in the psychology journal Motivation and Emotion indicates that moral outrage is directly linked to personal feelings of guilt and a protection against being viewed as a harmful person. In other words, your public display of selflessness is probably a facade for selfishness.
Here's an example I deal with every year. A student wants to write a paper about how much he or she wants to help the homeless. A worthy goal, if insanely complex, I suppose. So I often ask the student, "So you care about helping homeless people, do you?" They enthusiastically answer yes. I then reply, "Have you invited a homeless person to live in your home with you?" They always answer with a befuddled no. I then ask, "Have you emptied your bank account and handed that check to a homeless person?" Now, a more frustrated no. I finish with, "Are you willing to drop out of this comfortable college and be that homeless man's personal job hunter, clothier, and food provider so he can get on his feet?" No. That usually leads me to ask, "So how much do you actually care about homeless people if you haven't attempted to give them any of the life-altering things they need most?" The student usually huffs away, considering a topic change, and the point has been made.
Many people today only demonstrate their activism to look like a good person to others and/or to mollify their own guilt regarding their participation in the problem. The article provides several interesting conclusions from an extensive research study that held constant across political ideology and personal background. We all want to be viewed as moral, especially among our particular in-groups. And anything that threatens that status increases the level of anger exhibited for certain topics, particularly social ones.
Next time a student in your class poses as a warrior for a cause, ask him if he really believes what he is saying, if he has actually sacrificed something in his own life for his stance, and if he would change his entire life to fix the problem. When he looks at you with glazed eyes, tell him to check out this psychology article and pay close attention to who he's actually trying to make feel better, the homeless guy or himself.
Last night at the Oscars, we learned that some actors are so stupid that they will, like Ron Burgundy, read absolutely anything placed in front of them—even if it’s completely incorrect. Congratulations, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, you are the most overpaid robot parrots in the world.
But we also saw, as expected, politics brought to the forefront, perhaps as a way to gloss over the fact that there have been very few quality films made in the last few years. At any rate, from presenters and winners, there was lots of talk about how much love there was in the room and how we need to make more stories that inspire hope and empathy. But when you look at some of what the Academy members were saying about each other, hiding behind anonymity, one has to wonder how much political open-mindedness they really want.
The following quotes aren’t from President Trump, calling Meryl Streep overrated or yelling at the media (ugh, again). These, from interviews with the Hollywood Reporter, are from the very people who claim that Americans are too mean too each other, don’t respect each other’s views or lifestyles, and are promoting hatred and violence everywhere. These are from the angels that claim to be the voice of reason and present the power of artistry. But they sound more like snippy junior high students, back-biting on the playground.
There was religion-bashing...against Christians: One member said, “Silence had beautiful photography, but I hated that movie so much, with all the Christian stuff beating me over the head.” Another said, Martin Scorsese “has got to get over his Catholic guilt.” One wonders if such views would’ve been expressed about another particular religion.
There were ad hominems against specific people: One member said that Mel Gibson is a vile person (despite his repeated penance), and that she has a problem with “Nicole Kidman...because she opened her mouth politically and pissed me off. Her husband [Keith Urban] is a right-wing country music guy and so is his audience, she basically said, ‘Get over it, he [Donald Trump] is president and we have to work with him.’ I don't like to hear the words ‘Get over it’." Strange, that’s kind of what Barack Obama said after the election.
There were questionable implications about objectification and violence toward women: One actor said, “As a heterosexual male, it's hard not to vote for Harley Quinn [the character played by Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad].” Another member added, “Isabelle Huppert [from Elle] is an ice-cold actress, and... I wanted to slap her to try to get a reaction out of her.” Apparently the NFL isn’t the only group having problems with women.
Another said that [Lion's] Dev Patel “really seems like he's needy as an actor and just wants you to like him, but he shouldn't be that needy — he's grown up to be a really handsome, sexy dude, with this mid-range brown color, so everyone loves him.” A “mid-range brown color”? I haven’t heard such a weird reference to someone’s race since Joe Biden called Barack Obama “clean.”
Another member made a comment that didn’t even make sense: “I did not see Hacksaw Ridge because I heard it was very bloody and, living in the era of Trump, I felt like there's enough violence in the world.” The era of Trump? You mean the previous 30 days in which literally nothing has happened? And yeah, the film is bloody because it’s about WWII, and war is, you know, bloody. Meanwhile, the film is about non-violence! I’ll never cease to be amazed at the heights of stupidity to which Hollywood ascends.
Think the trend in transgender politics is only something backward folks from the South are uncomfortable with? One member said, “I'm terrified that next year we'll have a documentary about transgender bathrooms, which is not something I think we should be paying attention to compared to other things. It's a joke.”
Several members, regarding Best Documentary winner O.J.: Made in America, said they didn’t need a movie about O.J. Simpson because we already went through it. This must mean those civil rights movies of the last few years are pointless since, you know, we already know everything about that stuff.
Many of the members admitted to not even seeing the movies upon which they were voting. Must be a hard life when your entire job as part of the film business is to watch movies and you just can’t bring yourself to getting around to doing it.
This is Hollywood. These are the people telling you whom to vote for. These are the people donating hundreds of millions of dollars to political candidates and causes. These are the people telling you what morals to live by. These are the people carrying the torch for artistic principles and human expression.
And these are also the people who are quick to look down on others who are not like them, who make different choices in life, who think for themselves and want to be left alone. And they hand each other trophies while doing it. With people so disconnected from their own words and the rest of America, the term “La-La Land” certainly fits this year.
A few nights ago, Jimmy Fallon played Egg Russian Roulette with Neil Patrick Harris. While there's nothing about English going on here, it is quite humorous, and back when I taught little ones many years ago, I definitely would have used this to teach probability and fractions. Just a math teaching idea for someone out there. Enjoy!
This week would have been the 122nd birthday of one of my favorite authors. George Schuyler was a journalist, novelist, and social commentator in the 1930s, dissecting the Harlem Renaissance and other spheres of African American life. A Harvard-educated and quick-witted satirist, Schuyler's most famous work, Black No More, is, sadly, actually not that famous at all. The novel is about the complexities of racial identification in Harlem, when acting and appearing more "white" was en vogue, yet the desire to maintain traditional black roots remained. Schuyler takes identity politics to their ridiculous extremes in Black No More, as the premise involves an important social question: what would happen to the race problem in America if black people turned white?
Part sci-fi and part cultural critique, the novel presents a new invention that can turn black skin white, allowing African Americans to blend into the majority and seemingly avoid discrimination and persecution. However, as more people purchase the power to change their skin color, suddenly whiteness seems boring and unattractive. Being like everyone else isn't all it's cracked up to be. And the novel's white characters, in a brilliant twist of narrative irony, once they learn of blacks lightening their skin, begin to devise methods for darkening theirs. When everyone is obsessed with race, segregation continues to prevail, no matter what side of the color line one started from. With hilarious scenes that skewer both white supremacists and black activists, it is one of the smartest and funniest analyses of the human condition you will read. And it reaffirms the value of individuals, of people embracing whatever color they are, and of working harder toward getting along with others rather than focusing on what divides us.
This is a great book for anyone high school-aged and up that should be on every African American Literature syllabus in today's universities. And it's by an author who deserves more recognition as one of the leading black voices of the early twentieth century.
Over the weekend, The Christian Science Monitor published an article by Arizona State University president Michael Crow. The piece extols the virtues of international students and the return on investment they have brought not only for themselves, but for their respective institutions and for the nation at large. Crow makes some strong points regarding the impact international students have on our universities, and how engaging in more communication and academic innovation with people from other countries can lead to increased peace and prosperity around the globe.
I could not agree more. America should be a beacon for all who wish to immigrate or visit legally and study at our finest schools. The sharing of intelligence and culture that universities can manifest has long-term social and economic benefits that cannot be ignored.
Unfortunately, while Crow’s sentiments are worthy, his arguments are rhetorically flawed. His first mistake is in his construction of a straw-man argument. Crow presents his position as a proponent of expanding the numbers of international students. But he uses President Trump’s travel ban (on those from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and Libya) as a prop for potential prohibition on all international students. The title of Crow’s article is “Why We Need International Students.” However, Crow never mentions who has stated otherwise. Literally no one—not Trump or any government official, not any prominent media personality, and certainly not anyone in elite academia—has said that America should stop international students from attending American universities. Crow is offering an argument for which there is no opposition. (And if there is, it is so far on the fringe as it is unworthy of serious consideration.) Rather than debating the merits of the specific controversy at hand, Trump’s travel ban, Crow chooses to bypass that dispute and leap to a topic with which he feels more comfortable, or righteous, that of students on college campuses. Conflating these issues without recognizing the distinction signals a lack of argumentative rigor.
Crow exacerbates the rhetorical problem he has set up by then offering success stories of international students at American universities. He relates the specific stories of Elon Musk (South Africa), Sergey Brin (Russia), Pierre Omidyar (France), and Ngoni Mugwisi (Zimbabwe), and he offers compelling statistics on the high numbers of immigrant students from China, India, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea. There’s just one problem with his examples if you look closely: none of these are on President Trump’s seven banned countries list.
Crow seems to only focus on the greatest representations of international student success, while somehow not mentioning some of the potential and very real dangers of immigration policy. Here are just a few reminders:
The student shooter in Munich last summer was Iranian. Several other attacks in Germany during the same period were by Syrian refugees.
The attacks in Nice and Brussels were by people with ties to Iraq and Syria.
The attackers in Normandy had travel connections to Syria.
The attackers on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, though French nationals, had strong ties to Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
The student attacker at Ohio State University was an immigrant from Somalia.
What Crow is doing is casually called the cherry-picking fallacy, where the arguer chooses to focus on specific examples that prove his particular point while ignoring evidence that may challenge it. This is common to my students when they only look at topics from one side, citing only evidence they agree with, and choose to neglect more thorough research.
A final rhetorical problem emerges as Crow’s ethos is also at stake when offering his perspectives on borders, diversity, and accessibility for all. Crow lives in a home worth several million dollars in one of the wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods in the entire country, Paradise Valley—sort of the Beverly Hills of the Phoenix metro area. To heighten the irony, Crow’s home is protected by a security gate and, get this, a wall. A rather Trump-ian image, you might say. This is not an ad hominem against Crow—he certainly has the right to live where and how he wants, and I would love to be able to afford his cushy digs. But his position is a bit like someone espousing academic integrity on campus, and then plagiarizing in their personal research once they got to their home office. One cannot help but notice the hint of hypocrisy in promoting unvetted openness for others as long as his own family and property are safe behind gates and walls.
It’s unfortunate to see when respected university officials make similar mistakes as undergraduates in a basic composition course. Making arguments can be a tricky thing when we are so beholden to the side of angels that we build false opposition, ignore researchable facts, and hinder our own credibility. These are all habits I am trying to break in my students, regardless of the topics they are writing about or their particular predilections.
If Crow were a student in my class, whose essay I was reviewing, I would recommend emphasizing the positive economic impact international students from those seven countries have on America. I would like to see those population numbers and those dollar amounts. Don’t get sidetracked by other countries or other success stories—stick to the topic. I could even use some anecdotes to pique my interest and to elevate the humanity of the piece. Prove to us that banning people from those specific seven countries is bad for our universities, and any future banning related to other countries would have similar dire results. I would also like to see some recognition of the other side of this debate, that real problems do exist with nonchalant immigration policies, violence or other forms of conflict are possible, and there is more to this complex issue than meets the eye. “It’s never as simple as you think,” is something I find myself constantly telling students. And I would conclude with what I often write on my students’ papers: “These comments are not based on your position; they are based on the way your position is written.”
Just to reiterate my earlier point, I actually agree with Crow’s sentiments. I believe Trump’s new policies will ultimately be untenable politically and practically. This country is too dedicated to the pursuit of opportunity and freedom to keep doors closed for long. And I have enjoyed every international student I’ve had in my many courses over a decade as a college professor. I respect their tenacity in arriving on our shores, adapting to our language, and learning new skills that may change their lives and the world around them. I hope our universities continue to be filled with the best of what the world has to offer, no matter their country of origin. I just wish Crow’s arguments were backed by a little more Aristotle and a little less ideology.
When I teach literary criticism, particularly branches that deal with cultural representation, I often show the hit Disney film from 1992, Aladdin. The movie does an excellently terrible job of portraying class and ethnicity, as many children's films do, so I'm able to introduce to my students complex literary theories in a simplified way.
The latest video from Earthling Cinema on YouTube's Wisecrack channel takes apart Aladdin in a humorous and insightful way, touching on many of those problematic social topics as well as other silly stuff. It's worth a look as you head into the long weekend. Beware of a bit of adult language. Enjoy!
Last year at this time, I posted a piece about one of my favorite works in all of American Literature, Narrative of the Life... by Frederick Douglass. In honor of Douglass's declared birthday (he never knew his because of being born into slavery, so he chose mid-February for himself), there's another important piece of his that I encourage everyone to read. "Self-Made Men" is a speech Douglass first delivered in 1859 (then published several years later), and it is one of the most honest and inspiring collections of words ever put on paper.
And much of it would be considered offensive on today's college campuses.
That's right--the icon of abolition and one of the most important African-Americans in history would be criticized for insensitivity, for not being "black enough," for not understanding the plight of an oppressed people, and likely charged with racism toward African-Americans. That is the very definition of irony.
So why is he so controversial?
Quite simply, Douglass valued hard work and morality. In "Self-Made Men" Douglass describes the connection between the two and the formula for success. He says,
"I am certain that there is nothing good, great or desirable which man can possess in this world, that does not come by some kind of labor of physical or mental, moral or spiritual. A man, at times, gets something for nothing, but it will, in his hands, amount to nothing. What is true in the world of matter, is equally true in the world of the mind. Without culture there can be no growth; without exertion, no acquisition; without friction, no polish; without labor, no knowledge; without action, no progress and without conflict, no victory. A man that lies down a fool at night, hoping that he will waken wise in the morning, will rise up in the morning as he laid down in the evening."
Douglass further drives this point him a few paragraphs later:
"From these remarks it will be evident that, allowing only ordinary ability and opportunity, we may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!! Not transient and fitful effort, but patient, enduring, honest, unremitting and indefatigable work into which the whole heart is put, and which, in both temporal and spiritual affairs, is the true miracle worker. Everyone may avail himself of this marvelous power, if he will. There is no royal road to perfection. Certainly no one must wait for some kind of friend to put a springing board under his feet, upon which he may easily bound from the first round of their ladder onward and upward to its highest round. If he waits for this, he may wait long, and perhaps forever. He who does not think himself worth saving from poverty and ignorance by his own efforts, will hardly be thought worth the efforts of anybody else."
Douglass believed in opportunity, but not hand-outs. He believed in everyone having access to schools and churches, courts and places of employment. And that is exactly what has happened over the course of our history. Every citizen in this country as access to everything described in the Constitution. And this is a very good thing. But Douglass also says that once people have been given a chance to live their life, if they fail, that is their own fault. They are not allowed to blame the world for their problems. Americans are only to take up the pursuit of their own success, not to criticize the success of others.
At many public universities such speak about personal responsibility, perseverance, good choices, and hard work is forbidden. Today's linguistic police would charge a teacher who tells a student to "put forth more effort" with a microaggression. Praising someone for their moral decisions would be akin to hate speech because it implies that other choices are immoral, and that is something the relativistic ideology of today's campuses cannot abide. Saying that someone deserves to fail because of laziness, poor quality work, or even indecipherable grammar would be cause for a visit to the student services office for a lecture on tolerance from someone with a bachelor's degree in art history.
Douglass didn't mess around when it came to honesty, and that's why I love him. He recognized the flaws in our history and called people on them when he needed to. But he also saw the amazing potential of America, and the unparalleled opportunity available for its citizens, if only they would reach out and grab it. If you are too delicate to hear truth about what it takes to succeed in this world, you may want to avoid reading the speech. But if you could use a dose of inspiration this week, give it a thorough look, and start getting to work today. And if anyone gives you a hard time for believing in responsibility and individualism, just know you're good company since Frederick Douglass would be on your side.
I'm not a big sci-fi fan, but one show that I really enjoyed last year was AMC's Humans. It tackles a seemingly ubiquitous idea right now, that of technology evolving to a point of becoming human. If we can design machines to assist with labor and other undesirable tasks, will there ever be a time in which machines could satisfy our emotional, physical, and interpersonal needs as well? Could they learn to be like us, as self-aware and self-directed beings? Humans, at least in season one, seemed to approach these questions on a much more, well human, level compared to other sci-fi shows of late, such as Almost Human from a few years ago or Westworld currently on HBO. Yes, there are a variety of social commentaries comprising these shows, but Humans seems to get to the truth of this quickly approaching future in a way that feels personal and powerfully touching. The show aired in Britian in the fall, but it starts back up here in America tonight. Hope this season is as good as I've been wanting it to be. Here's a teaser of what's to come...
As I noted last week, I had been rereading Hamlet and leading some classes on the play. As serendipity would have it, a great conversation on Shakespeare's most famous creation was just posted a few days ago that I think is quite informative and useful for students and teachers alike. Take a look...
This advertisement came across my desk this week:
If you look closely, you'll see that this is a forum to address the "ire of those unhappy that these films (the latest in the Star Wars franchise) feature women and people of color." As a film reviewer and reader of a variety of film reviews, both mainstream and alternative, this surprised me. Yes, there was commentary on the increased diversity the films showed, and yes, some of it might have addressed the fact that diversity was an almost-too-obvious intent of the film. However, I don't remember reading anywhere, at least among recognizable film critics, that people were "unhappy" with such diversity.
A quick look at Rotten Tomatoes shows that each of the two newest films scores over 88%, which means they are considered quality films by a substantial portion of the population. As a comparison, they both score slightly higher than Hacksaw Ridge, which is nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards later this month. While there is, of course, criticism on the merits of their artistic production, it seems that none of it has been directed at the franchise's evolution in diversity of characters.
So, whose "ire" exactly is ASU referring to here? My guess is that somewhere on the blogosphere, there is a fringe few of Star Wars nerds who are a little too precious about their fandom, or there is an equally fringe-y few who just want to stir up trouble by trolling social justice warriors. There is in no way, from what I can tell, anyone who is involved in mainstream film that is critical of the racial make-up of the new Star Wars films. In fact, this aspect of the films has been one of their strongest points of praise.
But this is what public universities have increasingly become. By taking a microscopic example of criticism from a disreputable few and declaring it as representative of the broader culture, they have trained the youth of our nation to be oh-so-sensitive straw-men builders, constantly on the lookout for anyone with a hint of harmful perspective that they can elevate to a high enough level that they can serve cookies and punch at an event and then knock down in a comforting forum of tolerance.
There are certainly social issues that would be well served to be analyzed and opened up for discussion on college campuses. In fact, to a certain degree, that is a school's fundamental function. But Star Wars just isn't the cause to take up. So, take it easy, college kids (and administrators) looking to stir up controversy where there isn't any. As long as we aren't talking about Jar Jar Binks, no one has a problem with Star Wars.
I routinely try to show that the divide between sports and academics is not a wide one, and a certain star from last night's amazing Super Bowl proves just that. New England Patriots wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who had an excellent game, is more than just a great target for Tom Brady. He has made himself into quite the literary star as well. Take a look at this great piece from yesterday's CBS Sunday Morning. And remember, whenever a group of old ladies asks you to be part of book club, you should do it.
I can't be in class longer than five minutes without a student talking about how much they are spending on their college education. But there are many reasons why we have gotten to where we are, with government intrusion into the marketplace, the development of college as a "right," the profligate spending of students and banks alike, and many others. And as the situation doesn't seem to be abating anytime soon, we may be headed for a crash similar to what occurred with housing back in 2007-08.
But there have been a variety of solutions kicked around, and along with them, of course, a variety of rebuttals to those solutions. A useful analysis of this topic from an economics standpoint was posted today over at the Mises Institute website. It offers some interesting thoughts on how we got into this mess and where we might be headed. Take a look, and have a nice Super Bowl weekend.
University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson has become quite a popular figure these days. He reaches millions with his YouTube lectures, and is a fierce advocate for free speech and seeking historical and moral truth. I've been working my way through his courses in my free time over the last few weeks--his Maps and Meaning class has taught me a lot already. This week, in his Personality Theory course, he is exploring the work of Carl Jung by demonstrating his archetypal framework through a close reading of the classic Disney film, The Lion King. Very few literary scholars do psychological criticism correctly (as their knowledge tends to stop at superficial, sex-obsessed Freudian lingo), so it's great to see an actual psychologist explore the arts properly. If want to more clearly understand the mythological narrative structure of many of our most beloved stories, this lecture is for you. It will take some brain power to stick with Peterson's rapid-fire critical observations, but it will be well worth it. Enjoy how a real inter-disciplinary education works.
Over the past few days, I have been rereading Hamlet in preparation for a guest lecture I will be giving soon. I read the play back in graduate school, and before that, my senior year of high school. And along the way, I've seen a few film adaptations. But looking at perhaps the most famous piece of literature ever written at this stage of my life has brought about a new sense of clarity.
When I was a teenager, I couldn't quite understand Hamlet's delay in avenging his father. Perhaps my mind was still too steeped in the Homeric tradition, thirsty for violence and longing to uphold codes of honor and loyalty. In my 20s, I viewed Hamlet's inner turmoil more philosophically, examining his existentialism much more closely and picking apart the nuances of his conflicted words, ideas, and actions--mostly because professors made me. But as I near 40, with my wisdom of real life slightly more honed, I think of Hamlet a bit differently.
I read his words and watch the chaos he creates (within himself and across the entirety of the play's participants) and I think to myself, "That seems about right." I'm not angered by his inaction, and I don't much care for parsing out his craziness as real or manufactured. I simply see a man stuck, as we all are stuck in some way or other. He knows a lot, yet he knows he doesn't know a lot. And that is, in its own way, the most important quality he attains over the course of the play. We can never know everything, so the best we can do is come up with ways not to destroy everyone, as well as ourselves in the process. When we assume to know it all, that can lead to as many disastrous consequences as knowing nothing. We are perpetually in the middle between omniscience and obliviousness. Truth is the only option for a relative version of salvation.
So when Hamlet first does nothing, then tries to manipulate others, then resigns to murder at the end, each of these options neglects the revelation of truth. Through his circuitous maneuvers, all roads are bad because they all end up in destruction. The choice he avoids, speaking the truth from the outset, is sometimes the easiest, yet most scary, path of all. And at this point in my life, that is what I get from Shakespeare's masterwork: live my life so that I speak the truth without destroying myself and everyone around me. Not always an easy task, but a worthy goal, I say.
Try re-examining a work of literature from your past this week. While the words and pages will look the same, see if you are any different this time around.
Another stellar performance this week from the funny folks over at Bad Lip Reading. Enjoy!
Dr. Spivey is a college English professor and lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.