Category Archives: Links

NIMBY bunnies: Chicago dumps rabbits on rurals

A Chicago Tribune article last Sunday about the 10th anniversary of Millennium Park contained this tidbit:

Unexpected invaders: The park’s 5-acre Lurie Garden has had some unwelcome visitors: rabbits who ate bark on some of the garden’s trees, killing them. [Edward Uhlir, executive director of the Millennium Park Foundation, the nonprofit organization that helps manage the 24.5-acre public space] thinks the rabbits crossed into the park on the snaking, Gehry-designed BP Bridge.

Last year, Uhlir said, trappers hired by the park caught 60 rabbits in the garden and later let them go at a “certified release site” about 100 miles west of Chicago. Then a fox appeared in the garden. This year, only three rabbits have been removed from the garden. “We think the fox was having dinner,” Uhlir said.

Hey, I live about 100 miles west of Chicago! Is it city officials’ fault that my green beans have just been denuded!?

Link: Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’

The parodist panders to English teachers (successfully, in my case):

P.S.: Another take on “Blurred Lines” here.

A book-publishing contract is not a ‘halo’: Publishing as a business deal

Laura Miller, in an article at Salon, uses the context of the Amazon-Hachette disagreement to make an important point to would-be authors about what it means to get one’s book published:

It helps to understand what’s happening here if we all stop thinking about a traditional book publishing contract as a halo of literary worthiness bestowed upon an author by entities invested with a sacred, ineffable authority. Actually, it’s a business deal. It signifies that a disinterested party (i.e., not your mom or spouse) believes enough in the book’s potential appeal that it is willing to put its own money into the project. Publishers don’t just supply professional services (editing, design, distribution, marketing); they are investors. Doesn’t mean they’re always right; publishers often aren’t. But publishing a book is always a gamble of sorts, and a traditional publisher has ponied up.

I’ll admit that, at times, I’ve thought that selling a book would be a kind of validation of my talent, my ideas, my worth as a human being on this planet. (Though I should know better, considering that back when I was a journalist, I had a lot of things published and/or broadcast, and doing so didn’t feel all that special. Well, sure, the first time was special, but after that, not so much.) But it helps me to remember that companies publish books to make money. What gets published is what somebody thinks will sell, and a lot of respected texts didn’t sell very well, including Thoreau’s Walden.

Still, I’ll also admit to, at times, entertaining the fantasy that someone would contact me with an offer to publish my brilliant texts. Why not? But I also don’t really try that hard to seek publication because, well, I find the act of writing far more rewarding that the act of seeing my name in print.

Links on education: Gates Foundation, tenure lawsuit, Ravitch on Common Core

1. The powerful influence of Gates Foundation on education policy.

2. One school shooting a week: a list.

3. Laptops in classrooms can interfere with learning.

4. In Vergara v. California lawsuit, a ruling that tenure may be discriminatory against students in the worst schools. More here. The judge’s decision may be based on a guesswork statistic. Such a move may not improve education, at least not as much as reducing segregation would.

5. Cheating as a form of learning.

6. A thorough criticism of Common Core by Diane Ravitch. Some highlights:

I was not aware of this: that the union of which I am a member took money from Gates Foundation (see #1 above) to promote Common Core:

Both the NEA and the AFT accepted millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation to promote Common Core, and both have been steadfast supporters. The leaders began to complain about poor implementation only after they heard large numbers of complaints from their members about lack of resources, lack of professional development, lack of curriculum, etc.

“Value-Added Measurement” of teachers is not legitimate:

the American Statistical Association issued a report a few weeks ago warning that “value-added-measurement” (that is, judging teachers by the scores of their students) is fraught with error, inaccurate, and unstable.

Ravitch summarizes that “there is no evidence that national standards produces higher achievement, nor that they reduce achievement gaps. They certainly do not overcome the burdens of homelessness, hunger, lack of medical care, or overcrowded classrooms,” and she writes that she advised policymakers to test out the Common Core standards before issuing them nationally.

[I]t is far too soon to judge Common Core’s efficacy. But that is the fault of those who wrote it. In 2009, when I met at the Aspen Institute with the authors of the Common Core, I urged them to field test it so they would find out how it works in real classrooms. They didn’t. In 2010, I was invited to the White House to meet with Melody Barnes, the director of domestic policy; Rahm Emanual, the White House chief of staff; and Ricardo Rodriguez, the President’s education advisor, and they asked me what I thought of Common Core. I urged them to field test it. I suggested that they invite 3-5 states to give it a trial of three-five years. See how it works. See if it narrows the achievement gap or widens the achievement gap. They quickly dismissed the idea. They were in a hurry. They wanted Common Core to be rolled out as quickly as possible, without checking out how it works in real classrooms with real teachers and real children.

National standards maybe aren’t all that important internationally, at least not as much as poverty lowers U.S. scores:

Are our kids left behind by China, South Korea and Germany? Not really. Maybe not at all. It is true that we get mediocre scores on international tests, but we have been getting mediocre scores on international tests since the first such test was offered in 1964. We were never a world leader on the international tests. Most years, our scores were at the median or even in the bottom quartile. Yet in the intervening fifty years, we have far surpassed all those nations–economically, technologically, and on every other dimension– whose students got higher test scores. Basically, the test scores don’t predict anything about the future of the economy. Should we worry that Estonia might surpass us? The fact is that our international scores reflect the very high proportion of kids who live in poverty, whose scores are lowest. We are #1 among the rich nations of the world in child poverty; nearly one-quarter of our children live in poverty. Our kids who live in affluent communities do very well indeed on the international tests. If we reduced the proportion of children living in poverty, our international test scores would go up. But in the end, as I said, the international scores don’t predict anything other than an emphasis on test-taking in the schools or the general socio-economic well-being of the society. We would be far better off investing more money in providing direct services to children–small classes for struggling students, experienced teachers, social workers, counselors, psychologists, and a full curriculum–rather than investing in more test preparation.

I really enjoyed where Ravitch advocates teachers bringing their passions to the classroom and students experiencing joy in learning:

I see no advantage in “having a teacher in Alaska teach more or less the same thing as a teacher in Alabama.” What’s the point of that? If the teacher in Alabama is passionate about the work of Flannery O’Connor, let him or her teach it with passion. If the teacher in Alaska is fascinated with the arctic tundra, teach it. … A study by Tom Loveless of Brookings … point[s] out that the Common Core standards were likely to make little or no difference in achievement. After all, states with high standards have wide variations in achievement, as do states with low standards.

I see no value in the arbitrary division between literature and informational text prescribed in the Common Core. I know where the numbers come from. They were instructions to assessment developers of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (I served on its governing board for seven years). The ratios were not intended as instructions to teachers. This is balderdash. English teachers should teach what they know and love. If they love fiction, teach it. If they love nonfiction, teach it. Why should a committee with no classroom teachers on it in 2009 tell reading teachers how to apportion their reading time? I doubt that teachers of math and science will spend any time on fiction anyway.

[A] belief in using test scores to hold teachers accountable has no research to support it, nor is there any real-world evidence. Many districts have tried this for four or five years and there is no evidence–none–that it produces better teachers or better education. The ratings, as noted above, are arbitrary, and say more about classroom composition than about teacher quality. Nor is there any evidence that education gets better if teachers everywhere are using a common script. Doing well in school depends on family support, student motivation, community support, adequate resources, class sizes appropriate to the needs of the children, experienced teachers, wise leadership, and students who arrive in school healthy and well-fed.

Frankly, I don’t understand why [people would] oppose “joy” in the classroom. Why should school be so “hard” that it makes children cry? It is true that some assignments are hard; some books are hard to read; some math problems are hard to solve. We learn from doing things that are not necessarily joyful, but that engage us in work that stimulates us to think harder, try harder, persist. When we are done with hard work, yes, it is a joyful feeling. Maybe it is because I am a grandmother, but I want my grandchildren to approach their school work with earnestness and to sense the joy of accomplishment, the joy of learning. I want my grandchildren to love learning. I want them to read books even when they are not assigned. I want them to go to the Internet to find things out because they are curious.

Links: New poet laureate, poems for the masses, etc.

1. New U.S. poet laureate: Charles Wright.

2. “The best poetry is not always accessible, and the most accessible poetry is usually not good.”

3. Flash fiction as prose poems?

4. The case for typos in the age of spellcheck

5. Where old English was clearer: the two “th” sounds, thorn and eth. Also, here’s a list of other letters that were once used in English, but not so much these days.

6. Linguistic trivia: German speakers have difficulty with “squirrel,” and Canadians having difficulty with the German equivalent

7. Hannah Arendt on irony, as against David Foster Wallace’s definition of irony.

8. Profile of poet Geoffrey Hill.

9. Recent articles on poet Patricia Lockwood, here, here, here, and here.

UPDATE:

10. William Logan: “Poetry: Who Needs It?”

Questlove on hip-hop culture

New York magazine has an essay series by Questlove that I’ve really enjoyed reading:

1.When the People Cheer:How Hip-Hop Failed Black America

2. Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, Part II

3. Questlove’s How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, Part III: What Happens When Black Loses Its Cool? I’m interested in the idea of cool as related to creativity rather than passivity.

4. Questlove: Disco and the Return of the Repressed — How Hip-Hop Failed Black America Part IV

5. Questlove Answers Reader Questions About His ‘How Hip-Hop Failed Black America’ Series

6. Questlove: Does Black Culture Need to Care About What Happens to Hip-Hop?

Links: ‘Start-start God achieve-make sky-earth’ and others

1. John McWhorter argues against the idea that what we have words for limits what we experience:

There are many languages in New Guinea and Australia in which there is one word that means eat, drink, and smoke. Are we to designate these people as less attuned to gustatory pleasures than us? They give little evidence of it, and note how distasteful it feels to even suggest it. Or, Swedish and Danish have no single word for what we call wiping. You can rub, erase, and such, and the word they spontaneously give as a translation means drybut there is no word that means, specifically, what we mean by to wipe. Yet we shall neither tell Scandinavians that they do not wipe nor even imply that the act is less vividly important to them than to the rest of us.

We can signal our awareness of human equality in other ways. All languages are complex. Nary a one of the several thousand known languages does not allow precise and nuanced conversation. Languages vary in just which squiggles of existence they choose to mark with words and endings, but we must resist the notion that this variation creates different “worldviews,” not only to avoid intellectual incoherence, but also to avoid an unintended continuation of the cultural condescension we all seek to leave behind.

Also, this:

For an English speaker, to a large extent, learning Mandarin is a matter of learning how much is unnecessary to still communicate effectively. No articles. No way to express the past tense. It’s quite common not to mark things as plural. The first words of the Bible can be rendered as “Start-start God achieve-make sky-earth.”

 

2. Difficulties of translating Finnegan’s Wake.

3. A compilation of Vonnegut writings for various situations.

4. On memorizing poems.

5. Pennsylvania dialects.

6. About creativity as associative brain activity.

Links: KISS, fiction writing

1. An amusing piece by Chuck Klosterman about KISS includes this passage:

When the critical world looks at Kiss, they see adults pretending to be characters they are not, projecting unsophisticated music about fantasy emotions, presented as a means of earning revenue. What they do not see is that this is how almost all rock music would appear to an alien. It is inside the genre’s very DNA, all the way back to Elvis. So Kiss are not a cheaper, exploitive translation of rock; Kiss are the living definition of rock’s electrifying unreality, presented with absolute transparency.

2. This article describes the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference, but it describes things — the difficulty of getting published, the lack of money once one does get published, and the few teaching opportunities in creative writing — that make me wonder why so many people want to become fiction writers, at least, as fiction writing seems to be institutionally practiced now. I understand that some people feel called to write fiction, and I don’t mean to criticize that impulse, that desire; what I find odd is why so many people seem willing to suffer the indignities of a market and a public that doesn’t want them. I’m a writer, too, but the idea that one would need to get paid for such an interest seems a harsh principle to live by.

3. An Atlantic article with the title: “Why Music Sounds Better When You Know the Artist Is Eccentric: Our brains associate eccentricity and creativity in musicians, painters, writers, and other artists—as long as weirdness doesn’t feel like a gimmick.”

4. Fiction and the passage of time.

The memoirist’s Faustian bargain

An article about the books Karl Ove Knausgaard has written about his own life points out the difficulty of writing about one’s family members.

He also wanted to be truthful, and that meant including the real names and real lives of the people he loves. It’s a Faustian pact and Knausgaard, never anticipating sales like this, was naive about the repercussions, some of them irreparable.

This is why I don’t want to write about my family or my colleagues in any critical or “truthful” way: I don’t want to piss people off. As Richard Hugo wrote:

In real life try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and give you more time to write.

I side with Hugo: I want to have good, trusting relationships and stable life-conditions so that I can continue to write. I can’t write when my life is in uproar.

I get that some people may want to use their life experiences as fodder for their art, or they may want to use their art to work through their life experiences. (Or as Tim Parks says here, some authors may intentionally write about others: “[D. H. ]Lawrence frequently and blatantly put people he knew in his novels and seemed to relish the fallout. Joyce was the same.“)

But to my mind, anyone who writes about other real people risks taking his own opinions as being more than just opinions. I have been guilty at times of thinking that my ways of seeing and judging things are correct, which then allows me to label others’ perceptions as incorrect. It seems part of maturity to acknowledge that, of course, my opinions and judgments about other people are no more true than their judgments of me are.

I don’t want to be judged by others (and neither did Sartre) — and even though I know others will judge me, I don’t necessarily want to know what they think. I suppose that a world in which we went around telling other people what we really thought of them (rather than telling “white lies” or just being silent) would be a much less pleasant world.  Some people brag that they don’t care what others think. When I hear this, I hope that they’re bluffing, because people who truly don’t care what others think are just asocial or assholes or asocial-assholes.

So I don’t want to write what can be perceived as accurate depictions of real people. I don’t want to write about how a person “really is,” as if such a thing were possible anyway. (And of course, the celebrity profile in certain popular magazines matters only if it seems to convey a “real” picture of a celebrity, but of course,  how is there anything real or natural about Esquire’s “2013 Sexiest Woman Alive” Scarlett Johansson sitting in a Manhattan bar and asking her interviewer, “What do you want me to write?” on a hotel pad of paper after she has “eagerly” taken the interviewer’s pen.)

So me, I write about ideas. I don’t want to write about reality. I mean, I do sometimes write down exact quotes of things I hear (which accuracy of quotation depends on my auditory acuity and processing) and I sometimes write things I see while I am writing in that place (for examples,  here and here). But I want to be as objective as possible here, reporting only things that can be directly sensed — I try not to characterize. Strictly speaking, I do characterize merely by choosing what to observe, what to pay attention to, and what to write down.

When we write about living people, we writers are, in some sense, trying to say something about how those we write about “really are.” (If we aren’t at least trying to be accurate, we’re simply lying about that person.) Yes, we readers can be skeptical and acknowledge that no description can be fully accurate, etc., and yet the written description may, if we lack contradictory or competing information, become the default understanding we have of a person.

I’m skeptical that any person can be usefully depicted or captured in words or ideas, and I’m not sure that any ideas can be said to capture or adequately convey any reality. But looking at the options and possibilities of ideas, all the different ways that we can experience and conceive real things, this interests me more than writing about real people. Maybe I’d advise writing about completely fictional people, or writing poems about things any person could experience, rather than trying to write about what a real person really did.

Links: TV stories replace novels, etc.

1. This post at The Dish about people having their need for stories fulfilled by watching TV rather than by reading books reminds me of a similar thing Kurt Vonnegut said about why short stories aren’t purchased by and read in magazines during the age of TV as they were before TV. (I can’t seem to find this particular quote online.)

2. But I did find these collections of wonderful KVJ quotes here and here.

3. Fiction as moral, and writing fiction as a process of inquiry. See also my recent posting on fiction-as-morality here.

4. Tolstoy on meaning and death, from a recent review excerpted here:

And by accepting existence as it was they accepted its cessation too.

5. Secular societies and spiritual experiences.

6. A sarcastic-but-excellent column about why guns don’t belong on any campus.

7. We study philosophy to have our own perspectives challenged. Some great bits in this interview with philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, starting with philosophy and kids:

How early do you think children can, or should, start learning about philosophy?

I started really early with my daughters. They said the most interesting things that if you’re trained in philosophy you realize are big philosophical statements. The wonderful thing about kids is that the normal way of thinking, the conceptual schemes we get locked up in, haven’t gelled yet with them. When my daughter was a toddler, I’d say “Danielle!” she would very assuredly, almost indignantly, say, “I’m not Danielle! I’m this!” I’d think, What is she trying to express? This is going to sound ridiculous, but she was trying to express what Immanuel Kant calls the transcendental ego. You’re not a thing in the world the way there are other things in the world, you’re the thing experiencing other things—putting it all together. This is what this toddler was trying to tell me. Or when my other daughter, six at the time, was talking with her hands and knocked over a glass of juice. She said, “Look at what my body did!” I said, “Oh, you didn’t do that?” And she said, “No! My body did that!” I thought, Oh! Cartesian dualism! She meant that she didn’t intend to do that, and she identified herself with her intentional self. It was fascinating to me.

And kids love to argue.

They could argue with me about anything. If it were a good argument I would take it seriously. See if you can change my mind. It teaches them to be self-critical, to look at their own opinions and see what the weak spots are. This is also important in getting them to defend their own positions, to take other people’s positions seriously, to be able to self-correct, to be tolerant, to be good citizens and not to be taken in by demagoguery. The other thing is to get them to think about moral views. Kids have a natural egotistical morality. Every kid by age three is saying, “That’s not fair!” Well, use that to get them to think about fairness. Yes, they feel a certain sense of entitlement, but what is special about them? What gives them such a strong sense of fairness? They’re natural philosophers. And they’re still so flexible.

There’s a peer pressure that sets in at a certain age. They so much want to be like everybody else. But what I’ve found is that if you instill this joy of thinking, the sheer intellectual fun, it will survive even the adolescent years and come back in fighting form. It’s empowering.

and on philosophical progress:

There is, among some scientists, a real anti-philosophical bias. The sense that philosophy will eventually disappear. But there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see. It’s very hard to see because we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world. … It’s amazing how long it takes us, but we do make progress. And it’s usually philosophical arguments that first introduce the very outlandish idea that we need to extend rights. And it takes more, it takes a movement, and activism, and emotions, to affect real social change. It starts with an argument, but then it becomes obvious. The tracks of philosophy’s work are erased because it becomes intuitively obvious. The arguments against slavery, against cruel and unusual punishment, against unjust wars, against treating children cruelly—these all took arguments.

and

What was intuition two generations ago is no longer intuition; and it’s arguments that change it. We are very inertial creatures. We do not like to change our thinking, especially if it’s inconvenient for us. And certainly the people in power never want to wonder whether they should hold power. So it really takes hard, hard work to overcome that.

and on how to teach philosophy:

How do you think philosophy is best taught?

I get very upset when I’m giving a lecture and I’m not interrupted every few sentences by questions. My style is such that that happens very rarely. That’s my technique. I’m really trying to draw the students out, make them think for themselves. The more they challenge me, the more successful I feel as a teacher. It has to be very active. Plato used the metaphor that in teaching philosophy, there needs to be a fire in the teacher, and the sheer heat will help the fire grow in the student. It’s something that’s kindled because of the proximity to the heat.

and