The Problem with Grups

You hear a lot these days about whining, narcissistic young people. You also hear a little bit about how they aren’t that bad, and we ought to just leave them alone. This kind of discussion keeps the the Huffpost/Slate/Buzzfeed hamster wheel spinning. I guess it actually generates a little bit of power, but quite frankly, I’m a little bored of it all.  


Read More

Just a Little Break from Grading

A student of mine tried to argue in an essay that they are right because a person holding the opposite position is stupid. Trying to work out the logic:

P holds Position X Position X = Stupid P is therefore also Stupid

Position Y ≠ Position X Q holds Position Y Q is therefore not Stupid

Hmmm. I think that's how it breaks down. In any case, dear student, hie thee now and sign up for Dr. Fiztpatrick's logic class, please, before you run for office or get a show on AM 590.

Okay, back to grading, seriously, with maybe a break later to bake a Linzertorte.

Students Get Mad

Students get mad when they come to my office and tell me things like this:

Dr. Petersen, I worked with that Adobe Acrobat for an hour last night, and I could not make it combine files like you told us it would.

Because my next move is to start up Acrobat on my computer and show them this welcome screen and ask them to pick which button they think will help them combine files.

Picture 1

Which button would you choose? I know which one I'd use, but perhaps it is easier for me because I use computers a lot. In any case, the point of my rant today is that I now believe, unfortunately, that each successive generation does not necessarily get better at using technology. Perhaps if their computer was hooked directly to their phone or to a Rock Band guitar controller, this would all seem more natural to them.

I do realize that the Acrobat Professional applications in the labs might have the welcome screen shut off, meaning they could be left on their own to flail around for hours in the dark and dreary waste until finding a menu item like this one.

Picture 3

Sigh...I grow old, I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

A Pause for A Political Message to America

So far, we have allowed the market to develop and oversee the healthcare system in the US. According to the NY Times this morning, small businesses are buckling under the weight of health care costs. So, I'd like someone who prefers a market solution explain why it is logical to allow the markets to remain in charge of health care. I don't want to hear about small government or tea parties. I want a real economic argument for why choking small business is central to the American ideal. Though I generally consider myself to be a liberal, in this area my conservative stripes show. I am very concerned about the protection of small businesses, and it doesn't seem as if the un(under)regulated healthcare system is currently taking any interest in doing that. Small businesses employ 40% of the labor force, and the current market system hoses them in a number of ways: they can't negotiate with insurance companies like corporations can, and they don't have enough employees to reduce risk enough to reduce individual premiums. They current system "favors" large-scale corporate employers all the way through.

Our history of anti-trust legislation shows that corporate interests don't take a "care for the community/good neighbor" approach on their own internal moral compass. Some government intervention, through statute, has been almost constantly necessary. (I do understand that many would debate this, too.) Some government intervention in healthcare seems similarly necessary to keep Main Street solvent. Many are suggesting that the current jump in premiums is a cash grab prior to legislation that might deplete insurance company earnings. I guess I have to take the term "earnings" with a little bit of irony. Perhaps "take" might be better.

When the day is done, I feel as if the current healthcare debate is really a referendum on corporate versus individual interests in our country. I sure hope that corporate domination isn't America's only lasting legacy to the world. We have done cooler things than that, like invent jazz and public libraries.

Requiem for a Dream

Because of my recent focus on the fiction writing side of things, I realized that I hadn't been to an academic conference in a while, and I decided I should keep my head in the game. I got a PhD instead of an MFA because I have an interest in and knack for the nerd mongering that goes on in the upper vaults of the ivory tower. Just to keep it real, I gave a paper on heist films.

Academic conferences are strange beasts. In theory it sounds like the coolest thing possible: get a bunch of super dweebs together to talk about the things that fuel their rockets. These people, being in such close proximity, will generate a field of raw intelligence that will blot out the sun. It all sounds to me like a kind of Burning Man for college teachers.

In this temporary geektopia, the world is writ small, and then enlarged again, through the magnifying properties of something people in the know like to call a discourse. When the conference ends, I always expect to return from the mountain, touched by the one or more of the Muses. I always think I will be furiously scribbling notes in the airport and on the flight home. I imagine I'll return to the classroom, tell everyone to stand on their desks and throw out the syllabus—we'll guide ourselves through the rest of the semester with excitement. The upgraded courses will be so full of new ideas and features that students will shut their phones and start taking notes on pieces of paper with real pencils and pens and love learning forever.

But it almost never works out like this.

My experience with academic conferences is so unlike the hope I always hold for them. What's the most depressing, I'm afraid, is the simple fact that most academics are absolutely dreadful in front of a crowd.

If you've never been to one of these conferences or seen one of these presentations, imagine Miles Davis and his late–career disdain for the audience, minus his ability to play the trumpet better than ninety-nine percent of everyone who as ever put a horn to their lips. The issue is not their ideas, or even their passion. They all seem so tired (I guess I'm included), and these presentations are often the last thing on our long list of things that must be done, a list that dominates the other lists of things we want/hope/wish we could do.

Know that I don't arrive as a hostile audience. I am sincerely hoping to have my mind blown. I am the kid who, full of hope and ecstasy, orders sea monkeys out of a comic book, and when they finally arrive I end up, chin in hands, watching clumps of brown powder fall lifelessly to the bottom of the fish bowl.

Usually, on the last night of a conference. I retire to my room. Watch some television, and think to myself as I pack my bags that these hotels and conference centers are where ideas come to die. I want to have a different attitude, but a pattern has been emerging, and I have been observing it for fifteen years now.

There is hope. For every conference, there are a number of confederate ones that take place over dinner, in the elevators, and in the Q & A sessions that follow the gray wasteland of the headliners. I am always energized by the things people say when they are not on the schedule.

So, here's the conference of my dreams: take our proposals, put a dozen of us who appear to be likeminded into a room, bring some nice treats, close the door, and come back in two hours.