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December 30, 2004 [feather]
What's wrong with American high schools?

This short NPR clip tries at least to scratch the surface of this question via a quick interview with Theodore Sizer, former high school principal, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, and author of The Red Pencil: Convictions from Experience in Education. Sizer comes down hard on two of the defining features of American public high schools: the unwieldy student:teacher ratio (usually around 25 or 30 to 1) and the absurdly fragmented school day, in which kids are shuffled from subject to subject and place to place every 50 minutes and in which, as a consequence, there is very little opportunity for focussed, concentrated work of any kind. Noting that the shape of the typical high school day has not changed much for the past century, Sizer suggests that it is not satisfaction with a solidly working system that has kept things so constant, but a debilitating fear of change.

Erin O'Connor, 10:15 AM | Permalink | Comments (39)

Drug testing in UK school

A secondary school in the charming hamlet of Faversham, Kent, will become the first UK school to employ a state scheme for performing random drug testing on students. The Abbey School does not have a particular problem with drugs, but is working proactively with parents to ensure that things stay that way.

Each week, twenty of the school's 960 students will be randomly selected for a mouth swab that will test for marijuana, cocaine, and Ecstasy, among other substances. So far 85% of parents have given the school permission to screen their children for drugs--students of nonconsenting parents will not be tested. Teachers are showing their support for the program by agreeing to be tested, too. Students who test positive will not be expelled, but anyone found dealing will be.

Erin O'Connor, 9:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

December 29, 2004 [feather]
R. I. P.

"A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It's a creator of inwardness."

--Susan Sontag, 1933-2004

The media is bristling with obituaries for this most provocative and controversial of thinkers. Two of the better ones may be found at the L.A. Times.

Erin O'Connor, 9:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

December 21, 2004 [feather]
From one of McCook's students

On Sunday, I posted about the story of Kendall McCook, an adjunct professor of English who was fired after turning in his grades last week. McCook claims he was fired because a conservative student complained when he assigned Michael Moore's film, Fahrenheit 9/11. In the comments to my initial post, readers express doubt about whether that's the whole story; they also express skepticism about whether McCook really is the politically evenhanded teacher he makes himself out to be.

One of McCook's former students has written in to address that question. Here is her comment:

As a former student of Professor McCook's I was stunned to open the paper and read of his dismissal from TCC. He was one of the best professors that I have ever had and while I may not have agreed with all of his political views-myself being what some would call a staunch conservative-I never felt that he was pushing his political beliefs on me. Instead he nurtured a love for politics and encouraged us to question this wonderful, nonsensical thing we call government. As a young college student I think that society has stifled the ability to think, to question, to change. If a college fires him for asking students to formulate their own ideas and views of the world then I think that we have to ask ourselves-what is really wrong here? Professor McCook was an outstanding teacher and his dismissal is a sad reminder that formal education is just a didatic barrage of useless facts and not knowledge. The student who complained is one that has no interest in knowledge and harbors
no desire to see beyond the world that we build around ourselves. What is so wrong with asking people to question what they believe, to not blindly accept what we are told. What are they afraid might happen-that people might start thinking?

Food for thought.

Erin O'Connor, 5:06 PM | Permalink | Comments (24)

Just say no

As steroid abuse among athletes spreads to high schools, school districts are confronted with the financially prohibitive problem of testing athletes for drugs--which can cost over $100 per athlete per test. Florida's Polk County School District, where about 6% of student athletes admit to using performance-enhancing drugs, is instituting a serious testing and rehabilitation program, and has won a federal grant to cover the cost of the testing.

Erin O'Connor, 4:12 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

December 20, 2004 [feather]
Philly's x-rated schools

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on a disturbing pattern of sexually explicit behavior among young children attending Philadelphia public schools:

At one Philadelphia public school earlier this month, two boys were caught alone in a rest room, one atop the other, their underpants off and their groins in each other's faces.

They were kindergartners.

And it was no isolated case.

Dozens of Philadelphia School District police reports over the last year detail instances of youngsters' ordering classmates to perform sex acts, grabbing private parts, simulating sex acts on one another, and writing sexually explicit notes that sound like something out of a pornographic movie.

It's happening in classrooms and hallways, in rest rooms and on playgrounds.

Other instances include an eleven-year-old boy charged with raping a male classmate in a stairwell, a twelve-year-old boy forcing an eight-year-old girl to perform oral sex on him while on school property, and two five-year-old boys caught simulating sex in a restroom.

The schools are arranging for children to be screened--with parental consent--for evidence of sexual abuse. The screening will also attempt to determine whether a child has been exposed to sexual behavior or pornography. The article notes that the situation in Philadelphia schools is part of a nationwide pattern, and ties that pattern to early exposure to sexually explicit material in the home and on the internet. "The more children are exposed to adultlike sexual behaviors, the more likely they are to try some of that on," said Thomas Haworth, who directs child and adolescent services at the Peters Institute. "The children with their faces in each other's groins, that's not something you would come upon in normal childhood. That's adult sexual behavior." "The stuff available at their fingertips - that is really going to change the development of a whole generation of youth," said Jill Levenson, who teaches human services at Lynn University in Florida.

Erin O'Connor, 5:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

December 19, 2004 [feather]
Fired for showing Fahrenheit 9/11?

An adjunct English professor teaching at Tarrant County College claims he was fired for showing Michael Moore's film, Fahrenheit 9/11, to his class. Kendall McCook, who has taught at Tarrant for several years, was fired Wednesday after he turned in his grades. He says it was because a conservative student complained when he assigned Moore's film. From this news article, it sounds as though McCook was making a genuine effort to ask students to grapple with the question of whether Moore's film could be classified as art, as propaganda, as neither, or as both; in other words, that he was not attempting to indoctrinate students into the One Right Way of understanding the film or of thinking about the Bush administration's response to 9/11. It sounds, too, as though administrators may have caved in to a conservative student's outrageous claim that he has a right not to be offended, choosing not to renew McCook's contract rather than employ a teacher who causes unwelcome controversy.

"I feel like I lost my job because of one student with a political ax to grind," said McCook, adding that his dismissal calls into question the administration's support of academic freedom.

"I wanted to show the movie because I believe it is one of the most important films and pieces of art that has been produced the entire year," McCook said Friday in a telephone interview. "Besides, I teach the concept of art and the concept of propaganda.

"I wanted the students to see the film and define it as art, propaganda or a combination of both, but one student threw a fit," McCook said.

McCook described the student, who could not be located for comment, as an outspoken conservative.

Over the years, McCook has been associated with liberal causes, but he said that in the classroom, he tries to remain politically neutral.

"There is no place in the classroom for liberal or conservative labels because these are distinctions that stop thought," he said.

McCook is a rabid critic of George W. Bush (the article quotes him as calling the President a "frat-rat, cocaine-snorting, draft-dodger rich kid"), but he also appears to be an even-handed teacher: The student who complained about the Fahrenheit 9/11 assignment was allowed to do an alternate assignment and got an A for the course.

Adjunct professors are contract workers, and are enormously vulnerable to the kinds of agenda-driven personnel decisions that tenured faculty can largely escape; the principle of academic freedom means virtually nothing when applied to the position of the adjunct--McCook is an at-will employee, and can be fired (or "not renewed") at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. The only case he has is a moral one, and that case can only be made in the media. McCook is trying to change that, though, and says he wants to launch a teachers' union for adjuncts teaching in the Tarrant County system.

Erin O'Connor, 7:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (43)

December 17, 2004 [feather]
Screwed in Utah

Over at Cliopatria, KC Johnson tells the harrowing tale of a tenure case gone wrong at Southern Utah University. The ingredients will be eerily familiar to anyone who follows botched tenure cases, and will be especially so to those who know Johnson's own harrowing tenure story: There is an outspoken political science professor whose views clash with those of many of his colleagues; there is a department chair who was just looking for a chance to come down on this professor; there is a trumped-up, confidential case made by this chair against this professor just in time to sink his tenure case; and, just as in KC's notorious situation, there is the framing of this trumped-up case in terms of the professor's alleged lack of "collegiality." The two cases are in many ways an almost perfect mirror image of one another--not least because the political rationale behind each is the opposite of the other: While Johnson's colleagues perceived him--and punished him--as a conservative (not because he is one, but because he criticized their own tendency toward politically biased teaching and hiring), this professor is a liberal who is apparently being punished for expressing his views in a conservative academic environment.

Johnson provides an eloquent summary of Stephen Roberds' case, which among other things appears to be an excellent example of the eggshells that politically marginal untenured faculty forever walk upon. Though Roberds is a decorated, popular teacher, he made a fatal mistake when he swore at a student during a heated class discussion this fall. Though he acknowledged his error and publicly apologized for it, he gave his chairman the excuse he needed to attack.

Well worth considering, too, is the growing batch of comments attached to Johnson's article. The evolving consensus there is that Roberds' case is one that FIRE not only should take up, but most likely will take up. Regretfully, I am going to have to disagree with the understandable optimism contained within those comments. Though a strong case can be made that Roberds is being fired for his outspoken expression of his views, and while superficially that seems to make him a good match for FIRE, there is very little reason to believe that FIRE will take up Roberds' case. Look at FIRE's case archive and note the pattern: FIRE does not involve itself in tenure cases. It hasn't, it can't, and unless I am sorely mistaken, it won't. And the reason for this is simple: As a tiny, highly focussed First Amendment watchdog organization, FIRE simply cannot get into the business of arguing personnel decisions, especially when those decisions are shrouded in confidentiality and are ultimately made at the whim and discretion of the various faculty committees involved.

FIRE will only take on cases where it can absolutely document the wrongdoing and when the wrongdoing is very clearly oriented around a First Amendment violation. This is partly tactical--FIRE wants to be an organization whose issues are clearcut and whose cases are slam dunks; it is also partly practical--were FIRE to get into the business of defending everyone who believed he didn't get tenure because his colleagues don't like his politics, FIRE would not only never do anything else, but would also never win a case.

More to the point, FIRE has suffered a lot of embarrassing setbacks over the past year: A glance at the case archive for the past year shows a number of instances in which FIRE went public with a case only to be ignored by the school it was trying to shame into decency and to be largely ignored by the media (whose coverage is necessary for that meliorative shaming to occur). The organization is getting back on its feet again this fall, and has begun winning cases again. But there has been enormous turnover at the organization over the past year, and most of the people there are inexperienced and new to the game FIRE plays. Roberds' case would be a tricky one for even a seasoned FIRE team. At present, the foundation just can't afford to get stuck in the kind of sinkhole Roberds' case would likely become for it.

I'd love to be wrong. I'd love to have to eat my words here. But unless Roberds can document his case as thoroughly as KC was able to document his--which is highly unlikely--I don't think FIRE will touch him.

And just for the record, it's worth remembering that FIRE was not one of KC's public defenders, either (I can't speak for what the FIRE people may or may not have done behind the scenes). It's also worth recalling that there were a number of cases last year in which faculty were fired for their speech--Nona Gerard at Penn State, Robert Day at Cumberland College, two professors at Southern Mississippi. FIRE did not take a stand on any of them.

Again, I'd love to be wrong. I'd love to see Roberds get the kind of support he clearly needs, and I'd love to see FIRE do it. But I don't think the odds of that are very good.

UPDATE: KC Johnson summarizes and dissects an op-ed by the president of SUU's faculty senate that purports to lay the controversy over Roberds' firing to rest. As Johnson makes eminently clear, that's the last thing this damning and telling piece does:

So, to sum up: the president of the SUU Faculty Senate has said that his institution fired its 2003 Professor of the Year because he was uncollegial to the students who voted him their professor of the year; because he criticized a new Faculty Senate constitution coincidentally written by the same Faculty Senate president who now deems him uncollegial; and because SUU has a process in which all tenure candidacies are considered by multiple committees in a gentlemanly fashion. A piece of unsolicited advice to Professor Rees: the next time the idea of penning an op-ed crosses your mind, sleep on it for a day or two.

Erin O'Connor, 7:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Go directly to jail

Remember Keri Dunn, the Claremont McKenna professor who faked a hate crime against herself last spring? She's been sentenced to a year in prison.

Erin O'Connor, 9:24 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

December 16, 2004 [feather]
Good clean fun?

Writing for The New York Times, Buzz Bissinger argues that high school sports are going the corrupt and corrupting way of professional sports and big-time college athletics:

... high school sports in America has become an epidemic of win-at-all-costs in too many places, just as corroded as college and the pros; actually more so because none of the ends can possibly justify the means when many of those involved are still too young to vote. No Super Bowl with television ratings through the roof. No Bowl Championship Series games with millions watching. Just millions of dollars spent by certain school districts that cannot possibly begin to explain the millions they are spending. Just booster clubs, like little Mafia families, filling in the gap between what the board of education is willing to cough up and what the athletic department claims that it needs to keep churning out those precious state championships. Just coaches in some places making close to $90,000 a year without teaching a class. Just further social stratification between the athlete and the non-athlete, those who are in and those who are out and feel humiliated and ridiculed with repercussions that can become deadly. Just steroid abuse, including a 17-year-old baseball player in a Dallas suburb who committed suicide because what of his parents believe was depression caused by stopping anabolic steroids.


But no community, at least no community I would want my children to live in, can justify any of these monoliths. In an age where educational resources are dwindling, how can the building of a lavish new stadium or a field house possibly be justified, much less needed? What does it say to the rest of the student body, the giant-sized majority who do not play football, except that they are inferior, a sloppy second to the football stars who shine on Friday night. How can a community brag about its ability to get financing for a multimillion-dollar football stadium when it can't conjure up the money to hire more teachers that would lead to the nirvana of smaller class sizes? If it's the desire of boosters to pour money into sports, and it usually is, then why not use these private funds for a physical education program to reduce obesity among teenagers?


It isn't simply money that has contributed to the professionalism of high school sports. As a reporter for The Chicago Tribune, I spent a year uncovering abuses in Illinois as disturbing as anything in Texas - high school coaches recruiting eighth-grade players with glossy pitches and come-ons straight out of the major-college mold, parents getting so many calls from high school recruiters that they simply had their phones turned off, high school basketball coaches siphoning off Chicago's best players just so they wouldn't compete against them. Jump a level down into that emotional hell known as travel team - there isn't a parent of a travel team player who can't recite at least one horror story of another parent going berserk or a coach flipping out in the name of providing 10- and 11- and 12-year-olds with a little extra competition.

In October, the National Association of State Boards of Education issued a report calling for greater oversight of high school athletics because of the alarming trickle-down of virtually every bad college practice. The list of concerns included steroid use, shady shoe agents, mercenary coaches, dubious recruiting tactics and extravagant gifts. Steroid abuse does exist in high schools. As many as 11 percent of the nation's youth have used them, according to a study by the Mayo Clinic. Based on other research, some of the most disturbing users are freshman high school girls, with a rate of abuse at a minimum of 7 percent. "We have a moral obligation to prevent the exploitation of high school students," the national association said.

I was seriously involved in athletics in high school, enough to win an athletic scholarship to college. I quit the college team after a semester, though, horrified and disgusted by the coach's ugly and often abusive manner of "motivating" her players. This was almost twenty years ago, in a low-stakes sport (fastpitch softball) that did not then come tied to huge endorsements, professional prospects, or Olympian glory. Compared to what I found at college--the twenty-plus hours of weekly practice during the off season, the continual threat of drug testing (so that we were forbidden to drink caffeinated coffee or to eat poppyseed muffins), the five nights a week of mandatory evening study hall (held in a dim, loud cafeteria where you could not actually get any work done), and above all the constant "motivational" emotional abuse--my high school athletic experience was a cakewalk.

I have some very fond memories of it, largely because I had so much fun with the people involved--we were a very close-knit team, drawn from all walks of high school life, and would never have known one another had it not been for our shared experience on the team. My high school had 4,000 kids in it, and was so sharply socially divided that girls actually pledged sororities to acquire a social niche, and guys actually determined who they would or would not date based on what sorority a girl was in. The team existed outside of all that crap, and that heightened the experience for everyone there.

That said, my experiences with school athletics--and with the satellite sports programs that surround them, the regional travelling teams, the summer sports camps, and so on--left me with a strong, deeply personal sense of how strange it is that our culture emphasizes school-sponsored competitive sports as much as it does, and how peculiar it is that school-sponsored competitive sports are predicated on the most basic conflict of interest: study or practice? play or learn? There are always some kids who can balance the competing demands on their time--but most can't, and sports is usually what wins when athletically-gifted kids have to choose. I kept my grades up, but I was always keenly aware that I was married to softball, all the year round, and that this was costing me the kind of academic focus I would otherwise have been able to cultivate. I was also keenly aware that it cost me the chance to experiment with other kinds of creative or service-oriented nonacademic activities.

There is nothing wrong with playing a game. But there is a lot wrong with a culture that turns kids' playing of games into something bordering on a job. I was reminded of this when I went looking for work last year at an independent school. Many private high schools require kids to play at least one season of sports each year, whether they want to or not. And these schools were interested in me because they saw me as someone who could coach their softball team when I wasn't teaching English. But I wasn't in love with the idea of coaching girls who had been forced to play, and I was pretty thrilled to find the school where I am now--where there is only one organized sport (soccer in the fall), where that sport is optional and open to anyone who wants to play, no matter what their skills, and where kids have plenty of time and opportunity to try the kinds of things that sports too often squeeze out of their lives: painting, dance, creative writing, pottery, chorus, orchestra, even drumming and welding.

I'm interested in readers' thoughts on the place of competitive sports in American high schools--on their experiences with actual sports programs at actual schools, as well as in their more general philosophical stance on the prominence of athletics in American education.

Erin O'Connor, 9:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (12)

December 15, 2004 [feather]
A public boarding school?

Yes--in Washington, D.C. Listen to this fascinating NPR segment, which discusses both the benefits of an inner-city charter school that boards seventh- through twelfth-graders, and the difficulties of a venture that costs taxpayers about four times what a day school costs and that kids must win a lottery to attend.

Erin O'Connor, 3:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

December 14, 2004 [feather]
Diversity at Penn

A freshman at the University of Pennsylvania has launched a Black Republicans club.

"It's just to show that black Republicans exist," [Sean-Tamba] Matthew said. "A lot of people laugh ... but we want to let [black students] know there's another option."

Though the group was mostly quiet in the period before the national election, Matthew is serious in his aims for providing a forum for like-minded black students.

Matthew's devotion to Republican ideals supercedes racial lines, although he said he would like to see greater minority representation in elected office.

"If there's a minority candidate out there, we'll help them out," he said.

Yet he ruled out the possibility of voting for a black Democrat, including one running for president.

"If he's not following party lines, I don't see why we would vote for him," he said. "I'm not going to vote for someone just because he's African American."

With roots in a liberal community in Cleveland, supporting the Republicans was not a natural choice for Matthew, whose parents are Democrats. He noted though, that his mother is socially conservative, and their shared emphasis on the family unit attracted him to the Republicans.

"Family values are issues that really affect the African American community," he said. He added that in some areas the family structure had been totally destroyed and that a Republican approach would be beneficial.

The belief in the morality of the Republican Party is common among other members of the group, such as Wharton freshman Peter Handy.

Handy said he admired the integrity of Republican values.

"It's a very wholesome, no bullshit kind of party," he said.

Democratic policies are typically viewed as providing greater aid to blacks, particularly to those who are among the poorest. Matthew called this perception a myth, citing his own experience as a counterexample of how Democratic economic policies can be harmful.

"The effects of egregious taxes on the community, of government arbitrarily increasing the tax base" can hurt the people they are supposed to help, Matthew said. "My parents really have struggled [as] taxes sucked their income away."

Matthew already knows Penn is likely to be a hostile environment for his group--the Bush poster he taped to his door before the November election was torn down within an hour and a half.

My guess is that Matthew is generating a good deal of annoyance and even anger at Penn (which is not to single out Penn as a particularly intolerant environment, but rather to comment generally on the national campus climate). I expect there are plenty of people who will find the notion of a Black Republican student group heinously misguided, and who will not be able to credit Matthew or the group's other members with any decisionmaking power that is not an egregious, historically destructive form of false consciousness.

But the move Matthew is making is a very positive one, if one genuinely does care about diversity. As an ethnic club that is also a club for people of like political mind, Penn's Black Republicans group sits constructively at the contentious intersection of the debate about exactly what diversity is and should be. If one believes that campuses should be places where minority groups can express themselves freely, in all their wide cultural variety, then Penn's Black Republicans club must be a good thing. If one believes that campuses should be places where a variety of political viewpoints are represented, and where, as a consequence, those viewpoints are subjected to the bracing test of vigorous public debate, then Penn's Black Republicans club must be a good thing.

Erin O'Connor, 8:15 AM | Permalink | Comments (17)

December 13, 2004 [feather]
Comics full circle

Fifty years ago, comic books were blamed for the decline of literacy among American youth. They were also blamed for a corresponding rise in juvenile delinquency and teenaged promiscuity. Now, in the wake of Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, comic books are being taught in schools: Maryland has just become the first state in the nation to institute a statewide comics curriculum.

Pilot programs are underway in some parts of Maryland. Fifth-graders at an elementary school in Harford County, northeast of Baltimore, are reading a comic book featuring Donald Duck and another about women in science. High school students in Carroll County are creating cartoons in art class and studying "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" for an English course in mythology.

Several more Maryland counties will begin using the comic book-based curriculum in the spring, though officials have not determined which books it will use. The rest of the state's school districts will introduce the curriculum at the start of the next school year.

Officials said the project will target students from kindergarten to high school, including children who speak limited English.

"You see kids reading comic books, buying comic books, and they seem totally engrossed," State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said. "It looks like there's really some potential here." She said comic books are not meant to replace traditional reading materials but rather to be used as a supplement.


Many [comics] have moved beyond stories about superheroes. There are comic books on everything from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to growing up with an epileptic sibling. In recent years, a surge has occurred in the popularity of manga, Japanese comic books that frequently have dark or apocalyptic themes.

But such scholars as [Charles Hatfield, who teaches a course on comics as literature at California State University at Northridge] are skeptical about the genre's value as a teaching tool.

"I think that comics can be a very strong lure for certain kinds of so-called reluctant readers," he said. "There's visual fascination to break up the experience of just reading lines of text. That's what many people like about comics, and that's what many educators dislike about comics."

To Hatfield, the skills needed to read comics are not the same ones needed to read traditional books. Reading comics requires an ability to piece together fragmented stories and a high tolerance for distraction, as words and pictures compete for attention, he said.

No studies have been done to measure the effect that reading comic books has on student achievement, said John T. Guthrie, a professor at the University of Maryland and director of the school's Literacy Research Center.


State officials said they are working with the University of Maryland Baltimore County to evaluate the quality of the comic book curriculum. But Guthrie said the only proven way to improve students' reading skills is to make them read lots of text -- which is often diluted in comic books.

"We want it to be legitimate," Grasmick said. "We definitely want to guarantee the quality of anything that is done."

While I thoroughly empathize with the problem of how to get kids who are hostile to the idea of reading interested in books, I question the utility of a comic book-based curriculum. You only have so much time as an English teacher; the time spent teaching comic books of limited literary merit (if any) is time that can never be spent teaching works of more lasting value. Even more basically, the time spent teaching kids to read the textually fragmentary, picture-heavy genre of the comic is time that can never be spent teaching them the skills that will allow them to patiently absorb and thoughtfully consider actual works of literature.

Kids today already know how to process fragmentation; they are expert at drawing connections between visual and verbal cues; they are, in a way, always already primed to grasp the particular caption-oriented, shorthanded, highly visual form of the comic; their rapidfire popular culture ensures this. What kids need help with is developing the kinds of concentration, attention, and retention necessary for them to be able to read works of complexity and/or length--novels and poems, not to mention nonfiction essays and books. This need in turn is not even about, or not only about, aesthetics; it's not about shaping kids' taste or about laying the foundation for a life of literary pleasure--or if it is, it is only secondarily so. Mainly, it's about making sure kids get the analytical and reasoning skills they need, and that they begin learning those skills at an appropriate age. There are things you learn to do mentally when you read a long novel alone in several sittings; or when you puzzle over a poem to grasp its metaphors, its meter, and the way the form and content necessitate one another. Those things are subtle, but they are very real. They are also highly transferable. I'm just not convinced that comic books are good material for teachers who want to ensure that their students acquire more than the most elementary reading skills.

A hypothetical: You are a fifth-grade teacher, commissioned to get a group of disengaged, aliterary ten-year-olds interested in books (or at least in a book). You are determined to do so without resorting to comics. What story, or novel, or poem, do you assign? And how do you teach it?

Link via Bookslut.

Erin O'Connor, 10:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (24)

December 9, 2004 [feather]

A group of students at the University of Michigan are lobbying for a gender and sexuality course requirement. The Gender and Sexuality Course Committee wants to see all undergraduates compelled to devote 3 credits of coursework to the study of gender and sexuality (it takes 120 credits to graduate). The group claims that it is not motivated by an activist agenda because it is working within the university's formal procedures; that's a smokescreen, however. The group's stated rationale for why all undergraduates should have to take a course on gender and sexuality is unabashedly ideological:

A Gender and Sexuality requirement will create new dialogues, challenge hegemonic discourse, break taboos and stigmas, and open up realms of communication between all students.

In other words, this is a course requirement that would force all UM students to undergo a mandatory process of political consciousness-raising.

To the groupís leaders, gender issues permeate everyday life, and part of a liberal arts education is to raise consciousness of these matters.

But recent political affairs have added a sense of urgency to their cause, group members said. Ballot initiatives and court cases concerning gay marriage and possible challenges to abortion rights have brought issues of gender and sexuality to the nationís forefront.

ěThose are the kinds of things that we think are very important today and that people should be educated on, like they are educated on race and ethnicity,î [a co-chair of GSCC] said.

Given the outcome of the gay marriage amendment in Michigan, there is an increased need to study these issues, group members said. ěYou can gain so much more insight into the way the world works,î [another co-chair of GSCC] said. ěI think they are essential to gaining a holistic liberal arts framework.î

But the passage of Proposal 2 banning gay marriage and similar unions in November may indicate that the public is not receptive to studying sexuality.

ěThe reason to be pessimistic is, again, this is a state school,î Malczynski said. ěWith the way the gay marriage proposal turned out, it showed a lot of homophobia and that people might not be willing to do this.î

The GSCC has encountered some resistance from the faculty--but not because the proposed requirement grossly confuses indoctrination with education.

Faculty members were concerned that the requirement would focus only on womenís issues. They also expressed concern that the requirement would overrun the small department with students who did not want to be there, sacrificing the intimate academic environment the program cherishes.

While Cederberg said these are valid concerns, the academic advantages offset any problems the requirement would cause. ěThese are not issues that pertain to just a small group of people who can study them,î she said. ěThis should not be exclusive.î

ěThereís a lot of education thatís mandated and required that you might not agree with at all,î Cederberg said. ěYou can take it or leave it in these classes, but people need to be exposed.î

If the group succeeds, the requirement could be implemented in 2006.

Erin O'Connor, 8:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (76)

December 8, 2004 [feather]
The importance of being interested

Annie Proulx has published a new book of stories entitled Bad Dirt. A sequel to the haunting Wyoming stories of Close Range, the volume asks to be compared it to its predecessor. Terrence Rafferty does so, and reads into Proulx's latest an exhaustion with what was once for her phenomenally fertile subject matter:

Even in the serious stories, there are indications that she doesn't feel the same respect for her characters that she used to and has become impatient with the stubborn futility of their existence.

Throughout ''Bad Dirt,'' the style is far more casual than the intense, fiercely concentrated prose of ''Close Range,'' which managed somehow to be both terse and baroque. The best stories in that book were like compressed novels. Dense with observed detail, they strained heroically against the limits of the short form. This time, Proulx may simply be trying to write in a plainer, more reader-friendly way, but her newly straightforward prose feels like a slackening, a weakening of the strong will required to keep looking at this vast landscape and find more in it than a great emptiness.

The roadrunner briskness of ''Bad Dirt'' hints at a just-passing-through mentality. Two pretty good stories in this collection, ''The Indian Wars Refought'' and ''The Wamsutter Wolf,'' self-immolate in their very last lines, sentences that reduce everything that precedes them to the status of small, dry jokes. This is what happens, perhaps, when an imagination as ferocious as Annie Proulx's starts to feel that the land it's been living on can't sustain it anymore: she puts a torch to the place and rides like hell in the opposite direction.

It's probably no accident that the best story in ''Bad Dirt'' -- ''What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?'' -- is about a man who can't make a go of his ranch. Gilbert Wolfscale keeps at it, doggedly and half-hopelessly, fighting the ''downward ranching spiral of too much work, not enough money, drought,'' and ends up out on the open road, driving for the sake of driving and not caring where he's headed.

I'm of two minds about this sort of criticism. On the one hand, it's enormously presumptuous of a reviewer to speculate so wildly and yet so authoritatively about a writer's private motivations. It's also pretty vulgar, critically speaking, to project those hypothetical motivations so forcefully into the art that the art is reduced to a symptomatic expression of a writer's own psychic problems. On the other hand, the kinds of things Rafferty imagines may be happening with Proulx's imaginative connection to Wyoming are the sorts of things that happen to artists, and do have profound and unsettling effects on their ability to inhabit their own work with integrity and control.

Proulx is one of our greatest writers of place; she has also shown, during the course of her career, a periodic need to shift her creative focus from one place to another--she's moved from rural New England (Postcards) to Newfoundland (The Shipping News) to Wyoming to the Texas panhandle (That Old Ace in the Hole); Accordian Crimes roves quite deliberately across the country, in a peripatetic regionalism that doesn't make for great fiction but does speak loudly to the nature of Proulx's literary sensibility.

I'm intrigued by Rafferty's review, not just because I adore Proulx, but because I share his sometimes presumptuous, always elemental interest in understanding how literary works express, or fail to express, writers' evolving creative temperaments. It won't matter to me if Bad Dirt is a "failure"--to me it will simply be another chapter in an evolving, intensely vital career. I'll be reading Bad Dirt just as soon as I've despatched Charlotte Simmons.

Meanwhile, I'd love to hear readers' thoughts on Proulx, American regionalism, and, more generally, the problems and possibilities of writerly exhaustion.

Erin O'Connor, 10:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

December 6, 2004 [feather]
Losing it

You are the parent of an obese teenager. You are at your wits' end: no diet works, and your child's physical and emotional health are suffering. What would you pay to send your child to a boarding school especially for overweight kids?

Before this year, this would have been a purely hypothetical question. Now, however, it's not. With childhood obesity reaching epidemic proportions, and with "therapeutic" boarding schools (boarding schools that supply in-house treatment for variously troubled kids) becoming increasingly popular, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to open a school centered on helping obese kids work to lose weight. For $5,500 a month (close to twice the cost of a typical boarding school education), parents can now send their obese children to the Academy of the Sierras, the nation's first boarding school for severely overweight kids. The school opened its doors this fall, and its seventeen students come from as far away as New Hampshire and Ecuador.

The school combines a rigorous weight-loss program with a college prep curriculum; an admission requirement is that prospective students be at least 30 pounds overweight. The school expects to be enrolling 70 students within the year, and if the undertaking succeeds, the company that runs it--Healthy Living Academies, a division of the Aspen Education Group known for its summer weight-loss camps--will open more such schools across the country.

Academy of the Sierras is a for-profit venture, and while it tries to help families find ways to finance the hefty price tag by tapping external financial aid sources as well as insurance policies, it does not itself appear to be in the business of offering tuition breaks or scholarships for especially needy or deserving kids. Instead, the school seems to be selling a potentially winning combination of discipline and hope: What kids do at the Academy to lose weight--exercise, diet, therapy--they can do at home, but, for whatever reason, don't. The Academy of the Sierras is thus an experiment in an emerging form of boutique education, one that has as an operative enterprising premise that you lose what you pay for.

I'm interested in readers' thoughts on schools such as this one. They strike me as both consummate ripoffs and potentially life-saving, life-changing ventures.

Erin O'Connor, 8:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

December 2, 2004 [feather]
Recent reads

Forgettable: Famed book designer Chip Kidd's The Cheese Monkeys. This is Kidd's first novel, and it received rave reviews ... but don't be swayed by them. The book's design is in many ways the most interesting thing about it--it's funny, fussy, filled with little things to notice if you like to notice that sort of thing. The plot itself is flat, a trying-too-hard campus novel set during the 1950s that tells the story of a freshman discovering the joys of graphic design. The graphic design parts are fun philosophically speaking, but because they are not well narrated, and because Kidd insists on packaging his ideas about what makes design come alive in a thoroughly bloodless story populated by cartoonish, unrealistic characters, things never really come together.

Compulsively readable: Fernanda Eberstadt's The Furies. At first blush, this novel looks like chick lit with unwarranted aspirations; that's very much not what it really is, though. The Furies is about a specifically modern mode of bitterness--the kind that arises when you learn that your partner does not exist to confirm your own narcissism. It's a novel about how far we will go--how emotionally cheap and grandiosely self-excusing we will be--in order to protect our own precious selfishness. It's about the psychic cocoon that modern thirtysomethings live in because they have been raised to live in it, and it's about what happens to love, to family, and eventually to self when that cocoon unravels (which it is almost guaranteed to do when two unsuspecting egoists attempt to love one another).

Eberstadt writes with remarkable empathy for some remarkably unsympathetic characters--her novel is in many ways an experiment in what a narrative that cares more about its characters than its characters care for one another will look like. It's also, in this regard, a narrative about self-deception, as the novel's two main characters are utterly convinced that they are themselves unimpeachably emotionally correct. The Furies is one of those rare novels of manners that dissects modern mores not in order to mock them (a la Tom Wolfe) but in order to mourn them.

Erin O'Connor, 10:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)