Back into the fire

June 30, 2008

After six weeks of flextime, I’m headed back to class today for a five-week teaching assignment.  It’s been nice to have the unscheduled time, and it’s been surprisingly productive.  I got to visit Seattle, give a conference paper, hang out with friends; to write a book review; to work on a chapter for a book called Teaching with Student Texts.  Ann and I got to hang out a lot, and I got to read some cool novels.

But now all that’s gotta slow down for a while.  I like teaching summer classes because they’re so condensed, but I’ve never done a 5-day/week summer class.  It’s also an ADP class, and my experience with that program has been kind of strange.  The whole program is loaded politically in a way that I approve of and don’t, all at the same time.  Obviously, as a faculty member at a public university, I’m committed to access for as many students as we can provide for.  I’m also committed to access for students whose traditional credentials don’t match the profile of our usual students.  These are the kinds of things that distinguish my job from, say, teaching at Swarthmore or Haverford, or a more research-intensive public university.

At the same time, the ADP program tends to treat students in a really heavy-handed way.  The boot-campy intensity of it isn’t the problem; the problem is that they treat the students exactly in the way that made many of the students resistant to education in the first place.  Maturing as a student is about learning to manage the trust put in you by the system–coming to class without the threat of arrest for truancy; figuring out how to manage your time when you’re only in class a couple of hours a day; learning to balance the need to think for yourself with the demands put on you take on specific styles of talking and writing.  Sometimes the program makes those hard for students by overseeing them too tightly.

To a certain degree, the way the program manages the students isn’t my concern.  I can, if I try really hard, just duck those issues, run the class, grade the papers, and be done with it.  But I have to try really hard at that.  It’s my inclination, most of the time, to engage issues of resistance head-on by making spaces to talk about and work through them as a group.  I’m a little gun-shy about this based on my last experience (several years ago, and with a group of students who to this day have a reputation for being, um, feisty).  By allowing the students to vent about the program requirements in class, I also allowed them to poison the class atmosphere by making everything about how much they resented the program.  I also allowed a few particularly aggressively vocal students to take over the class, which may well have hurt other students.

So the trick is to figure out how to enable the students to work their ways through what’s happening to them, but not on the backs of other students who aren’t struggling with it in the same way.  How that goes will depend to a large degree on the specific group of students.  They all live together and take other classes together during the summer program, which (when it works well) can really help them form a supportive cohort and (when it works badly) can produce a wolf-pack mentality that fights too much for its own good.

Wish us luck…


I’m voting Obama, OK?

June 27, 2008

In the last few days, I’ve seen a ton of hits (no comments, but lots of looks) at a post I wrote a couple of months ago called “Why I’m not sold on Obama.” At the time, I was a Hillary Clinton supporter, and I wanted to talk about why.

With Clinton out of the race, obviously, there shouldn’t be any question, barring something cataclysmic, that I’ll support Barack Obama’s candidacy. While I liked Clinton better than Obama, I certainly like Obama better than McCain; ergo, I vote for Obama.

Still too early to tell how actively I’ll support him outside the voting booth. I’ll have to see what he does and says during the actual campaign. I have some faith he’ll handle things better than John Kerry did in 2004.

Mudhoney vs. Metallica

June 25, 2008

Sitting at the bar at Fennario, just before 8 am, finished the paper, the xword, the sudoku, need to get to work. I’m finding myself holding fast to the last few days of 100% flextime before I start teaching again next week. At the same time, while I haven’t been bored, I’m finding all the unscheduled time easy to fritter away playing word games on Facebook (particularly fond of Scramble, which is their version of Boggle, but they can’t call it that because of copyright infringement issues).

Having a Mudhoney revival through my headphones. What a great band. What an awful band. Both, at the same time, actually. That’s part of their charm, of course; they’re the drunken teenage garage band that never grew out of it. Right now the song is “Stupid A**hole,” an Angry Samoans cover. Mudhoney was the band that turned me onto the whole Seattle grunge/punk thing. I’d seen Nirvana when they started touring to support “Nevermind” but before the record broke big. They were OK, but when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was on the radio every 15 seconds, I really hated it. I couldn’t figure out whether they were a bad metal band or a bad punk band. It wasn’t until I started listening to Mudhoney that I figured out Nirvana was neither, but the whole scene was doing something else. The particular song was “Fuzzgun ’91.” I was co-hosting a party with my roommates Trip, Tom, Fred (and our various other full and part-time housemates) after a show at the Screamin’ Deacon. Somebody put on “Fuzzgun” on repeat on the CD player, and a crowd of about 60 people just went nuts running around the house, jumping on the furniture, pogoing, slamming, making up words (the song is instrumental). We probably spent the better part of an hour like that, and the next day I’d decided that all those bands were amazing; I’d given them short shrift.

Mudhoney won more points from me a couple of years later when I saw them for the first time, at the Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, NC, March 1993. It was the night UNC won the NCAA basketball tournament, which sucked for me (I hated UNC for a long time because it was the only college I applied to that rejected me). Mudhoney came on stage not long after the game ended and just blew it out for more than 2 hours. It was one of the most amazingly cathartic experiences I’ve ever undergone.

While I’m thinking about rock music stories, I need to write this one down too. It’s about the day Metallica saved my life. July 1986, just west of Statesville, NC on I-40, about 7 am. I’m driving up to Mt. Mitchell (highest point east of the MS River, by the way) to hike with some friends, having stayed up all night partying with other friends at the Wake Forest Debate Workshop. Anyway, I’m cruising, tired, speeding like mad, when all of a sudden I wake up going about 80 mph in the median. Fortunately I’m a light sleeper, and fortunately I managed to keep the car pointing straight while I was driving in the grass. That’s about as scared as I’ve been of anything, even scarier than going to a FSU/Miami football game at the Orange Bowl. Deciding I’m in no shape to drive but not able to stop because I need to meet my hiker friends, I pull off at the next exit where there’s a gigantic truck stop. I’ve already had a bunch of coffee, so I’m looking for No-Doz, which they don’t have, and finally settle on something else. While I’m waiting in line, I notice the obligatory rack of cassette tapes (remember, it’s 1986) and start flipping through to find the loudest thing they have.

Turns out the loudest thing they have is Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” for $3.99. I figure it’s worth $4 to keep myself awake without having to pump more caffeine into my already-queasy stomach. I’d heard Metallica before (their first record, “Ride the Lightning,” had gotten steady play on the Georgia Tech radio station’s weekly punk show) but wasn’t a fan. I also figure that listening to something I don’t like will help keep me awake. So I hop back in the car, crank down all the windows, crank up the stereo as loud as it’ll go without blowing up the speakers (I was an audio-snob even then, and listening to speaker casings rattle bugged me then as much as it does now) and popped in the tape on repeat (my car had one of the first auto-flip and repeat tape players I’d seen). Over the next two hours, I learned every word I could understand of that album and even grew to like it. Every once in a while, I still put it on and wax nostalgic about that trip.

This is not one of those times. Mudhoney is still blaring. The current song is “You Got It,” featuring this very sophisticated chorus:

“You got it, damn right you got it, that’s great, keep it out of my face.”

If that’s not poetry, I don’t know what is. Or even better, the last chorus:

“You got it, damn right you got it, get f*cked, keep it out of my face.”

Now THAT’s poetry.

Even lefties like roller coasters, but this is ridiculous

June 19, 2008

A not-very-political post today…

My wife and I bought season passes to Six Flags Great Adventure a couple of months ago.  You know the pitch–pay the season fee, use them twice, and they pay for themselves.  Well, that’s true to an extent, but our friends at Six Flags have figured out a new way to gouge park-goers.

For years, theme parks have had the policy that customers can’t bring in outside food or drink.  I don’t like the policy, but it’s been clearly announced, and if you decide to buy the pass or a ticket, you’re agreeing to the policy.  There’s nothing in the policy about bringing empty bottles, which Ann and I have done lots of times.  Not only are we recycling (yes, we’re kind of green) but we’re saving money by not paying $3 or $4 for drinks during the day.

A new policy, however, makes this strategy much harder.  Used to be, if you were carrying a bag or backpack, you could leave it on the platform so when you got off the ride, it would be there (or not, if somebody stole it).  It was your risk to take.  Now, Six Flags has instituted a policy that bags/backpacks aren’t even allowed in lines waiting for rides because it’s “unsafe” to leave them on the platforms.

This is clearly not a safety issue; if it were, they would have established the policy much sooner.  Instead, it does two things that have nothing to do with safety.  First, it forces customers standing in line to buy drinks from their concession stands or drink machines, at precisely the prices we don’t want to pay.  Second, and more insidious in my opinion, it forces customers to rent one-time-use lockers for a dollar.  Each roller coaster in the park now has its own cluster of lockers next to it, and before you can get in line, you have to spend a buck for your bag.  So if you ride 10 rides in a day, you have to spend 10 bucks on lockers.  It would be less bad (still bad, but less so) if at least the lockers were multiple-use, so that if you spent a dollar you could open and close it as often as you wanted to.  It would still suck because you might have to cross the entire park to find your Tylenol, but still.  What’s more, you have to have $1 bills to use the lockers because you have to buy a token from a machine that doesn’t make change.  So if you don’t have any with you, you have to spend even more time not riding rides while you chase down change.

If the park were actually concerned about safety, they wouldn’t charge for the lockers.  Some parks have cubbyholes on the platforms so people can store their items without taking up floor space.  But Six Flags, by charging for “safety,” is playing a somewhat different game.

Once we’d figured this out, we went to the Customer Service office to discuss it.  Because we’d bought the passes without any announcement from the park about the new policy, all we wanted was for them to pay us back for one day of locker rentals.  Knowing the new policy, we weren’t interested in pushing any further than that.  The CSR we talked to couldn’t have been less helpful.  After making me write up an “Incident Report,” he handed it off to somebody I never got to talk to, who apparently knew of a sign right outside the gates announcing the policy.  She came back about 20 minutes later having written on the report that signs were posted, so they weren’t going to do anything for us.  Since I couldn’t talk to her through the glass wall of the office, I couldn’t explain to her what my point was–that the announcement needed to be made where Season Pass buyers could see it.

So if you go to Six Flags this summer, make sure you have a roll of $1 bills with you, and be prepared to spend a ton of extra money on beverages while you’re waiting in line for rides.  If you carry any kind of medication with you, be prepared not to access it very easily.  And if you have a problem with the policy, be prepared for Customer Service not to care.

I don’t mind paying for things; I don’t mind paying fair market value.  I do mind being gouged.

What was I thinking?!?

June 17, 2008

One of the reasons it took me so long to start a blog is that I’d heard from my friends who write them that they can take up huge amounts of time and energy.  Although I don’t mind spending some time with it (I teach courses primarily in public rhetoric and discourse, so it’s kind of professional practice for me to write public documents), the recent set of exchanges about CCPM, CCVM, the Sheepdogs, etc has demonstrated to me what the limits of such public discourse are.  At least one of the limits, anyway.

I’ve known since late January 2005 that making yourself a public target of angry people can be a little frightening.  When three very angry people mailed anonymous death threats to my house in response to arguments I didn’t make in a Philly Inquirer op-ed, I was nervous.  For about 10 minutes, until I got mad, that is.  I was, and still am, mad that people would lecture me about accountability in letters they wouldn’t even sign.  Of course, if I were inclined to threaten other people’s lives, I probably wouldn’t sign those threats either.  Good thing I’m a pacifist.

Since then, I’ve had the friend of a supposed Navy Seal tell me that his friend wanted to drag me outside the back of Ryan’s Pub in WC and kill me.  My office-mate, who’s a Navy retiree, tells me that no real Seal would ever say such a thing, but still.  I’ve heard a counter-protester lean up against me and say to his friend, “Let’s beat the sh*t out of one of these hippies and see what happens.”

Let’s just say that while these kinds of threats aren’t pleasant, I’ve learned a few things from them.  First, the likelihood that anybody will come through on one of those threats is low.  I have to believe that anybody who’s really been trained to kill and has been disciplined into military service simply wouldn’t do this.  As much as I disagree with the counter-protesters about politics, military policy, philosophy and so on, I don’t think they’re insane.  When they say they’ve had to commit acts of violence and therefore hate them more than we do, I actually believe them.

Second, I’ve learned that anybody who would make that kind of threat (or who would be happy that somebody did) is simply incorrigible.  There’s nothing I can say that’s going to change the way they think about anything.  For somebody who believes (almost religiously) in the possibilities of rhetoric and persuasion, this is a hard lesson to take.

Third, although I’m firmly committed to democracy as the practice of freedom (rather than as some abstraction that we “fight for” in hopes that we might “protect it” as if it were a thing), that doesn’t mean I’m willing to be a martyr while people whose inclination is to attack throw ad hominems around.

Somebody on one of the threads over the last week or so made the claim that “can” and “should” don’t mean the same thing.  Yup.  And that cuts both ways.  Just because you can lob accusations around without knowing or caring whether they’re true, that doesn’t mean you should.  I realize that’s part of the strategy–throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks–but that doesn’t make it OK.  If you’re committed to the truth like you say you are, then don’t just make stuff up.

A final note for the day…  As I say on the “About Seth” page, this is my blog and I get to decide what goes on it and what doesn’t.  Sheepdogs already have their own blog where they can say whatever they want.  Skye has her blog where she can say whatever she wants.  And having scanned through both, I can say that they take this liberty very seriously.  That’s their business.  I don’t intend to read any more of their blogs.

But I will not tolerate baseless personal attacks against me or anybody else (even people who are on my “side”) any more.  In fact, I won’t tolerate personal attacks of any kind any more.  And before anybody sets off on a lecture about my hypocrisy in being “intolerant,” let me be very clear about one thing.  There are some folks for whom tolerance is the highest priority (anarchists and Libertarians are very closely aligned on this, even though they say they reject each other’s philosophies).  I’m certainly committed to tolerance, but only to a point.  I have no interest in serving as a conduit for disrespect.  Take it somewhere else until you show some basic respect for people who aren’t you.

Why are we talking about this (whatever “this” is)?

June 13, 2008

Who called who what names? Who hung up on who? Where and when did this and that happen?

I don’t know about anybody else, but the discussion on the blog over the last few days has held out the real possibility of exchanging some ideas about our occupation of Iraq, patriotism and who gets to claim it and on what grounds, the political goals of the CCVM/CCPM, etc. And while people have written things I found distasteful and inaccurate, much of it has been at least on point.

Some of it hasn’t, though, and that’s what I want to talk about now. I hope nobody disagrees with this point–that how we treat each other on the streets, how we talk about each other, etc, are all much less important than the big issues at stake–real life and death. Soldiers, contractors, and civilians are all dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some people are convinced that Islamic fundamentalists are going to attack the US again. Some are convinced that we can’t rest safely until our current military objectives are achieved; some are convinced that we can’t achieve those missions, and in fact amplify the risks to ourselves and our friends (such as we have them anymore) around the world by staying in Iraq. There’s blood in the streets, and we’re arguing about phone calls? We’re arguing about who shot videos/photos of what? There are real issues and problems here–the pride (wounded and otherwise) of maybe a few hundred people in a Philadelphia suburb isn’t one of them. Jewish people have a term for what we’ve descended into: pilpul, which means (roughly) elaborate debates about trivia designed to show people how smart you are.

I don’t expect this call to be particularly heeded, but I figured I should make it anyway. At the very least, let’s keep some things in perspective:

(1) We (CCVM/CCPM) aren’t the important people. The people who are actually at risk of dying are. Doc, I know you’ll take this as validation of your earlier point about the Harvard study on troop morale, and we can talk more about that later. The study isn’t bogus, but it doesn’t say what you say it does.

(2) Nobody cares, or should really, about individual moments of stepping out of line as long as nobody really gets hurt. Sometimes people do and say things they shouldn’t. Duh. With that said, I do believe that the Sheepdogs have adopted a strategy of trying to provoke CCPM members to do/say things we ordinarily wouldn’t. Congrats, it’s worked a few times. Given the nastiness of some of what your group says about us and our members, you probably don’t think your members have ever stepped out of line, so I won’t expect a similar acknowledgment.

(3) As much as the peacemaker in me would love to see this “debate” between Doc and John Grant (and whoever else they could get to participate) materialize, I still don’t see the point. Nobody who’s committed to one side or the other is going anywhere. Doc has said that CCPM is operating without enough information, but he doesn’t seem to understand that we all read, listen, watch, research a great deal. Sure, he might have inside (classified?) info we don’t, but he wouldn’t/couldn’t share that with us anyway or he probably would have. And he’s obviously not changing his mind again either. If Doc hadn’t already established that he “hates” us, maybe this would be different, but there’s not much good to come from inviting somebody who hates you to yell (metaphorically, that is) at you about why you’re wrong. I’m sure you can understand why we’d be suspicious of anything you have to say. I’m also sure you’ll say something like, “Of course you’re suspicious of anything that challenges your [fill in the blank with something evil] worldview.” That’s hogwash, and you know it.

(4) The “sides” here are more complex than many of us seem to think. Supporting “the troops” assumes that all “the troops” agree on the rightness of what they’re doing. They don’t. Supporting “terrorists” assumes that all “terrorists” want the same thing. They don’t. Our group (CCPM) is comprised of Democrats, Republicans, Greens, pacifists, soldiers/vets, and so on–all over the political and socio-economic spectrum. I don’t know any of the CCVM folks personally, so I don’t know how true that is for them; all I know is that Skye is a registered Democrat. Interesting as far as it goes, but that’s not very far. My point is that there’s real, deep disagreement among people who are smart and otherwise (generally) reasonable, and we’d all do well to remember that the people behind the signs and slogans are still people.

Life and death, folks. Let’s keep an eye on that, OK?

ADDED FRI EVENING: A point of clarification.  My agenda in this post isn’t to shut down discussion.  It’s to raise the level of the discussion, to get us out of accusations of “liar” and the like because one person remembers something differently from the other.  That doesn’t help resolve anything, nor does it advance anybody’s understand of the issues.  It just irritates everybody.

Also, I realize perfectly well that I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know in referring to “life and death.”  That’s a reminder, not a preachy comment.

Debates, arguments, evidence

June 12, 2008

As I watch the current argument (see “I must have hit a nerve” posting from a few days ago) unfold between armyanimaldoc and John Grant, it’s becoming clearer to me that there’s just about no way to resolve the issues between the two.  Here are some of the reasons why–

1.  Both participants are very firmly lodged in their positions.  That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself, but one of the first rules of persuasion is that at least one side has to be persuadable.  Nothing, so far, indicates that either is willing to change his thinking.

2.  The standards for evidence are incommensurate.  Doc served in Iraq and saw who knows what.  Some of it he refers to, not in any detail, and keeps playing his first-hand experience as a trump card.  I’m certainly willing to acknowledge that he knows things we don’t.  But I’m not satisfied simply with being told that, without knowing what any of those things actually are.  If we were operating from a blank slate, that is, if we hadn’t heard before the argument that we didn’t need to see the evidence before we simply accepted claims on good faith, this might be different.  But even the most strident supporter of the mission in Iraq has to understand why opponents are suspicious.  John, on the other hand, has some eye-witness knowledge of conditions on the ground in Iraq (and more broadly as a soldier).  Again, without a more detailed explication of his eye-witness experience, it’s hard to know what he’s seen that Doc hasn’t and vice versa.  However, John also turns to historical evidence (other US imperial ventures) as a context for understanding what we’re doing in Iraq, and Doc doesn’t seem interested (at least for now) in responding to that.  I won’t speculate as to why–I skipped my mindreader pill this morning.

3.  As I started to think aloud about in a comment on the “Nerve” post last night, there’s no way anybody besides the two of them will know who said what to whom on the phone.  And even they don’t seem to know since they can’t even begin to agree on it.  What that suggests to me is that both of them heard what they expected to hear, even if it’s not what the other said.  It’s natural (such as “natural” actually exists) to do this.  Our brains fill in gaps, and often we turn to our assumptions and expectations to do so.  Where else would we turn?  In this case, however, because the assumptions are so flatly contradictory, there’s not even a way to tease them out, much less resolve them.

4.  One requirement of persuasion, at least ethical persuasion, is trust.  Not only does the audience have to trust the speaker–otherwise you won’t believe anything they say (duh?)–but also the speaker has to trust the audience.  Speakers who don’t trust their audiences tend to do one of two things.  Either they simply bludgeon the audience into submission in hopes that the audience will accept the message out of fear or frustration, or they attack the audience’s motives for disagreeing with them in the first place.  Both of those strategies are troubling because they automatically rupture any possibility of reasonable exchange.  In this case, neither CCVM nor CCPM trusts the other side for long lists of reasons.  Obviously, from my point of view, CCPM is more trustworthy (gee, what I surprise!).  For Skye and others to claim that CCVM hasn’t harassed us because we don’t have it on video is simply disingenuine.  Wasn’t in Donald Rumsfeld who said, “Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence?”  On the other hand, if the members of CCVM *really* believe that CCPM wants to overthrow the government, support terrorism, etc, then it’s no surprise they won’t trust us.  And it doesn’t matter how much evidence we muster to demonstrate the absurdity of their claims because they’ve simply decided already.

By the way, I did cruise the Sheepdogs website the other day and saw the victory dance somebody was doing at the discovery that I claim Marxism as a field of study.  Gee, ya got me!  Of course, without asking me what my interest is in Marxism (which, in point of fact, is more to debunk it than to propagate it), you wouldn’t have any idea what I teach or study about it.  Which is yet another example of my point–the assumption that studying Marxism is the same as subscribing to it is just wrong.  But that didn’t stop people from saying it anyway.  Hope this clarifies that issue!

Enough for today.