On Trigger Warnings and Empathy

Neil Gaiman’s recent short story collection is called Trigger Warnings.  Scott Kenemore (author of Zombie, Indiana among many others) wrote about how horror is supposed to cause feelings of discomfort:

in recent years a threat has emerged—a sinister shadow falling over our community, you might say—leaving us even darker than usual.  And I believe that a uniform opposition to it has finally become that elusive unifying quality I could never otherwise find.

This shadow is the movement—in academe and, increasingly, elsewhere—to protect readers from ideas that might trigger feelings of discomfort or trauma.  This trend is disconcerting to horror writers because creating discomfort and trauma is—more or less—what we aim to do.

Making people feel uncomfortable is not a byproduct of our project.  It is our project.  We write novels and stories (and sometimes even poems) precisely so that readers should jump at an unexpected noise, or pull the covers closer in bed that night.  Our goal is to horrify.  To traumatize whenever possible.  To trigger the deepest, darkest fears that we can.

We don’t do this out of allegiance to any form of historical oppression.  Certainly, we do not do it for the money—at least not chiefly.  (Since the “horror boom” of the 1990s, advances in our genre have decreased drastically.  Any opportunists in our ranks have long since decamped for the greener pastures of YA.) Instead, we do this because we think something important is going on when people are scared.  We think it’s possible to be sublimely and transcendently frightened.  We believe fear and discomfort are sensations which, rightly conjured, can put one in touch with some of the most interesting and profound aspects of human existence.  And, yes, also with vampires and zombies and tentacle monsters. (Read the rest here: We ARE the triggers)

I posted this in reply:

You make a good argument about unabashed horror, and the value of texts that cause discomfort. I agree wholeheartedly with your idea about what horror should be.

But I think you’ve misrepresented what trigger warnings should be for, to my mind. Trigger Warnings are about context. They’re meant to signpost upcoming moments for readers who might not be ready for them. Thus, I usually see trigger warnings on non-fiction pieces about controversial topics. I’d think a horror story written as a horror story ought to be its own trigger warning.

But even in the case of fiction (such as last week’s Scandal, a pretty violent show that this week included an extra “violent content” warning), trigger warnings shouldn’t be a way to coddle readers or help them avoid uncomfortable situations: they’re a recognition that for some readers, some topics invoke real life trauma. This isn’t to say those readers should avoid the texts, necessarily, but rather to give them the choice about how to handle them (even just being mentally prepared can make a difference).

By way of example, imagine a story including scenes of rape. Without a trigger warning, a rape survivor may be blind-sided by emotions from their own past because of the story. On one hand, blind-siding a reader with emotions is a great skill for the author. On the other hand, this is unearned reaction — you didn’t make that result as a writer, you happened upon a particular reader’s weakness. If your story’s good (and if you’ve written it, Scott, it would be), you don’t need the cheat of the reader’s previous trauma. Nor will your story’s effect be reduced for the reader whom the trigger doesn’t effect.

To me, a trigger warning isn’t about telling audiences to avoid texts, but rather about empathy, and about recognizing that different experiences urge different kinds of responses.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: End of the semester grading

Note: I’ll be taking a break from the Dispatches from the Age of Electracy series until after the new year.

An interesting conversation opened up on Facebook last week about grading.  The OP asked “Hypothetically, what should I say to a student who’s unhappy about getting 91/100?”

Grading Conversation Original Post
(click ‘read more’ below to see the full conversation)

The comments were varied and interesting, from snarky answers that few teachers would actually say aloud to serious answers about how to assuage or rebuff the student’s concerns.  But while the two tones seem strikingly different, I would suggest most instructors fall in the middle regarding their attitude about students, grading, and the nuances of it.

  • Frustration with minor grievances – it’s really frustrating when students fixate on small grade grievances.  Boy howdy, I know it is.  But where we see ‘just one assignment,’ some students put a lot of stock or interest or faith.  Plus, they only see one of the assignment, rather than the 20 (or 80) we have.
  • Grading is a weird piece of job performance because it’s very subjective (CAVEAT: I’m writing here about subjectively graded assignments, judgments of quality rather than accuracy.).  Teachers build an instinctual “I know it when I see it” meter that allows us to assess quality of projects quickly, but then we have to, you know, explain the grades.  It’s the gap between the assessment and the explanation that’s at discussion here.  And when the difference between two projects comes down to “good but not great,” that’s a hard line to explain or help a student understand how to improve.
  • That said, even adding in a helping of excuse for the caustic space of the Internet, I find the dismissive tone of some of these comments pretty harsh.  It’s easy, as a teacher, to lose empathy for the student and their efforts to understand grades and grading.  And as instructors, we sometimes forget the power this evaluative tool has for our students, and the weight with which the hammer comes down.

And, I think, many of these effects are amplified by Electracy.  The shifting nature of knowledge acquisition and learning means many of the values and relationships between teacher and student are changing, have changed, and will change; these changes manifest, in some ways, on the grading page.  A few thoughts about this:

  • The shift from “Sage on the Stage” to “Guide on the Side” models of teaching recognize that the modern teacher’s role is to facilitate exploration of the subject as an expert.  I’ve written before that what we’re selling in modern higher education is not knowledge, it’s time with someone who understands the field and is good at explaining it.  The grade itself becomes less important because we’re less important as arbiters of correctness or validity alone.  Instead, it’s our ability to explain why the student’s work earned a particular grade that makes us more valuable than Wikipedia.
  • The flattening of hierarchies urges us to be more approachable and urges students to see us that way.  This alteration of relationship (admittedly, this may be a very subjective point) makes it easier for students to discuss and question their grades than they might have before.  The open lines of communication between student and instructor also facilitate this kind of conversation.  I suspect the professor who decided she’d no longer accept emails was, in part, motivated by the idea that if the problem isn’t big enough to come in to discuss, it’s not important enough to discuss at all.  I’d interpret things a different way.
  • Electronic grading also opens up the system, making it visible to students in ways it just wasn’t when grades were kept entirely on paper.  In the past, students couldn’t really “keep track” of their grade.  The professor could do so, but wasn’t really accountable to students if they didn’t.  Now, with electronic grade books, students expect that grades will be updated and up-to-date, and professors have a reasonable obligation to maintain that visibility.  At the same time, students acquire an obligation to manage their own grade.  If something is a surprise, it’s not our fault.

In these contexts, we’ve come to see a more nuanced idea of grading.  It’s not an arbiter of quality alone, it’s an assessment of achievement.  We use rubrics to communicate our expectations and we evaluate using those guidelines.  There’s still plenty of fuzzy subjectivity in our grading, but the onus is on us to explain ourselves, and then on the students to take more responsibility for the process.


Continue reading Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: End of the semester grading

The Grand Hotel – a spooky place to stay

The Grand Hotel by Scott Kenemore

The Grand Hotel
by Scott Kenemore

*Full disclosure: Scott Kenemore and I have been on convention panels together and he has visited my class several times to speak about his work on zombies.*

The Grand Hotel is a ghost story anthology with a wraparound tale that contextualizes the eleven stories in the context of a creepy old hotel and its unusual residents.  Our narrator is a wizened desk clerk whose relationship with the hotel gets more and more complex as the story progresses.  The stories told by the residents exist on a continuum between a little eerie and downright horrifying.  Kenemore does a great job fashioning authentic voices for each narrator, and in bringing to life the diverse settings these stories inhabit.

A few thoughts:

  • The eleven stories vary in the creepiness and terror they offer, but generally as the story goes along they get more eerie.  My favorites are the tales of the Chef in the abandoned Scotch castle, the Vicar in the old English manor, and the psychiatrist narrating her patient’s case.
  • As always, Kenemore’s style is light and quick, but hefty enough that it doesn’t feel superfluous.  The supernatural elements in the novel are applied with a light touch, allowing the gothic atmosphere of the stories to make the scenes work, rather than just horrific narrative elements as one might find in Clive Barker short stories, for example.
  • The Grand Hotel reflects a positive approach to self-discovery and growth.  One of the themes throughout the novel is the value of telling stories, particularly about one’s own life, to learn and grow.  As a writer, Kenemore consistently uses his fiction to “think through” cultural and social issues within the context of popular genres.  The Grand Hotel advocates for a positive approach to self-discovery work, be it individual, or in a talking-therapy kind of way.
  • One of Kenemore’s best attributes as a writer is the way his stories inhabit their locales so skilfully.  In a novel where he has to construct a dozen locations in a hotel plus nearly another dozen locations for the stories to take place, Kenemore does a fantastic job building realistic worlds for the residents’ stories.  I particularly liked the story about the space mission, which one might think shouldn’t belong in the book, but which fits in quite nicely.
  • I’ve got two minor complaints about the book.  First, with the exception of one character who interacts with the desk clerk, most of the tourists are necessarily abstract.  This keeps the focus on the hotel’s residence, but it also makes the tour seem a bit more staged.  I wonder how it would have worked if we’d known more about the members of the tour.  Second, the novel too strongly telegraphs its conclusion.  Kenemore certainly doesn’t intend for the end of the novel to be a surprise, but elements of the story still act like it was intended to be one.  This is, however, a minor complaint in an otherwise excellent book.

Overall, The Grand Hotel is a great spooky story anthology with a solid wraparound tale that provides a unity of purpose that’s quite satisfying.  It isn’t quite as satisfying, for me, as the Zombie State trilogy, but still definitely worth a read. (See also: Zombie, Ohio; Zombie, Illinois; and Zombie, Indiana).


3 anecdotes that shape my thoughts on #GamerGate – Boy Scouts, a Cat in the Trash, and a Clockwork Orange

If you don’t know what #GamerGate is, you should be glad.  It’s awful.  Here’s a summary if you don’t know.

Here’s my TL;DR for you:

1. Over the last couple years, a few feminists have been pointing out that many video games perpetuate sexist stereotypes about women, and make little room for women in their stories and gameplay.  The locus of this conversation has been Anita Sarkeesian and her Feminist Frequency video channel.  When Sarkeesian decided to make a series of videos about women in games a couple years ago, some members of the “gamer” community lost its mind, and many members of it began harassing her relentlessly, triggering the Streisand effect and getting Sarkeesian far more money than she would have gotten originally (full disclosure, I pitched in $10 specifically because of this harassment).  The abuse and harassment has not stopped for Sarkeesian in the time since her project began.

2. Sometime recently, the ex-boyfriend of a game developer named Zoe Quinn posted a long rant about what an awful person he thought she was, and she suddenly became the object of all sorts of viciousness and abuse from the net’s most visible denizen of ne’er-do-wells, 4chan’s /b/ forum.  As part of this vitriol, accusations were made that Quinn used sex to advance her games and/or get favorable reviews from game journalists.

3. Hence, #GamerGate, a scandal about games journalism and corruption in game reviewing.  Supposedly.  Except that the hate, vitriol, harassment, abuse, and threats against women are inextricably linked with the people mad about how game reviews are written.  And the loci from which the discussions of the scandal spring are the same, so there’s no way an outsider could understand or see how the individuals inside those groups imagine them to be different.

My intent in writing this piece is not to argue the merits of game journalism corruption, nor to condemn the harassment of women in the gaming industry (which I do hereby condemn) but rather to think about the way the denizens of #GamerGate have handled the accusations that it’s a front for women-harassing assholes.  I have three anecdotes and a thought to share.

1. I was a Boy Scout as a kid, and I have a lot of fond memories of the organization.  But in the last twenty years, a conservative arm of the group has taken over leadership of it and made a number of terrible policies excluding gay leaders and scouts.  I find these decisions appalling, and not in keeping with either the spirit of inclusiveness that is supposed to be at the heart of scouts, nor with the non-demoninational morality the group claims to have.  Hence, because I disagree with these prominent choices associated with the group, I’ve withdrawn my support of it, and won’t be involved with it.

2. In 2010, when a lady was caught on video throwing a cat in a trash can, 4chan found and published her identifying information in less than 24 hours.  Apparently they sent threats and other horrible things her way while they were at it, but my point here is that when they’re angry, this roving group of nuclear id can bring powerful pain down on people they don’t like.  If they really cared about the individuals harassing women in the name of #GamerGate, they would self-police.  Send a threatening tweet? Feel the fury of 4chan.  They have shown themselves to be resourceful, active detectives of the digital sphere.  Failure to act against bad actors in their midst speaks volumes.

3. Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange features a third act (or fifth?  I can never tell which is which) that Stanley Kubrick left out of the film.  The narrator serves his time in prison and tries to return to his old ways, only to find that he’s outgrown them.  He finds that uncivilized behavior, while appealing to youth, creates a false present-hedonism that hampered his ability to be a human being as he grew.  It’s a moment of growth that’s missing from the film.  We learn that groups of young men are particularly good at getting one another to do awful things, but in the long run, those awful things undermine society and the very humanity of the people committing them.

But then I saw this comic (via @granitetide), and it sums up much of what the casual observer will think about #GamerGate.


A final thought:

As Ken White at Popehat has often written, the answer to speech we don’t like is more speech.  Individuals who use their power to try to stop other people from speaking should be opposed with all the strength we can muster, as hampering free and open dialogue cuts to the core of what makes America great.  But the constitutional right to say whatever you like does not mean such statements are ethical or moral. Words have meaning, and have an effect on the people at whom they’re directed.  To associate with people who are acting unconscionably is to endorse that behavior.  The #GamerGate label has been poisoned from the beginning.  It was always-already infused with women-hating harassment, and any attempt to claim a higher ethical purpose cannot be extricated from these roots.If you don’t like how games journalism works, write about games journalism.  If you don’t like the tale that Sarkeesian is telling about how games work, critique that tale.  But to threaten her and her supporters, to harass and frighten opposition across the web, and to demand that people join your worldview or face terror is to forego freedom for tyranny.

Archbishop John Nienstedt should be ashamed of himself.

"Hands together" by Danny Hammontree
“Hands Together” by Danny Hammontree
(cc licensed)

Archbishop John Nienstedt asked Jaime Moore, the longtime music director for St. Victoria parish in Victoria, MN, to resign after Moore married his longtime same-sex partner.  Nienstedt should be ashamed of himself.

We’ve long understood that the Bible is a hot mess of contradictions.  Aside from confusions introduced by its translation into other languages, there are clear contradictions between the new and old testament, or in which things we’ve decided are or are not still important to God. (See The Year of Living Biblically for a good discussion of this.)

But over time, as the secular, enlightenment understanding of humanity has evolved, we’ve come to see that the ancient view of “sin” was grounded in the specifics of the time those books were written, and that in order to properly understand why something is or isn’t wrong, we need to continually re-asses and explore that issue.  For a good example of how we’ve come to reinterpret, from a modern perspective, old “sins,” consider slavery.  (The Iron Chariots wiki is a good place to start.)  Miscegenation (the ‘mixing’ of the ‘races’) is another example, something whose position was first defended, then refuted by the religious faith people had.  See The Oatmeal for a scathing and hilarious comic rendering of this idea.

Which brings us to the modern moment.  Gay rights in the U.S. have reached a tipping point where, as John Oliver suggested, it’s not about which state will legalize gay marriage next, but rather which will be the last to do so.  And so even the Catholic church has begun to wake from its slumber, like Smaug hearing Bilbo stumbling around in the gold pile. Last spring, Pope Francis said:

“Rather than quickly condemn them, let’s just ask the questions as to why that has appealed to certain people.” and “We shouldn’t marginalise people for this. They must be integrated into society.”  (The Telegraph)

This seems to me the moment for leaders of the Catholic church to join the rest of us in the 21st century (hell, the last two decades of the 20th century).  They ought to take a deep look at the past issues of human rights (particularly race relations and slavery in the U.S.) and ask themselves how this issue is different.  Even if they still understand homosexual acts to be sinful (but gleefully eat lobster), the supposedly inclusive message of Jesus and the recent comments by the Pope would suggest that this is the opportunity for the church to respond not with shaming or shunning (or marginalizing), but with love.

Instead, Archbishop Nienstedt chose not to stand with right, but to stand with tradition only.  For shame, sir.

Full disclosure — I was raised Catholic but am now Unitarian Universalist. My mother attends St. Victoria parish and our family been lucky enough to count Mr. Moore among our friends for more than a decade.

A few thoughts on The Quantum Rose

The Quantum RoseThe Quantum Rose, by Catherine Asaro, follows the blossoming love of Kamoj and Vryl, a woman and man from two vastly different cultures on vastly different planets.  They’re pulled apart by cultural forces, by diplomatic obligations, by jealousy.  They’re attracted to one another on a deep level, they resonate.  Also, Asaro reveals at the end of the book that the chapter structure is also a parable for particle physics.

A few thoughts:

  • Like Ian M. Banks’ books (Consider Phlebas & Surface Detail are two that I’ve read), Asaro gives us a story within a consistent, much larger galaxy of adventure and stories.  This tip of the iceberg approach works well because readers can jump in wherever, and then back track if they like what they see.
  • This book has two distinct sections — the first 60% or so takes place on Balumil, where a “Beauty and the Beast” story blends with a tale of domestic violence.  The second 40% proceeds to Lyshriol for a tale of political intrigue and passive resistance protest.  Personally, I thought the tensions set up on Balumil made for an intense opening, and I think the move to the second planet halfway through is a bit of a cop-out.
  • Asaro does a great job of touching on the colonized experience. Kamoj wrestles with feelings of anger over how space-faring cultures are treating her people, Jax is angered by the invaders’ impositions of their legal system, and there are cultural blunders all over the place in the beginning of the novel.  Some of it is a little heavy-handed, but it’s a welcome facet of the book nonetheless.
  • The domestic violence and complex relationship between Vyrl, Kamoj, and Jax — Kamoj’s jilted fiance — makes for intense reading.  It’s not my favorite, personally, but I think Asaro does a good job capturing the complicated feelings people in abusive relationships face.  There’s a particularly great scene where people are asking Kamoj what she wants to do with Jax right there, completely unaware (or unwilling to admit) what kinds of pressure he can bring to bear on her.
  • Asaro includes lots of great little moments — like when Vyrl reveals that he’s a ballet dancer, but is ashamed of it because on his planet men don’t dance.  Kamoj encourages him to do so anyway. Or when Kamoj discovers there is a voice-activated computer in the house and becomes wary that it is watching them all the time (even in their marital bed).

But the biggest little moment for me was when, long after this should have been mentioned, the narrative casually mentions that one group of the people in the novel have differently-shaped hands and feet than do the others (who are basically human, in looks).  From page 344:

Eight. So it was natural.  At first Kamoj had thought that Lord Rillia, Del-Kurj, Chaniece, and Shannon had deformed hands.  But everyone else she saw here had them too.  Instead of four fingers and a thumb, they had two sets of opposing fingers, a total of four digits, all thick as thumbs.  A hinge down the center of their hands let them fold their palms together, so they could hold and manipulate objects.

This comes out roughly 30 pages after she meets these people.  I’m sorry, but if you met a group of otherwise normal people who had hands that folded in the middle and had four thumbs instead of four fingers and a thumb, you would remark on it.  Since this section of the novel operates mostly from Kamoj’s perspective (though in third-person omnisicent, mostly), we should have heard about it before this point.

I didn’t really enjoy this book very much — mostly because the romance angle is too heavy in the first half.  This isn’t a criticism of the book so much as a note about its place outside my personal preferences.  My book club members tell me that the romance elements are more muted in the other books, so I may try another one at some time.

Privilege and humor – Whose experience is being mocked?

5 Minutes There’s been quite a bit of commentary lately about privilege.  It’s a concept that finally seems to have some mainstream bite, and deserves serious consideration.

In case this is new to you, the basic idea of privilege in this context is the idea that different people have different experiences in society because of factors outside their control such as skin color, sex, economic status, nationality, first language, and many more.  The difficulty of this concept for privileged people to accept is that they don’t see the extra friction involved for the unprivileged, so it can be hard to understand or empathize.  I like John Scalzi’s explanation here.

Four things that have come across my transom in the last couple days.

1. Privilege tournament – YUCK.

The most hurtful thing about Gawker’s “Privilege Tournament” (which invites readers to vote on NCAA-type brackets for who is the least privileged “category” of people, black, Hispanic, gay, etc.) is not its contempt for civil rights discourse, but that the prideful display of a white man’s humor is more important to a large liberal media outlet than compassion for people who suffer the dehumanizing effects of discrimination.  Gawker, of course, presents the Tournament as an above-it-all humor piece, and this is exactly the problem: Gawker believes it is speaking from a place of objective remove, but it is, in fact, acting out emotionally. The site is either willfully naive about the daily pain experienced by people whom society devalues or, worse, resentful that white men are being wrongly denied equal sympathy. Either way there’s nothing objective in this perspective.

Not only is white male humility in discussion of race/gender/sexuality absent here, but in its place is a vicious, sneering resentment at the suggested need to be humble. When a white man decides that a conversation about privilege has gotten out of hand, gone to absurd lengths, and needs some comedic cutting down, he is reestablishing white, male dominance, plain and simple. Who is asking who to laugh? Whose experience is being mocked?… (Salon writing about Gawker)

2. Whitewashing – a term for the overwhelming default use of whites as main characters and the assumption that white male is the default.

Seriously, it surprises me that people still don’t get that “whitewashing” doesn’t just mean “taking a character of color and turning them white,” but also applies to “focusing disproportionately on the stories of white people,” “glossing over or altering parts of a story to make it more palatable or make white people look better,” and “treating ‘white’ as the default race”…

Because that’s the thing. People often assume that when someone’s race isn’t explicitly specified, they’re white. People insist that Katniss Everdeen must be white because it is possible for them to rationalize that idea in their head. People think of white as “raceless” and every other color or ethnicity as “raced,” and that’s what we call “eurocentrism.”

And that’s the thing about whitewashing. It’s this idea that a “person” is white, and a “person of color” is black or asian or arab or latin@ or whatever they might be.

It’s why people call John Stewart the “Black Green Lantern” but just call Hal Jordan the “Green Lantern.” It’s why Miles Morales is called “Black Spider-man” but Peter Parker is just “Spider-man.” If you want to throw gender into the mix, it’s why Jennifer Walters is the “She-Hulk” but Bruce Banner isn’t the “He-Hulk.”

People think “character” is white and “character + black” is black. There is no default race….
(rapteriffic  via Geek Girl Playground via Jeanne)

3. Junot Diaz on men writing female characters, and whites writing minority characters:

If you’re a boy writer, it’s a simple rule: you’ve gotta get used to the fact that you suck at writing women and that the worst women writer can write a better man than the best male writer can write a good woman. And it’s just the minimum. Because the thing about the sort of heteronormative masculine privilege, whether it’s in Santo Domingo, or the United States, is you grow up your entire life being told that women aren’t human beings, and that women have no independent subjectivity. And because you grow up with this, it’s this huge surprise when you go to college and realize that, “Oh, women aren’t people who does my shit and fucks me.”

And I think that this a huge challenge for boys, because they want to pretend they can write girls. Every time I’m teaching boys to write, I read their women to them, and I’m like, “Yo, you think this is good writing?” These motherfuckers attack each other over cliche lines but they won’t attack each other over these toxic representations of women that they have inherited… their sexist shorthand, they think that is observation. They think that their sexist distortions are insight. And if you’re in a writing program and you say to a guy that their characters are sexist, this guy, it’s like you said they fucking love Hitler. They will fight tooth and nail because they want to preserve this really vicious sexism in the art because that is what they have been taught.

And I think the first step is to admit that you, because of your privilege, have a very distorted sense of women’s subjectivity…. (Diaz via Mason Johnson via ofgrammatology and others)

4. Clark at Popehat has been writing a series mocking the overwrought press coverage of the government shutdown.  His pieces document his daily life, the non-trauma of going to the store for some milk and so on.  While there is a bit of truth to them, I also cringe at the ingrained privilege in the pieces, the callow joking idea that if the shutdown isn’t a big deal for him, it must not be that big a deal.  I wasn’t surprised at one piece that makes the point about the apocalyptic tales, but he’s done four as of today, and frankly they’re getting a bit grating.


Should someone’s politics influence your enjoyment of their art? (The Ender’s Game conundrum)

Ender's Game image
In a school full of mostly adolescent boys, you really think there won’t be any experimentation?

I acknowledge up front that nothing I say here will be particularly revelatory if you have been following or thinking about this story for very long.

Books and movies you encounter during your formative years often get a pass on critical thinking, at least they do for me.  I’m fond of a number of movies and books that I enjoyed as a yout (five points if you get that reference) but, on reflection, just aren’t all that good.  In fact, some are worryingly bad.

The biggest of these is Ender’s Game, a book long beloved by me and many of my fellow geeks, but whose quality and reputation have been called into question by the pressure arising from the new movie coming out this fall.  A quick roundup of the commentary that’s affected my thinking about Ender’s Game:

I’ve discussed this issue many times with my students, stemming from the basic question: should a person’s politics influence how you feel about the art they make?  I have a variety of responses

  1. Yes, of course it will influence your enjoyment of the work.  What you know about the author will inevitably color how you receive their books.  You’ll be hyper-alert to the issues they’re associated with.  For example, Watson was particularly bothered by some of the homophobic and racist banter the children used in the book.
  2. But there are innumerable pieces of art (particularly collaborative art like Television or Cinema) made by people with whom we disagree politically.  Are we to research the politics of all our artists before we engage with art?  This sounds, frankly, totalitarian.  It also suggests that people are only their most objectionable views, and their art must come from that place.
  3. What about art you encountered without the external knowledge of the artist?  If you like it first (as I did with Ender’s Game), there can be a sense of loss when you discover the artist’s failings, and it’s distressing to have to reconfigure nostalgia for something you enjoyed as a kid.

The Internet seems mixed about whether friends of LGBQT should boycott the film or not.  On one hand, it’s strongly associated with the author of the novel, so its success is his success, and on some level, his financial reward.  On the other hand, hundreds of people have worked on this film, and to suggest that OSC’s political views ought to decide whether we see the movie or not is to give in to a kind of totalitarianism, especially since Lion’s Gate has denounced Card’s homophobic stance and is holding a benefit for the community.  The Nathan Simpson at Queerlandia brings up a great point — they could short-circuit the boycott by revealing whether Card’s financial connection to the film is a fixed point (as it USUALLY is, particularly on a property this old) or if ticket sales will affect his finances.  Woe be to them if he gets a percentage.

Personally, I plan to see the film.  Ender’s Game was a key book in my childhood — it spoke to me as a nerd and intellectual, it told an exciting story, and it helped shape my thinking about friendship and leadership (though, as PZ Myers points out, it doesn’t provide a good model to think about politics and war). But I will also donate the cost of my ticket to an LGBQT ally organization, preferably one connected to the fight against NOM, as they are the focal point for Card’s activism.

Let’s boo boo! A few thoughts on The World’s End

The World's End posterThe World’s End

Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have written their third movie together, the end of what they’ve dubbed the Cornetto trilogy (Cornetto being the British equivalent of the American Drumstick ice cream treat).  It tells the story of Gary King, a burnout whose best moments came and went in high school, trying to get the lads back together for one glorious night of drinking at pubs.  And then it turns out that something bad has happened in his hometown.

A few quick thoughts:

  • The movie is much like the other Pegg/Wright comedies — it engages with a known genre film, it has compelling characters that grow and change over the course of the movie, it has ambitious action sequences.
  • The five guys were excellent–each bringing his own style and personality to the role.  Nick Frost did an especially good job, playing the more serious man to Simon Pegg’s fuckup (a reversal of their roles in Hot Fuzz).
  • I wish I hadn’t seen the trailer about the film — it would have been fantastic to go into it without knowing anything about what will happen.  If you have a bubble going that keeps you from knowing about the film, I’d avoid learning more than you need to.
  • Marc Maron’s interview with Simon Pegg on his WTF podcast is excellent, and well worth checking out.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet and think you might — and I think you should — stop reading now and go see it.  Then come back and read the rest here.  Spoilers lie ahead.

Gary holding the map of the "golden mile"
A photo from the movie to let spoiler-phobic people leave. Bye bye!

A few post-viewing thoughts:

On the surface, the movie clearly engages with questions of manhood, life, achievement, and dreams.  The five characters have each grown in their own ways, finding successes and failures both.  Encountering the elemental whirlwind that is Gary King drives them to look hard at one another.  Gary, too, “cleans the pipes,” emotionally.  His quest to complete the Golden Mile has a ring of desperation (which is explained by his suicide attempt, of course).

Like the other films in the Cornetto trilogy, this film’s basic SF premise is very derivative, this time drawing on the Invasion of the Body Snatchers storyline.  For Gary, the suit-wearing, teetotal men he picks up from the train station are just as corporatized and sanitary as the chain-pubs occupying the shells of the stops on the Golden Mile.  He’s railing against a life without the freedom and adventure he imagined when he was eighteen.  He also sees himself as a failure, so clings to the only success he’s had — the legendary pub crawl from that night long ago.

But the last few minutes of the film also offer a variety of reads for cinema scholars to chew on.  When Gary and Andy discover that the aliens had to replace nearly the entire town in order to gain control of it, they argue that human beings are just too bull-headed to be told what to do.  We’re mad and we’re not going to take it any more!  Here are a couple quick reads of the scene:

– Embracing freedom as a key element of human life, even the freedom to make poor choices.  This is the lesson of Demolition Man and of Dennis Leary’s early stand-up comedy.  It’s the ideal pursued by the arm of Libertarianism that pushes back against the “nanny state.”  See also the Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

– It’s interesting to think a bit about SF premises like the Iain M. Banks “Culture,” which would certainly have been pushy about its ideology as well.  The difference, I think, is that the Culture usually takes a Star Trek approach, letting worlds develop their own ideology and only enforcing larger strictures about behavior when the humans aspire to join the rest of the galaxy.

– My friend and colleague Paul Booth mentioned that the film rung, for him, as a rail against corporatized culture, citing the pubs that had all become the same as a key complaint in the film.  Indeed, mass culture does seek to homogenize use in many ways.  The Internet seems to be fracturing that somewhat.

– But the most interesting read of this, for me, is to think about Colonialism.  Pegg and Wright are both from the UK, the world’s most famous modern empire.  While the Empire was certainly based on economic domination and control, there was a significant philosophy of paternalism and racism as well–the idea that the British way was “civilized” and that the uncivilized people should be educated, refined, and brought up.  But like the aliens in the film, the British saw resistance to their rule as orneriness rather than agency.  Thus, in some ways, Pegg and Wright have crafted a final scene in which Andy and Gary speak out for the colonized people of England’s past, telling the British to ‘fuck off.’  One could probably apply this same reading to the American approach to war-torn areas in the last two decades, where we apply bombs and band-aids to quell violence and enforce our own philosophy.

– Last, the moments at the end of the film seem to reflect on Gary’s story as a metaphor for human kind (and a scary one, at that).  While we have the potential to begin thinking as a collective in many ways, we also just enjoy having a good time, which makes us myopic to larger issues about global community.

Dr. Morris Fishbine, OR Another reason to love Columbia College Chicago

Check out this clip from A Thousand Clowns:


I’ve had several students who go by something different than what the roster says.  Sometimes this is an expected change, like an Anthony who goes by Tony, or someone who uses their middle name.  Other times, it’s more complicated.  I’ve had three students who used names that were unrelated to their given names or family names — Chewie, Blue, and Maverick.  All remarkable people: interesting, self-aware, and without fake affectation.  They chose their own names.

Today I’ve learned that my policy of respecting a student’s personal nomenclature has been dictated as College policy.  Our Interim Provost writes:

The Columbia College Chicago community strives to be a welcoming environment that takes very seriously the various identities of our students. Names are a central element of identity formation and expression, and Columbia will now make it possible for students to easily use a preferred first name on campus.

Students may now request a preferred first name change here.  This means that the students’ identities during their academic career at Columbia will be attached to their preferred first name for Loopmail, Moodle, class rosters, Campus Card, and most of sections of Oasis. Their full legal name will appear in documents related to financial aid, academic records, and transcripts.

Please be aware that students may present themselves with a name that is different from the one that appears in certain documents. For example, the transcript name could be John Doe and the e-mail name could be jane.doe@loop.colum.edu).  Please remember to honor the student’s preferred name.

Special thanks to IT, CiTE, Admissions, Student Development, the Records Office, Student Engagement and Culture, and the Office of LGBTQ Culture and Community for working through many challenges to make this change possible for students.  We would also like to thank our students for inspiring us to become a better institution.

How many of your schools have such a humane policy?  Kick ass.

See also: Convocation? No. ConvocAWESOME


Sad Robot Stories: A Novella

Sad Robot Stories
Sad Robot Stories

Sad Robot Stories: a novella
by Mason Johnson

The title of this novella reads ambiguously.  Is this a collection of stories about a sad robot, or are these sad stories about a robot or robots? As my father used to say–Yes.

Johnson’s book follows the adventures of Robot, an outsider among his own kind, as he considers the nature of life, the universe, and everything.  It’s a beautiful little gem of a book, and I’d hate to tarnish your reading of it by divulging much more of the plot than I already have.  That said, a few thoughts:

  • As with many outsider stories, Johnson uses Robot to explore moments of the human condition, bringing these scenes to life with a rare flair for language and imagery and lovely turns of phrase.
  • The story is simple without being simplistic, and involves just enough change as it moves along to keep itself going.  I wondered, moving into the second main sequence of the tale, what could be left to tell, but was glad to see what arrived.
  • Johnson’s characters are sharp and believable, with Mike and Sally getting the bulk of the attention after Robot.  The end of the tale doesn’t hold up quite as well as the beginning in this regard, but still works.
  • The rise of spiritual questions in the end of the novella works very well too, asking some basic questions about what it means to be alive, to help others live, and to seek one’s fortune in the world.
  • This definitely falls into the category of “literature” or “soft SF,” and won’t reward a hard-sf reading, though it doesn’t neglect technology so much that it becomes irritating or nonsensical.  It just doesn’t attend to questions of “how” very closely.

You’d be well-rewarded to pick up a copy of Sad Robot Stories, which will be distributed as an e-book under a CC license or will be available in print very soon.  It’s a lovely tale that dwells on the line between literature and science-fiction, and pushes you to think a bit more about who you are.

Full disclosure: Mason Johnson was one of my students when he was in college, and I received a review copy of this book for free. 

Update: If you’d like to order the book, you can order a copy here or download the free ebook here: http://cclapcenter.com/sadrobot

We’re surrounded!: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 4

This is the fourth in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system.  In part one, I provided a preface for this discussion.  Parts two, three, and four focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.


In Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series, I reflected on the challenges facing the institution of university education in the Age of Electracy.  Like the industries I explored in part 1, the University must reconceive its project if it is to survive in the new era, and more importantly, if it is to remain valuable to the students it educates.

What we are not:

One thing we need to consider is the way Electracy has changed what we do.  In the era of high literacy, we offered access to knowledge, both physically (with our tremendous storehouses of information) and mentally (by teaching the skills and offering pathways through that knowledge).  While the second half still holds somewhat, the first half has become increasingly irrelevant.  While our function as a museum might still hold in some way, that’s very different from being an institution of learning.  We are not a repository of knowledge.

In the past fifty years since the G.I. bill sent so many middle- and lower-middle class men to college, we have seen a significant rise in our credentialing function.  The past few decades have seen a cultural shift in which these degrees are, more than ever, gateways to basic middle class job opportunities.  As such, we’ve gotten into the business of authorizing entry into that class, but the value we purport to guarantee has not stayed consistent in the public’s mind.  More and more people see the degree not as an assemblage of learning but as a piece of paper that lets them apply for jobs.  As such, alternate (less expensive) forms of credentialing have emerged in place of our expensive credentialing.  We are not a credential granting body.

What we should do:

Those of us who value university learning understand that a good education means more than that piece of paper, it represents an array of skills and problem-solving abilities hard-won over the course of several years of study.  More and more, it’s crucial that we focus on providing students with those skills and helping them understand the skillsets they maintain.  As a professor in the humanities, this challenges me because our skill tools are difficult to measure and slow to emerge.  We hear from students how the work they do with us comes back in a year or two to augment their later work with others.  But we need to think about how to frame the education we do through the public utilitarian lens.  I’m not suggesting that we move toward quantifying our output, but that an articulated sense of the practical results students gain from working with us is valuable and important.

We need to continue jettisoning the antiquated idea of the professor as distant lecturer/expert or imparter-of-sacred-knowledge.  The aspect of our work that does not scale up is the personal, the individual attention to personal learning and guidance with an expert.  It’s in this guise that I think we offer the best learning to our students and the means by which we transition toward an Electrate model of education.

Finally, we need to reconsider how we take advantage of intrinsic motivation across the whole of the student experience.  It’s cliche to say we need to revise the very basic premises on which we educate students in this country, but as an instructor I feel strongly that we must do just that.

We have a long way to go, but I think the fact that so many smart people are already thinking about this stuff (see part 1 for my inspirations/ sources/ informants) is a very encouraging situation.

It will never get harder to copy things: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 3

This is the third in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system.  In part one, I provided a preface for this discussion.  Parts two, three, and four focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.


Monkey with glasses
I couldn’t think of a good image to accompany this post, so here’s a monkey with glasses.

In Part 1 of this series, I offered as object lessons service industries that saw significant upheaval in the Age of Electracy.  In Part 2, I suggested that universities face significant challenges from “above” because of the changing shape of public opinion.  These factors don’t correlate very closely with what happened to travel agents or stock brokers.  By contrast, the rising forces of competition certainly analogize closely.

At its heart, the University faces the same problem Travel Agents and Stock Brokers faced — a shift from information scarcity to information abundance and the emergence of technologies that automate (or scale, at least) key parts of our business model.  I’ll write a bit about three pressures we face, each of which has emerged significantly because of the digital age and each of which challenges our conception of who we are and what we do for students.

1. Lectures, information, and syllabi

For many subjects and much of the history of university study, college professors imparted knowledge to students via what Paolo Freire famously called the “banking model.”  We dispense knowledge via lectures and books, the students store that knowledge in their memory, and deposit it back on tests.  Hopefully some of it sticks.  This model worked for many reasons — first, knowledge itself was relatively rare, and the means to sort it were difficult to find and not easily copied.  Second, the expert who understands and can dispense that knowledge was even more rare, and he (or she, but usually he) could only be reached via classrooms and visits to musty offices.

The internet has, I’m afraid, disrupted that scarcity.  Information is no longer rare.  It’s getting easier to find and index every moment, and smart agents, search engines, and widely available tools mean that less and less do professors hold monopolies on what information is best nor do we limit how it can be accessed.  On top of that, with easy-to-distribute digital recordings, our dispensation of that knowledge need not be rare either.  A lecture given once is no longer ephemeral, but can be captured and placed online where it can be viewed in perpetuity.

As a result, the lecture model of instruction in face-to-face classrooms has dropped out of favor as professors and students alike come to recognize that such one-way interaction does not necessarily make the best use of synchronous classroom time.  For professors rooted in the older culture, though, this challenges us to think about what we ought to be doing.

2. Convenience

It’s become very clear to nearly every professional working in higher education that students want more online offerings available for their study.  They like the convenience, the flexible schedule, and perhaps the ability to thrive under their own intrinsic motivations.

Marginal outfits and for profit schools like Phoenix University colonized a lot of this landscape early, and many traditional universities were slow to join the bandwagon.  And when they do, they often misunderstand such offerings as an economic boon, a way to eschew the ghastly overhead that makes face-to-face classes expensive to offer.

But as brick and mortar universities work to understand the role online offerings should take in their larger environment, many students are opting for those other institutions, and suddenly there’s competition in the marketplace from these venues.

3. Credentialling

The one place traditional universities still hold a strong lead is in credentialling, the purpose for which much of the external world understands us to exist.  By giving someone a degree, we certify that they know what they’re doing, and our reputation as an educational institution (as well as our certification from the credentialling bodies) means that employers and other interested parties can quickly grasp the value of our offerings and our graduates.

But it would be a mistake to imagine that this monopoly will hold for much longer.  As offerings diversify, credentialling will do so as well.  Already, formal networks like LinkedIn allow for users to certify other users, a practice that doesn’t carry much weight now but could easily do so in the future.  Programs like Badges (the idea of earning a mini-certification in a specific skill based on free or open coursework) and initiatives like MOOCs mean that more and more, people will seek alternate means to certify their competence in many fields of endeavor.

These three factors all heavily influence the reasons students choose (or choose NOT) to attend our institutions.  As the costs continue to rise (which they will inevitably do), information abundance, online offerings, and diversified credential schemes will hack away at the underbelly of academia, a surface made weak by our centuries-old monopoly on the training of the middle and upper classes.

In part four, I will explore a bit about what I think we need to do, as educators concerned with the future of higher education, to transition our institutions to meet the needs of the Electrate public.

Read more: We’re surrounded!: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 4

The Ghosts of Travel Agents: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 1

The Ghost of Industries Past
The Ghost of Industries Past

This is the first in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system.  In parts two, three, and four, I will focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.  This part serves as a preface and setup for the following posts (which will probably appear once a week).

A note on influences, citations, ideas

Instead of trying to tease out the who, where, and how I got some of the ideas in this piece, I will up-front acknowledge that this is a melange of thoughts from my reading and from around the web, influenced by the following (among others): Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson, Marshall McLuhan, Lawrence Lessig, Donald Norman, Greg Ulmer, Katherine Hayles, Jeff Rice, Steve Krause, Alex Reid, Bradley Dilger, and BoingBoing. Apologies up-front to those I’ve borrowed from but not cited here.

Setting the stage

If you aren’t a regular reader of my blog (or you show up just for the monthly music round ups), you may want to peruse the following posts to set your personal stage for the coming discussion:

The Ghosts of Travel Agents Past

“I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.  A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”

“You were always a good friend to me.  Thank’ee!”

“You will be haunted by Three Spirits.”

“Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob? I — I think I’d rather not.”

“Without their visits, you cannot hope to shun the path I tread.  Expect the first to-morrow night, when the bell tolls One.  Expect the second on the next night at the same hour.  The third, upon the next night, when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate.  Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!”

It walked backward from him; and at every Step it took, the window raised itself a little, so that, when the apparition reached it, it was wide open.

Scrooge closed the window, and examined the door by which the Ghost had entered.  It was double-locked, as he had locked it with his own hands, and the bolts were undisturbed.  Scrooge tried to say, “Humbug!” but stopped at the first syllable.  And being, from the emotion he had undergone, or the fatigues of the day, or his glimpse of the invisible world, or the dull conversation of the Ghost, or the lateness of the hour, much in need of repose, he went straight to bed, without undressing, and fell asleep on the instant.

How will the rising age of Electracy affect the university? We inhabit a system built on models of learning and information exchange as practiced in the Literate era.  While we like to imagine ourselves as exploring and building on the lessons of contemporary media, we come up very short, to my mind.  As we develop more and more rigorous ways to digitize pieces of our former workload, universities must re-examine what it is we do and how we understand our relationship to the economies of knowledge and MONEY.  Consider these spirits from the past:

  • Travel agents – This used to be a profession built on booking plane tickets for people.  The Internet destroyed it.  The individuals who survived the Internet Tsunami did so as vacation planners, demonstrating their ability to sort from among vacation choices and providing value by doing that sorting work for people.
  • Stock brokers – This used to be a profession built on registering trades for people.  The Internet destroyed it.  The individuals who survived the Internet Tsunami did so as financial planners, demonstrating their ability to sort from among investment choices and providing value by doing that sorting work for people.
  • Real Estate Agents – This used to be a profession built on listing and finding homes for people.  The Internet destroyed it.  The individuals who survived the Internet Tsunami did so as “full service realtors,” demonstrating their ability to make homes saleable through staging, clever marketing, and aggressive foot leather, then doing that work for people.

How does this scenario translate for the university?

  • University – This used to be a profession built on credentialing and providing information to people.*  The Internet will destroy it.  The institutions who survive the Internet Tsunami will do so as what? We need to demonstrate our ability to help people become effective economic participants in the 21st century economy, able to wield modern information systems skillfully and do that work for people.

Electracy demands a different kind of student, a different kind of educator, and a different institution to house them.  Let’s hope we build find it before the water gets too high.

Read more: Death from Above: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 2


Them: Adventures with Extremists

Them by Jon Ronson
Them by Jon Ronson

Them: Adventures with Extremists
by Jon Ronson

It’s a little disconcerting how close Ronson gets to very scary people in this book.  But his point, I think, is that even the very scary people are just people.  Them details Ronson’s journey into the late 1990s and early 2000s subculture of conspiracy theorists, people who believe shadowy cabals of the ultra-rich control the world, and make decisions about the world-controlling process at a secret meeting each winter in a hotel and at a second yearly meeting, a satanic ritual in California.  A few details:

  • Ronson does a very good job of making the terrifying people depicted in his book look more like hapless buffoons that terrorists.  He also highlights how the people on the extreme left of the system are also bonkers.
  • I admire both his persistence and his bravery, to visit places and people who have, in some cases, set themselves up against everything he represents or stands for (or is, in the case of the Anti-Semitic KKK).
  • The blood drinking lizard chapter, about famous crackpot David Icke, is particularly compelling.  Ronson follows Icke when he comes to Toronto to speak about the fact that the world’s leaders are actually seven foot tall blood drinking lizards.  The local Jewish Anti-defamation League orchestrates a shut-down of his talks before learning that his talk of lizards isn’t code for anti-Semitic thought, but actually a fear of giant lizards.
  • I love Ronson’s self-deprecating writing style.  If nothing else, reading the book is worth it for the nervous self-terror that emerges as he wrestles with tricky situations, like “should I try on the KKK hood or not?” — he does.
  • The best part is that he does find a secret cabal of ultra-rich movers and shakers who meet twice a year.  They DO have policy discussions and have a ceremony in front of a giant owl.  The Bilderburg group does, as Ronson lays it out, seem to have a lot of power (at least in terms of their ability to draw together people who will later become important.  But it also functions like a rich old person’s frat party.

For much of the book, I couldn’t help but think of So I Married an Axe Murderer and Charlie’s nutty father.  So I’ll leave you with that.  All in all, Them, is a compelling, striking read with complicated emotional layers and a strong vein of humor.