Creative Magic

By David Trend

“The central question upon which all creative living hinges is: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures hidden within you?” With this entreaty, author Elizabeth Gilbert introduced her recent bestseller Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which offered an artistic cure for an anxious American culture.[i] Speaking directly to widespread feelings of disaffection and powerlessness, Big Magic romanticized artistry in Gilbert’s signature blend of sentiment and cliché––packaging familiar views (human creativity, divine creativity, etc.) with a self-help twist about creating one’s “self” in new and better ways.  While one easily can write off Big Magic as yet another feel-good advice book (which it surely is), I think it’s time to take Gilbert’s approach to creativity seriously and ponder why such ideas now get so much traction.

Publicity doesn’t hurt. Reviewers effused over Big Magic as a “book-length meditation on inspiration” (Newsday) to “unlock your inner artist” (Woman’s Day) and “dream a life without limits” (Publishers’ Weekly).[ii] This message resonated well with the rising chorus promoting creativity as an innovation engine and economic tonic.  While no one would dispute the positive benefits of a little artistic dabbling, at what point does such wishful thinking begin to border on delusion? Or put another way, when does fantasy paper over reality? Might it be that America’s fondness for make-believe is party behind the nation’s political confusion and disaffection? Do fairy-tale versions of life infantilize a citizenry that should know that answers don’t always come easily?  Certainly the fantasy-version of reality offered by certain politicians would fail any thoughtful analysis. But instead, many leaders continue treating their constituents like children, with entire governments encouraging populations to set worries aside and simply “Be Creative.”

In Magical Thinking and the Decline of America, historian Richard L. Rapson took a long look at the nation’s romantic idealism. “Probably in no other society of the world can one write the script for one’s life as completely as United States. This fact has made the nation the ‘promised land’ for much of the world over the past two centuries,” Rapson wrote. “The flight into endless self-improvement and innocent optimism has a long lineage in our past.”[iii] Perhaps anticipating Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sloganeering, Rapson pointed to the disconnection between America’s self-image as an “exceptional” driver of human history, and the growing evidence of the nation’s falling fortunes. This has led to what Rapson described as a growing “flight from knowledge and reality into faith and fantasy,” resulting in large part from “an American public increasingly in thrall to the fairytales told by the mass media.”[iv]  It also promotes a “cultural fixation on the individual, the personal, the biographical, the confessional, and, all too often, the narcissistic,” and hence the rise of new “magic words” like “self-awareness,” “personal growth” and other aphorisms promoting everyone to “be all that you can be.”[v]

Individualism lies at the heart of American idealism, dating to the country’s Enlightenment Era origins, when the autonomous subject was invented as a counterpoint to deific and royal authority. Necessary as individualism was (and remains), no one could have predicted how its value could be magnified and distorted in neoliberal times.  The initial affirmation of personal identity, which encouraged people to vote and participate in society, soon morphed into “striving to get ahead” and “winning at any cost.” Eventually the “self” would become an American obsession of theological proportions. “The purpose of nearly all the current gospels is to put believers ‘in touch’ with themselves,” Rapson further explained.[vi] This new brand of secular “faith” also comports well with the religiosity many Americans still profess, especially evangelical strains that promise economic gain to dutiful worshippers. Continue reading “Creative Magic”

Stigma and Mental Illness

By David Trend

“The more I became immersed in the study of stigmatized mental illness, the more it astonishing to me that any such phenomenon should exist at all,” writes Robert Lundin, a member of the Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research. “I believe that serious and persistent mental illnesses, like the one I live with, are clearly an inexorably no-fault phenomena that fully warrant being treated with the same gentleness and respect as multiple-sclerosis, testicular cancer or sickle-cell anemia.”[i] Here Lundin names a central of problem in the social construction of mental illness: the misunderstanding of conditions affecting the mind as somehow different from other biological illness. The misrecognition renders mental illness prone to the judgmental attributions discussed by Susan Sontag in her 1973 book Illness as Metaphor.  To Sontag, contemporary society reverses ancient views of sickness as a reflection of the inner self.  In this new view, the inner self is seen as actively causing sickness––through smoking, overeating, addictive behavior, and bad habits: “The romantic idea that disease expresses the character is invariably extended to exert that the character causes the disease–because it is not expressed itself. Passion moves inward, striking within the deepest cellular recesses.”[ii] But as before, the sick person is to blame for the illness.

Such sentiments are especially vindictive when a mentally ill person commits a crime. Understandably perhaps, clinical terms like “mental illness” quickly acquire malevolent meanings in the public mind––even though the mentally ill statistically are no more prone to criminality than anyone else. Sometimes this semiotic slippage causes public panic over commonplace disorders. Consider the case of Adam Lanza, the young man who in 2013 shot 26 children and adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts. While mental health analysts speculate that an acute psychotic episode prompted his violence, Lanza never had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. As reporters scrambled for a story, much was made of Lanza’s childhood symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. The repeated mention of this disorder in news coverage triggered wrong-headed fears nationally of the murderous potential in other autistic kids. According the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 1 in 50 people (1.5-million) fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum, 80 percent of whom are boys.[iii] This has prompted improved diagnostic measures, which in turn have resulted in an apparent rise in autism cases in recent years––up 78 percent from a decade ago––and made autism a source of acute anxiety for many new parents. Continue reading “Stigma and Mental Illness”

Belonging Where?

By David Trend:

Throughout its existence the United States has shown a strange tendency to turn against itself, dividing citizens against each other with a vehemence rivaling the most brutal regimes on earth. Some have rationalized the resulting crisis of “belonging” in America as an understandable consequence of cultural diversity, economic stress, and global threat. After all, haven’t there always been “insiders” and “outsiders” in every culture? Aren’t competition and aggression wired into human nature?  Or is there something peculiar about the personality of the U.S.?  Could it be that prejudice is the real legacy of the “American Exceptionalism,” in traditions dating to the genocide of indigenous populations, the subjugation of women, the rise of slavery, the scapegoating of immigrants, and more recent assaults on the poor or anyone falling outside the realm of normalcy?

I discussed selected aspects of America’s divisive pathology in my book A Culture Divided: America’s Struggle for Unity, which was written in the closing years of the George W. Bush presidency.  Like many at the time, I had completely given up on the idea of “common ground” amid the residue of post-9/11 reactionary fervor and emerging economic recession. Media commentators were buzzing constantly about red/blue state polarization.  Opinions varied about the cause of the divide, attributing it to factors including regionalism, media sensationalism, partisan antipathy, or all of these combined. Also joining the fray were those asserting the divide was fabricated, with evenly divided elections showing most people in the middle of the curve on most issues.  My somewhat contrarian view was that the “problem” shouldn’t be regarded problem at all. After all, America always had been divided––through war and peace, boom and bust. Division was the country’s national brand.  But as a book about politics, A Culture Divided didn’t get to the roots or the lived experience America’s compulsive divisiveness.

Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Barack Obama described America as an incomplete project––a nation caught between ideals of a perfect union and the lingering realities of their failure. While citing advances in civil liberties since the bloody apex of the Voting Rights Movement, Obama also spoke of a federal report issued just days earlier documenting structural racism and misbehavior toward African Americans by police in Ferguson, MO, where months before law enforcement officers had killed an unarmed black teenager. “We know the march is not yet over.  We know the race is not yet won,” the President stated, adding, “We know that reaching that blessed destination requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth.” Continue reading “Belonging Where?”

The Big Data vs Artists and Everyone Else

By David Trend:

Heard about Generation Z?  The demographic growing up in the 2000s? It’s a bigger group than Boomers or Millennials–––and it has one further distinction. “Members of Generation Z are ‘digital natives’ who cannot remember what it was like not to have access to the Internet –– no matter when, no matter what, no matter where,” according to Forbes Magazine. This is a group raised on networked “connecting” with others, sharing, and buying things. It’s second nature to Gen-Zers to upload their favorite music on YouTube, post images on Facebook, and sell things on Etsy or eBay. Much is being made in creative economy talk of how networks now blur traditional producer/ consumer roles, manifest in the new figure of the “prosumer.” In Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything authors Don Prescott and Anthony D. Williams effused over the democratization inherent in the new “Openness, Peering, Sharing and Acting Globally.”  Of course, there is nothing really new about home-made items, crafts, and people’s willingness to share. What’s different today is the ability to copy digitized materials and circulate them via electronic networks. Digitization also has made Generation Z the first demographic to be completely tracked by “big data” analytics.

Some creativity industry experts argue that this is nothing short of a revolution, driven by ongoing change more than any clear future. Evolutionary economist Jason Potts and collaborators have proposed what they term “Social Network Markets” unlike the top-down models of industrial capitalism.  Characterized by fluidity and exchange through complex fields of actors, the new social network markets are less governed by competition and profit than by communication and preference. Participants are “Not ‘buying’ the property, but buying into the social space.”  Moreover, the dynamics of these new markets are highly interactive. As the Potts group put it, “a social network is defined as a connected group of individual agents who make production and consumptions decisions based on the actions (signals) of other agents on the social network: a definition that gives primacy to communicative actions rather than connectivity alone.”  Almost by definition, this process rules out conventional manufacturing or professional services. Instead, the networks generate value through production and consumption of network-valorized choices.”

The beauty is that much of what is online now is free––seeming to arrive just in time in a tight economy. While a lot of the “free” stuff available online is user-generated (selfies, birthday announcements, anecdotal postings, etc.), a huge volume of material comes from other sources (news outlets, filmmakers, commercial music producers, artists). On the surface it looks like old Marxist doctrines are being reversed as items seem to be “decommodified” in the sharing economy. This idea has become an anthem of resistance in some circles. The Burning Man Festival, to take one example, has stated: “When we commodify we seek to make others, and ourselves, more like things, and less like human beings.  ‘Decommodification,’ then, is to reverse this process.  To make the world and the people in it more unique, more priceless, more human.”  This may be all well-and-good in the real-life sharing of food and weed at Burning Man. But when things get virtual, it’s usually a large corporation that owns the websites, servers, and networks that make sharing possible. Continue reading “The Big Data vs Artists and Everyone Else”

The Performance Art of the Deal

By David Trend:

As I write these words, many Americans remain up in arms about President Donald Trump’s peculiar relationship with the truth.  On a seemingly daily basis, the nation is greeted with a new round of accusations or indignant retorts from the President–– most of which bear little resemblance to objective reality. Let’s just say The Commander-in-Chief has a very “creative” approach to factuality––about everything from crime and immigration to science and the judiciary. Perhaps he’s joking or trying to shock people. Or maybe he’s a pathological liar. Time Magazine devoted a cover to the President’s “Truth and Falsehoods”;  the Los Angeles Times ran multiple “Why Trump Lies” editorials; and The New Yorker is now 14 installments in its ongoing “Trump and the Truth” series. Unsurprisingly, the President doubled-down on his claims, and––in keeping with his fondness for conspiracy theories––has labelled the entire field of journalism “the enemy of the American people.” Endless pundits and commenters have tried to discern a logic in the President’s bizarre behavior––in which mischief and chaos seem the only constants.

Say what you will about Trump, his ability to get public attention is astonishing. And while some critics question the President’s grasp of “reality,” others see a calculated shrewdness in his behavior––an underlying strategy not unlike what Naomi Klein discussed in The Shock Doctrine.  “We already know the Trump administration plans to deregulate markets, wage all-out war on ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ trash climate science and unleash a fossil-fuel frenzy,” Klein recently stated, adding, “It’s a vision that can be counted on to generate a tsunami of crises and shocks.” She predicted economic shocks (as market bubbles burst), security shocks (as blowback from foreign belligerence comes home), weather shocks (as the climate is further destabilized), and industrial shocks (as oil pipelines spill and rigs collapse, especially when enjoying light-touch regulation).

“All this is dangerous enough,” Klein added, “What’s even worse is the way the Trump administration can be counted on to exploit these shocks politically and economically. Trump himself forecasted as much often in promising a “radical break” from the past––described by Fox News as a “shock and awe campaign against the Washington establishment.” This new agenda bears little resemblance to earlier “culture wars” between conventional liberal and conservative camps. Moral idealism has no place in Trump’s program of disruption and dishonesty. But his ability to confuse and deceive is not to be taken lightly. The Trump phenomenon raises important concerns about the role of knowledge in contemporary society––and the ways different worldviews are conceived, put into circulation, and frequently politicized. Continue reading “The Performance Art of the Deal”

Striking adjuncts

If adjuncts want more workplace rights, they have to take them. As Inside HigherEd reports, “That message was echoed throughout a discussion on non-tenure-track faculty rights here Monday at the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, or COCAL, conference. It’s being held this week at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York.

“The biennial gathering draws participants from the U.S., Mexico and Canada, and adjunct activist panelists from all three countries advocated striking as a real and valid means of achieving short- and long-term goals.

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“Unless and until faculty, including part-time faculty, hit the streets and occupy the classrooms,” said Stanley Aronowitz, a tenured professor of sociology and urban education at the CUNY Graduate Center, “there won’t be any change of substance.”  Aronowitz, who has worked as an adjunct professor several times throughout his career, said this idea applied even in those states where collective bargaining or strikes among public employees is prohibited by law. Faculty members at Nassau Community College who went on strike last year over protracted contract negotiations paid hefty fines for violating New York State’s Taylor Law, for example. (Under the law, the union was permitted to engage in collective bargaining, but not to strike.) But Aronowitz and other activists said that striking is a fundamental right that should be ensured by the First Amendment; without the right to strike, he said, collective bargaining too often becomes “collective begging.”Participants here responded to Aronowitz’s remarks on strikes with strong applause.

“Maria Teresa Lechuga, a Ph.D. candidate in pedagogy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, added: “We need to stop asking for permission to organize ourselves.” Panelists said that striking is always a “last resort,” to be exercised only when adjunct faculty members and administrators can’t otherwise reach common ground. But in order to ensure public support when and if the time to strike comes, advocates said, adjuncts need to nurture relationships with other kinds of workers, along with parents and students.Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, said adjuncts shouldn’t be afraid to bring up their working conditions with their students. She said such conversations are part of students’ “civic education” — an essential part of their studies. Continue reading “Striking adjuncts”

On academic publishing today

A few years ago I was desperately seeking a book contract, Writes Rachel Toor in the Chronicle of Higher Education“Things weren’t going well on the project I’d spent years working on, and I wanted a quick fix. In a frenzy I put together a crappy proposal for an advice book for graduate students and professors on writing and publishing and sent it to an editor I didn’t know at Harvard University Press.

“Five days later, Elizabeth Knoll responded by telling me she was already publishing a how-to-write-better book for academics, Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword (it’s excellent). Then she conveyed in the kindest way something I already knew: What I had proposed wasn’t a book. I had merely submitted a bunch of prose framing a table of contents for a collection of my Chronicle columns. She suggested we brainstorm an idea for a real book.

images“We had a warm and frequently funny correspondence about scholarly publishing, academic writing, issues and problems in higher education, growing up as children of academics, college admissions, mutual friends, and many other things. I went back to my original book project but still hoped that someday I would be able to publish a book with Elizabeth. Recently I found I had lost my chance. She’d left the press to become assistant provost for faculty appointments at Harvard. So I jumped on the opportunity to ask Elizabeth to reflect about her time in publishing, and to offer some advice on book publishing to Chronicle readers.

“Elizabeth went into the family business. Her father was a professor of English at the University of Nebraska; her mother had been one of her father’s most talented students. “I got my Ph.D. in the history of science,” she said. “Basically I was—and am—always curious about what counts as knowledge in different times and places.” After working at the Journal of the American Medical Association, Elizabeth got a job as an editor at the University of California Press in 1988, then at W.H. Freeman in 1994. She moved to Harvard Press in 1997. Continue reading “On academic publishing today”

When gender policing turns violent

Brooklyn fashion blogger Rachel Tutera knows that you might not see her the way she sees herself. As discussed on PBS.com,

“There’s a weird tendency in people to panic when they can’t tell if you’re a man or a woman, or how you may identify,” Tutera, 29, said. “There are people who find me provocative in a way that I don’t exactly understand.”

“As a gender non-conforming person, someone who behaves and appears in ways that are considered atypical for one’s sex assigned at birth, Tutera said she feels constant stress and anxiety from the outside world.

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“Whether I’m read as what I am, which is a masculine-presenting woman, or if I’m read as a feminine-presenting man, there’s a lot of danger there — physical danger,” Tutera said. “I’ve gotten shoved by guys, certain slurs.”  Tutera has been the victim of gender policing, the act of imposing or enforcing gender roles based on an individual’s perceived sex. This type of behavior can range from banal actions, like a confused look on the subway, to more insidious behavior like getting thrown out of a gendered public restroom or fitting room, she said.

“Gender non-conforming people get harassed on the basis of not being the right kind of woman, a failed woman, or not being the right kind of man, a failed man,” said Professor Anne Pellegrini, the director of New York University’s Gender and Sexuality Center. Pellegrini said gender policing amounts to a form of cultural oppression.

“According to Pellegrini, in most states, transgender and gender non-conforming people are not protected from workplace or housing discrimination. Just a few decades ago, state laws allowed police to arrest individuals for impersonating another sex if the police deemed they weren’t wearing gender-appropriate clothing. Continue reading “When gender policing turns violent”

Crowds at Europe’s museums

From the New York Times: “It is the height of summer, and millions of visitors are flocking to the Louvre — the busiest art museum in the world, with 9.3 million visitors last year — and to other great museums across Europe. Every year the numbers grow as new middle classes emerge, especially in Asia and Eastern Europe. Last summer the British Museum had record attendance, and for 2013 as a whole it had 6.7 million visitors, making it the world’s second-most-visited art museum, according to The Art Newspaper. Attendance at the Uffizi in Florence for the first half of the year is up almost 5 percent over last year

“Seeing masterpieces may be a soul-nourishing cultural rite of passage, but soaring attendance has turned many museums into crowded, sauna-like spaces, forcing institutions to debate how to balance accessibility with art preservation.

“In recent years, museums have started doing more to manage the crowds. Most offer timed tickets. Others are extending their hours. To protect the art, some are putting in new air-conditioning systems. Still, some critics say that they’re not doing enough.

imgres“Last year, the Vatican Museums had a record 5.5 million visitors. This year, thanks to the popularity of Pope Francis, officials expect that to rise to 6 million. The Vatican is installing a new climate-control system in the Sistine Chapel to help spare Michelangelo’s frescoes the humidity generated by the 2,000 people who fill the space at any given time, recently as many as 22,000 a day. The Vatican hopes to have it finished by October.

“In a telephone interview, Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, said his institution was in a bind: To safeguard the frescoes, attendance should not be allowed to increase, he said, but “the Sistine Chapel has a symbolic, religious value for Catholics and we can’t set a cap.”Museums generally don’t like keeping a lid on attendance. At the Hermitage, which had 3.1 million visitors last year, the only cap on the number of visitors is “the physical limitations of the space itself, or the number of hangers in the coat room during the winter,” said Nina V. Silanteva, the head of the museum’s visitor services department.Ms. Silanteva said the goal was to make the museum accessible to as many people as possible, but she conceded that the crowds pose problems. “Such a colossal number of simultaneous viewers isn’t good for the art, and it can be uncomfortable and overwhelming for those who come to see the art,” she said. “Thankfully nothing bad has happened, and God has saved us from any mishaps.”

Continue reading “Crowds at Europe’s museums”

Government can overestimate college costs

Federal listing of college costs often fail to calculate the rising supplements provided by student aid, grants, and loans.

As the New York Times reports, “The government’s official statistic for college-tuition inflation has become somewhat infamous. It appears frequently in the news media, and policy makers lament what it shows.No wonder: College tuition and fees have risen an astounding 107 percent since 1992, even after adjusting for economywide inflation, according to the measure. No other major household budget item has increased in price nearly as much.But it turns out the government’s measure is deeply misleading.

images“For years, that measure was based on the list prices that colleges published in their brochures, rather than the actual amount students and their families paid. The government ignored financial-aid grants. Effectively, the measure tracked the price of college for rich families, many of whom were not eligible for scholarships, but exaggerated the price – and price increases – for everyone from the upper middle class to the poor.The good news is that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has gradually begun to change its methods since 2003, to capture the effects of financial aid. It will take more time to know how well those efforts are working. But the bureau won’t alter the historical data, which means the long-term comparisons will never capture the actual cost of college for American families.

“Those oft-cited comparisons, notes Sandy Baum, a George Washington University professor and an expert on college costs, says, are “certainly misleading.”

“The discrepancy matters because the country is in the midst of a roiling debate about whether college is worth it. Various pundits on both the left and right have taken to claiming that higher education is overrated and often not worth it. The shocking increase in college costs, according to the official Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, is part of their argument. Continue reading “Government can overestimate college costs”

Religion = politics in America

Even as overall party identification trends in the U.S. have shifted over the past six and half years, the relationship between religion and party identification has remained consistent. Very religious Americans are more likely to identify with or lean toward the Republican Party and less frequently identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, compared with those who are moderately or nonreligious.

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Gallup classifies Americans as “very religious” if they say religion is an important part of their daily lives and that they attend religious services every week or almost every week. That group constituted 41% of all U.S. adults in the first half of 2014. “Nonreligious” Americans (30% of Americans in 2014) are those who say religion is not an important part of their daily lives and that they seldom or never attend religious services. The remaining group, 29%, are classified as “moderately religious.” These people say religion is important in their lives but that they do not attend services regularly, or that religion is not important but that they still attend services.

From 2008 to June 2014, nonreligious Americans have been the most Democratic of the three religious groups, with a net Democratic value ranging between +38 and +19 over that period. Those who are moderately religious have also tilted Democratic, with net values ranging from +23 to +1. Those who are very religious are least Democratic, with net values in the negative range, meaning that on average, this group identifies with or leans toward the Republican Party more than the Democratic Party. Continue reading “Religion = politics in America”

Christian schools allowed to discriminate

When word spread this month that George Fox University had received an exemption to Title IX, allowing it to discriminate against a transgender student by denying him the housing he requested, many advocates for transgender students were stunned. Federal regulations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 do in fact require the Education Department to exempt colleges from rules that violate their religious beliefs. During the debate, George Fox officials noted that they were objecting to a housing request only, and that they haven’t kicked the student out of the university.

But now the Education Department has confirmed that it has since awarded two more exemptions to Title IX to Christian colleges that want to discriminate against transgender students. These colleges assert (and the Education Department agreed) that they should be exempt from more of Title IX than just housing equity. These colleges have policies to punish transgender students for being transgender students, apparently up to expulsion — and they can now do so legally. The two institutions are Spring Arbor University, in Michigan, and Simpson University, in California.

Spring Arbor is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church and its traditions. It requested exemption from Title IX with regard to issues of admissions, behavioral rules, housing, access to restrooms, athletic participation and more.

The university’s student handbook says: “Spring Arbor University reserves the right to terminate or deny enrollment of those whose influence upon our community should prove to be in our judgment intractably contrary to the best interests of our students, and commitments to our university and to our Lord. Therefore, Spring Arbor University will not support persistent or conspicuous examples of cross-dressing or other expressions or actions that are deliberately discordant with birth gender, and will deal with such matters within the appropriate pastoral and conduct processes of the university.”

Continue reading “Christian schools allowed to discriminate”

“Life coaching” for the poor?

What if the poor need more than disposable income to escape poverty? What if they need a life coach?

According to Slate.com, “That’s the position of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, who in his new anti-poverty plan wants poor families to work with government agencies or charitable nonprofits to craft “life plans” as a condition of receiving federal assistance under his proposed “opportunity grants.” “In the envisioned scenario providers would work with families to design a customized life plan to provide a structured roadmap out of poverty,” Ryan writes. At a minimum, these life plans would include “a contract outlining specific and measurable benchmarks for success,” a “timeline” for meeting them, “sanctions” for breaking them, “incentives for exceeding the terms of the contract,” and “time limits”—presumably independent of actual program limits—for “remaining on cash assistance.”

Continue reading ““Life coaching” for the poor?”

After 90 years, it’s time for the ERA

Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Jackie Speier (D-CA)gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court Thursday morning to demand that the Equal Rights Amendment  finally pass.

As Ms Magazine writes, “The congresswomen, along with Feminist Majority president (and publisher of Ms.) Ellie Smeal, NOW president Terry O’Neill and other feminist leaders and activists, called on legislators to codify women’s equality in the constitution. As a reminder of the anti-woman rhetoric that has lately informed public policy, Rep. Speier quoted Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, “Certainly the constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex, the only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.”

“She continued,

A justice of the Supreme Court has said publicly that the constitution does not prohibit discrimination based on sex, and that is precisely why we need the ERA. Those words should haunt every woman in this country.

“The good news, she said, is that “equality is only 24 words away,” referencing the text of the ERA:

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

“The congresswomen have each introduced ERA-related legislation. In March, Rep. Speier called on legislators to remove the deadline by which states must ratify the amendment (the last deadline was June 1982, and by that date the ERA was just three states shy of passing). If passed, her bill would give those last three states a chance to ratify the amendment. Continue reading “After 90 years, it’s time for the ERA”

Court upholds race in university admissions

From the New York Times: “In a long-running affirmative-action case, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Tuesday upheld the University of Texas at Austin’s consideration of race as one of many factors in admissions.images

“We are persuaded that to deny U.T. Austin its limited use of race in its search for holistic diversity would hobble the richness of the educational experience in contradiction of the plain teachings of Bakke and Grutter,” Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham wrote, referring to two previous affirmative-action rulings by the Supreme Court.William C. Powers Jr., the president of the University of Texas at Austin, said he was pleased with the decision upholding the admissions policy.

“This ruling ensures that our campus, our state and the entire nation will benefit from the exchange of ideas and thoughts that happens when students who are diverse in all regards come together in the classroom, at campus events and in all aspects of campus life,” he said.Texas’ “Top Ten Percent Plan” guarantees the top graduates of every high school in the state a place at the flagship Austin campus or other universities in the state system, and because many Texas high schools are largely segregated, many black and Latino students are admitted to the university under the plan.

“While the Top Ten Percent Plan boosts minority enrollment by skimming from the tops of Texas high schools, it does so against this backdrop of increasing resegregation in Texas public schools, where over half of Hispanic students and 40 percent of black students attend a school with 90 percent-100 percent minority enrollment,” said the majority opinion, in which Judge Higginbotham was joined by Judge Carolyn Dineen King.While the University of Texas does get some diversity from the plan, the majority opinion said, it can constitutionally make further efforts to increase diversity.

“U.T. Austin has demonstrated a permissible goal of achieving the educational benefits of diversity within that university’s distinct mission, not seeking a percentage of minority students that reaches some arbitrary size,” the opinion said.Judge Emilio M. Garza wrote a lengthy dissent, arguing that while the university claims that its use of race was narrowly tailored to meet its diversity goal, it never defined that goal, making it impossible to say whether the use of race actually was tailored to meet it. Continue reading “Court upholds race in university admissions”

Mentally ill brutalized in prison

From today’s New York Times, “After being arrested on a misdemeanor charge following a family dispute last year, Jose Bautista was unable to post images$250 bail and ended up in a jail cell on Rikers Island.

A few days later, he tore his underwear, looped it around his neck and tried to hang himself from the cell’s highest bar. Four correction officers rushed in and cut him down. But instead of notifying medical personnel, they handcuffed Mr. Bautista, forced him to lie face down on the cell floor and began punching him with such force, according to New York City investigators, that he suffered a perforated bowel and needed emergency surgery.

Just a few weeks earlier, Andre Lane was locked in solitary confinement in a Rikers cellblock reserved for inmates with mental illnesses when he became angry at the guards for not giving him his dinner and splashed them with either water or urine. Correction officers handcuffed him to a gurney and transported him to a clinic examination room beyond the range of video cameras where, witnesses say, several guards beat him as members of the medical staff begged for them to stop. The next morning, the walls and cabinets of the examination room were still stained with Mr. Lane’s blood.

The assaults on Mr. Bautista and Mr. Lane were not isolated episodes. Brutal attacks by correction officers on inmates — particularly those with mental health issues — are common occurrences inside Rikers, the country’s second-largest jail, a four-month investigation by The New York Times found.

Reports of such abuses have seldom reached the outside world, even as alarm has grown this year over conditions at the sprawling jail complex. A dearth of whistle-blowers, coupled with the reluctance of the city’s Department of Correction to acknowledge the problem and the fact that guards are rarely punished, has kept the full extent of the violence hidden from public view.

But The Times uncovered details on scores of assaults through interviews with current and former inmates, correction officers and mental health clinicians at the jail, and by reviewing hundreds of pages of legal, investigative and jail records. Among the documents obtained by The Times was a secret internal study completed this year by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which handles medical care at Rikers, on violence by officers. The report helps lay bare the culture of brutality on the island and makes clear that it is inmates with mental illnesses who absorb the overwhelming brunt of the violence. Continue reading “Mentally ill brutalized in prison”

Thinking dangerously

Thinking has become dangerous in the United States. As Henry A Giroux  observes in today’s TruthOut, “the symptoms are everywhere including a Texas GOP Party platform that states, “We oppose teaching of Higher order Thinking Skills [because they] have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental control” to a Tennessee bill that “allows the teaching of creationism in state’s classrooms.”

“At a time when anti-intellectualism runs rampant throughout popular culture and the political landscape, it seems imperative to once again remind ourselves of how important critical thought as a crucible for thinking analytically can be both a resource and an indispensable tool. If critical thought, sometimes disparaged as theory, gets a bad name, it is not because it is inherently dogmatic, jargonistic or rigidly specialized, but because it is often abused or because it becomes a tool of irrelevancy – a form of theoreticism in which theory becomes an end in itself. This abuse of critical thought appears to have a particularly strong hold in the humanities, especially among many graduate students in English departments who often succumb to surrendering their own voices to class projects and dissertations filled with obtuse jargon associated with the most fashionable theorists of the moment. Such work is largely rewarded less for its originality than the fact that it threatens no one.

“At the same time there are many students who find the esoteric language associated with dangerous thinking and critical thought to be too difficult to master or engage. The latter points to the fact that some theories may be useless because they are too impenetrable to decipher or that there are theories which support bad practices such as high-stakes testing, creationism, faith-based evidence, the spanking of children, incarcerating children as adults and other assumptions and policies that are equally poisonous. Theory is not inherently good or bad. Its meaning and efficacy are rooted in a politics of usefulness, accessibility and whether it can be used resourcefully to articulate frameworks and tools that deepen the possibility of self-reflection, critical thought and a sense of social responsibility. For instance, a theory is bad if it inadequately grasps the forces at work in the world and simply reproduces it as it is. Theory is also injurious when it is used to legitimate modes of inquiry and research that are bought by corporations, the military and other state and private institutions to legitimate dangerous products, policies and social practices.

“Theory has no guarantees, and like any other mode of thought, it has to be problematized, critically engaged and judged in terms of its interests, effects and value as part of a broader enhancement of human agency and democratization. At their best, theory, thinking dangerously and critical thought have the power to shift the questions, provide the tools for offering historical and relational contexts, and “push at the frontiers . . . of the human imagination.” Moreover, theory functions as a critical resource when it can intervene in the “continuity of commonsense, unsettle strategies of domination” and work to promote strategies of transformation.=As Theodor Adorno observes, “Theory speaks for what is not narrow-minded – and commonsense most certainly is.=As such, theory is not only analytical in its search for understanding and truth, it is also critical and subversive, always employing modes of self and social critique necessary to examine its own grounds and those poisonous fundamentalisms in the larger society haunting the body politic. As Michael Payne observes, theory should be cast in the language of hints, dialogue and an openness to other positions, rather than be “cast in the language or orders.” Continue reading “Thinking dangerously”

Multiplayer games as the future of learning

Appearing in today’s edition of The Atlantic: “It was just supposed to be a quick trip to Beijing, a touristy group thing to take in the sights. It wasn’t supposed to go down like this.There wasn’t supposed to be a lost manuscript; the travelers weren’t supposed to turn on each other. The only good, if any, to be found in this godforsaken quest, this unholy mission, was that by the end of it, they would all know how to speak Mandarin.imgres-1

“This intricate Maltese Falcon­-like story will unfold each day, over the course of semester, as a multiplayer game at Renssalear Polytechnic Institute in New York. It is being  designed as a language-learning exercise by Lee Sheldon, an associate professor in the college’s Games and Simulations Arts and Sciences Program. “Using games and storytelling to teach­—it’s not that radical of a concept,” says Sheldon. “It makes them more interested in what’s going on.”

“Sheldon is a pioneer in gamification, a new movement that essentially takes all the things that make video games engaging and applies them to classroom learning. Sheldon started developing the theory eight years ago. Since then, gamification now comes in all shapes and sizes and is used across educational levels, for kindergarteners through adult learners. Its practitioners range from individual teachers experimenting with game-like elements in their classrooms to entire schools that have integrated the games into their curricula.

“The goal is to change the student’s mindset to a mastery orientation­—to promote motivation, engagement, active learning­—and to cultivate 21st century skills like collaboration, problem solving, creativity and systems thinking,” says Joey Lee, a research assistant professor of Technology and Education at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. “Learning looks very different today, so we need to move away from the Industrial Revolution one-size-fits-all model that still plagues much of education.” Continue reading “Multiplayer games as the future of learning”

Summer motivation

THERE are two kinds of motive for engaging in any activity: internal and instrumental. If a scientist conducts research because she wants to discover important facts about the world, that’s an internal motive, since discovering facts is inherently related to the activity of research. If she conducts research because she wants to achieve scholarly renown, that’s an instrumental motive, since imagesthe relation between fame and research is not so inherent. Often, people have both internal and instrumental motives for doing what they do.

What mix of motives — internal or instrumental or both — is most conducive to success? You might suppose that a scientist motivated by a desire to discover facts and by a desire to achieve renown will do better work than a scientist motivated by just one of those desires. Surely two motives are better than one. But as we and our colleagues argue in a paper newly published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, instrumental motives are not always an asset and can actually be counterproductive to success.

We analyzed data drawn from 11,320 cadets in nine entering classes at the United States Military Academy at West Point, all of whom rated how much each of a set of motives influenced their decision to attend the academy. The motives included things like a desire to get a good job later in life (an instrumental motive) and a desire to be trained as a leader in the United States Army (an internal motive).

How did the cadets fare, years later? And how did their progress relate to their original motives for attending West Point?

We found, unsurprisingly, that the stronger their internal reasons were to attend West Point, the more likely cadets were to graduate and become commissioned officers. Also unsurprisingly, cadets with internal motives did better in the military (as evidenced by early promotion recommendations) than did those without internal motives and were also more likely to stay in the military after their five years of mandatory service — unless (and this is the surprising part) they also had strong instrumental motives.

Remarkably, cadets with strong internal and strong instrumental motives for attending West Point performed worse on every measure than did those with strong internal motives but weak instrumental ones. They were less likely to graduate, less outstanding as military officers and less committed to staying in the military. Continue reading “Summer motivation”

When fantasy crosses a criminal line

In his mind and online persona, Gilberto Valle left little doubt about the depths of his depravation: In communications over the Internet, he imagined subjecting women he knew to sex-related torture and, in some cases, murder and cannibalism.

And, prosecutors said, that activity and other actions were all part of what they described as a kidnapping conspiracy, a charge for which he was convicted in 2013.

But on Tuesday, a federal judge in Manhattan ordered Mr. Valle, 30, released on bond just hours after overturning his conviction.

The judge, in a decision released late Monday night, concluded that Mr. Valle’s Internet plotting had been “fantasy role play” and was not evidence of an actual crime.

“This is a conspiracy that existed solely in cyberspace,” the judge, Paul G. Gardephe of Federal District Court, said in a 118-page opinion that granted a judgment of acquittal to Mr. Valle, a former New York City police officer who had faced a potential life sentence for his conviction.The ruling resurrected the key issue in Mr. Valle’s widely followed trial: When does a virtual crime, contemplated in Internet chat rooms, become an actual crime?

Joseph V. DeMarco, an Internet lawyer and a former head of the cybercrime unit in the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, said after reading the decision: “I think that the court was profoundly disturbed by the relative lack of evidence in the kinetic world corroborating the defendant’s intent to carry through on any of the communications.”

“What this case, I think, emphasizes,” Mr. DeMarco added, “is that people have broad rights to express fantasies online, which can lead to a lot of speech that people find disturbing and repugnant but which nonetheless will not cross the line into criminal liability.”

Judge Gardephe wrote that in the charged conspiracy, all communications between Mr. Valle and his alleged co-conspirators in New Jersey and overseas took place over the Internet. None of the conspirators ever met or spoke by phone, exchanged accurate information about where they lived or even knew or sought to learn one another’s true identities, he observed. Continue reading “When fantasy crosses a criminal line”