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March 31, 2005 [feather]

I'm back, after what I suspect is the longest break from blogging that I've taken during my three years of writing this site. It was nice to be away--I visited my parents in Oregon, read a lot of books, took a lot of walks in the woods, cooked myself in front of many toasty fires, drank a lot of coffee and baked many batches of brownies, talked a lot with my loved ones, made a lot of plans, did a lot of freelance work, and thought a lot about the whys and wherefores of life. This is a lovely time of year in southern Oregon--the wild turkeys are mating, the wildflowers are blooming, and the Canada geese are passing through, occasionally using my parents' roof as a landing strip. During the visit, there was a trip to a wolf sanctuary, a hike up a mountain, and of course, on Easter morning, the obligatory egg hunt. I saw Master and Commander, Shrek, and Some Like It Hot for the first time; I read, also for the first time, Louis de Bernieres' novel about the fall of the Ottoman empire, Birds Without Wings; Anita Shreve's imaginative rethinking of the ax murders that took place on an island off the coast of New Hampshire in 1873, The Weight of Water; and Jonathan Krakauer's remarkable journalistic account of how a young man's quest for spiritual transcendance went fatally wrong in the Alaska woods, Into the Wild. All are excellent, compelling reads.

While I was away, Critical Mass turned three--but I was so busy with other things, and I was so enjoying my uncharacteristically long and unguilty hiatus, that I did not even realize the anniversary had passed until yesterday. I would say that the realization made me pause to reflect on meaningful, bloggerly sorts of things. But that would be precious and untrue. I simply laughed at myself for missing my blog's birthday by two weeks, and said something like, "Damn, I've been typing a lot."

I did miss writing Critical Mass while I was away, and I'm glad to be back. School starts Monday, so I'll shortly be swamped again by the boarding school routine, but I am determined to find more time to post. I haven't liked the way that my day-to-day work obligations have overtaken the life of this site and I want to see that change in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to seeing how John Holbo's new blog project, The Valve, shapes up, and I'm adding to my already overlong reading list some particularly interesting-looking new books: Ian McEwan's Saturday , Elaine Showalter's Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents, Donald Downs' Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus, and Kazuo Ishiguro's forthcoming Never Let Me Go. For the sheer horror of it, I'm interested, too, in Richard Bradley's recent takedown of Lawrence Summers, Harvard Rules. Stephen Metcalf's masterful review of what appears to be a deeply flawed--but also hugely telling--work makes Harvard Rules look like one of those rare books that one wants to read not because it promises to be good, but because it promises to be bad in exceptionally edifying ways.

I'd love to hear what readers have in their own bottomless bedside stacks.

Erin O'Connor, 9:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (10)

March 13, 2005 [feather]
For the sake of comparison

Yesterday, the College Board rolled out the new, much-debated version of the SAT. The test now contains a writing section, and to make room for that section it no longer features those notorious analogies. Writing in The New York Times, Adam Cohen argues that the new test is not only inferior to the old one, but that it marks our collective failure to recognize how crucially important it is for the members of a free society be able to make and to recognize reasonable comparisons.

When Grover Norquist, a leading conservative activist, was on the NPR program "Fresh Air" a while back, he casually made a comparison that left the host, Terry Gross, sputtering in disbelief. "Excuse me," she said. "Did you just ... compare the estate tax with the Holocaust?" Yes, he did.

We are living in the age of the false, and often shameless, analogy. A slick advertising campaign compares the politicians working to dismantle Social Security to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In a new documentary, "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," Kenneth Lay compares attacks on his company to the terrorist attacks on the United States.

Intentionally misleading comparisons are becoming the dominant mode of public discourse. The ability to tell true analogies from false ones has never been more important. But to make room for the new essay portion of the SAT that was rolled out this weekend with much fanfare, the College Board has unceremoniously dropped the test's analogy questions, saying blandly that analogical reasoning will still be assessed "in the short and long reading passages."

Replacing logic questions with writing is perfectly in keeping with these instant-messaging, 500-cable-channel times, when the emphasis is on communicating for the sake of communicating rather than on having something meaningful to say. Obviously, every American should be able to write, and write well. But if forced to choose between a citizenry that can produce a good 25-minute writing sample or spot a bad analogy, we would be better off with a nation of analogists.

Cohen overstates his case--there is no rule that says that the essay portion of the new SAT can't ask test takers to reflect on a particular analogy or even to pose analogies of their own; likewise, it seems peculiarly jaundiced to suggest that the SAT writing section is more about encouraging pointless logorrhea than it is about measuring necessary skills. But Cohen does have a point about the importance of analogical reasoning itself, and it's worth thinking about the connection he draws between the way public figures use illogical analogies in order to make unreasonable statements seem sound and the fact that high school students are no longer formally required to demonstrate that they can reason analogically.

My own preference would be for an SAT that asked students to demonstrate both analogical reasoning skills and writing ability (having scrutinized a number of SATs lately while helping juniors prepare for the exam, I can say that the reading comprehension sections do not, despite the College Board's assurances, do much to test analogical thinking). This could be done readily enough by asking slightly fewer questions about vocabulary, comprehension, and usage (usage questions are new as of this test as well, though that aspect of the new exam has received far less attention than the essay), and so creating room for analogies.

Readers' thoughts are, as ever, welcome.

Erin O'Connor, 8:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (27)

March 12, 2005 [feather]
Back at last

Many thanks to everyone who has sent concerned emails asking where I am and whether I'm all right. I am indeed all right, though exhausted, and my disappearance had to do with my school's annual all-school trip. This trip is an elaborately educational experience, intended to be a form of applied group study rather than a collective occasion for tourism or relaxation. The trip has been a school tradition for more than fifty years, and has in the past included such places as Philadelphia; Quebec; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Cuba. This year, we travelled to Puerto Rico, where we broke into focus groups to study issues as varied as the island's economy, its vexed commonwealth status, its ecology, its history, and its artistic traditions. My desire to keep the details of my professional life off this blog prevent me from saying more; suffice it to say that it ain't easy to herd 80 kids there and back again and that the fatigue of doing so has caught up with me (as it has with everyone in the school, kids included).

But spring break begins today--eight inches of new-fallen, still-falling snow notwithstanding--and with that will come time to rest, to remember basic things like what day of the week it is and what I did yesterday, and to catch up on essentials such as sleeping, exercising, reading, and, of course, blogging.

I did manage to read a corker of a novel during my many hours on buses and planes: Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. This is the story of a mother's attempt to make sense of her son's decision to commit mass murder in his high school's gymnasium; told through a series of letters to the narrator's absent husband, the novel explores not only the intensely topical question of how a killer is made (or, more precisely, of whether killers are made or born), but the far less speakable, far more broadly applicable question of what it means when a mother simply does not and cannot like or love her child. Well worth a slow, careful read.

Erin O'Connor, 8:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)