CA: The State of Paralysis

As a worker in the University of California, I am most concerned of course with the state of that system. Right now, it appears that in a few weeks the UC Regents will announce yet another fee increase for students in the UC system. This time the increase will be 32%, and that, added to increases earlier in the year, means that fees will have increased 40% in one year.

The UC system is sinking into a fiscal quagmire and one way, along with layoffs and furloughs for staff and faculty, to avoid sinking further is to increase student fees. According to those at the top of the system, there’s nothing that can be done about it. The UC’s problems are really the problems of the state as a whole which is also sinking into a fiscal quagmire.

A recent poll conducted by the LA Times says that 80% of Californians think the state is headed in the wrong direction. In fact, most think that California has “peaked” and its best days are over.

Most voters seem to feel that problem lies with the state government. Year after year, the state appears unable to come up with a budget, and the one they came up with this last time seems mostly constructed of fiscal smoke and mirrors. Right now, for example, the state is taking more money out of my check than it is supposed to take out, though, I am told, I will get that money back in April. With no interest, of course. This little bit of persiflage was put into the budget apparently to make it appear balanced.

At the same time, the voters appear unwilling to do anything that might significantly change the way the government is run. For example, they don’t want to change the state constitution to allow a simple majority (as is the case in most states) to put a budget before the governor. Now it takes 60% and that means that the anti-tax people are able to exercise an inordinate leverage over the budget making process. They don’t want to make changes either to Proposition 13 that has for years placed tight restrictions on the property tax. That, before proposition 13, supplied the state with a relatively stable tax base. Now revenues, based largely on the income tax, fluctuate wildly, making it even more difficult to cobble together a sensible budget. And, of course, the voters don’t want either to get rid of term limits even those these produce a government run by novices, all the more easily influenced by lobbyists.

So maybe the problem lies not with government or the state, but the people of the state who seem to want to have their cake and eat it too, who are willing to rant and rave about our inefficient and wasteful government, but are unwilling to do anything to make that government less wasteful.

There’s something going on here that I just don’t understand; or maybe I do and prefer to live in denial. 

Too Much ER

I am toast. Since Monday, when I haven’t been teaching or preparing to teach, or going to the bathroom or eating, I have been “responding” to student papers.  Maybe Erikson wasn’t such a failure.  Many students seem to be getting a little something out of it.  Every damn one of them is in the middle of an identity crisis.  Of course what else are they going to say, when for a blog entry, as prep for the paper, I had them write on the topic “My Identity Crisis.”  Now, to be fair to myself, I did say, if you don’t have an identity crisis, then say that; with the caveat that if they didn’t have one they should try to define what it is that they didn’t have.  

I mean just saying, “I am happy as a clam and have no Identity Crisis” wouldn’t quite cut the mustard.  They would have to give some details about being happy as a clam and show some understanding of Erikson by saying what he meant by the Identity crisis that they were not having.  Since this would require actually reading Erikson or having listened to me in class, I pretty much boxed them in, I suppose, since even the people who said they do have identity crisis didn’t seem really to understand what he meant by it.

But the basic dynamic of the ID crisis seems to have supplied some students at least with an analytic tool for filtering through their experience and also with a means for organizing the paper.  Something like:  development stage—leading to need for adjustments in present relative to new environment perhaps entailing reassessment of past (prior education and/or personal ideals): or the crisis as a moment increased of potential and with that increased vulnerability (possibility of wrong choice, misuse of potentials, failure, inability to know the future, etc).

Also quite a number—though far from all—followed my advice and tried to stick as much as possible to one example—the primary one being the step into college.  Writing at the sentence level improved for some students, and while those who didn’t improve at this level didn’t go backwards.

One student wrote about wanting in high school to be a cracker-jack top gun surgeon who would never snap under pressure.  Erikson says adolescence is a time when young people establish ideals or turn to idols as models for future behavior.  This kid though watched too much TV and seems to have based his ego-ideals (as Freud might call them) on ER.  So this kid comes to college and like washes out in pursuit of his ideal in the first quarter.  Not only is he not going to be a cracker-jack top gun surgeon he realizes, but also he “snaps” and starts to slide.

Half of them seem scared to death because they have not selected a major and the other half seems scared to death because they have.  No wonder—many seem to believe that the selection of a major will determine their fates for THE REST OF THEIR LIVES.

I gave a short lecture trying to disabuse them of this notion.  Though this may have only added to their fear since the gist of my little lecture was “nobody knows what is going to happen.”

Week 1

Let’s see.  Week 1 of Winter Quarter Classes, 2008.  Done with.  I can’t remember having so many people trying to crash, or so many emails from potential crashers.  No instruction took place on the first day, what with the class given over mostly to figuring out who was there and who wanted to be there.  That was on Monday, and many of the students looked out of it and glassy eyed.

I didn’t know till I asked that the dorms—I have quite a few first year students in one class—didn’t open for re-occupation till 1 in the afternoon Sunday, the day before.  A few looked wiped out because they had just got in.  I don’t get it.  With the dorms opening at 1 students have less than twenty-four hours to get their acts together, buy books, if they know what books to buy, and figure out any problems with their schedules before they start classes.

The next session was also pretty much a bust.  A good third of the students hadn’t managed to drag their butts over to IV to get the reader for the class—and it’s not just getting over there.  Once there they have to stand in long lines.  And not just for my class but for any of the other four or five they might be taking.

Two students came up to me with printed out schedules that said they were supposed to be in this room, the one I was teaching in, but for a different class.

Since I teach MW I don’t have class on two Mondays, the one that’s called President’s Day and MLK day.  The way I figure it what with this wasted first week and the two days off later in the quarter, my class is already 1/5 over.

I don’t think this is any way to run a university, not if it is to have an educational purpose.  As it is, I suppose many students don’t mind.  After all, it’s in and out.  Education too has taken its direction from the fast-food industry.

One class—it’s called Writing 1—is filled with students who failed a writing placement exam.  Thus they have to take Writing 1, and I guess it’s not that surprising but the number of minority students in this class is much higher than my other class, Writing 2, filled with people who did pass the placement exam.

I was kidding around in W1 about how many students had not declared a major and I don’t know what I said or how it came up but one Latino student said he didn’t know what to major in because it all seemed so hard, so he was trying to find something at least that he liked.  And he came out with too: that in high school he hadn’t had to do a damn thing.  And around the room, here and there, a good number of students nodded recognition.  They too had to do nothing in high school.


Parking Lot

This is my parking lot.  Or this was my parking lot.  Now my parking lot is no more, just a bunch of chopped up blacktop.  But in this area my parking lot was once located.  It is no more.


I miss my parking lot.  I started parking in that lot in 1976.  So I parked in that lot for over 30 years.  The walk from my lot to my office is not that far.  But now because my parking lot is no more I must walk at least 4 times as far as I previously walked.

Moreover, I have to park in a strange lot with which I am unfamiliar.  I feel like an interloper in that lot.  That lot has a parking structure in the middle of it.  I do not like going into the parking structure because you drive and drive sometimes looking for a spot and you see one over there but because of the way the structure is constructed you know you won’t reach that spot in time because you will have to drive around to hell and back to get to that spot.

So I park in a spot past the parking structure, out in the open air, and to get to where I want to go I have to walk through the parking structure.  I have to cross two roadways that sometimes have cars whizzing by in search of a parking space.

I feel endangered in the parking structure.  And then I have to cross a bike path.

My old parking lot had a stand of eucalyptus right in the middle of it and trees all along the far side over by that white building.  But over Christmas break, they came in and cut all the trees down.  And then one day I drove up and there was a gate where I used to drive into my lot.

Life goes on, I guess, but without my familiar parking lot.  I hope I can adjust.

More Treacle

The problem with Pinker—as a representative of the evolutionary psychology movement antiessentialistgenerally—is that there’s something to what he says.  The mind is not a tabula rasa.  That’s as Pinker says, though the British philosopher, Peter Blackburn holds Pinker’s feet to the fire a bit on that one.  He says Locke, for example, did not believe in the kind of utter tabula rasa that Pinker claims he did; instead, according to Blackburn, Locke was  “…perfectly happy with the idea that the nature of the slate or paper may determine what can be written on it.”

I can buy that, but over the last couple of decades, I have felt in my reading around and in my listening to others that in some of the disciplines at least, especially and sadly in the humanities, people have decided that the mind is a “piece of paper” or somewhat more complicatedly now “a computer screen” and the only thing written on either are words.  Language became “fetishized,” it seemed to me, in ways I could not comprehend.  

What is this talk I wondered?  Do these people, though I may interpret them incorrectly, actually believe that, if one can change the way people think about the world, one can change the world.  Too many of my students at one time seemed to me overly familiar with the idea of stereotyping.  Oh, that’s stereotyping they would say or perhaps the more popular word at the graduate level was “essentializing.”  I understood a possible positive motive behind the anti-stereotyping and anti-essentializing movement that made it a bit impolitic to say the whole movement was bogus.

That motive also confused me.  I certainly don’t believe in going around essentializing people or races. Or, in other words, I don’t believe in going around calling people or races bad names or making assumptions about people and races on the basis of their names.  The whole business in my head got screwed up with the political correctness thing.  That’s my problem I guess, but I may be forgiven I hope.  Things do get complicated when an epistemological claim of some sort gets all mixed up with a high falut’en moral imperative of some sort.

I found it hard to say to my anti-essentializing and anti-stereotyping students that they had things all screwed up when the trend seemed to be in part an attempt to be decent people and to treat others decently.  But to get, if I can to the point, I did try to say that they might be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  One can’t think at all I wanted to claim unless one stereotypes or essentializes. Language necessarily abstracts, but that was hard to convey if one is talking with people who honestly believe that there is Nothing But Language and thus no other Reality from which it might be said to “Abstract.”

So a person was pretty much stuck if he or she, as I wanted to do, wanted to argue against the anti-essentialist movement since to do so would automatically put one in the camp of those who believe in a “reality” beyond the language that shapes it.  I suppose I could have said something like “The painful feeling of gas in my stomach is not the same thing as saying ‘I have gas.’”  But I don’t think my having gas would serve all that much to sway anybody’s thinking. So with mixed feelings, though some of relief, I began to read people like Pinkus as saying to the language fetishists:  Look you delusional morons.  You seem to think you can change people just by changing the way you think about them, when in fact what you can think (or say) about people is circumscribed, hemmed in and dictated, by the very tabula rasa that allows you to think at all.

But I put myself poorly.

Imagine all the Treacle

So I pick up Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works and flipping to the chapter called “Family Values” lennonshotfind an introductory paragraph almost entirely of quotations from the Youngblood’s song, “Come on People Now, Smile on Your Brother,” Lennon’s “Imagine,” compacted in with a few passing remarks about the dawning of the age of Aquarius.  The next paragraph begins:  “Incredible as it may seem, many of us used to believe this treacle.”

I think “treacle” a pretty hard word.  I didn’t think Lennon’s song was treacle at the time, and I still don’t.  I thought “Imagine” was a pretty nice song and the Youngblood’s song, while silly, still expressed a nice sentiment and I liked the tune.  Still do.  I have to wonder who those “many of us” were exactly that “believed” this treacle.  Who the hell believes in a song?  Only, I have to think, very literal minded and possibly tone deaf people who desperately need other people to tell them what to feel and think.

So still, who the hell are this “many of us.”  I clearly wasn’t one of the many and I was around at the time.  Personally, I don’t see where one gets the nuts, excepting perhaps from pure grandiosity, to claim that one know what many of us believe about anything.  Pinker does try to back up the “many of us” by talking about the sales of Reich’s “The Greening of America.”  But the introduction really boils down to: let’s kick the 60’s around for a bit.

What we have in Pinker is the psychology of disillusionment.  One wants to say, grow up, buddy.  Nobody ever did say it was going to be pretty.  Too bad you fell for it.  Why don’t you get with it and get over it.  Pinker though wants to claim he is over it.  Now he knows treacle when he sees it.  His whole book is an extension of the “tough guy” ethic.  Just perfect for the nasty nineties and the reactionary Friedmanesque bottom line ethic.  Just more of your herd of wimps in wolf’s clothing.  In short your basic follow the leader academic.

And to top it off, Pinker still buys into the very fantasy of utopian thinking he appears to excoriate as treacle.  A perception placed in my head, no doubt, by Rene Dubos’ The Dreams of Reason.  Dubos, himself a scientist, has the character to see the really scary utopian fantasies have not come from lame artists but out of the “science” camp.  These science guys are constantly coming up with some “facts” or some “truths” that will somehow make the misery of human existence less miserable.  Oh, yes, one day we shall conquer, if only we are tough enough and able to look “reality” in the face.

People ARE selfish; people do kill each other, etc.  As if one didn’t know that and as if it took science to explain to us that getting rid of this nastiness will prove quite difficult.  But this again is the academic’s tough guy privilege: to throw the cold water of reality into the faces of unsuspecting students or a docile public.  But as noted, Pinker takes away with one hand and gives back with the other.  I, the tough guy, know,the idealists of the 60’s were bullshit, but I the realist have the answers or will have them when one day science solves everything.

Talk about your treacle, otherwise known as rampant bullshit.

Portal Headings

Noodling around possible chapter or portal headings for my hypothetical reader—one might be “What am I?”  All the headings will have the single letter word “I” in it.  As in “How Do I Feel?” protalheadingThere’s a bit of a pun in that one.  One asks how do you feel and one says well, I feel fine or whatever.  But I mean “how” does one feel in biochemical sense—what are the emotions/feelings/affects biochemically speaking.  This heading too might point in the direction of those “lower” portions, down on the brain stem, that seem to have something to do with the primal fight/flight response. 




“What Do I Feel,” however, pretty much says what it means.  What is one feeling?

“Who Am I” points in the direction of identity.

But what am I?—that’s a bit odd I think.  I guess one would first say—man or woman.  But I think I am thinking some lower down and a bit more primal than that: the distinction or the attempt to make it between human beings and the animals.  Aristotle: the rational animal, Hegel the sick animal.  My response though would be more in the direction of: human beings: the social animal.

My readings in and around evolutionary theory suggest that may be really What One Is?  The social animal.  In spite of all the nonsense about the selfish gene, human beings appear not selfish but completely gregarious and mutually supportive.  Selfishness is the epiphenomenon of this deeper phenomenon.  People throw out the baby with the bath water on that one, depending on the fish they want to fry.  But what gets us along in any case is not individual, atomistic selfishness, but group being and group creation. 

Thus human beings: the social animal.  And so, sociology points out at the extreme, coming at times quite close to a tabla rasa notion of mind, that what human beings know is what they have learned from other human beings and from the very social structures (quite real structures like building and roads) that guide them in their responses to each other without really having to know anything.  Human beings have moved or changed rapidly because they leave behind them structures upon which the next generation builds.  Genetic adaptation is not necessary, since we build our own environment.  But this capacity to erect a social environment that might be built upon is no doubt the result of a genetic predisposition.

The downside of this or at least one downside—because there are others—is the business about hyper conformity.  Nietzsche emphasizes this aspect with his quite correct characterization of human beings as the herd animal.  Supposedly—this is the ideology—individuality, individual effort, and most especially individual responsibility are prized qualities or values…But it’s well nigh impossible to buck conformity.  Hell, it is impossible.

Remark re: history of ideas.  The enlightenment set off this whole view with people like Helvictius and Rousseau later.  Nietzsche is made possible by the sociological view—in fact his philosophizing might be an attempt to figure out how individuals might arise from the herd.



As I was saying, thinking about materials for a reader I went online.  Who needs a reader, a hard copy one, I mean.  I didn’t have even to go that far into the mess to be overwhelmed by mass of materials out there on every subject known to humanity.

And Wikipedia is turning into a really useful instrument, especially if you are looking for info on current stuff.  They have decent references on the diverse subjects they treat and unlike your regular encyclopedia, mostly because their space is unlimited, there’s no filtering device, i.e. a certain limited number of pages. 

knowledge pyramid 

I wonder if one might construct sort of a knowledge ratio to the effect: limited amounts of documentation, limited space, high or low, produces a greater or less constricted knowledge hierarchy.  In the old encyclopedia Britannica for example one might possibly have found an entry on Andy Capp and his creation, Little Abner, but I don’t think one would have found much more than that Capp drew a comic strip called, Little Abner, that appear in such and such number of newspapers.  Certainly not, as one may find in Wikipedia, a list of every damn character that ever appeared in the strip along with a short “biography” of each.

I wonder if some sort of knowledge flow chart or graph could be constructed: data base plus space plus labor.  The greater the factor under each of these items the more the knowledge curve or knowledge hierarchy would tend to flatten towards infinity, while the less under each category the more the chart would approach a perfect pyramid.  The very peak of the pyramid would consist of the longest of all documents, as the determinative of their importance, with as one went down more and more documents with less and less space devoted to each.

In any case, on the web, there’s plenty enough to go around.  Within minutes, I had located articles, magazine and journal, as well as video on the “topics” I was trying to look into.  This is the “death” of the reader.  Already, one can think of the reader as a portal to web based research, reading and viewing.  Eventually the portal will disappear into the very thing it is opening up.

The web not the book is, without a doubt, the future of reading and writing, barring of course some natural or unnatural disaster that sends this whole electrical thing into the void.  But barring that, the teaching of writing has to become more and more rooted in that digital universe.  The web of course can not teach people how to read and write, but the fact of it will alter individual’s relation to both and the purposes of each.

One of my lit. teachers back in the 60’s let us write extra credit papers on the Death of the Novel.  I forget what I concluded.  But clearly THE NOVEL is dead; or rather the novel has found itself a niche market.  The Book too will die, if it is not already dead, that thing I grew up holding in my hands, the pages of which I turned, slowly or quickly, whatever you did the pages had to be turned—The BOOK will find its niche, but it won’t be where the big bucks are. 

 Information, not contemplation, is the name of the game these days.


Death of the Reader

Talk about your misleading entry title.  My subject here is not as profound as the reader might larrybassume.  As the author has died so must the reader, I guess.  But actually I am referring here to “readers” as they are called in the world of writing instructors.  These are collections of articles, essays, and other sorts of writing/readings assigned by writing instructors to their students for the purpose largely of giving students something to write about when they write.

I have hardly ever used these collections myself.  I did for a while when I was the person training teaching assistants to work in our Writing Program.  They were required to use Behrens “Reading And Writing Across the Curriculum” or WRAC, as we came informally to call it, and so I used it too.  That seemed only fair.   

One may find quite an enormous variety of such readers.  Back in the day, when publishers were possibly less cost conscious, I was flooded with the things, new ones appearing every other day it seemed in my mail box.  I think there are still quite a few of them, and they can be money makers for their editors.  Larry Behrens, for example, had an office two doors down from me, and I know he made more than chump change off his book.  Also, one door way, and two doors away are the editors of Common Culture, a reader that has made its co-editors some money.

I have toyed for years with the idea of making up a reader and making some money from it.  Why not?  But I never get very far with the idea.  It just seems like too much work, or too much of the kind of work I don’t really want to do, sifting through articles trying to find ones that might work with your average, generic American college student.  And, well, I must say, I am not entirely in favor of such readers.  Not because they are bad, but because in my opinion writing teachers should always make their own readers.  That’s what I have done, so everybody else should do it too.

Aside though from this rampant narcissism, I have a slightly more rational reason for taking this position.  Making up your own reader tends to compel the instructor to think a bit more about the readings, their over all purposes, their levels of difficulty, and how they might be used in writing assignments.  Your pre-packaged commercial reader doesn’t require the instructor to do this and sometimes I think they act a bit too much as a prop for the writing instructor, though I do know your average free way flier instructor simply may not have the luxury of the time that I have to waste putting together a reader, when they are readily available pre-canned as it were.

My reservations, though, re: readers did not keep me recently from putting together a proposal for just one such reader that I sent off to McGraw Hill.  I haven’t heard from them yet, and I don’t expect them to take me up on the project, since my ideas tend towards the eccentric.  Still, for the heck of it, I started in the last few days to put together a trail run reader that I will use in one of my courses this upcoming quarter.  Looking around for readings, of course, led me to forage on the web, and this foraging has led me to conclude that your basic “reader” is dead, but doesn’t know it yet.

To be continued…..

Idiot Winds

Yesterday for me was the last day of classes for the Fall Quarter 2006.

I have been teaching since 1976, so I have had a lot of last days of classes.  But I am still no good at “closure.”  Of all the idiot words running around I like “closure.”  But I am no good at it.

rippedMaybe I should bring cookies or bake a cake or barbeque for the last day of class like some of my colleagues do.  I think about it but never do.  So maybe I am no good at closure because I don’t care enough to want to do anything about it.

But I thought I had something that might make the last meeting a little less lame than usual. We sit there usually, and I ask questions about the last paper and ask them if they have questions about the last paper.  The students look all pale and worn out.  I suppose I could give them a quiz to perk them up.

But I had them write their last paper on “Fight Club” because the “theme” for these particular classes had been the consumer society.  I have very mixed feelings about “Fight Club.”  But it’s all I could think to use at the time.  I don’t know if it’s a complex film or with that twist at the end just takes an ironic distance towards itself and so undercuts itself entire.

But that’s another question.  We all had more or less decided on the basis of a few readings that the movie wasn’t just about the consumer society but had something to do also with being masculine or not in the modern world.  I apologized to the young women in the class for a movie so masculine in its emphasis but they didn’t seem to mind.  One even said it was her favorite movie.  She is real bright too but having a very hard time trying to be pre-med—all that biology and chemistry.

But I think, while I am reading the LA Times at breakfast, here’s something that might enliven the last session.  They have a column on another nut form of religion making the rounds.  As the article indicates fewer and fewer men seem to be attending church; the majority of church goers are women.  So the evangelical freaks to get more warm bodies in their pews have decided that modern Christianity is emasculating or de-balling, and are trying to lure more men by preaching a new “rugged” Christianity.

Christ was really a rabble rouseer, a guy who hung out with his homies doing drugs on the street corner and spent lots of time out in the desert living off the land like a real ape man.  Christ as Ripped.  Christ the body builder. And when he was up there on the cross, he really toughed it out.  I asked my students if one of them could photo shop for me an image of Christ on the Cross but really, really buffed up.

But I say this whole thing is about controlling women and quote one of the rules of one of these churches: Rule No. 1: "Learn to work the toilet seat. You’re a big girl. If it’s up, put it down."  But a couple of the young women say that women should learn to “work the tiolet seat.”

I can’t win for losing.  The class ended, as far as I was concerned, having achieved a total lack of closure.