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Thursday, August 21, 2008

On Staying Positive in Academia: A Raving Lunatic Manual

If you think that teachers are exempt from the corporate-style office politics syndrome you may be out of the loop about the ins and outs of today's academia. The sad reality is that for as much school administrators want to promote a "positive environment" and a "place where it is a pleasure to learn and work," the distance one has to travel to arrive at that "promise land" is full of tar pits and obstacles--often placed there by teachers themselves. I wish I could say it's just about the office politics, or the numbers/percentages of "nay sayers" versus "go-getters/doers," but I suspect I would be over-simplifying a great deal--it is about much more than just that simple dichotomy.

I am an "okay" teacher. I don't think I want to be a "great" teacher; the title strikes me as egocentric and self-centered. A "good" teacher seems appropriate, especially because I've met a number of them and they strike me as the most effective in the classroom. Despite the fact that I'll probably get bombarded by responses saying something to the effect that "it's not right to use terms like 'good' and 'bad' when talking about teachers, the reality is that there are in fact good and bad teachers, and to shy away from that reality would not only detract from this argument, but it would be censoring ourselves for the sake of not offending. But again, that dichotomy is just the surface problem, the "sugary sweet top" covering up a larger problem. This is not a purposefully apologia/qualification aim at seeking sympathy, although it may sound like one. I am an "okay" teacher, really... I am not happy with it, and I am constantly trying to improve my skills. Rather than trying to measure how "good" a teacher I am by 1) begging for bread crumbs of gratitude and validation from my colleagues, 2) making it all "about me" in the classroom, and 3) shunning students in order to get "my point" across first, I will aim to let my work speak for itself. If that makes me an "okay" teacher, then let it be so. I refuse to be the loudest just to draw attention to myself. More about this later. Hypothetically, what I want is to work in a positive educational environment where most teachers are "better" teachers than myself. In fact, I think there would be a better outcome if there was a larger number of teachers as opposed to the only lone "good" teacher. Think about it: more students would benefit from having a higher number of "good" teachers than just a handful; I would be constantly striving to do a better job to become a "better" or "good" teacher. It's a "win-win" for all involved. Have I made my point already, or do you need me to continue being an agent provocateur? A close friend from high school who later went on to play for a Major League Baseball club that "recently" won three World Series in a row once commented to me that after winning so many World Series titles, everything afterwards tasted of "anti-climax." A "good" teacher wins the title, but continues to struggle to better herself.

Okay, now that I got that out of the way, I will now write about what I mean by building a positive educational environment. I had a great thing happen to me this past May. It was late in the semester, but early enough before summer break to know it was not just the fact that 2.5 months of relaxation awaited me. The best way I can describe it is that "I've been giving birth to the Buddha every morning" without really understanding why. As a result, I've never been more positive or happier about my life in general. And despite the fact that I've had my moments since, and my raving rants, my deep melancholia, I'd like to think that I've found a new path for myself and that life will be healthier from this moment on. I never really considered myself a weak person, but my experience in the last couple of days has been a kick in the pants, as if to say "wake up... there's no way you can give birth to the Buddha every morning... get over it." The last two days made me realize how easy it is for me to fall on my ass when encountered with this all-enveloping "fakeness" and "negativity." The 'blah-blah-blah" of how much they want to do this and that turns into empty rhetoric. And that is what I am trying to avoid. I don't want, however, to criticize for the sake of criticizing, but it seems to be that we (as a faculty) are all staring at the same thing, and we can't "tell the forest for the trees." The "positive attitude of the administration," the "sharing of ideas," and "interconnectedness" we should all feel as a member of the faculty quickly gives way to the "look-at-me" effect that make these so-called "great" teachers. The pattern of questions during these administrative meetings seems to be always the same: those in the faculty that have the most tendency toward ownership/proprietary inclinations are the ones talking the most, monopolizing the most, asking common sense questions that are simply aimed at displaying "how much they know" about the very same topic they're asking about (long-standing librarians seem to be prone to this the most). In other words, they ask and proceed to answer the same question they just asked because they want to be "in the limelight" or appear "engaged." I suppose I could be the same way. But I've become so "ego-conscious," trying to detach myself so intensely from "the self," that when I see it in other people I am intimidated--intimidated by the people who claim levels of ownership of something and are "verbally aggressive" to defend their position until the end--especially if the confrontation becomes illogical and unreasonable. That fact scares me, yes, but not as much as the fact that this "combative/I-need-to-win-and-have-the-last-word" is passing for what we call intelligent discourse/dialogue in both academia and the mainstream world.

Of course I realize I am over-generalizing, and that is one logical fallacy I should not engage in at all. But to turn it around and say, "oh no, that's not what is happening here!" is also a hasty generalization in and of itself. Again, my limited point is this (at least for this educational environment I deeply love and believe in), we are all staring at the same thing but we can't see "the forest for the trees." How do we fix this? How do we make teachers spend less energy illogically fighting the so-called windmills the administration "sets up as obstacles" and turn that same energy into action inside the classroom? My belief is that any amount of energy we can put to good use is productive. The rest is just wasted. Let's seek less validation and spend more time trying to be anonymous. Let's allow our work speak for itself--if you are a "good" teacher, then it will show that way. I want to spend less time seeking the minuscule gratitude from above and planting good seeds below. This is what I want to do: Say less, and work more. Whatever I do, I won't announce, but I'll put it on the website (quietly and without pomp) so that there's a record of what I am doing. I think I want to do this because I don't want my "silence" to be equated with "not doing anything." As my dear father used to say: "The dog that barks the most is the one that bites the least." Let's listen, be quiet, sit still... after all, we need to be good.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

How the Media Got Michael Phelps Wrong...

The media "avalanche coverage" of Micheal Phelps historic achievement in the 29th Olympiads has been beyond ad naseum; it can literally be compared to the phenomenon of "total war." Now, we all have to agree that Bob Costas' analysis borders between the manic and the absurd, somewhere in the midst of disembodied poetics and ridiculous metaphors. But what is really unforgivable is the comparisons being made to Tiger Woods, Micheal Jordan, and other sports illuminati. Well, I hate to say it here, but the media has gotten Michael Phelps all wrong... and I mean DEAD WRONG. (Imagine that, the media being wrong!) I have two words for NBC... (well, more like a first name and last name):

BOBBY FISCHER, chess Grand Master & World Champion

Sure, so what if Bobby Fischer was an athlete of the mind and not the body, not to mention a rabid anti-Semetic and sadly a paranoid schizophrenic? What's wrong with those fact despite that one of them is inexcusable? We are talking about accomplishment here, right? am I drawing a false analogy? I doubt it. If we look deeply at what Michael Phelps did over the last week or so, we can see the connection to Fischer's career quite clearly. In order words, Michael Jordan must eat his heart out--he's never been compared to Bobby Fischer (as far as I know). Consider what Fischer did against Karpov: the great competitive match that determined the so-called American dominance of the strength of mind smack dead center in the middle of the Cold War. Phelps himself confessed to Brian Williams the other night that what keeps him going is resistance and "ultimate dislike of losing." That same competitiveness was Bobby Fischer's alone for a long, long time... way before the Michael Jordans and Tiger Woods, and God knows which other temporary sports "flash in a pan." Perhaps the only other comparable sports figure would be Muhammad Ali (consider the great fight against George Foreman in which Ali was one of the widest underdogs ever recorded in the history of sports).

There's no doubt that the way Michael Phelps swims is a physical feat (as Merrian-Webster defines feat: a deed of notable courage: an act or product of skill, endurance, or ingenuity). What Bobby Fischer accomplished can only be described in those very same terms. Want another connection to this seemingly unwarranted comparison? Bobby Fischer posed for covers of Life and Sports Illustrated magazines with Mark Spitz.... name sounds familiar? He is the former Olympic star that held the swimming gold medal record until Phelps broke it last week. Your readership, I rest my case... the media has vastly misinterpreted and misread what Michael Phelps accomplished this past week.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum," the last post

Work has been keeping me from posting the last part of my re-reading of "Foucault's Pendulum," by Umberto Eco. I finished reading it last month, but I have been crazy busy and unable to transpose my scribbling Moleskine notes to the blog. The main reason why I re-read this magnificent book was due to the fact that the first time I read it (1994), blogs were not the blogs we know today, and despite the fact that I reviewed my notes from that 1994 reading and considered posting those here, I thought it best to just have a fresh, clean read... top to bottom. And it was absolutely worth it.
The main issue I rediscovered is that after Chapter 80 or so, the Plan takes a life of its own. With this I mean that the narrator, Casaubon, begins to decipher the Plan as an "ever-evolving-taking-a-life-of-its-own" document. If Belbo had written the Plan to incite the Templars/Diabolicals/Rosicrucians to come out to play, he did a marvelous job. They came out to play "en masse." It is after Belbo's disappearance, or shortly before it, that Casaubon notices this "life of its own" phenomenon. The Plan goes from 1) a mysterious Templar map to 2) a Rosicrucian reformulation of the location of the "umbilical cord of the world" to 3) a Jesuit conspiracy to overthrow the King of France by discrediting and covert action. This last one in particular strikes me as fascinating. Supposedly, the Jesuits developed some thing called the "Artis Magnae Sciendi Epilogismus," and this little something was a combination of numbers and letters all tied together to develop a seemingly unbreakable code. The problem wasn't that this code, or the many others embedded within (they actually look like they are interminable) wasn't valuable, it just happen that the Jesuits developed it as a "bait" and made other groups seeking the same secret believe that this was the code they were using to look for the secret. It wasn't, and this "fake" code (because as numerically legitimate as it was it was fake) was only devised to send other groups on a wild goose chase. Brilliant!
But it doesn't end there... the great Mashall Ney, the man who single-handedly marched Napoleon's troops back from the Russian disaster makes an appearance. In 1808, Ney and his troops were in Tomar searching for the plan. Napoleon, about to conquer all the "centers" of Europe, now wanted the "center" of the world. Yes, yes... this is the same Marshall Ney that Hemingway mentions in "A Movable Feast." I wonder if that statue of Ney that Hemingway writes about is still in that park in Paris.
At any rate, the Plan goes from the Templars to the Paulicans, to the Rosicrucians to the Jesuits... who might be next? The Jews, of course, and the great conspiracy of the Protocols... the great Jewish plot, right? Wrong. That's the deadly mistake both Belbo and Casaubon make... the Protocols were not written by Jews. The Protocols could, in essence, be another "Plan" someone put in place in order to get the aforementioned groups to "come out and play."
Jacopo Belbo bit on more than he could possibly chew. What started out as an intellectual "game" ended up as a miscalculation of massive destructiveness. There was no "Plan," but the more they played the game, the more everyone believed there was one.
This is a brilliant, brilliant book. Umberto Eco is a master and genius of not only fiction, but a marvelous philosopher, etymologist and philologist (please read anything by him).

Note to Dan Brown's critique of "Foucault's Pendulum: You, sir, are a dreg. You are no writer, albeit a brilliant businessman. Your artistry is a sham, your books shallow and under-researched. You must consider, sir, reading "Foucault's Pendulum," if you haven't already... better yet, don't read it; it might inspire your next venture into the "plagiaristic/idea stealing" path that gave rise to your star status.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Olympic Moment

This is a picture of me in front of the "Bird Nest" Olympic Stadium in Beijing, China.

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Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Last Literary Crusader is Dead... where do we go from here?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, father and undisputed champion of the Modern Russian novel is dead at the age of 89. Back in 1993, while on a fishing trip to Vermont, a friend of mine who lived in the area wanted me to "walk up the road" with him to go meet "some writer dude you might find interesting." Adding that he "couldn't pronounce his name even if he rehearsed it for a month." I got so very close to seeing a real life Nobel Prize winner and a holy vessel of literary truth, but a peculiar set of circumstances came between us and the Man.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn lived in exile in Vermont for years. He went back to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, but the times had changed... and at that time, Russia didn't have use for a literary god... there were "other issues" of pressing importance getting in the way. Literature couldn't feed people, that happened to be a simple fact. I wonder how capitalist Russia feels about losing one of its last links to a glorious and momentous past. We may forget (in a digital age) that before we lived off images given to us by technology, there were men and women who by hard work, dedication, art, method or even alchemy, helped us create images in our minds by simply using words. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was such a man. His works outlive him. Now "he belongs to the ages."

I do no justice to his life and work here. The New York Times is running a great article this morning... here is the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/04/books/04solzhenitsyn.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin#

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