Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

I had a difficult encounter a few semesters ago, which I am not sure I handled well.

My policy for the past few years has been to let -- well, to force -- my students to write on topics which matter to them, which have to do with their majors if possible, and which are small, small topics. You can't write about global warming, I exhort them, because you can't solve global warming. Pick a topic you yourself can do something about. I then tell them the story of my Oklahoma student, an Engineering major, who had an issue with his road and his ditch -- how the road got graded badly by the county, so that it kept washing out the ditch, which made his fence keep falling over, so that his cattle kept getting out on the road. This was a problem he could fix. He wrote about that problem. "You want a problem like that," I tell them. "Find some problem like that to describe for me."

Generally these papers work very well.

However. This student was a History Education major -- going to teach History in the local high schools -- and what he wanted to write about, it developed, though he didn't pitch it to me this way, was how the Civil War was mis-taught in Southern High schools.

What he meant was: he wanted high school history teachers to teach students that the Civil War was not about slavery, but about the right of states to govern themselves. His argument was that by teaching that the Southern States had fought the war in defense of slavery, we were making Southern children feel bad about themselves and their heritage.

Okay, I told him. Except, first, have you done any research? The war was fought over slavery. So if you argue it was not, you're teaching something that isn't true. And second, have you considered that every child you teach is not a white child?

Many people, I told him, fought in that war on the right side -- against slavery, I mean. You're ignoring everything those people did

And for what? So you can argue some false pride for kids today? Why not teach them the truth? Some bad people in the past made bad arguments, which led to some bad decisions on the part of some other people, which nearly destroyed our country?

Which it did, I pointed out to him -- I asked him if he realized how close the Civil War came to destroying our nation. I asked if he had talked to any of our history professors about this theory of his? (Which he had picked up from a local high school professor, of course.) I told him to go talk to some of them, to see what they said.

He asked whether I was going to let my opinion influence the way I graded his paper.

"I just don't want to get an F because you disagree with me," he said.

This is probably the saddest I have ever been after a conference, I have to say.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Thinking About the Revolution

I've read two books in the past two days, Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett.

Both were cracking good reads, by which I mean they kept me up until late at night, turning pages. Both I had read before -- Mote, not since I was a kid, Night Watch last year sometime, when I first discovered Pratchett. Night Watch is much more to my taste politically. Mote is somewhat to the right of my politics.

But as I lay in bed last night (or rather, very early this morning, given that I am suffering from the worst insomnia in my adult life, and am hitting the pillow somewhere around five a.m. these days) considering the differences between the two texts, and why one of them annoyed me so much, while the other appealed to me so strongly, well, it really was not just that one is more leftist and the other is hard right military POV.

Because it's not -- Pratchett has a bit of the practical military POV mixed in with his populist-Leftism, and I'm not bothered by that.

And clearly I am bothered deeply by Niven & Pournelle's ridiculous ideas of a women's place in the world -- and while what they do with the alien Moties sex-change and so on is interesting, it does nothing to negate their insistence that "real" people (by which they mean European-ancestry White Guys) will keep their women at home after marriage, doing the child-raising.

No, here is what bothers me most about the Niven & Pournelle worldview: its insistence that the correct attitude of the citizen toward his leaders is respectful trust. (I do choose that pronoun carefully. Only men are actually people in N&P's world, despite his tossing in of a token woman character.) It is assumed -- and then demonstrated -- in the N&P world that those in command, those who are born to command, and given command, know what they are doing, and having taken command, will do the right thing.

It is assumed, and then demonstrated in the text, that those who object to the actions of leaders -- rebels, outies -- are bad people, who deserve to die, who deserve whatever punishment, up to having their entire planet reduced to radioactive glass, is visited upon them: they deserve this simply for having questioned authority.

Since the story is told from the point of view of one of those in authority, Rod (yes, this is his name, nothing phallic here, move along) Blaine, who is written as an earnest hero type who works very hard to get everything right and worries about getting everything right, the reader is reassured that those in authority are Really Good Guys who Really Want To DO Right by those in their purview.

We're not meant to look at the way Sally (his wife) is stripped of her power ("Rod won't let me think about the Institute after the wedding.") or how everyone with any power is a European white guy or how the decisions are made by fiat behind the scenes by the few white guys with all the power -- oh yes, benevolently, and we are TOLD these guys know best, and since those guys have been written as so noble and brave and intelligent, not like the wicked outies, well, it must be true, yes?

This is the worldview of the conservative, who believes -- I guess -- that, so long as he is the right man, the big man in charge can be trusted; and that everyone in the empire will be happy serfs who will be happy to serve, so long as the big man tells them what to do, except for a few idiots, who can be happily shot, or shot down with cool logic. (One scene that made me dizzy with disbelief early in the book was when the parliament -- I guess it was parliament -- met on New Scotland, and everyone in the parliament "pledges allegiance" to a hologram of the emperor, and then bows to it. I guess N&P think this is realistic. I guess they think grown-up people would actually do this. And, since I can see Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, and her ilk actually doing it, I suppose they aren't exactly wrong.)

Contrast this with Pratchett's worldview in Night Watch, which strikes me as much more realistic and adult.

For one thing, the leaders are mostly idiots, or crazy. (Which, watching our own Congress, Q.E.D.) The few who actually know what they are doing and actually intend to do what is best for the land under their purview know better than to expect the people to follow them from blind loyalty. Most people, as Pratchett well knows, are mostly interested mainly in their own lives and what is going to affect them. Who has time for more that that, mostly? Maybe five or six percent of us, tops. And even then, only part time.

"Do the job that is put before you," Sam Vimes says in Night Watch: that's what most of us do, and it's what Vimes, who is one of Pratchett's best leaders, and best heroes, mostly does. Vetinari, Pratchett's other best leader, and other best hero, though a more ambiguous one, also appears in this book, at the very beginning of his career. Vetinari is Practchett's demonstration for why we should and should not trust our leaders -- he is a tyrant, the all-powerful, brilliant, wily ruler of Ankh-Morpork, not exactly benevolent, though he may well have, ultimately, benevolent ends.

Still, Sam Vimes does not trust him; Sam Vimes is always wary of him, and always acts to keep him in check. Sam Vimes, at one point, arrests him, because no one should be above the law. In this book, Night Watch, when the leaders of the city are entirely powerful, Sam Vimes (under the name John Keel) leads a revolution: moving the barriacades, bit by bit, so that, daily, more of the city is under control of the law, and less and less is under the control of whim and tyranny.

Niven and Pournelle's worldview, it came to me, as I was lying sleepless last night -- that is exactly what they want. When you want the government to be under the control of some powerful man who you are forced to trust to be benevolent and good, what you are trusting in is whim and tyranny. Sam Vimes/Terry Pratchett's worldview -- where we do not trust, but hedge the rulers around with laws and rules, and then, warily, warily, keep the rulers at heel with those laws and rules -- that worldview puts the government under our control. Perhaps it means the government is less able to act; it also means the government is less able to put its boot on our throats.

I suppose it all depends on what you want from a government: death to the rebels, or people who are free to quarrel in the streets if they damn well feel like it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bang, Crash, Wham! (Again)

Every third night it seems, now, finds me and Dr. Skull, the kid and the two dogs and the cat huddled in our hallway, listening to hail pelt the roof while tornado sirens wail in the distance.

Last night's storm was especially scary. We considered going to the tornado shelter, which is almost a mile away at the elementary school. We used to do this back when tornado warnings happened once a summer, at the most. Now that they're happening every other day, we've given up. Driving through the hail and rain and wind, climbing from the car, and staggering (or in my case crutching) into the shelter to wait, sodden and over-heated, with two hundred other people who live in shacks without basements -- well, it has lost its appeal. Also, the shelter is actually a gymnasium, more or less -- so horrible lighting, nowhere to sit, and kids running yelling and playing kickball, in and out of the crowds.

Although if these scary, scary storms keep happening we may need to rethink our policy. Last night, the wind and rain were fierce. The power went out (again) and stayed out until about seven this morning. Hail and thunder were continuous. When the wind blew especially hard, the frame of the house would creak in a disturbing manner. The cat ran away and hid under the white chair. We were out of candles -- used them all up the last time the power went out -- and I don't like burning candles during such a bad storm anyway. So we were using my iPad as our sole light source. It works very well for that, btw.

Eventually the storm left, and the power stayed off. Everyone went to sleep but me (I'm having bad insomnia these days) and I stayed up reading the iPad until four a.m., when the power came on briefly. No sooner had I shut up windows and shut off lights and reset the alarm clock (I had a medical appointment at 9.00) than the power went off again.

But we didn't get blown away, unlike many people. As I drove to the clinic this morning, trees were down all over town, the roof was blown off the local lumber yard, traffic signs were blown over, and the local sign on the Harp's store had been totally blown out.

Another storm coming tonight, too.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Wait, what? Raptors?

My kid is very edgy about this whole rapture thing, even though I keep telling her it's ridiculous.

OTOH, a couple of my students, even though they live in Arkansas (rapture central) have never heard of the idea of the rapture.

So here's a link! In case you care. Everything you wanted to know about the Rapture.

Which, as I keep telling my panicked child, is a totally invented piece of bullshit.

(Yeah, like other bits of religion aren't, I know. I am just more exasperated with this one because of how much it's scaring my kid. What a tool this guy Harold Camping is. Makes me wish for an actual God just so he would have to account to him someday.)

Fun fact! Rapture and rape come from the same Latin root! Rapio, rapere: to seize or to snatch away, to take for your own.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Oh, My

I know I shouldn't find this as delicious as I do.

It's just so sweet when justice (at least begins) to prevail.

Via Crooked Timber

The comments over there are especially worth reading.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Why, Look Here!

It's a story by me! At Strange Horizons!

You'll be glad to know that the kid has pronounced it interesting, but strange.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Swearing Is A Really Important Part of One's Life

(X-Posted at FanSci)

Stephen Fry explains here what I have often told those among my students who explain to me sweetly that swearing is a sign of a limited vocabulary or a lack of imagination: yeah, really, not so much.

In fact, as I point out to students (usually earnest religious freshmen) who tell me this, it is those with the largest vocabularies and the most education among my acquaintence who tend to cuss the most and the mostly foully. So go figure.

That being said, my kid was working on a SF story the other day and came to me with the question that haunts all writers of SF: "Ma. How would people cuss inthe future?"

Now this is a problem.

Because it is true that you don't want your characters just going fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck. That does get dull. The last thing you want is dull cussing. Part of the charm is cussing, like the charm of any writing, is variety and imagination. Also, well, we do mix it up. New cuss words are fun. I remember when I discovered fuckwit and tool. Didn't I love those words?

So you gotta figure that in the future (especially if you move far into the future) the way and the means by which your culture will cuss will be different than the ways and the means by which our current culture cusses. We're all into fuck and shit, here in the early part of the 21st century, plus a healthy dose of misogyny/misandry (bitch, whore, tool); but in Shakespeare's day, or the Roman's, things were very different. With Shakespeare, it was all blasphemy. Very little fuck this, and very much "God's teeth,""God's wounds" (Or Zounds, for short) "God's blood," and "marry" (Mary), and "go to (the devil)"; though also some misogyny -- "whoreson" and such are common in his plays.

And Roman cussing is violently sexual, or maybe I mean sexually violent? What isn't about farting and shitting and pissing is about rape and who is whose whore. Not so much misogyny/misandry as just misanthropy. As I tell Dr. Skull when we are watching Rome or Spartacus and he asks whether the Romans were actually like this, The Romans were very bad people, and the fact that the GOP keeps wanting to compare themselves to that culture tells you all you really need to know about the GOP.

So what you need to think about is what's powering your culture -- what's their central engine, what matters most to them? -- as religion powered Shakespeare's world, as sex and shame powers ours (and money, but where is the cussing about money? Hmm), as power and dominance powered the Roman culture: then your culture should make their vile words, their taboo-breaking insults, around those topics.

Also: cuss words in my exerpience are generally short words with hard consonants at at least one end, and short vowels in the middle. Not invariable, obviously. But often. Just saying.

Go, and cuss some more.

Bang! Crash! Weather!

Another big storm here last night, as if we had not had sufficient stormage.

Just thunder, hail, and rain this time, no tornados that I am aware of. Flood waters, though, with the water coming right up to our back door sill, and the power went out for several hours -- from nine o'clock to about one in the morning. We sat around with candles and flashlights and my iPad (you can still read on your iPad when the power goes down! Score more for the iPad! Though, sadly, the internet stops working. I am not sure why. Because the wifi isn't powered up anymore, maybe?) and the kid wondered if this was what it was like back in the colonial days of 1950, before we were all wired.

Yeah, I said. Sort of.

The kitty does not like thunder. Neither does Big Dog. He tries to climb in my lap. (And he is big.) She streaks around the house, hiding under things under the next burst of thunder, and then bolting for new cover. Anyone who tries to pick her up and comfort her gets clawed for their trouble, and occasionally bitten as well. Today she is a little calmer, but still wary. "She wants to know why you made it thunder like that," I told the kid, who is fretting over her.

"My poor kitty," she frets.

Meanwhile, the backyard still looks like a swamp, all the rivers are flooded, and more rain is on the way.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Almost Mother's Day....;

...and my kid has returned from New Orleans, where she was visiting our family.

And she has come back with purple hair!

She is so cool.

This is something she's been wanting for about three years, but since I am not a trained girl, I had no idea how to go about it -- even with instructions from several blog friends, I could not make it happen.  I even went so far as to take her to a "beauty" "salon" one time, when she was eleven, I think, but though they were very nice, they claimed they could not do such a thing.  (I was dubious, even if this is Fuck Smith.)

Luckily!  She has an aunt who is not only a trained girl, but who used to work doing hair and such.  She has connections!  She arranged for the work ( after first talking the kid's grandmother into letting her have it done) and went with her to have it done.  It's beautiful, I have to say -- not all of her hair is purple, just a wide thatch on the right, above her temple and eyebrow; and very dark purple, just brighter and lighter than the brown of her hair, so that you don't see it and then you do see it and then you say, ooo, that's pretty.

"It's so pretty!" I said, when I saw it.

"I know," the kid confessed.  "It's making me narcissistic -- all I want to do is look in mirrors."

Friday, May 06, 2011

Okay, I surrender

Here's proof that English majors are idiots.

111 Male Characters from English Literature in Order of Bangability.

Nothing is said about the methodology, but I am assuming the list was compiled by English majors or English professors, because who else would have read all those books?

But here is my issue -- issues --

  • Will Ladislaw at 84? My Will? The love of my (fictional) life? Are you people high?

  • James Steerforth beats out Will Ladislaw? Really?

  • Why is Casaubon on the list at all? The whole point was that he was not bangable -- could not do the bang, as it were. Did none of you actually read Middlemarch?

  • Algernon Moncrieff at 14? Are you fucking kidding me?

  • Randolph Henry Ash, from Possession, is on this list, but Jackson Brodie is not? Aren't you people paying attention?

  • And Mr. Rochester at #1. Le Sigh.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Going Through the (Right) Channels

This, from over at Unfogged again, disturbs me for many reasons, not the least being that, a few semesters ago I had a situation, not nearly this serious, play out in a way that made me at the time uneasy.

It was a young woman in one of my classes who came to me for help -- a fellow student, male, in the same class, was sexually harassing her: he'd hit on her, and she had turned him down. Since then he had been sending her dozens of text messages (they had been in the same study group in another class, so he had her text address) every day, including all night long; and he was sending her photographs of himself, including nude photographs; plus he kept sitting behind her in class; she had gotten her friends to sit around her so he couldn't, and now he would sit across the room from her and made faces at her; and frankly, she wanted it to stop. "I'm thinking about dropping the class," she said, "but I need it to graduate."

I told her not to drop the class, that if necessary we would make him drop the class; that we would handle it. And I went to my chair.

Who told me that it was not an academic matter. That we would pass it on to the Dean of Students.

Who told us that the girl would have to talk to the university police about it. That he could do nothing.

The chair told me I could not talk to the kid about it. Because it wasn't an academic matter.

When I had to tell the girl that she had to go the police -- that the Dean of Students was not going to give her any help -- I remember feel like filth. I did offer to go to the police with her, but she said no, she would handle it. I told her she might go to the Dean of Students and talk to him (figuring he'd be less cavilier listening to the details in his office) but she just walked away.

Probably it wouldn't have made any difference anyway.

She didn't drop the class. And as far as I know nothing happened to him.

At the time I attributed the problem to just a jurisdictional problem -- we were caught in the bureaucracy. Now, though, I am not so sure.