Two Reasons Not to Have Children

1. You’ll have to start watching films like Harry Potter and learn the names of Disney characters. More than anything, kids don’t want to be in any way different from their peers, so it’s an obligation of every parent to provide this kind of entertainment. I get this but the thought of sitting through a Disney movie gives me a panic attack.

2. You’ll have to hang out with other parents to organize play dates, birthday parties, etc. And there is nothing scarier than people whose primary sense of identity comes from parenthood. I’ll give you a little example.

I’m walking on campus when a colleague stops me.

“Hey, Clarissa, how are you?”

“I’m good, Samantha, just a little sick with the flu. How are you doing?”

“I’m fine, thank you. So what have you been doing this summer?”

“Just research.”

“Oh, really? Well, I have no time to do research. Because I’m a MOM! I have TWO CHILDREN!! I have to take care of them, so I can’t just dedicate my time to doing research!!!”

By the end of the conversation, I felt like I was the one who’d gotten her pregnant and then run away to do my research while she was stuck with the kids.

Of course, there are people who don’t bug everybody into oblivion with their parenthood, but one’s chances of avoiding those who do diminish dramatically if one has children.

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A Doom and Gloom Scenario for Professors

I’m too sick with flu to determine whether this weird article in Inside Higher Ed is some sort of a parody. So maybe my readers can help me figure it out. It is titled “Get Out While You Can” and presents a really apocalyptic scenario of tenured professors being fired in droves all over the country and being left jobless and broke. The author believes in the imminence of this scenario because of the tired old story about the crazy Peter Thiel who paid 20 kids to drop out of college. Apparently, without these very stupid students the entire system of higher education is doomed to collapse extremely soon.

Another bugbear discussed in the article is the scary online education that is going to administer itself without any input from actual professors. I wish the technology-hater who wrote the article provided some links to the places where online courses get generated and administered all on their own. This would save me a lot of time I’m about to spend trying to prepare my own online course. Remember those sci-fi novels from the fifties that kept scaring us about how soon robots and computers would replace real people? It must be the same computers that will run our online courses for us.

The other sign that the author is still hopelessly stuck in the fifties can be found in the following sentence:

If you think that students will always prefer live, human performances to online education, please ask yourself whether many 18-year-old boys would rather be taught by you or by something that came out of the technology used to create this. [Some video game excerpt is inserted here]

The good news is that, nowadays, not only are women allowed to attend college, they also get more degrees than men. Also, in spite of the author’s contempt towards 18-year-old males, many of them can recognize the value of a good education well enough.

According to the article, the only reason anybody goes to college is to avoid some imaginary stigma that attaches to you in case you don’t have a college degree. Remember, this is an educator writing. An educator who has obviously not talked to an actual student in decades. The conclusion by this author who is currently writing a book about the danger of smart people and smart technology is fit material for a standup routine:

Networking is the key to career management. Professors do much networking, but mostly with other professors. I suggest that professors network outside of academia with a goal of having a set of contacts we could use to acquire a nonacademic position. The best way to do this is to use Facebook and Linkedin to keep in touch with some of our former students, especially those who would make good bosses.

I was wriggling with laughter after the very first sentence. After the second one, I started to hiccup from laughter. When I finished reading the article, though, I paused and thought, “What if this very disturbed person is speaking in earnest? And if so, then how can anybody argue that this sort of professor is fit to be retained in his job?”

How Not to Deliver a PowerPoint Presentation

Today I have finally figured out why so many people cringe when they hear about the use of PowerPoint presentations for teaching. I use PowerPoints a lot and find them very helpful. More importantly, my students love them. So I was always puzzled by reports on how much students hate PPs. I kept persecuting my own students, begging them to tell me the truth about their presumed hatred of PowerPoint. Still, they loudly insisted that my presentations were great.

It turns out, however, that there are people who are capable of using PowerPoint to turn even the most fascinating discussion into an intolerable drag. For this reason, I decided to compile a short list of what you should not do when you are delivering a PowerPoint presentation.

1. Don’t read it. If a certain text already appears on the PP, it makes absolutely no sense to repeat it out loud. This bores people just as much as it would if you brought a textbook that everybody has in their hands and started reading from it. What you say has to be different from what people can see on the slides.

2. Bullet points should be short. They also don’t need to be repeated. Once again, if people can read it, they don’t need to hear it said aloud. Here is a random slide from one of my PPs:

When the slide appears, I don’t repeat what it says. Rather, I explain what the points mean.

3. Don’t read quotes. Nothing is more annoying than having a presenter read a long quote from a PP. If you put up a quote, it should be done to achieve some goal. For example, you can use it to start a discussion.

I usually put up a quote, ask students to break up in groups, go over the text, and answer the questions in a group discussion. This allows to avoid endless page rustling and complaints about how they brought the wrong text to class or how their little brother ate their textbook. The only time when I read a passage out loud is when I want to draw attention to its artistic qualities. Otherwise, reading aloud is a simple waste of time.

4. Drop the cutesy pictures. Sometimes, people add pictures to their PPs that carry no informational value. This infantilizes and annoys the audience. Unless a picture illustrates a point and can be discussed within the framework of the presentation, it makes no sense to include it.

I use this picture in a discussion of Sarmiento’s Facundo. Since students have no idea who gauchos are, it helps to have a visual aide. We can discuss different kinds of visual representation of the gauchos and contrast them with Sarmiento’s description. However, sticking a photo of a man on a horse into a PP that has nothing to do with people on horses is senseless.

PowerPoint is a great tool if used by people who explore its potential instead of using it as a device to bore their audiences stiff.

Wunderkinder

The following piece of news made me cringe:

A complaint of age discrimination by the mother of two 10-year-old twin boys has been dismissed. The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario complaint was filed by Wendy Foster against the University of Ottawa after her boys were removed by the school from a course on “science and social activism” about a month after they began attending classes in 2006. They had been initially allowed into the class as “special students,” but the school later decided that they could not attend because they did not meet the entry requirements.

It is very disturbing to see parents who rob their children of a childhood because of their own abysmally low self-esteem.

When I was in grad school, there was a woman who kept bringing her 12-year-old daughter to our graduate-level literature classes. Her position was that the girl was a prodigy and would benefit from participating in courses where the average age of students was 30+. The mother wasn’t a student, she just knew some people who pressured the professors into letting her in.

A grad course in Contemporary Latin American literature is a place where adult topics are often discussed. We talked about violence and quoted passages with explicit sex scenes. Imagine how the poor 12-year-old suffered as she sat there with all these adults discussing mature topics on the one hand and her helicopterish Momma on the other. The kid’s misery was palpable, especially when the mother prodded her to make comments. I have no idea whether the girl was a “prodigy” (I don’t even believe that child prodigies exist). What I do know is that she was not properly socialized for her age. Her general behavior was more like the one you can observe in an 8-year-old. This is not surprising with such a hyper-protective parent.

It is true that some kids are intellectually ahead of their peers at school. I spent most of my school years feeling intensely bored in class. However, as I said many times before, school years provide an invaluable and an irreplaceable opportunity to get socialized (not to be confused with becoming sociable) according to one’s age level. A smart kid will have plenty of time to go to the university and become as much of a genius as s/he wants. Childhood and adolescence, however, should be dedicated to taking one’s time to grow. There is absolutely no value whatsoever in pushing a kid into adult situations ahead of time.

There are parents who believe that their child is too smart to “waste time” in playing and hanging out with kids his or her age. However, the time spent playing with teddy-bears and toy trucks is never wasted. These activities develop a child psychologically and provide him or her with life-long coping skills. Parents who push their kids into the role of wunderkinder would be better served finding their own professional and social realization and letting the poor children mature at a normal pace.

Are Textbooks in Israel Biased?

Nurit Peled-Elhanan, an Israeli academic, has published a study on the anti-Palestinian bias in Israeli school books:

Everything they do, from kindergarten to 12th grade, they are fed in all kinds of ways, through literature and songs and holidays and recreation, with these chauvinistic patriotic notions.

You can read the entire discussion of the book at the link I provided. I only wanted to mention that the discussion would be more productive if its author mentioned that this happens in every nation-state in the world. Nationalism operates by falsifying history and promoting an emotional allegiance to an imaginary entity through music, sports, and intense patriotic propaganda.

It always looks very funny to me when the Americans, the Russians and the British (to name just a few examples) righteously excoriate Israel’s patriotic propaganda without even mentioning that they have been engaged in the same thing for a very long time.

 

Israel: In Search of a Safe Place for the Jews

In 1993, my grandfather left Ukraine and moved to Israel. Before he retired, he had been a very well-known doctor in our city. I remember how, as a child, I didn’t really like to take walks with him because we would be stopped every two minutes by grateful patients who wanted to thank him, hug him, or shake his hand.

My grandfather founded several hospitals in the city, which, in the Soviet era, required incredible organizational skills and perseverance. He started a health facility where women could give birth in the water and where little babies were provided with a special swimming-pool. Every time when he opened a new hospital, though, he would soon be removed from it. He was a Jew, so that was to be expected. He never complained but simply laughed and started a new hospital.

By 1993, he felt he had had enough of anti-Semitism and moved to Israel. Ten years later, he came back to Ukraine. Living in the environment of constant fear and terrorist threat proved too much for him.

As we all know, Israel was created in the aftermath of the Holocaust when Jews were slaughtered in an act of horrible genocide, as the rest of the world stood by and watched. The idea behind Israel was that if Jews had a country of their own, they could feel safer in an anti-Semitic world. I think that today we can conclude that, as of now, this goal has not been reached. There are few places in the world that are as dangerous for a Jew as Israel.

Creating a national identity for people who, initially, have very little in common always requires a lot of violence. (Look at the US as another example of this). In such circumstances, a peaceful creation of Israel was absolutely impossible. The sense of being a beleaguered nation surrounded with enemies is indispensable for the creation of a strong national identity when we are talking about people who came together from very different countries, cultures, linguistic backgrounds, etc.

Jewish diaspora was a great tragedy for the Jewish people but it was simultaneously the root of great achievements both for the Jews and for the countries to which they dispersed. It isn’t a coincidence that so many great thinkers, philosophers, writers and scientists were Jews. When you are placed in a position of being a perennial outsider in a society where you live, you end up seeing things clearly. It is easier to resist the accepted ideology from the margins than from the center. This clarity of vision came at a great price. I don’t need to narrate the history of Jewish suffering in the course of 2000 years because we all know it well enough.

In no way do I condemn the Jews who decided to move to Israel and create a country for themselves. However, I don’t see that plan as something I might be interested in. Nationalism, in my opinion, always takes away more than it gives. Since I don’t value the sense of belonging to a community and don’t seek to dilute my individuality in a group, nationalism has pretty much nothing to offer me. The path I have chosen is one of seeing how one can make a country where one lives less anti-Semitic. When I tell my students about the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, I often see that they are really shaken. Granted, this is a small contribution on my part, but out of such small contributions, a sense of acceptance is born little by little.

Beware, Montrealers!

For those of my readers who are lucky to reside in Montreal, I have to issue a warning: there is a bad virus going around. Several people I know caught it and then I also succumbed in my last two days there.

The virus first gives you a very sore throat, then it clogs your ears and your sinuses. I never even knew what the sinuses were and where they were located. I do now. Then, the muscle soreness and general weakness overcome you. And the worst part is that the initial symptoms don’t disappear, so you get new symptoms added on top of the old ones.

And, of course, I have to drag myself to a committee meeting today and a faculty meeting tomorrow. I hate meetings as it is, and in a very sick state they will be even more painful.