The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

no frat boy left behind

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings spoke yesterday to the National Press Club about her plans to improve higher education in the U.S., hinting again at her desire to institute standardized testing in universities:

“No current ranking system of colleges and universities directly measures the most critical point, student performance and learning. We absolutely should. And Action 4 under my plan will provide matching funds to colleges and universities and states that collect and publicly report student learning outcomes.”

I'm a big proponent of using outcomes assessment in teaching and program development. But given what the administration has accomplished with No Child Left Behind, it's hard to imagine that they'd test for anything except rote memorization--precisely the uncritical, illiberal, unreflective, vocational-training kind of education for which the business community is agitating.

“Nobody envisions a one-size-fits-all test of student ability,” the TIMES reported Spellings as saying in response to a question. Sure.

Monday, September 25, 2006

senator stars 'n' bars

George Allen seems to be imploding. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Of course, it's possible that all of it--the Confederate flag on the car, the noose in the office, the endorsement of a Confederate heroes holiday, the gladhanding with white supremacists, the bullying of "macaca," the horror at the "aspersions" of having Jewish ancestry--is all just a big misunderstanding.

Friday, September 22, 2006

kelefa sanneh, "rockism," etc

I found myself a little irritated at the condescension NEW YORK TIMES critic Kelefa Sanneh expressed toward hardcore music in his review of the film AMERICAN HARDCORE, a documentary about the hardcore scene of the early 1980s. Sanneh is smart, no doubt, and he does identify some key points about hardcore with which I agree: it was more about "community and ideals" that about musical innovation or variety, and that there was an "underlying anxiety about race" in this overwhelmingly white movement. But his glib, and not necessarily defensible, assertion that the black D.C. band Bad Brains "were clearly better than everyone else" seems out of place. Sanneh looks briefly at the racial politics of hardcore, and justifiably finds things problematic but not as clearcut as they could have been (he notes that two notorious songs, "Guilty Of Being White" by Minor Threat and "White Minority" by Black Flag, are more equivocal in their politics than their titles suggest). I'm surprised that Sanneh doesn't bother to address the homophobia of hardcore, which was monolithic and often violent. What really bugged me, though, was that Sanneh suggests that hardcore's relentless pounding of the anti-Reagan drums came from "a hint of envy: tough young white guys paying grudging tribute to a tough old one." No. That's just absolutely untrue, and he could have discovered that had he examined the career of Ian MacKaye, whom he quotes liberally in the article. MacKaye lived, and lives what he talked about and what, I think, hardcore truly pioneered: the DIY aesthetic, the attitude that the local scene is important because there the people who consume and produce and even distribute the music are the same people, and that one should work to make the local scene strong and self-sufficient. (I see this attitude everywhere in local rap scenes, a connection that Sanneh either doesn't see or chooses to ignore.)

Certainly much of Sanneh's attitude comes from his disdain for "rockism," the idea that the best pop music is earnest, authentic, guitar-based songwriting about personal experiences narrated with sincerity: "Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star," Sanneh wrote in October 2004, and there's no doubt that "rockism" not only exists but works to privilege the work of white artists over the genres such as hip-hop or R&B that black artists dominate. Certainly Sanneh, and NEW YORKER critic Sasha Frere-Jones, are doing music criticism a service by critically foregrounding this often-unacknowledged funamental prejudice of critical outlets from ROLLING STONE to old SPIN to the TIMES itself. But their counterpunch has taken some ugly turns, such as Frere-Jones' attack on Stephen Merritt as a "rockist cracker," "Southern Strategy" Merritt when Merritt had no black artists on his "Playlist" for the TIMES. Merritt was also criticized in the CHICAGO READER by Jessica Hopper when he praised "Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah" (presumably, because the song came from Disney's racist SONG OF THE SOUTH). A good rundown of that controvery is here.

Monday, September 18, 2006

race face

race face
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Knowing that the mayor was watching, the boy put on his race face before hitting the starting line of his 50-yard dash.... meander... bumble.

mayor ravenstahl

mayor ravenstahl
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Our 26-year-old mayor was there to open this Junior Great Race. Obligatory if gratuitous jab at his youthfulness: "No, he's not planning on taking that singer to the prom." (Alternate: "After this, he had to rush off to go stretch for the Tot Trot.")

bumbo seat

bumbo seat
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
I don't like using this blog to advertise commercial products. But this Bumbo Seat--man, it's great. Added bonus: babies sitting in it are guaranteed to have that "old man" look settle upon their faces.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

tiny team

tiny team
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
ten weeks old today.

diego sets out

diego sets out
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
his real obsession these days, though, is Diego, the Dora the Explorer spinoff. His mother, ever resourceful, printed out a "field journal" and "video watch" from the net, laminated them with packing tape, and now the boy is fully equipped. What's not evident in the photo is that the blue backpack, as well, is Diego-branded. (Potty-training reward.)

armed and masked

armed and masked
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
playing dress-up, preferably as a superhero or Diego (see above), is now in vogue

wikipedia and its discontents

Rule #1 in my classes, from 101 to grad seminars, is "Wikipedia is not an acceptable source." I explain to my freshmen that Wikipedia can be a great place to start thinking about an issue and a fine place to start assembling points of view on a topic--keeping in mind that Wikipedia often neglects to represent all points of view on a topic. I use Wikipedia relentlessly as I put together lectures and powerpoints and even articles, but that's as far as I'll use it.

Stacy Schiff wrote a largely enthusiastic article in the New Yorker. Schiff sees Wikipedia as an admirable project, albeit one with drawbacks and potential dangers:

"Curiously, though, mob rule has not led to chaos. Wikipedia, which began as an experiment in unfettered democracy, has sprouted policies and procedures. At the same time, the site embodies our newly casual relationship to truth. When confronted with evidence of errors or bias, Wikipedians invoke a favorite excuse: look how often the mainstream media, and the traditional encyclopedia, are wrong! As defenses go, this is the epistemological equivalent of “But Johnny jumped off the bridge first.” Wikipedia, though, is only five years old. One day, it may grow up."

My wife, though, who is a Wikiskeptic, forwarded me an article, entitled "Digital Maoism," from Edge, written by a dreadlocked fellow named Jaron Lanier, who sees the drawbacks, and the dangers, as the fundamental characteristic. For Lanier, Wikipedia represents

"a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous."

The more I think about it, the more I think he's right. I'm not as pessimistic as Gustave Le Bon was in his classic 1896 study of the collective mind, THE CROWD, but I just don't believe that "the collective mind" WILL ultimately come up with the best solution. Not necessarily because of ignorance or bad intentions, but--and here is where my orientation as a rhetoric teacher comes out--because of the crowd's/collective's susceptibility to rhetoric. We, especially in a collective, are particularly vulnerable to skillful rhetorical appeals that can undermine our trust in truth, factuality, logic, etc. (This core feeling, of course, must also have been shaped and strengthened by the last two Presidential elections.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

who says football players are dumb?

Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
It's the advertising executives for the NFL who are the dumb ones. Check out this cute NFL Store commercial starring the charming, suddenly ubiquitous Manning clan. It ends: "The Manning's are ready for the season."

I have a very hard time understanding why so many of my students--and for that matter, so many of the folks in charge of putting up advertising signs around town--have the idea that you make a noun plural by adding an apostrophe and an "s". (Many of them also omit the apostrophe in possessives, but that's for another post.) But come on. A huge, expensive, national television campaign, and not one of the hundreds of people who see this ad before it airs spots this third-grade punctuation error?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

santorum's new ad

He uses his children to attack Bob Casey in his new ad. Icky.


I've been reading the glowing press for Claire Messud's THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN and decided to reserve it at the Carnegie Library (which really is one of the best big-city library systems around). One of the reviews noted that Messud's book (one of the seemingly endless parade of coming-of-age-of-young-intellectuals novels best exemplified by Franzen's THE CORRECTIONS but hearkening back to Goethe's SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER and Flaubert's SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION) is in the tradition of THE CORRECTIONS and of Benjamin Kunkel's INDECISION, so it was a happy coincidence that a friend had been raving about that last novel and lent it to me last week. I sped through it in a couple of nights.

INDECISION is dominated by the voice of its first-person narrator, a twentysomething guy living in lower Manhattan with his school buddies as they do what young people do in New York--work in publishing, finance, PR, and go out to clubs and parties and openings every night. Dwight, our narrator, suffers from chronic indecision--or, as the drug companies have now discovered, the pharmaceutically treatable condition of "abulia." His roommate brings him home the drug invented to treat this "condition," Abulinix, which Dwight takes. He immediately finds himself a Decisive Person, ditching his semigirlfriend and flying off to Ecuador to be with another woman. The bulk of the book chronicles his aimless adventures with a Belgian beauty in Ecuador and is less satisfying, although more ambitious, than the first third, which is a pretty sly and funny portrait of Manhattan young folk. The end is not good; it's not "It was all a dream!" but it's damn close.

Kunkel is also trying pretty hard to inject his book both with typical generational snarkiness, popculture savvy, and cynicism and with a real attention to philosophy itself (not surprising from one of the editors of n+1). It doesn't have the heft--physically or literarily--of THE CORRECTIONS, but Franzen may be lost to us in a morass of self-loathing navel gazing; Michiko Kakutani calls Franzen's latest, THE DISCOMFORT ZONE, "an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed." Let's hope that Messud's book is better.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

mayor bob o'connor

We are new to this city and certainly don't know much of its political history. We are absolute foreigners to this kind of labor-Catholic-social conservative Democratic party. But when we came here three years ago this city seemed to be at a low point. There was a defeatist, who-cares, half-assed attitude everywhere--the kind of "Have A Nice Day!" go-getterism we were so used to in LA, Texas, the West Coast, NYC, etc., was just absent (not, of course, that that attitude isn't grating, disingenuous, and often dishonest) and in its place we found a disturbing resignation to things as they are and a real lack of curiosity or interest about the way things work anywhere else.

So although neither of us follow local politics particularly carefully, we were both enthused when Bob O'Connor was elected. He seemed to have an energy that the city sorely needed. I vividly remember the Wednesday morning after the election, the Mayor-elect was standing at the Schenley Park corner of Panther Hollow, Hobart, Greenfield and Bartlett, waving and smiling and holding up a big "Thank You Pittsburgh!" sign. He only served seven months but in that time he seemed to bring a much-needed positivity to the office. I suppose it didn't hurt that things were happening--loft apartments going up in the Strip and South Side, people moving in to Downtown, the All-Star Game, etc. But the city seemed a lot more promising with him.

Two months ago he was diagnosed with a rare form of brain and nervous-system cancer. Over the last week or two it became increasingly clear that he wasn't going to make it. He died Friday night and will lie in state in the City-County Building until tomorrow.

bob casey's dad

Santorum, on Casey's support for Plan B, on MEET THE PRESS:

"I think his father would be very upset if, if he were alive today and, and heard him be supportive of something like this."

Wow. Remember how self-righteous the Republicans got about John Edwards mentioning Mary Cheney's lesbianism in the vice-presidential debate? Lynne called it "a cheap and tawdry political trick. . . . The only thing I can conclude is he's not a good man. I'm speaking as a mom." But I guess it's okay to say YOUR DEAD FATHER WOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOU.

On the bright side, the POST-GAZETTE is now really laying into Santorum, "Pennsylvania's own nonresident peddler of nontruths."

The TRIBUNE-REVIEW, on the other hand, offers up my absolute favorite reason to vote for Santorum: because he runs ads.

"The next time some local liberals yak about Sen. Rick Santorum being bad for the economy, commend for their attention this little factoid: The Penn Hills Republican's campaign for re-election has pumped nearly $680,000 into the coffers of local television station/cable system coffers since July 1."