Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Moar Science!

In between scrubbing and baking, go read this excellent essay by Belle Boggs over at Orion, on why we need better science education in K-12.

The Science of Citizenship.

Key graphs:

Hawbridge students and teachers take a lot of field trips, usually about two a month. Two years ago, during a study of contemporary innovations, we were preparing for a trip to the planetarium.

“You know I don’t believe in any of that stuff, Ms. Boggs,” said one of my students, a junior I’ll call Amy.

“What stuff?” I asked.

“You know,” she said, looking at the ceiling. “Outer space.”

“What do you think is up there then, Amy?”

“God,” she said. “And clouds. And Jesus.”

Monday, November 25, 2013

Making Thanksgiving

It's the second-to-last week of school, two days before Hanukkah, and three days before Thanksgiving.

No pressure, y'all!

I've got all the presents bought for the kid this year, at least -- not like some years! -- though I have not actually wrapped any.  Maybe soon!

And we have actually done (most) of the shopping for Thanksgiving dinner: a turkey, sweet potatoes, peas for the pea tureen, potatoes for some fancy potato thing Dr. Skull is making (Dr. Skull does all the cooking for Thanksgiving dinner, except the sweet potato casserole, which I do), pumpkin for the pumpkin pies, pear for the pear tarts, various other foods for various other dishes.

(Ack!  I just realized we haven't bought the potatoes or the Matzo meal for the latkes!)

And Sunday morning I managed to wake up in time to take the horrible sofa cover to the laundromat and get it washed.  (Big Dog sleeps on it, and it was appalling.)

How are your holiday plans going?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Over at first draft, Doc, a blogger I like a lot, has a nice post up on the public perception of academics, and specifically the public perception of how our salaries match our workloads.

"’s hard to tell people that I earned my money. Nine years of college (which is pretty minimal for a full run through a Ph.D.) coupled with grad student servitude and cheap labor as a teaching assistant kept me out of the labor market for almost a decade. Meanwhile, people who bailed after high school or an associate’s degree were earning an actual salary for most of that time. In some ways, what I have now might best be viewed as deferred compensation: school came first, money came later.

Even so, I get it when people look at me and don’t want to think, “Hey, he earned it.” Or “Wow, it would be great to have that.” Instead, it’s easier to think that we teach 10 hours a week, get our summers off and pretty much live the sweet life."

Mind you, like Doc I would not trade either my job or my salary for the jobs any of my students do, or the jobs most of the people I know who aren't professors do, for that matter. I love my work, and I have very little interest in selling cars, or being an accountant, or being a lab tech, or making steel.

(Though I do know a guy who's an ecologist for the state.  That's a job I'd trade for.)

But here's the thing: my work is, literally, never done.  In many jobs, when you go home, you're done working.  You go home, you've got the evening and the weekend to spend with your family, or to do with what you will: mess about in your garden, go hiking, see a movie, cook, whatever.

I go home, I spend the next eight hours doing prep.  I spend, literally, the entire weekend working.  Maybe I spend an hour with my kid.  Once or twice a year, I take her hiking or to a museum.  I get up at eight, I never get to bed before two a.m., I teach three classes every summer, and I can't remember the last vacation I had.

All this for just barely enough money to live on.

And I am better off than nearly all academics, and (God knows) nearly everyone in America.

Which doesn't mean I wouldn't like a better life, and doesn't mean I don't deserve one.

For instance: the reason I work so late every night is because I am teaching four & four.  (Well: right now five classes, with four different preps.)  That's an entirely unreasonable workload for an academic.  A reasonable workload is two and two, for anyone who is required to do research, as we are at this university.

This used to be a teaching university.  Teaching universities formerly did not require research, and in that case, a four and four load would be reasonable, barely.  But now they are requiring research, and they have not dropped the teaching load.

For instance: the reason I teach three or four classes every summer is because my salary is so low.  I cannot live on what I am getting paid unless I have summer pay as well.  This is why I am unable to take summers off, and do my extra work (the research work, which in my case is my writing work) over the summer break, which is when it is traditionally done in the academic calendar.  This is also when a great deal of prep work is traditionally done. Instead, I am teaching the very labor-intensive five-week classes during this time.

For instance: another burden is created by the increasing demands of "assessment." Rather than just letting those who can do education get on with the work of educating, administrators and legislators keep adding to the lists of what we have to do each semester, to "prove" we've been educating our students.  This now adds a substantial pile to our workload, and it's a bitter burden, given how useless most of it is.  That is, I don't actually mind the hours of research and prep I have to do, since all that makes me a better teacher and makes my students better educated and smarter; I mind having to fill out little forms and create elaborate charts demonstrating "how goals have been met," not to mention multi-colored spreadsheets that "establish realworld assessment results" because this does nothing to increase anyone's actual learning or education.

And it does use up some of my limited hours and creative energy.  And it's not like I've got that much of either to spare, frankly.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

It's official, though.

I live in one of the worst places in the country, yo.

Fort Smith is the sixth most miserable city in the USA.

This is based on  "six categories: Life evaluation, emotional health, work environment, physical health, healthy behaviors, and access to basic necessities."

Which seems totally legit -- you can't even get a decent bagel in the Fort, much less a decent job.  So!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Win Free Books!

Apropos my previous post (this one here) Crossed Genres is giving away books, some of them by me, including Menial, which you will remember is The Future of Science Fiction!

So subscribe now for a chance to win!

Living While Female in Fundamentalist Country

When my daughter was still in the local schools, she used to come home puzzled and woeful, with tales of her friends, members of the local Charismatic Christian church.  "Lily isn't allowed to be sad," she would tell me.  Or: "Lily has to smile.  She's not allowed to be unhappy."  Or: "Sometimes Lily sticks pins in her arm. Until it bleeds. She says she doesn't feel pain."

I thought this was just some very odd child, or maybe an exaggeration, or my kid misunderstanding something, until I began to get essays from my own students, raised in this church or in similar churches. They tell of being beaten ("spanked," but these are beatings) for showing any emotion other than happiness.  Being sad, or angry, or "moody," was seen as rebelliousness.  It was being "bitter" and "unsubmissive" and was a sin, to be punished.

This is, of course, girl children.  I'm sure some sort of number is also being done on boy children -- that is, I'm sure this disturbing religion is also fucking them up (for instance, my male students almost never write me essays about their lives at all: my male students are mute about what they have suffered) -- but it is the women I want to discuss here.

What is the intent of working so hard to build this false consciousness into half your population?

We know what the effect is -- women who deny their own selfhood, who perceive their own existence only through others ("I'm Timothy's mom!"), who like Lily literally can't feel their own pain, who have no agency -- but what is the intent?  Why do this to other human beings?

What can the intent be, except to turn those humans into objects?

It's right there in the language.  Submit.  Obey.  Surrender.

And it's in the process, too.  From the time of infancy (because this begins when the children are infants), these girls are forced to deny their own agency, their own emotions, their own perceptions, and accept what their fathers tell them is reality.  It's a form of brain washing, and it's an attempt to turn the women into a tool for the father's will.

And then -- since the father plans to give the girl to another man -- for her husband's will.

What's amazing is that any woman can escape this trap at all.

Many of my students can't, frankly.  Even the most intelligent of them, who have been reading since they were very young, and are now at university, and who are writing me these essays, still look me straight in the face and parrot their father's words to me.  "God made women to submit." "Men are created to be leaders." "A rebellious wife makes rebellious children."

When I tell them that Jewish children are raised to argue and talk back, they stare at me like I'm speaking Greek.  I tell them the story of Jacob wrestling with God, and how it is taught in Jewish culture -- how we are meant to argue with God, how it's our job to argue and talk back.  I remind them of how Abraham argued with God when God wanted to destroy Sodom.  "You're supposed to argue," I tell them.  "You're supposed to tell God when he's wrong."

Their eyes are huge by this time.

"And if God can be wrong," I say, "are you telling me men can't?  Or parents?"

They can't even speak.

"Besides," I say, "are you raising children to be obedient?  Or are you raising them to be adults?  Do you want them to do what they're told when they're grown?  Or do you want them to be able to think for themselves?"

This seems never to have occurred to any of them, by the way.

But of course the purpose of the Charismatic church is to raise children to be obedient little objects.  People that can think for themselves -- fully functional adults -- would be a disaster for any sort of religious movement.

Why, that would be an enlightened civilization.  Heavens.

Or heaven.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Opening the Gate

As I like to tell my students when I teach HEL (our fond name for History of the English Language), there have been three important revolutions in human history:

  • the agricultural revolution
  • the industrial revolution
  • the information revolution

And we're still in the middle of the last one.  Maybe it started in the 14th century, with the invention of the printing press; maybe it didn't really start until 1970, with the creaky beginnings of the internet.  Whenever you think it started, it's hopping now.

Even if we count the printing press as the start, the internet is a game changer.

Clearly the printing press was also a game changer -- before that, information was difficult to disseminate, in that copies of all data were expensive in terms of labor and material to produce. Comparatively few texts were made, and those that did get made tended to be of a standard, conservative set.

Once the printing press existed, many more texts are created; but we still have gate-keepers: those who own the press want (almost universally) to profit from what they print: Press owners are unlikely to print what they cannot sell.

This is not always true.  Non-profits and university presses exist.  But these are also gate-keepers in their way.  They also determine a canon, sometimes even more zealously than the profiteering presses.

Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with profiting!  Lovely centuries of work came from privately owned and publicly owned presses!  Who would deny it?  But it was a gate, and writers did have to get through it, and was a limiting factor.

Now the internet exists.  And the game has changed.  Now it's possible for anyone who has access and is literate (or, sometimes, even only semi-literate) to publish texts.

According to Alexis Ohanian, who was on the Colbert Report the other night talking about his book Without Their Permission, more money was given to the arts through Kickstarter last year than through the NEA.

And more and more often now, small presses publish the important texts; indie journals are the source of what is most interesting.  The Big Six are still making the big deals, but they're also publishing old news.  Everything important that's happening in the art world tends to happen elsewhere.

Which is why I'm here to say:  Give money to the indies. Buy the small presses, fund the kickstarters, fund the start-ups.

Crossed Genres needs funding right now.  So kick in if you can.  They're doing excellent work as always, publishing new writers, women writers, writers of color, LGBT writers.

But fund whoever you can, whenever you can.  Fund the revolution, y'all.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Delightful Holiday Gifts!

....would include, this season,

Broken Slate.

The Other Half of the Sky.  (Reviewed by Chris Moriarity at F&SF here!)

Menial: Skilled Labor In Science Fiction.  (Which Strange Horizons called "The Future of Science Fiction"!)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Why So Broke?

The actual reasons, obviously, are complex and would need several lengthy posts to examine.

But for the sake of continuing the great American mythic structure (that is, education leads to material wealth!), have a look at this map put out by the Washington Post, which tends to correlate college education (or the lack of it) to higher incomes.


Interesting, and slightly depressing, to be made aware yet again of just how poor and how under-educated people in Arkansas are.  Some counties have a college degree rate of 3%.  And yes, these are the poorest of our counties.

But even Bentonville, among the richest counties in Arkansas, thanks to all that Wal-Mart money, has a median income of less that $57,000/year; and a college degree rate of 36%. (Compare Boston, with a degree rate of 94% and a median income of $127, 000 /year.  Or Austin, with a degree rate of 79% and a median income of $129,000/year.)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Working Class Films: Winter's Bone et al

So I'm teaching this Working Class Lit class, and looking for a film to show them as we near the end of the semester.

We've already watch Matewan and Fight In The Fields.  Now I'm looking for something on the contemporary end of the spectrum.

I watched Norma Rae and rejected it.  It had its moments, but the focus on the character of Norma Rae herself (who she slept with, getting married, her domestic life, whether she had the hots for the Labor Lawyer or not) got too much screen time, which left the story of organizing the union itself -- which should have been the focus of the movie -- as almost an afterthought.  The result was near incoherence for that plot line.  It also left the impression that Norma Rae did most of the organizing on her own, rather than the unionizing being a group effort.

This was the same problem I had with North Country, an otherwise engaging film about the efforts to fight sexual harassment in a huge mining operation.  This one put the story of the fight in the center -- that part was good -- but then it changed the actual facts (which are that the women in the mine worked together, organized, to fight the harassment) so that our main character, Josey Aimes, has to fight the harassment all on her own.  She is the lone hero, in other words, and none of the other miners support her.  This includes the women, who in the film version of this story are too frightened to stand up to the harassment, and actually turn against Josey when she does, harassing her themselves.

As I said, in the actual story (which was the basis for the case Jenson V. Eveleth Taconite Co) the women worked together to file the class action lawsuit, and their ability to organize and unite is what allowed this to happen.  As this source notes:

"Theron's character is based on Lois Jenson, who in 1988 led her female co-workers in the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit and won after many long years in court.Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines proved women could prevail as a group against sex-based employment discrimination and galvanized employers across the country to adopt substantial anti-sexual harassment policies."

The film, sadly, does what much of American film loves to do -- misrepresent the truth to give us a lone hero.  I blame the American insistence on the Rugged Individual who wins against all odds; but it may just be film studios, who think if we have more than one character to pay attention to we'll lose the story line from distraction.


Last night I rewatched Winter's Bone, a movie I remember liking a lot when I saw it in the theater.

And there is, in fact, a lot to like about this film.  Breaks the Bechdel Test to pieces, for one thing.  The performances are great, as is the writing.  But it's not a working class story, since it gives us a picture of the rural Ozark poor who are not, in fact, working.  No one seems to have a job.  Everyone cooks meth or hunts for a living or is a cop, I guess.

It reinforces, in other words, the belief that the poor are poor because they don't work, and because they make bad choices.  Ree's best friend, for instance, has made the bad choice to marry a jerk, one of the many jobless in the film, whose parents are supporting them, and who -- it is hinted -- abuses her, emotionally if not physically.

And the other reason I don't want to teach it is the violence porn -- the notion that a mystique of violence and crime control working class lives.  I get that this was the plot to the movie; and I do know that many Ozark communities do, in fact, work on roughly the social outlines Woodrell & the screenwriters have shown us.

(That is, a kinship network that can be used and is used by people who understand it to settle the real disputes in the community.  That Woodrell showed the women's side of this is to his credit -- he shows, in other words, how influential women, and particularly older women, grandmothers, are in the Ozark community.)

But the whole organized crime aspect got pushed too hard, in my opinion; and the whole "he got fed to the hogs," and the scene where the corpse is mutilated, not to mention the squirrel butchering scene*, all of these strike me as playing to stereotypes of Ozark hill people as being savages.  Noble savages, but savages nonetheless.

So I'm not using that film either.  Which leaves me still looking for a final film.  Requirements: Must deal with American working class life post-1960.  The closer to 2013 it is, the better.  And I would prefer one that had women as main characters.  One with PoC would also be very nice.

I'm taking suggestions.

*A qualifier on the squirrel butchering scene.  My issue isn't that Ree and her siblings shoot and eat squirrels.  That part is fine.  But the butchering scene is foregrounded, lingered over, and this is not -- like the other scenes in which Ree is educating her siblings into how to survive in their world -- presented just to illustrate their lives; it's lingered over, and its squickly details are lingered over, in order to show us the savage nature of these Ozark hill folk.  If you think of the scene in Michael Moore's Roger & Me where Moore shows us the woman butchering rabbits, you'll see what I mean.  (Would a film about middle-class suburbanites focus lingeringly on a scene is which a woman cuts up a store-bought chicken to fry it?)

We're not being invited understand or empathize with these characters, but to view them with horror and disgust.  This despite there being, so far as I can see, no real ethical or moral difference between hunting squirrels, raising rabbits for food, or buying factory-farm chickens to eat at your local Wal-Mart.

Well, in fact, I would argue that eating squirrel you've hunted yourself is more ethical than buying factory-farmed chicken.

But these films aren't arguing that.  They want us to see Ree and the rabbit-killing women as Others, and as grotesque Others as well.  That's my issue with the scenes.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

This Is Exciting

Here's something to look forward to!  Alex MacFarlane is editing a collection of SF by women.

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

I can't wait!

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Nine Goblins: A Review

My kid is an enormous Ursula Vernon fan.  By "huge" I mean badgers me relentlessly to read Digger, her comic which has been nominated for the Hugo, among many other awards.

I keep swearing I will, when I have more time, which who knows, some day I might have more time.  (I have trouble reading graphic novels, as I may have mentioned a time or fifteen on this blog.  I can do it, it's just difficult for me to read texts and pictures at the same time.)

Anyway!  Today she came to me with the gleeful news that Vernon had a print story out, Nine Goblins.  How cool!  Now I could experience the joy of Vernon for myself!

I have read Vernon, and I am here to tell you the kid is right.  You should go and read likewise.

Nine Goblins is a novella, and Vernon has published it under a pseudonym, T. Kingfisher.  It's a ripping yarn, so it has that going for it; and very funny; but also populated with interesting characters, none of whom are stock characters, and it has something to say.

The main characters, the goblins, are the best characters: they're all in the goblin army (the goblins have gone to war against the humans, who have been encroaching on goblin land for some years now) which is a story in itself, the goblin army. Sergeant Nessilka, our main character, I suppose: she has command of our squad; Murray, who's more or less her second in command, and a goblin genius; Blanchett, who suffers from either PTSD or something more interesting, and whose captured teddy bear talks for him; Algol; the twins; and all the rest.

There is also an interesting elf, Sings-to-Trees, a very un-elf-like elf.

This is what Vernon does well here: takes the cliche, and plays against it.  She gets compared to Pratchett, and I can see why, since he does something of the sort, interrogating the fantasy tropes by playing against them; and since his works are also funny.  Pratchett's humor is sometimes very wink-wink-nudge-nudge, though, a kind of see-what-I-did-there-HA-HA.  Vernon never falls into that trap.

We also feel for and with her characters in a way I only sometimes do for Pratchett's characters. This is a novella, and it feels too short -- I wanted more -- but everything that is here it fully realized.  The world-building is great, the characters fully developed, the pacing perfect.

I'm just hoping this is only the first in a series.

Highly recommended.

Friday, November 01, 2013

So This Is Grim

I'm teaching this Working Class Lit class, as y'all know, and one of the possible paper assignments is to write a non-fiction narrative of their own working class experience.

We've read a lot of working class histories in the class -- narratives from the 19th century and early 20th century: miners, steelworkers, a black guy who was in debt peonage on a Georgia plantation after the Civil War, factory workers from Paterson in the early 20th century.

 Do something like that! I said.  Use your own history! I said.

Well, they are.

These are working class students, almost entirely from working class backgrounds.

The jobs they are describing for me, their narratives -- I thought I knew about rough jobs and abusive bosses.

Yeah, no.

Fifty and sixty hour work weeks, routinely, and for no overtime.

Toxic environments.  Insufficient sanitary arrangements.  Killing heat.  No benefits. No retirement. Unsafe working conditions -- one student writes of working in a warehouse that floods routinely, so that the cement floor is slimy with mold and silt.  They're loading heavy cargo in this warehouse, and if they slip (as they do) they risk serious injury.

Workers with seniority (and thus higher pay) are driven out or fired for specious reasons so that they can be replaced with temp workers.

Once these workers have been pushed out of their jobs, the companies find ways to deny them unemployment benefits.

Very nearly the worst part of this is the miserable pay these students are getting for doing these jobs -- these are hard-labor, exhausting jobs, that damage them physically and often expose them to toxins and other health risks; and almost none of these jobs pays enough to live on or provides benefits.

And -- of course -- none of them are union jobs.

This is Arkansas, after all.