Must Read #2: Is Algebra Necessary?

I will never be able to finish this translation if all these articles that need to be addressed keep cropping up. My colleagues in the science departments are in an uproar over the article titled “Is Algebra Necessary?” that appeared in the NY Times.

This is what Dr. Andrew Hacker has to say:

Yes, young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer.

I always feel very suspicious when political scientists (like Dr. Hacker) opine on whether algebra is necessary, economists want to close down foreign languages, and professors of medicine wonder whether we can dispense with the departments of Classics.

I hope that the resident scientists of this blog weigh in on the value of this article. As a scholar of literature and one of the people Dr. Hacker wants to protect from the horrible burden of mathematical literacy, I can say that I really wish I had received a better education in mathematics than I did. I pride myself on being an independent and resourceful person, yet I’m a total damsel in distress when in comes to managing any aspect of my financial life. I pretty much have to rely on my husband who is a scientist to handle this part of my existence. I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers fiends and lovers to help me calculate my grades.

But it isn’t even the practical aspect of mathematics that I really miss. I have a strong feeling that I have lost out intellectually by not challenging the mathematical part of my brain. I believe that my mind would be better organized and that I would have found it easier to learn Latin and German if I’d had some mathematical training.

What do you think?

Must Read: The Perversion of Scholarship

I just found the following amazing quote in an article by Chris Hedges that a reader of this blog sent to me:

We must strengthen our attraction for those singular students whose greatest pleasures may come not from the camaraderie of classmates but from the lonely acts of writing poetry or mastering the cello or solving mathematical riddles or translating Catullus. We must make Dartmouth a hospitable environment for students who march “to a different drummer”—for those creative loners and daring dreamers whose commitment to the intellectual and artistic life is so compelling that they appreciate, as Prospero reminded Shakespeare’s audiences, that for certain persons a library is “dukedom large enough.”

This was said by James O. Freedman, who was, for a while, the President of Dartmouth. The creative loner he describes was the kind of student I was. I avoided sororities and student clubs like the plague because most of them seemed like a complete waste of time. My way of being makes it incomprehensible to me why people would be so desperate to belong to a group that they would consent to undergo some kind of insane hazing ritual and try to prove their worth to people they have no reason to respect. I’m also not American, so I have no idea why universities need to maintain hugely expensive sports teams and award college diplomas to failing students just because they can throw a ball.

Sometimes, it seems like people find it so hard to find any value to education and the pursuit of knowledge that they need to infest college campuses with sporting events and sociability opportunities in order to make going to college worthwhile.

The Way We Lived, Part I

Reader Kyle asks:

What did people in the USSR do for clothing? Was it supplied by the State? Did people make their own? Also, what did people eat there for the most part?

I’m always happy to blabber on about the Soviet Union, so questions are more than welcome.


There were clothing stores, of course, but everything in there was extremely ugly and uncomfortable. This is why everybody knew how to sew and knit. There was also a black market for clothes that people brought in from their trips overseas or contacts with foreign tourists. Those clothes were so horribly expensive that a regular person needed to save for years to get anything.

Another source of clothing was trips to Moscow. Since most foreign visitors ended up in Moscow, the capital was better stocked than other places in the country. This was done mostly to make a favorable impression on visitors to the country. Of course, the inhabitants of the Soviet capital believed themselves to be vastly superior (and, hence, more entitled to good things) to the inhabitants of “the provinces.” This attitude persists and creates a huge gap between people who live in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia.

I still remember a trip to Moscow my mother made in 1989. She needed winter boots (winters in our part of Ukraine are harsh) and had to travel all the way to Moscow to buy them. The boots ended up costing twice what my father, a PhD in linguistics made in a month. Plus there was the expense of the trip itself. The boots were very pretty, by the way, and my mother look stunning in them. But take a moment to calculate what the equivalent of their price in $USD would be and imagine how often one could enjoy such a purchase.

So here is the list of clothes I possessed in 1989-90:

  • my school uniform;
  • two sweaters that my mother knit for me;
  • a pair of pants my aunt sewed for me;
  • two summer dresses I inherited from my aunts;
  • a hand-down winter coat;
  • a hand-down Fall jacket (this piece had many generations of wear on it. When I traveled to the UK and the British people I was staying with saw this jacket, I swear I could see tears in their eyes. Of course, they gave me a new jacket instead, making me feel both grateful and embarrassed.)
  • this ugly pink house dress that I will never forget because buttons kept popping off it at the worst possible moment;
  • and the treasure of my wardrobe: a white jumper with an applique of a tennis racket that my mother bought for a humongous amount of money on the black market.

And that was it. Those were bad years for everybody (except the party apparatchiks) but please remember that I had two working parents who had higher education and only two children to feed.

What Makes a University Financially Sound?

The Chronicle of Higher Ed recently reported the results of an analysis by Bain & Company of the financial health of public and private nonprofit institutions of higher education.  The financial situation of thirty-three percent of all schools was deemed unsustainable.  Another 28 percent were ranked as being on the verge of descending into an unsustainable financial position.

My university, however, was ranked by both Bain and Moody’s as being financially sound and in the highest category of financial health. And all this happened through the heavily problematic years of the recession.

I just want to point out that a university that:

  • doesn’t adjunctify like crazy;
  • hires crowds of new talented PhDs during the recession;
  • doesn’t forget to invest in infrastructure;
  • places a high premium on research;
  • provides good working conditions, a clear road to tenure, and regular salary raises;
  • promotes constant innovation
  • creates opportunities to transform adjunct positions into tenure tracks for talented adjuncts

ends up being a picture of financial health.

So if somebody tells you that destroying tenure-track positions, bringing in crowds of adjuncts, never investing a dime in renovations of buildings, stamping out research as useless is done for the sake of an institution’s fiscal responsibility, please do me a favor and laugh in their face. This is a recipe for a debt-ridden, miserable university, not a prosperous, flourishing one.

Latin American Conflicts

I’m revamping my Hispanic Civilization course, people, and I welcome reading suggestions (for me). Students are asking for a more in-depth coverage of Latin American conflicts from the 1970s onwards. And, honestly, my knowledge of this area is quite limited. So here are the conflicts I want to address in greater detail in my course:

1. Peru: Fujimori and El Sendero Luminoso. I’m ashamed to recognize (what with the Peruvian side of the family and everything) that I know very little on the subject. What should I read?

2. Argentina: The Dirty War. I’m good on this one, more or less but there is never too much knowledge that one can possess. If you are aware of any good recent readings, do share.

3. Chile: Pinochet and Neoliberalism in Latin America. I’m going to read The Condor Years. Anything else people can recommend?

4. El Salvador: The Civil War (1979-1992). OK, on this subject I’m completely useless. Suggestions?

5. Nicaragua: Sandinistas and the Contras. I could do with expanding my knowledge of this subject. Again, I will be grateful for good, recent reading suggestions.

6. Panama: Manuel Noriega and the CIA. Ditto.

7. Cuba: The Embargo and the Future of Cuban-US Relations. I’m very good on this one.

8. Colombia and Mexico: the drug wars. I think I’m mostly fine on this topic. Although reading up on Colombia wouldn’t hurt.

What am I forgetting? I have a feeling I’m forgetting something important.

Has anybody read Greg Grandin’s Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism?

I don’t mind many reading suggestions. I never had a chance to take a course on anything connected to this subject, so now I will teach it to myself and then relay the knowledge to the students. This is the part I really dig about teaching. I get to learn new things all the time, and what can be better than that?

P.S. I really rock on the colonial era, the independence and everything up to 1970, so no suggestions needed there.

Romney in Israel

On his visit to Israel, Romney made the following remarks:

“As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” the Republican presidential candidate told about 40 wealthy donors who ate breakfast at the luxurious King David Hotel.

Romney said some economic histories have theorized that “culture makes all the difference.”

“And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things,” Romney said, citing an innovative business climate, the Jewish history of thriving in difficult circumstances and the “hand of providence.” He said similar disparity exists between neighboring countries, like Mexico and the United States.

I wonder if the Presidential candidate would be willing to apply this kind of analysis to his own country. The traditionally Democratic states all do much better economically than the traditionally Republican states. According to Romney’s approach, this must mean that the Democratic culture is superior to the Republican culture. Then why is he even running?

Jokes aside, is it true that Romney is making these hugely offensive and insensitive statements wherever he goes? It’s like he chooses to say the worst possible thing in any given circumstances. This is starting to sound like the guy is being set up. Who are his advisers?

Babies on an Airplane

Our plane from Charlotte, NC departed late. N. and I didn’t mind all that much but the travelers with connecting flights in St. Louis were nervous. A man traveling with his family was responsible for the delay. The little drama that he protagonized began as I was trying to get to my seat, so it all happened right in front of me.

As I was walking down the aisle towards my seat, the man in front of me stopped and started asking people who sat in his row to exchange seats with his daughters. He wanted them to go 5 rows back and let his daughters sit in the front with his father. The passengers he was asking for this favor refused because they had paid extra to be seated closer to the front of the aircraft.

A heated argument ensued. The older Chinese couple that the man was trying to get to move was very apologetic but still refused to exchange seats. The man started getting very agitated and was waving his arms about so actively that he almost toppled me over. The flight attendant tried to calm things down but the man didn’t want to settle down in his assigned seat.

“My babies!” he wailed. “Do you expect me to leave my babies sitting alone during this entire flight?”

At first, I was very sorry for the caring father who was so attached to his babies. It must really suck to be separated from small children on a flight. What if they get scared? Or thirsty? Or wet themselves?

As somebody who is always on the side of children no matter what happens, I was getting annoyed with the older couple who refused to let a father reunite with his babies.

And then, when the father moved down the aisle towards the row where his children were sitting, I finally saw the babies in question. The older girl was about 14 years of age and the younger was 11-12. They both wore the beleaguered teenage facial expression of “Here Dad goes again making us look stupid.” One of them was holding a book. The other one had an iPad. They looked more than capable of spending 1 hour 37 minutes that the flight was supposed to last sitting five rows away from their parents.

That was when I realized that the woman sitting close to where I stood was the girls’ mother. The reason why she was sighing heavily and rolling her eyes very far back in her head became clear.

Finally, the father realized he had no choice but to occupy his seat. He did it with the look of a person who was being condemned to a horrible punishment. I felt sorry for the Chinese couple who had to spend the flight sitting next to somebody looking extremely resentful. I was glad for the daughters, however. I’m sure they had a good time on a flight where, for once, they weren’t treated like babies.

P.S. I know that from the post’s title you expected yet another boring tale of how babies cry on airplanes and everybody gets annoyed. Here at Clarissa’s Blog things are never as predictable as boring as that, however. (A little self-promotion never hurts, I guess.)

Was There Anything Good About the Soviet Union?

People often ask me why my vision of  life in the USSR is so uniformly negative. “Is it possible that there was nothing whatsoever good about that country?” they ask me.

If you consider the way I am as a person, you will see why I can’t find anything redeeming about life in the USSR. I’m an intensely private and unsociable person, so the constant forced socialization in the Soviet Union made me profoundly miserable. The idea that “the collective” had the right to intrude upon your personal life and berate you for your sexual choices during public meetings disturbed me. The forced medical procedures that invaded my body against my will and for no reason other than humiliating me traumatized me.

I’m also very independent. I need to be able to make my own choices and I’m more than prepared to bear responsibility for them. I don’t want a guaranteed job on graduating from college if that job is assigned to me by somebody else and takes me to a city, region and company of somebody else’s choosing. Being forced to leave my students and my office several times a year to go and sort rotting cabbage or gather cucumbers in the field because somebody has decided that this is a better use of a professor’s time than teaching and research makes me angry. I want choices. I love choices. And I can’t feel anything but hatred for anybody who tries to “improve” my life by removing my right to choose whatever I want.

I like consumer goods and I’m not ashamed of admitting that. The system where I work, make money, go out and buy whatever the hell strikes my fancy is far more comprehensible to me than the system where you get a guaranteed pittance in exchange for not working and then spend your free time hunting for the most basic consumer goods on the black market.

I’m a reader. Without constant intellectual nourishment, I wilt and die. Living in a place where good books are impossible to find, learning foreign languages is suspect, and expressing your thoughts freely is dangerous is torture to me.

Even small things made me suffer. I’m very sensitive to sounds, especially the ones I haven’t chosen to have around. So the constant drone of the radio that could never be turned off and kept communicating the amazing socialist achievements in the fields and factories at all times of day and night drove me to distraction.

The lack of bright colors, the constant aggression of everybody against everybody else, and people, people, people everywhere, invading your life all day and every day – and what would I get in return for all this in the USSR? The security of being guaranteed a miserable handout in lieu of a salary, an access to a doctor who would humiliate me and treat me like crap (possibly even beat me), an access to the sad, pathetic joke of a Soviet education, the knowledge that I could always blame the mess of my life on the government?

No, that’s not for me. But I know quite a few people who look back at their infantilized Soviet existence with nostalgia.

An American Sponge’s Adventures in the Soviet Union

I have a feeling that people don’t hate my true stories from the Soviet Union, so here is another one.

The planned economy of the USSR was heavily invested into creating weapons and heavy machinery. There was no interest in producing consumer goods, and very few resources were allocated to their manufacture. As a result, everything was in short supply. Look around yourself right now. All of these things you see were in short supply (except the ones that have been invented since then, of course). Are the walls painted or papered? Doesn’t matter, because both paint and wall-paper were impossible to find. Paper, pens, books, shoes, underwear, condoms, cheese, nail polish,paper napkins – everything had to be hunted down and purchased at a huge black market price. The only quality consumer goods we had were the ones people brought into the country from trips abroad. Such goods would then be sold and resold for exorbitant amounts of money.

This dish sponge you see on the photo always makes me smile whenever I see it. Oh, the memories this seemingly insignificant object brings! In the Soviet Union, possessing such a sponge was a matter of great prestige. People would buy one on the black market for an amount equal to – taking into the account the difference in salaries – about $150 USD.

Of course, nobody would actually use this precious sponge to wash dishes. We had old, torn stockings for that. The sponge would be taken out of the place where it was stored together with other family treasures and placed next to the sink whenever one expected guests. People would moisten the sponge minutes before the guests’ arrival to let them know that using such expensive imported sponges was a matter of course for them.

Since the guests probably had a prestigious sponge of their own that they used to show off in the same way, this trick wasn’t fooling anybody.

Still, it felt so good to stand there by the kitchen sink, holding the precious sponge and imagining yourself for a moment as the fortunate, sophisticated, worldly person who could use these pretty sponges whenever she felt like it.