Cowabunga and WordPress

WordPress always congratulates me whenever I publish a new post. “This is your Xth post. Good job!” or “This is your XXth post. Amazing!” are the messages I get after I submit a new post. The problem is, though, that I post like a maniac. So now poor WordPress is hard-pressed (what a clumsy pun, but I like it) to find fresh words of encouragement for me. This is what it came up  with after I published my most recent post:

Does anybody even know what “cowabunga” is?

And the funniest thing is that in a second I will press the Publish button for this post, so WordPress will have to come up with something new yet again. I’m afraid that soon it will get so fed up with me that I will get messages saying, “This is your XXXth post. Bitch.” Or, “This is your LCth post. Jerk.”

Through the Eyes of a Stranger: Where Do Bad Children Come From?

One of the things that surprise me the most in North America is that people see upbringing and its results as completely unrelated. How many times have I observed in horror a TV show where parents of a teenage drug addict were being consoled by Dr. Phil, Oprah or any other psychobabbler of the moment with “I know you are good parents and you love your child.” And the audience is shedding tears of compassion for the poor good parents who are cursed by this messed up, addicted kid who had probably been dropped in the midst of this happy family from an alien spaceship.

Seriously, though? How can anybody be a good parent if the result of their parenting is so abysmal? Everything we do is normally judged by the results we manage to achieve. Will you thank a chef who slaves over your meal but sends you stinky, uneatable slop in the end? Will anybody tell me I’m a fantastic teacher if my students don’t speak a word of Spanish at the end of my language course? Will I celebrate the students who produce a garbled mess instead of a final essay at the end of the course? Will it change anything if they claim that they worked very hard writing it? Obviously not.

If the result of parenting is a kid with severe issues* like, say, extremely low-self esteem (which manifests itself in anorexia, bulimia, drug addiction, alcoholism, etc.), then how on God’s green Earth can anybody claim the parenting itself was anything but horrifyingly bad? If a teenager goes and shoots up a classroom, how does it make sense to pity his parents instead of questioning what they’d been doing to him all his life to get him to this point**?

I understand that this is a culture that values resourcefulness and self-sufficiency. I’m as much into the “pull yourselves by your bootstraps” mentality as the next person. The moment we reach adulthood, we can only blame ourselves for not handling our issues. But to expect this from a child or a teenager who, by definition, cannot have the freedom or the resources to take care of themselves is quite ridiculous.

The end result of a good upbringing is a genuinely happy, self-sufficient, socialized (not to be confused with sociable), mature individual. You can’t be considered a good parent if you are not even in the ballpark.

Then again, there is always television and video games to blame in case something goes wrong.

* Obviously, I’m not talking about the normal teenage moodiness and acting out. If anybody is interested, I can give my recipe of bringing up a moody, seemingly difficult teenager in a way that doesn’t make everybody’s life a total misery and produces great results. My teenager is now 29, so we can comfortably say that the results of the upbringing have manifested themselves in full.

** In the case of Columbine, this book makes the answer to this question abundantly clear without ever proposing to do so.

Avoiding the Syllabi Drama

I just did both of my syllabi for next semester and left them at the copy center. My syllabi are like little brochures because they are so detailed and long. It makes sense to have such a detailed course program because it allows me to think very little about the courses during the semester.

I always create my syllabi well in advance because running around like a scared bunny the week before the beginning of the semester gives me nightmares.

At this point, I’m so good at creating syllabi that the whole thing took me exactly 4 hours (including pictures and the hyper-controlled course schedule).

This semester, my goal is to streamline teaching as much as possible in order to do massive amounts of research. I will force myself only to think about teaching for one hour 3 days a week (besides the actual classes).

I will keep my readers updated as to the progress of my struggle against overpreparing classes as a strategy to avoid doing research. At least, I know that it’s an avoidance technique. Many people go through life congratulating themselves for being good teachers who are so immersed in teaching they don’t do an hour of research in an entire week.

Being Contentious

I am contentious and contrarian by nature. I was brought up to see this as part of my Jewish identity. In the Soviet Union, Jews were not allowed to practice any aspect of our religion, language, or culture. We had to forget the very word “Jewish” in return for the removal of the pale of settlement. Anti-Semitism was completely absent during the first few decades of the USSR’s existence. After the Soviet Union defeated Nazism, though, it paradoxically (not that paradoxically, of course, but this is a topic for a separate post) became institutionalized. Still, Jewish identity persisted and was transmitted from one generation to another. One part of our identity* consisted in always being a thorn in the side of every reigning ideology.

Once, when I was twelve, I saw a program on television where a famous poet was being interviewed. “I completely agree with what this guy says,” I commented.

My Jewish father was a huge fan of this poet’s writing. Still, he was horrified with my reaction. He gave me a four-hour lecture delivered in an outraged whisper (so as to avoid exposing my mother to the horror of my compliance) on why it was wrong for me to agree with what the famous poet said.

“You are a Jew,” my father told me. “We have survived for thousands of years in alien cultures and have been able to preserve our identity because we have a goal. Our ultimate aim is to be the a thorn in the side of every authority imaginable. Whenever we hear an accepted opinion our first, completely automatic response should be to disagree. When you hear something on television or read it in a book – even one written by your favorite writer, even when expressed by your parents – you first impulse should be to voice disagreement.”

“Well then, Dad, I think you are wrong,” I said just to bug him.

“Now I hear my daughter speak,” he responded. “Whenever some old fart tells you what to do, just say you think he is wrong.”

This lesson was crucial in setting me on the path of becoming a literary critic. It also defines everything I do as a blogger. Often, I say things aimed at shocking people  on purpose and try to get them to think about daily realities in unconventional ways. I like to believe that this is what has helped me become a popular blogger in no amount of time. I keep losing faithful readers because of this strategy. They write me impassioned emails trying to convince me that wording my ideas in a milder way will gain me more followers. However, I don’t  want to gain followers at the cost of diluting my message. I want to preserve my identity of an outspoken, shocking, contrarian Jewish feminist autistic academic who doesn’t mince words and doesn’t care about not hurting anybody’s sensibilities. The Internet is a free space (still) where people can wander in and out of blogs whenever they feel like it. People keep coming back to mine, though, which makes me think that my way of approaching things has some relevance to others.

When I first started blogging, I was convinced that only the four people I forwarded the link to would ever read the blog. (One of them never even checked it out, which tells you a lot about my social life). I was terrified when I first realized that, in spite of the horrible writing skills, people still wanted to read me. I still remember the terror I felt when my blog started getting indexed by Google and I got my first seven unsolicited visitors in one day.

The funny thing, though, is that I regularly participate on conservative, Republican, Libertarian, Chicago School of economy, MRA, PUA, “Sarah Palin For President”, “Sarah Palin Is Evil”, anti-feminist, anti-public education, anti-Ukrainian, “Academics are evil”, and anti-blogging blogs. I love generating controversy and I go to those blogs to voice dissent – always in a very respectful way, of course. And on none of them have I been insulted, excoriated, banned, shut up, accused of really outlandish things and asked to leave as I have been on feminist blogs. At this point – and just two years into blogging – I have been banned or asked to leave from pretty much every feminist blog I tried participating in. I still leave my links at Feministe’s Self-Promotions Sundays from time to time, even though I have been asked by a regular participant why I bother since I “never agree.” (Apparently, there is an agreement every reader is expected to reach before saying anything on the blog.) They haven’t banned me yet, so kudos to them. Other than that, I’m not welcome at any other feminist blog I have been able to discover. That really makes me very sad.

* This was just one part of it, of course. If people are interested, I can blog later about how people preserved their Jewishness in completely non-religious ways.

Mental Health on Campuses

An article in Inside Higher Ed discusses the ways in which a Canadian university is trying to address mental health concerns of people on campus. I read the article twice and, from what I could understand, the idea is not so much to offer help to those who solicit it but to identify and assist those who do not:

We discussed the concept of a central repository for information and concerns about students – and struggled with the idea of privacy rights, slander and alarmism. What resulted was a call to the Winnipeg RegionalHealth Authority and the creation of a specific task force on the topic. The long-term plan includes offering a Mental Health First Aid certificate to everyone on campus: faculty, staff and students, as well as establishing a concrete strategy to consolidate potential concerns about all members of the campus community in a sensitive and functional way.

This is not an easy task, and the group is only in its infancy. Much of the talk around the table has centred on how to respond to students who are obviously acting out. One issue is that it has the potential to focus on the punitive. Another concern was that this would only address a portion of those on campus who could benefit from some care and attention. We are a campus community and I believe that we need to show care to everyone – not just the large group of undergraduate students who are the easiest to target. What about the faculty who are struggling with the publish-or-perish-syndrome?

To be honest, I’m bothered by the language of the article. I don’t want anybody to decide whether I need “some care and attention.” Truth be told, care and attention are the last things I seek from my work environment. I fail to see how I could benefit from some do-gooder with no specialized training diagnosing me and offering unsolicited help. From what I understand, no therapist can help a person who doesn’t express a desire to be helped. With the proliferation of TV shows of the Dr. Phil variety, many people now believe they are in the position to inflict their platitudes about mental health on others. I, for one, would like my workplace to be free of any discussions of my mental issues that are not initiated solely and exclusively by me.

I’m afraid that this kind of programs will identify those of us whose ways of behavior are in any way unusual or eccentric and hound us with offers to improve our existences.

The article ends with a series of questions:

When does this “care and concern” constitute an invasion of privacy? Do we have the potential to cause damage with our actions? We are a teaching institution – at what point does our attentiveness over-step boundaries into an area that has nothing to do with the mandate of the Academy?

My answer to them is: Yes, it does. Yes, we do. And, from the very beginning.

Everybody should do what they were trained to do. I should teach and do research. Mental health specialists should treat mental health issues of their patients. Just like I don’t expect a therapist or a psychiatrist to teach my course on Hispanic Civilization with any degree of success, a scholar cannot be expected to provide psychological help to students or colleagues.

How do you feel about such initiatives?