Saturday, December 6, 2014

Feeling some "Whiplash"

Yesterday I made my way to the theaters to see Whiplash, directed by first-timer Damien Chazelle and one of the plethora of Oscar-buzz films that I feel an obligation to go to every year.  What surprised me most about the film is that, for a movie that won't be anywhere on my top-ten for the year, that had me walking out of the theater thinking "eh, not bad," it has given me a great deal of cause for introspection in the last twenty-four hours, more so than almost any other film I've seen this year.

It is the story of Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) an aspiring young jazz drummer recently accepted to an exclusive conservatory.  Looming large over the school is Fletcher (JK Simmons) the most respected professor in the school.  It is the dream of every student there to be accepted into his jazz band and one day Fletcher comes barging into one of Neyman's class, puts everyone through an impromptu three second tryout and selects Neyman alone to join the band.  Fletcher is an impossibly cruel instructor, as Neyman learns when, on his first day of practice, Fletcher throws a chair at him, slaps him, screams at him and insults him until he is reduced to tears because he can't keep the right tempo.  The film treats us to many more examples of Fletcher's cruelty, including informing us at one point that one of Fletcher's former students (who became first chair in a symphony because of Fletcher's tutelage) committed suicide because of depression and anxiety that first began in his time in Fletcher's band.  But Fletcher isn't all monster and twice in the film he relates the story of Charlie Parker, at sixteen years old giving one of his first public performances in Kansas City when Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him, after which the audience laughed Parker off the stage.  The humiliation led Parker to practice intensely for another year before returning to the stage and giving one of the greatest jazz performances ever heard.  This tale seems to inspire Fletcher's teaching philosophy, as he believes that by pushing students past their breaking point he can inspire them to greatness and he seems to think that Neyman has a bit of Charlie Parker in him.

At one point in the film (after relating the story), Fletcher tells Neyman that the worst two words in the English language are "good job" and imagines another scenario where, after Parker's performance, Jo Jones told him "good job" and Parker thinks to himself "yeah, I did do a good job" and, because of it, never becomes anything more than mediocre.  While Fletcher's methods are, of course, beyond the pale, there is some truth to his beliefs and I couldn't help but think back to my own development as an artist.  It was in high school that I first came to think that maybe writing was something I could be good at but I had never done well in my English classes up to that point and my high school teachers had always been highly critical of my writing.  It wasn't until I got to college and met my first writing professor, Steve Goldsberry, who did the two most important things anyone has ever done for my writing career.  The first thing he did was to tell me I had talent (said as he was handing back a descriptive essay I had written for his class).  As I had been so plagued by doubt about my own writing ability, this was something I desperately needed to hear and it inspired me to sit down at my computer for the first time and try writing a short story.  I asked Dr. Goldsberry if he would be willing to read it and he was more than happy to oblige.  That was when he did the second most important thing anyone had ever done for my writing.

He obliterated my story.  Everything about it: the writing, the tone, the narrative - every piece of the story was ripped to shreds.  The first page was so bad he literally could not find a single redeeming quality to it and X-ed out the entire thing.  I was crushed.  I walked home carrying the tattered remains of my story that I had worked so hard on and was so proud of, thinking once again that I had no talent for writing, that I was an idiot for ever wanting to pursue it.  But then I realized that Goldsberry was right - the story was terrible and I realized also that I could do better.  So I sat back down at my computer and rewrote it entirely from scratch and I brought it to him again.  This time he only X'ed out half the first page and he showed me what in my first page was working and what wasn't and I revised again and again, getting better each time.  I eventually abandoned that story (trust me, even the last version was still shit) but that doesn't matter, what mattered was how much the process of rewriting and revising that story taught me about the art of writing.

When I look back on these two acts there is no question that him destroying my first short story was by far the greater act.  I had desperately needed the validation he had given me but if I had brought him that first short story and he had told me "good job, you're such a good writer!" I would have gone home very happy and written another godawful short story just like it, and another and another, convinced all the while that I was a good writer, and I would have sent them off to lit mags and contests and I would have been baffled at every rejection I got ("but...but...I'm a good writer! Can't they see that?").  Eventually I would have given up, no doubt bitter and cynical that the world had failed to recognize my genius.  Instead, the failure of that first story inspired me to push harder and harder, it taught me to never be satisfied with my work and so much of what I've accomplished in the twelve years since: my PhD, my MFA, my many publications, my novels-in-progress, even my dissertation and scholarly work, all of them leaves on a tree whose roots go back to my despondency at watching Goldsberry trash my work.  I would probably still be where I am today if Goldsberry hadn't told me I had talent, but I know I wouldn't be where I am today if he hadn't destroyed my first short story.

Cruelty is the difference between Charlie Parker and the season-opener rejects of American Idol, it's the difference between a Pulitzer-prize winner and a self-publishing failure, between Oscar winners and street performers.  Sure, there are many who lack talent who won't let any amount of cruelty stop them and sure there's not enough room at the top for all of those who actually have talent but be cruel all the same.  If you love art then be cruel to all the artists you meet.  You don't need to hit them or threaten them or humiliate them but hurt them all the same.  Fletcher's methods may be reprehensible but he is absolutely right about one thing: "good job" will never produce great art.

And Damien Chazelle, if you're reading this, Whiplash wasn't bad for a first feature film but come on, man, you can do better than that.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

9 Things I Wish I’d Been Told About My Academic Job Search

First off, a couple disclaimers: First, this post is not intended to imply that my department did a poor job preparing me for the job search.  Without the advice and guidance they provided I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job that I did.  But the thing about the job search is that it is such a long, complicated process that it’s just impossible to cover everything that someone would want to know about the search.  The purpose of this piece is to discuss those components of the job search that caught me off guard, the things I didn’t expect or that, in hindsight, I realize would have been very useful things to have known going into my own search.

Secondly, some of this advice won’t hold much relevance outside of my own field, but I’ll try to note when that’s the case.  All of this advice won’t be useful to everyone, but it’s my hope that some of this advice will be useful to someone.

1.) It’s impossible to start too early.

I thought I was getting on the ball by starting on my job search materials as soon as the Fall semester started, but come mid-October I was still struggling to get my materials together and watching the earliest deadlines slip by.  All of your materials need to be top notch and it will take a lot longer than you’d probably guess to get your CVs, cover letters, teaching philosophies and other materials written, updated and revised than you would guess.  Getting your materials started or updated should be a summer project so that come Fall semester you can have them revised and ready to go by the time those first early October deadlines come.

But even still, I would have started earlier than that if I had thought to.  Every year of my PhD before the year of my job search I would glance through the listings to get a sense of what kind of jobs were out there but I realized during my job search that I should have followed the listings much more closely and checked them much more frequently than I did.  I could have gone into my own search with a much better sense of what colleges are looking for and what kind of jobs are out there.  So, if it’s not too late for you, spend each year of your PhD really closely following and reading the job listings, because it will give you a very strong sense of what the job market is like and what you can expect when you’re finally ready to go at it for real.

2.) You have no idea how much material you will need to create.

Going into my job search, I knew I would need a CV, teaching philosophy, letters of recommendation and a few variations of my cover letter tailored to the different types of jobs I would apply for.  But I didn’t know I would also need to create a statement of administration philosophy, curriculum contribution statement, dissertation summary, research summary, writing samples, sample syllabi, statement of experience with students in research or scholarship (yes, that is a thing) and, while I didn’t apply for any job that needed one, a statement of faith if you want to apply to a Christian college.  I had not known that any of these would be necessary (though only a handful of jobs I applied for asked for most of these).  One of the things you’re going to have to take into consideration is whether or not you want the job badly enough to have to create these materials because you may decide its not worth the extra effort (I only used the administrative philosophy for three or four jobs and the experience with students etc. was only used at one place).  One school I applied for asked for a document describing three dream courses I’d love to teach, but that was quite a pleasurable document to create.

On a side note related to this, be sure to always pay very careful attention to the submission instructions the school asks for.  Oftentimes those rules are in place to rule out any application that can’t follow the directions.

3.) You will receive an infuriating amount of conflicting, contradictory advice.

This is one of the most frustrating components of the job search, especially because everyone who gives advice means well and is genuinely trying to help you, but after talking to enough people you won’t know which way is up anymore.  I was told to only apply for around ten jobs, to apply for about twenty, to aim for fifty, to apply for as many jobs as I possibly can.  I was told that the dissertation is the most important part of your qualifications, I was told that nobody cares about the dissertation and it’s your research agenda that’s most important, I was told that your research agenda isn’t as important as your letters of recommendation, and so on.

I ultimately found that it was most useful to go by my instincts.  For example, I saw no value in trying to limit the number of jobs I applied for so I applied for as many as I could and after looking through the sheer variety of jobs out there I think I understand why no one can seem to agree on what the most important part of your qualifications are.  For me, it was the variety of my teaching experience as well as my experience with creating curricula that netted me a job, but for many of my friends it was their research, their dissertation or their administrative experience.  What you should really be aware of is that it’s hard to say what part of your experience is going to net you a job, which is a good argument for being as balanced as possible in your qualifications.

4.) Create a spreadsheet.

I figured this one out on my own and was glad to have figured it out early on, but I started keeping all the jobs I wanted to apply for in a spreadsheet that included, the college, location, position, duties, course load, minimum and desired qualifications, materials needed and deadlines.  It was an absolute godsend for helping me keep track of deadlines and which schools I had and had not applied to.  Maybe not a spreadsheet per se, but have some way to keep track of the jobs you want to apply to.  A little bit of organization goes a long way.

5.) You will probably have to book MLA without knowing whether you have an interview

It’s an unfortunate truth that many colleges still hold job interviews at MLA every year and won’t give much consideration to contacting you about it a week before the convention.  Because of this, don’t be the least bit surprised if you find yourself having to plan to attend MLA without even knowing whether or not you’ll have an interview there.

There’s quite a lot about the job search process that’s frustrating but this is one component of it that desperately needs to be changed.  In the age of Skype and so many other means of long-distance communication there’s no need to make anyone travel for a preliminary interview anymore.  But even if you are insistent on keeping to the MLA tradition, it is extremely disrespectful to the very tight budgets and schedules of PhD students to make them pay hundreds of dollars for MLA without any guarantee that they could even expect an interview.  Any college that insists on clinging to this practice could at least do their prospective candidates the courtesy of notifying them well enough ahead of time that they can plan for MLA knowing that it will be worth their while to show up.

For those of you who are on the receiving end of this system, sorry but there’s not much you can do about it.  Hopefully you’ll get at least one interview at MLA.

6.) About that whole geography thing…

If your experience was anything like mine you were told again and again and again to just accept the fact that, because the academic job market is so small, you really don’t get much choice about where you’re going to live and if you try to limit your job search by geography you’re setting yourself up for failure.  If you’re one of those lucky few individuals who doesn’t care about geography (what’s your secret?) then this was never an issue for you to begin with, but for the rest of us, this is a great source of anxiety and despair.

Here’s the thing though: yes, the academic job market is small and yes you are probably going to have to make some compromises on geography (just how many compromises is of course quite dependent on how many jobs there are in your field) but if, for example, you loathe the idea of settling down in one of the plains states you can probably leave them out without much worry.  The thing is, most of the jobs are in places that are more desirable to live anyway.  I didn’t apply for a single job in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming or Idaho (or a few other places but we’ll leave that aside for now) but during the course of my job search I saw maybe ten job listings in my field pop up in those eight states.  To put that in perspective, I applied to that many jobs in New York City alone (not to mention several other jobs in NYC that I skipped over).

Personally, I limited myself geographically to what I call the “W”: all the way down the west coast then across the southwest, with an upturn into Colorado before swinging back down into Texas and through the southeast and then up the east coast into New England.  With a few exceptions, I decided I was perfectly willing to live anyplace along this route and the only major population centers it leaves out is the stretch from Ohio to Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota (and I’ll admit that I took quite a risk not applying for any jobs in those states but despite my refusal to do so, I had still managed to apply for 70 jobs by mid-December).

I will certainly grant that if you really don’t care where you live you will have a definite advantage on the job market and I will also certainly agree that if you try to limit your job search too much you’re setting yourself up for failure.  But if this has been a source of great stress to you, just know that it probably won’t be quite so bad as you fear.

Also, don’t forget to think globally.  While not as abundant, there are absolutely international job opportunities that will pop up for Americans to apply for.  They’re much easier if you’re single (being married and/or having children greatly complicates taking a job overseas) but if you have the freedom and ambition to do so, look abroad for more opportunities.

7.) Personality goes a long way

A lot of our job prep guidance focuses on qualifications, job materials and how to present them and without the ability to do so you’re not going to make it past your living room.  But I think one of the most overlooked portions of the job search process is presenting yourself as a person.  You can have publications and teaching experience out the wazoo but if in an interview you’re incapable of showing some basic grace and social etiquette you’re unlikely to make it very far regardless of how good your other qualifications are.  Yes, a department cares about your publications and your teaching and your service but at the end of the day they’re also going to have to work with you on a day to day basis and some assurances that you’re not a nutball will be greatly appreciated.

If, like many scholars, you’re more socially awkward then be aware that this is a shortcoming you’ll need to work to overcome.  My dissertation director told me of a candidate who interviewed for a job in the department and spent the entire interview with his hands on his knees staring at the floor, never once making eye contact with anyone.  They rejected him outright because of his odd behavior.  Making eye contact, smiling, being polite, showing curiosity about the school, the region, the students, etc…all of these are factors that can tip the interview in your favor.  Your qualifications got you to the interview in the first place, but your personality will do a lot to get you a job.

8.) You’re going to have to make some tough decisions

Perhaps the reason advice is never given on this matter is probably because there’s not much advice that can be given but be aware that there’s going to have to be a lot of very difficult decisions to make as the process progresses and offers start coming in (or, worse, don’t start coming in).

In a perfect world, all of the interviews would happen around the same time and all the job offers would come on the same day and you would get to leisurely pick which job you like the best with no concerns that maybe you could have gotten a better opportunity.  We don’t live in a perfect world though and it’s entirely feasible that you’ll find an offer coming from a less desirable school while you’re still interviewing for your dream job and you’ll have to decide whether to pass on the offer and risk getting shut out of the next one too or accept the less desirable offer and be left wondering whether or not you could have gotten a better job if you’d held out.  A friend of mine found herself in that exact position but decided to take a gamble and won.  She got a great job at a far better school than where the first offer came from, but I had many conversations with her as she was agonizing over the decision, realizing that her future hinged on what she decided to do.

There’s no easy way to see through these decisions.  They take a lot of soul-searching and sleepless nights to get through and ultimately no one can guide you through them but yourself.

9.) Don’t Panic

The whole process is immensely stressful and, even if you’re in a more lucrative field, will leave a constant shadow of doubt hanging over your head as to whether or not you’ll even be employed in a year.  One of my professors told me at the beginning of the year that I should be excited about the job search because a new world of opportunity was opening up for me and I wanted to smack him.  All I could see was doubt and uncertainty.  But now, at the other end of the process, I realize there was something exciting about it.  If I hadn’t gotten the job I’d gotten I probably would have gotten one somewhere else and if I had been shut out of academia entirely there were plenty of opportunities in the private sector I would have been perfectly happy to pursue (another pro-tip: no matter how lucrative your field and no matter how dead-set you are on a career in academia, research the private sector so you can be sure of having a viable plan B, C, D, E and F [which, yes, is how many plans I had]).

While it’s definitely a case of easier said than done, perhaps the most useful piece of advice I can pass on is DON’T PANIC (which I have printed in large, reassuring letters for you there).  At the very least, undue stress and anxiety does nothing to benefit your search and, at worst, can work to undermine you.  This is a piece of advice that I was given but failed to follow but do try to see it as an exciting new opportunity because, when you get that offer, that’s exactly what it’s going to be.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Amazon's Up to Some Shenanigans


A little over a year ago, I started selling movies and videogames online as a way of earning some extra money (graduate school never having been the most lucrative of positions) and because it is by far the largest and easiest place to sell things, I have always listed the overwhelming majority of my inventory on Amazon.  For a long time everything was fine but a few months ago I started to notice something a little peculiar.

A small but not insignificant part of my business is TV seasons because they’re easy to find for cheap and always sell quickly.  But when I came home with a couple of seasons of Deadwood that I had found at a thrift store and tried to list them for sale, I got a message saying I had attempted to list a restricted item and could not proceed.  This was rather peculiar because there were plenty of copies for sale but I couldn’t find any explanation for the restriction and couldn’t get any response from Amazon when I emailed them about it.  Pretty soon I started to notice that HBO’s entire lineup was restricted for sale and I started to notice something else too: used copies were drying up.  Now if you go and search for almost any HBO series you’ll see only a handful of overpriced new and used copies are left for sale but the other thing too is that the first option that comes up when you search for them is to buy downloads of the episodes through Amazon Prime.

This was rather obnoxious but I just assumed that Amazon and HBO had struck some kind of deal and forgot about it.  Or I did until I started noticing that other TV seasons, in many cases shows that I had in the past had no problem being allowed to list for sale, were becoming restricted as well.  So far I have discovered that 3rd party vendors can no longer sell seasons of Everybody Loves Raymond, Veronica Mars, The Mentalist, Breaking Bad, Dexter and pretty much the entirety of the BBC’s lineup and I'm sure a little bit of digging around will yield quite a few more.  If you want to check for yourself you can.  You don’t need any special access, all you need to do is pull up the product listing and look for a button that says “sell yours here.”  If you click on it and are given the option to enter product information then the item has not been restricted, but if you get a message saying that it’s a restricted item then, well, you don’t need me to tell you what that means.

Furthermore, like with the HBO seasons, when you search for these shows you are usually given the option to download episodes through Amazon Prime first and sometimes you have to do a lot of digging to get the option to buy the DVD or Blu-Ray.  I don’t think it takes much logical deduction to parse out what’s going on here: Amazon is trying to force customers onto Amazon Prime (or at least force them to download TV shows) and while I don’t want to try to blow the severity of the situation out of proportion (at some point I will write a blog post about how we’ve gotten into a nasty habit of doing that) it is definitely not a good thing for two reasons:

1. It hurts small businesses.  In case you’ve ever wondered who those third party vendors on Amazon are, most of them are small businesses taking advantage of Amazon’s space to gain a huge amount of exposure for their business or they’re people like me just trying to earn a bit of extra money or simply get rid of some stuff.  When Amazon restricts the sale of a market as large as DVD and Blu-Ray TV seasons it really hurts the income of these sellers.  TV seasons used to be a reliable source of money for me but now I’ve found myself surrounded by a lot of TV shows that I can’t sell and reluctant to buy anymore because there’s no way for me to tell until I get home with them whether or not Amazon is going to restrict me from selling them (and yes I have tried eBay and it has been my experience that TV seasons will sit on there for months without selling. Furthermore, any online retailers outside of these two get so little traffic that your inventory will also sit for months before anyone buys it).  Luckily, TV shows are not the bulk of my business because if they were I would probably have been forced to close up shop by now.

2. It’s bad for consumers.  Essentially Amazon is trying to limit your buying options and limit them to a product that many people do not want.  I can assure you by the way that physical TV seasons used to sell almost as quickly as I could list them that there is still a very strong demand for the physical copies and Amazon is currently trying to take this away.  Of course there will always be brick and mortar stores (for the time being at least) and other online retailers but since Amazon is by far the largest of them, it is a bit of a worrisome precedent that they are setting, and more worrisome still when you consider the possibility that they may start restricting the sale of other physical media as well, in which case I and a lot of other sellers are going to be out in the cold and your buying options are only going to become more and more limited.

There are of course, far more serious problems in the world but unlike most of those, this is a pretty easy one to see to.  There is a very similar parallel at work here to what Microsoft tried to do with the Xbox One and a lot of loud complaining from fans forced them to renege very quickly on the restrictions they had planned to put in place with the Xbox One.  The difference here is that Amazon has been putting restrictions in place in a much quieter way, because unless you are specifically in the business of selling TV seasons on Amazon you’d never know that this was going on.  I’m sure simply complaining to Amazon will get the same results.  They are, after all, a business and any business thrives by making sure its customers are happy.  I know I still love to have physical TV seasons on my shelf and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t want to give them up anytime soon either.  We just need to make sure that Amazon is aware of that as well.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Displacing the Blame

I wrote a little while back that I would take no part in the conversation around the Newtown killings unless I saw a major shift in how we discussed these tragedies.  At the time of my publishing that, I had seen nothing but the same inane bullshit that had followed the shooting in Aurora plastering the news and social media and I was as sickened by the sight of it then as I was before.  To my astonishment, however, the conversation has taken a turn to a discussion about gun control, one that has been quite interesting to follow, and while I hold that those who think fixing the second amendment will solve the plague of mass killings in this country forever are hopelessly naive, I certainly grant that stricter gun control could have prevented at least a few of the mass killing we’ve seen (but certainly not all of them) and that this discussion of gun control is something that needs to happen.  And so it seems, for the first time I can ever recall, that we are actually having an intelligent discussion about this problem.

To that end, there is one element of it that I cannot keep silent on and that is the barbaric suggestion that has been put forth by the NRA and numerous politicians on the right that the solution to this problem would be to arm teachers and/or principals.  There are quite a lot of reasons why this is an absolutely terrible idea but I really feel compelled to bring up one flaw that I have not yet seen addressed, which is simply this: even if given the right to do so, there is absolutely no way in hell I, as a teacher, would ever even consider bringing a gun into my classroom.

I am pretty sure I am not alone in my profession on this.  Educators lean largely to the left (and by the way, Republicans, you may want to think long and hard about why that is) and as such, would largely support the kind of gun control the NRA is trying to prevent with their ludicrous plan to let us have guns in the classroom.  I’d be surprised if, in even a large school, you’d find more than one or two teachers willing to come to work armed and if a school shooting does happen, we’d all better hope they’re not on the other side of the school from where the massacre is playing out or that, even if the teacher is nearby, that he or she is a better shot than the gunman, because boy, won’t the NRA’s face be red if their brilliant plan only results in a teacher who died with a gun in his hand and a bullet hole in his head.

I won’t deny that there is a certain ironic pleasure in contemplating how much easier it would make my job if I could bring a gun to class.  I would never again have to listen to a student complain that I grade unfairly or that they should be allowed to turn their paper in late.  I wouldn’t even need to brandish the gun, just the knowledge that I have it would make them fear me where before I had to work hard to earn their respect.  If I may paraphrase the NRA’s darling poster boy Dirty Harry: lots of people respect the teacher’s authority, but everyone respects the gun.

But the thing is, as a teacher who encourages free thought in his classrooms, I actually think a gun would give me a fair bit more authority than I actually want. How would a Glock on my hip or a shotgun leaning in the corner affect a student’s willingness to challenge me when I suggest a particular reading of a book or film as I so often do to try to facilitate discussion?  I expect that, where I would in the past have started a debate, I will find instead a room full of nodding heads.  “Yes, you with the gun, whatever you say must be right.”  After all, silencing dissenters is one of the things guns do best.

But of course the suppression of free thought is not going to persuade anyone who is advocating for armed teachers.  I doubt they’ve thought much about the implications of having armed teachers at all and that is because I have a sneaking suspicion that, even if such legislation were to pass, the people advocating for it know just as well as I do that very few teachers or principals will actually exercise the option to carry a gun to class and that that is exactly what they want.

Allow me to play out a rather horrid scenario.  A gunman comes into my classroom and I, as unarmed as any of my students, am unable to do anything to stop it as he opens fire.  However many of my students die or are wounded will be counted among the victims of the tragedy while those who survive will be witnesses to it.  I, however, regardless of whether I am killed, wounded or left unscathed, will not be a victim or a witness; I will be the son of a bitch who could have stopped the killer if only I had opted to carry a gun with me.  Never again will a school shooting be the fault of our gun laws.  Instead it will be the liberal pinko teachers who are to blame for their failure to put a stop to it because none of those bastards will exercise their God-given right to bear arms.  Meanwhile the NRA, who worked so tirelessly to put the power to stop these killings in our hands, will give a weary sigh as they throw up their hands and declare, “Don’t blame us!  We’ve done everything we can but these damn teachers won’t cooperate with us.”

And why not blame the teachers?  After all, we get blamed for so much else in this country.  Declining test scores aren’t the fault of bad legislative decisions, it’s those lazy teachers who won’t get off their tenured asses and actually teach our kids anything.  My child isn’t a spoiled brat because I’m a lazy parent: those damned teachers don’t establish any kind of discipline.  Hell, they won’t even paddle my kid for me anymore.  And let’s not also forget that, as a college professor, I’m brainwashing them into becoming atheists, communists and homosexuals (if only we would let Jesus back in the classroom!).  Now the opportunity has presented itself to dump the blame for school shootings on teachers and the Right isn’t hesitating to take it.  We are, after all, the perfect scapegoat.

Enacting stricter gun control laws are only a partial solution to the plague of mass killings that have infected this country but they are at least a step in the right direction.  Arming teachers, however, will not only fail to prevent another school shooting, they’ll do more to enable them than the cycle of inane commentary that I discussed in my last posting.  It will, however, let people keep their assault rifles, because you never know when you might need to overthrow the government, which apparently is what this country is all about.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Tragedy Deeper Than We Know

And so we have had another mass shooting, and a particularly horrific one this time, and I find more and more that my reaction to these events comes in two stages.  As I write this I am coming down from the first stage: a reeling back from the abyss, recoiling in horror as the concrete facts emerge from the haze of the chaos of conflicting reports that inevitably come about as information pours in faster than we can verify it.  27 dead, 20 of them children, the shooter’s mom was a teacher at the school, the principal is dead, the councilor is dead, 100 shots were fired...  Though I try to shut my mind’s eye, images come to me: children splayed out with bullet holes in their foreheads, blood splattered across the finger paintings that adorn classroom walls, other children, alive still, cowering beneath their desks in tears, suddenly aware at their age that they are already being forced to confront the imminent possibility of their own deaths.  And before my real eyes I swear I can almost see the beast looming before me, a vaporous embodiment of the callous, indifferent evil of the universe.

But then a second wave hits me: a slow boiling dread that comes about as I realize that I must now face weeks of politicians, talking heads and special interests groups shamelessly exploiting this tragedy to push political agendas; sound bytes, usually in the form of Facebook and Twitter posts, providing overly simplistic explanations of why these things happen (“it’s the second amendment’s fault, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” “it’s the deterioration of moral values in this country,” “videogames and heavy metal warped the shooter’s mind”); I must endure water cooler conversations where I will be assured that this is a sign that the world is coming to an end (or, at the very least, is on its way to hell in a handbasket) or that the solution to fixing this problem is one that just so happens to perfectly line up with the ideologies of whoever I’m speaking to.  And God forbid you should be subjected to the international coverage of this event, where the talking heads in their news outlets will be quick to assure their fellow countrymen that this happened because America is a country of sub-human, gun-crazed savages who lack the sophistication that they so nobly embody (and what kind of savage do you have to be when, in the face of a tragedy such as this, your initial reaction is to be a self-righteous prick about it?).  I remember reading such an op-ed piece on BBC after the Tucson shooting and responded in the echo chamber of the discussion board with a list of crimes against humanity committed by various European countries in the last few years.  Long story short: I have been banned from commenting on BBC discussion boards (lesson learned: be very careful about forcing people to confront their own pretentions, a lesson I am admittedly ignoring with this post).

And I can’t help but feel that there is a different sort of evil at work in this cycle, that this global response is almost as horrific as the tragedy it’s responding to.  I can understand that, when confronted with such a monstrous act as this, that you want an answer to why it happened.  I want an answer too, and I wish I could give you one, but I lack the expertise to be able to properly contextualize it.  I am, after all, a mere writer.  But what I do know is this: the question as to why it happened is not impossible to answer and that that answer, whatever it is, is a difficult and complex one, one that cannot be reduced to inane Facebook quotes or cable news bickering between wingnuts of various persuasions.  And I know also that I despair of finding anyone capable of giving an intelligent answer to why this happened because the vacuous sound bytes that you can post on your wall and get a bunch of your friends to like or the partisan bickering and shrieking rants from political pundits that are so much fun to watch is what people want to hear.  They don’t want the details.  Why get into a confusing discussion of the myriad forces at work that contribute to something like this happening (because let’s not forget that a complex, difficult to understand answer to the question also means a complex, difficult to implement solution that just may force you to reconsider some of your own values) when you can so much more easily use it to reinforce your own beliefs and score moral compass points on social media?

I will say again that I have no answer as to why 27 people are now dead, but I think I may be able to provide a partial explanation as to why it keeps happening: because every time it does we never seem to say anything that progresses us towards implementing any sort of meaningful solution that could keep the next mass killing from happening.  And there may be a perfectly innocent explanation for why that is: that the horror of these things are so overwhelming that we just don’t know how to respond.  I would like to think that that is the case because it is so much better than believing that there are gun control advocates who heard the news and thought: “Great!  Now maybe people will finally start listening to me!” or evangelists who heard it and thought “Thank God!  Now maybe people will finally realize we need to start getting back to some good old fashioned Christian values in this country!” or...well, just fill in the blanks yourselves.  But even if the innocent explanation is the right one, that we just don’t know how to respond, that still doesn’t change the fact that we waste no time in filling the void of our collective stunned silence with a cacophony of useless blithering until we get bored of talking about it.  And then the next mass killing occurs and the cycle starts all over again.

Whether you want to accept it or not, you are complicit in these killings when you participate in the conversation that we keep building around them, no matter how pure your intentions are.  The roots of this problem run deep, so deep that they cannot be extracted without considerable hardship and toil.  And all we have accomplished with this same conversation that we insist on repeating every time another one happens is to scrape a bit of bark off the trunk, and yet we think we are making progress when we do this.  And the tree grows ever taller.  What more evidence do you need than in the fact that, ever since Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower at UT Austin and killed 13 people we have made absolutely no progress whatsoever in stemming the tide of mass killings in this country?  If we are to accomplish anything we must first fundamentally change the conversation we are having but, though it has only been five hours since I learned of this most recent shooting as I’m writing this, I’m already seeing on Facebook and Twitter and cable news the same fount of bullshit that was spewed when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris went on their killing spree and when Seung-Hui Cho went on his and when Jared Lee Loughner went on his and when James Egan Holmes went on his (and I did not have to look any of those names up - such is the Herostratic fame that we crown these murderers with)...

There was a time when I would throw myself pell-mell into this blithering but now I have grown so weary and wary of it.  However, there is some (naive, perhaps) part of me who believes that just below the surface of the cacophony lies a few quiet voices, experts who have spent years studying tragedies such as this one and who can at the very least point us in the direction of a meaningful conversation that may lead towards some kind of meaningful solution, and that if we would all just shut the fuck up for five fucking minutes we could listen to them speak and maybe learn something.  I don’t know if that will ever happen, but I know what I’m going to do about it: I’m going to abstain from the conversation.  This posting is the only thing I am going to say about what happened in Connecticut.  Anyone who asks my opinion of it, I am going to direct them to this blog.  I will not be liking anything on Facebook relating to it nor will I be tweeting or retweeting anything or sharing any viral images, no matter how sincere and heartfelt they are.  I will walk away from water cooler conversations and change the subject when my friends ask me about it (and I will know my friends by those who respect my request to not discuss it with me).  I prefer the silence of my sorrow to the din of the explanations that don’t explain anything, the talking heads who have nothing to say, the shrieking ideologues who see in the wake of the dead only the opportunity to advance their political agendas.  And I hope in this silence that maybe I’ll parse out the whisper of sanity, of someone who actually has something intelligent to say on the subject, and that I can then rejoin the conversation. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Dire Threat to USF's Funding

For those of you who aren't in the know, one JD Alexander, a state senator of Florida has decided that, in the round of budget cuts that Florida is facing, it is unreasonable to think that every institution should have to take its fair share of the losses.  In fact, he has decided that one institution, The University of South Florida (ie, where I currently attend as a PhD student) needs to take a great deal more of the brunt than any other, not because it is a necessary sacrifice, but because he has his panties in a twist over the fact that a bill he proposed to spin off the Lakeland branch of USF into its own separate university (which, surprise surprise is in his district and which he wanted to take charge of) was shot down by none other than Rick Scott, the Florida governor who's policies on education are so backwards he actually thinks its a good idea to eliminate all humanities from public education.  When the man who is to Florida's educational system what Lord Voldemort is to muggles and mudbloods is telling you you've gone too far, that really says something.  Nonetheless, Alexander is so furious over his efforts to draw funding away from USF in the past being shot down (not just the USF Lakeland incident, but also his attempts to steal the pharmacy school away from the university and, when that didn't work, trying to completely eliminate the pharmacy school's budget) that he is taking revenge by exploiting his position as head of the Florida State Senate's budget committee to take revenge on the school.  I cannot emphasize this enough: there is no actual reason for USF to lose 60% of its budget, in fact, the original budget cuts had USF poised to lose 17%, a number on par with what every other public university in Florida is looking at.  USF could lose 17% of its budget and Florida would still be able to balance its budget for the year.  The only reason this is happening is because of Alexander's bruised ego.

And because of all of this, I wrote him a letter, which I would encourage others to do as well.  I'm sharing the letter here, because I think it's worth sharing and because I don't think there's enough that can be done to stop this.  We need to do everything we possibly can to put Andrews in his place.  So, before I get to the letter, here's his contact info:

201 Central Avenue West
City Hall Complex, Room 115
Lake Wales, FL 33853
(863) 679-4847
Senate VOIP: 41700
FAX (863) 679-4851
Statewide:
1-800-444-9747
alexander.jd.web@flsenate.gov

And here's the letter I wrote for him.  I hope you find it compelling reading:

Dear Senator Alexander,

I am a grad student at USF who has recently learned of your unfair and grossly disproportionate budget cuts to USF. As someone who's future depends on the prestige of the university I graduate from, I take personal umbrage to your absurd proposal on many levels. Not only does it show a clear bias against my institution (a bias that is clearly based on a personal vendetta you wish to carry out against USF) but the incalculable damage your cuts would do to my university would serve only to drive away the top students and faculty who make USF what it is. Your proposal, in effect, would utterly destroy the prestige and reputation of my school and in the process, make the degree that I have so far dedicated almost three years of my life to obtaining here of little value on the market. Your selfish, petty actions against this university are a threat not only to the Tampa Bay area, for whom USF is a pivotal economic powerhouse, but also a threat to the futures of every student currently enrolled in the university (which, I would like to remind you is the 9th largest in the country with 46,000 students who you are currently putting in jeopardy). It is difficult for me to grasp what a vile, petty and heartless person you must be to value your personal grudge over your failure to turn the Lakeland branch of USF into a separate institution above the livelihood of USF's 46,000 students and the city who in part depends on the considerable cash flow the university brings into it but the facts speak for themselves. It is probably too much to hope that you will suddenly choose to see reason when you are so clearly an unreasonable man, so I will appeal to something that actually will speak to you: your political future. It is my belief that politicians need to be reminded from time to time who it is they work for as you all so often seem to forget your duties are to the people and not to yourselves, but I seriously wonder if you are actually dumb enough to believe that you will continue to be in office for much longer if you carry on with such ridiculous policies. You certainly will not receive any support from me, as there is no question in my mind that you are anything other than a disgrace to the state of Florida but I will hope for your sake that some of your other constituents will be more forgiving.

A very angry and disgruntled voter,

Adam Breckenridge

Thursday, February 9, 2012

On the Impermanence of Things


I recently had to deal with a rather ingratiating annoyance with one of my web publications; namely that it no longer exists.  I had heard word that the editor of Lightning Flash Magazine, an ezine who had published a story of mine was trying to sell the publication because he could no longer maintain it.  I gave it no further thought aside from the fact that it was out of the question for me to buy it, as I had neither the time nor the money for such an endeavor.  Well, as it turned out neither did anyone else because as I found out the other day the website is now gone and there is no longer any record of it or the story I had published on it ever having existed.

While I have been assured that I still get credit for the publication, the line on my CV that I get from that work is only a small part of the benefits of having a publication.  In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the CV line is one of the least valuable benefits of publication.  I don’t just publish to make myself more employable (though it’s a nice perk), I publish because I want to get my work and my name out there in the world.  I want to be read and, most of all, I want the glory goddammit.  There is nothing altruistic about my publication ambitions and when a website to which I’ve been published ceases to exist, all of those benefits go out the window.  All I’m left with is a line on my CV that, if push comes to shove, I don’t know that I could even prove is authentic.

But there’s another reason this bothers me so much.  When a website like this goes down, everything on that site is lost.  At the time, Lightning Flash had published nine volumes of fiction and while there’s not much reason to assume that any important works of literature would be found there, the fact of the matter is that something of value was lost and sites like the Wayback Machine don’t archive every site that goes down.  Furthermore, while Lightning Flash may not have been a bastion of cultural treasures, there are other such publications that are, including some ezines, which have by now gained enough respectability that writers of some import are perfectly okay publishing to them.  When these websites go down everything published to them becomes lost all too easily.

What’s worse, this kind of centralization is becoming a trend.  There’s been a lot of talk about cloudware and the advantages of storing everything to central servers and the general consensus right now is that cloudware is the wave of the future.  I invite friends to my apartment, who look at my DVD collection (which is quite substantial) and snicker and shake their heads at my foolishness in making such a worthless investment.  Don’t I know that within a few years I’ll be able to keep every movie I want saved to a central server to access whenever I want and I’ll save so much space?  Same goes for books, music and even my own writing, as I’ve been assured that my habit of saving everything I write to two different hard drives and two different flash drives (one of which I keep in a fireproof, waterproof safe) is a waste of energy when I could just save everything I write to Google Docs or Dropbox and not have to worry about the 120MBs of space all of those documents take up on my 300GB hard drive

I cannot emphasize enough that I am not a Luddite.  I do not believe that technological innovation is sending us to hell in a handbasket or destroying civilization nor am I a doomsdayer but I can’t help but wonder why anyone thinks centralization is a good idea.  I’ve yet to have anyone explain to me why I would want to keep all of my writing on a centralized server where any number of glitches, password malfunctions, natural disasters or churlishness on the part of the host (Google has, after all, locked out quite a few people from their own Google Docs accounts) could wipe out ten years worth of work in an instant.  But I could have my computer stolen or my flash drive stolen and the worst case scenario is that I lose whatever I wrote in the time since I last resaved my writing folder.  I have nothing against them as an additional precaution but it strikes me as sheer idiocy to rely solely on them to keep your work safe.

And it is no different with works of art and entertainment, though on a much larger scale.  I could just as easily lose access to my online movies as I could have my DVD collection (more easily, I would suggest, as I would not envy the burglar who had to haul five hundred DVDs out the door without anyone noticing).  But what if centralization becomes the standard so that everything, old and new, are kept to a handful of servers?  And what then if the worst happens and the entire archives of a major studio are wiped out?  Improbable?  Yes, but impossible?  No.  Why would we ever take the chance of relying on such a system?  If I’m not mistaken, the last time civilization relied on a central storage service for the world’s knowledge was the Library of Alexandria and the loss to world knowledge because of that ill-advised idea is incalculable.

The above, of course, is an extreme example, but the overall point is a valid one - preservation of art is best served not by keeping it all in one place but by copying it and scattering it as far and wide as possible.  Think of how many hundreds of millions of copies of Shakespeare’s plays are out there in the world and how difficult it would be to destroy them all.  And even if you did somehow manage to wipe out every copy of every play Shakespeare ever wrote there are still derivations, homages, critical analyses, cultural references that would allow future generations to reconstruct quite a bit of it.  To eradicate all knowledge of Shakespeare from the world is a task that would seem daunting even to the laws of entropy.  When people tell me cloudware and other forms of centralization are the way of the future the idea strikes me as being about as idiotic as deciding that every copy of everything ever written by and about Shakespeare should be kept in a single building - there is no good reason to do it and a whole lot of really bad ones.

And what makes it more absurd is that there is no reason we cannot disperse works of art and other information electronically the same way it has been done manually.  Every time a book or a movie or an album or anything else is saved to a hard drive (and we’ll assume it was done legally, as I don’t want to open that can of worms) it is the same as printing another copy.  Even if the original is destroyed it would exist on an untold number of hard drives around the world.  If Lightning Flash had been a PDF magazine all those copies of it would still be out there even after the website went down.  They wouldn’t circulate in quite the same way that something like a used book would but that is a problem that could be overcome.  And with hard drives currently being cheaply available in the hundreds of GBs (and hundreds of terabytes not very far around the corner), space is hardly an issue.

The move towards cloudware strikes me as being something with a lot of disadvantages and few to no advantages.  We instead need to find ways to disperse information as widely as possible and in places where dispersion is not viable, such as with websites, we need to make a greater effort to archive as many of them as possible.  At the very least we should do it because it sure is inconvenient to have to lose a publication.