This week’s challenge is called:


For 10 minutes every night or early morning next week, we will be looking at fire. This has to do be done in the dark, so if you have to wake up while it is still dark outside, the challenge will work. If not, it has to be done in the evening. Of course, artificial darkness can be manufactured but I have to warn you that this doesn’t have the same effect.

All you need to do is stare at a flame. I use a scented candle, but many people are allergic, and a regular candle will do better. If wax annoys you, you can try those long fireplace matches. The lucky folks who have a fireplace can use it. If none of these possibilities work, there is always the last resort: an app that imitates a flame and that can be used on your handheld device.

So we look at the flame, clear our minds, and see what thoughts and images come to us while we do it.

My Students Are the Best

My students are the best. I assign written homework for every day of class, but on Thursday we had a very difficult test, so I didn’t schedule any homework for next Tuesday. It’s good to take a small break from new material every once in a while.

As a result, all day today, I’m getting bombarded with panicky emails. Here is just one (translation from Spanish is mine).

“Professor, there is no homework for next Tuesday in the syllabus. How do I find out what the homework is? PLEASE ANSWER SOON!!!”

You’d think from this that I’m some sort of an ogre who persecutes them for every homework they don’t hand in on time, but in reality I never refuse to accept homework even if it’s 2 months late.

What I Don’t Like About American Houses

There are tons of good things about American houses, but two common features bug me to no end. Do tell me if this is regional and things are different in other areas.

1. Carpeting. I don’t know which enemy of humanity invented the unhygienic, ugly, and frankly gross practice of nailing carpets to the floor so that every subsequent inhabitant could try to guess the amount of human and animal bodily fluids pumped into the carpets s/he is treading. I have found several houses that have a few rooms with clean and healthy hard-wood  floors but there is always a room or two that is carpeted.

In case you are non-American and don’t know what I mean, I posted a picture for you. I’ve been living with this kind of thing for 4,5 years, and I’m sick of it. I’m a person who spills, drops, and messes up, and keeping this clean is an impossibility.

2. No antesala. I really hate it that one enters the house and immediately finds oneself inside the living-room. This is just wrong on every level of human interaction. When one comes in from the rain, the snow, the wind, the sun, the fresh air, etc., one needs an “antesala”, a smallish space with a mirror and a closet for coats and a stand for umbrellas. This is where one makes oneself presentable before entering the space shared by others. And for those of us who are not super exuberant and gregarious every second of the day, this is a chance to prepare for sociability.

On the right, you can see a picture of what I mean by “antesala”. 

I don’t even know the word in English that would have this meaning, so I use either the Spanish “antesala” or the Russian “прихожая.” Two weeks ago, I taught my students how to identify the suffixes and the prefixes in Spanish and then asked them to analyze Spanish words that contained the most common suffixes and prefixes. The students did great with all words except “antesala.” They knew that “sala” was a room and “ante” meant “before.” But the concept was eluding them.

This was when I realized that we were experiencing a cultural difference and drew a little floor plan on the blackboard. The students agreed that it was a great idea to have something like that in the house.

Just imagine how impossible it is to clean a house with white or light-beige carpeting where people irrupt into the living-room straight from the street.

Professors Are Needed

Nicholas Kristof is not very smart but sometimes he manages to find interesting issues to discuss. His latest column is titled “Professors, We Need You!”, and I agree with the title completely. Whoever you are, you need us. Whether we need you, is another question entirely. (This is a joke.)

After the good title, the column goes downhill. Kristof begins with a quote from some unintelligent administrator who is the perfect example of how stupid and out of touch overpaid academic bureaucrats are:

“All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public,” notes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and now the president of the New America Foundation.

If this creature had any thinking capacity whatsoever and had paid attention in at least 1 or 2 college courses, she would not have started generalizing like a silly Freshman recovering from a binge drinking session at a frat house. My discipline couldn’t become more “quantitative” even if it wanted, and narrow specialization is dead. We all have to teach a wide variety of courses across the entire discipline. I can only imagine the reaction I would have gotten had I declared during my job interviews that I was only prepared to teach courses on female Bildungsroman in Spain. No, scratch that. I cannot really imagine it.

The central claim of Kristof’s article demonstrates that quantification is sometimes sorely needed:

But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.

Until we have some numbers here, this is an absolutely meaningless claim. He “thinks” this, and somebody else “thinks” just the opposite. What is the point of airing these “thoughts” that are based on nothing but an overwrought attachment to the time when one was younger?

Of course, an article about academia would not be complete if the dead horse of jargon wasn’t dragged out into the sunlight to get a fresh round of pounding:

Academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals.

I’m applying for tenure this summer, and I can assure Kristof that “turgid prose” is not a tenure requirement. If you remove a few “vile freakazoids” from my blog posts, you will see the writing style I use for my research articles. I have many readers visit this blog, so my writing can’t be all that incomprehensible.

After several paragraphs of meaningless conclusions based on nothing in particular, Kristof finally manages to say something useful:

The latest attempt by academia to wall itself off from the world came when the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs. The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!

This is also a trend at several campuses right now where Boards of Trustees want to prevent professors from blogging. The reason why administrators do that is obvious: they are terrified of the possibility that professors will inform the world about all the ways in which they fleece students, making them pay for nothing. But the students and their parents aren’t pushing back against this, so I’m concluding that they want to get fleeced, which is, of course, their right.

The conclusion to the article is trying to say something that could be important but loses potency thanks to Kristof’s profound aversion to researching the subject he writes about:

Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook.

First of all, online courses are irrelevant here. I, for instance, am legally barred from offering my online courses to anybody but the students registered for these courses at my university. I can’t post the courses’ content on this blog, for instance. Facebook is just as irrelevant because nobody but my personal friends can read what I post there. Twitter is also problematic because it is very rare that an interesting idea could be packed into 140 characters or less. Twitter might have been mildly useful in the past, but I stopped reading my Twitter feed entirely about a year ago when I saw that most tweets had turned into a collection of hashtags.

So what is left? The answer is obvious: blogs. And if Kristof had done a couple of Google searches, he would have known that academics blog like they are getting paid to do so. Rare is an academic under the age of 50 who doesn’t have a blog. These blogs are not very widely read, however. The reasons, as I see them, are the following:

a) Academics want to write about their research because it’s just so damn fascinating. I have to make efforts not to publish tons of posts on Spain’s memory wars because I know people prefer to see posts on a wide variety of topics. But I understand those who can’t stop blogging about the research they love so much and the teaching they dig.

b) Just like everybody else, academics automatically see their intended audience as a group of their peers. Simply put, they keep writing for other academics because this is their reference group. And non-academic readers soon get bored of the discussions of the minutiae of academic life and leave.

c) Academics tend to be very polite people who are sensitive to the emotions of others. This is a great quality in RL but a huge problem for a blogger. Polite, careful, kind bloggers bore readers. Harsh, rude, insensitive, angry bloggers attract audiences. Of course, my blog, written in an unwaveringly polite, kind, and mild voice is an exception.

Are there any other reasons why academic blogs are less popular than they should be?

Interconnected to Each Other

How does the following sound to you in terms of elegance of expression:

The winners and the losers of the war are interconnected to each other.

To me, “to each other” is very jarring here because of how superfluous it is. Doesn’t “interconnected” already mean “connected to each other”?

Or am I picking on this person unfairly?