The Broad is Back!

January 13, 2017

Fasten Your Seatbelts…

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged about politics, so I have to start today’s post with some backstory. Sit back and relax. This one’s been brewing for about a year. I’m gonna be wordy here.

The first time I came back to America to live it was 2007, and the country was gearing up for the 2008 election. I blogged quite a bit back then about that race. I was a Kucinich supporter, saw him speak on the campaign trail, spoke to the man myself and really believed in him. Didn’t think he had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the party nomination, but I’m a self-avowed idealist. The good thing about the primary elections in America is that we don’t have to vote strategically.

How the press marginalized that candidate showed me a lot about how things worked. When he finally quit the race, I moved on, reluctantly, to support Obama. His inexperience and relative youth (I’m 6 months older and knew I was too young to run America), were the major problems I had with him as a candidate. But I am much more left than right, as impossible as these labels are, so most times I’m gonna vote Blue on the national level.

I blogged those first four years, but by the time of the 2012 election, I was jaded. I don’t always agree with President Obama’s policies and choices, which is to be expected, and frankly, it is politics as usual in Washington. Gotta play the game. He did it well, but faced incredible racism and obstructionism. Anyone who says race wasn’t an issue must live in white bubble of ignorance about race and privilege. That’s not meant to be an insult. I geographically live in one now. There are so few people of color here that race issues aren’t “real” for most folks. Coming, as I do, from a large, multicultural city, I have a different perspective.

I’ve taught in poor New York City community colleges for many years. I’ve seen systematic, entrenched racism up close and personal, thanks. Those students are mine. I love them and want the best for them. The obstacles that are built in to block their success are things I take personally as well see as insults toward what I think my great country stands for. So to see it at the highest levels, while unsurprising, was enervating in a way.

I left the country again during Obama’s second term, and was thrilled that I wouldn’t have to be here for the 2016 election. I really didn’t see anyone I wanted to support, and being half a world away makes it a lot easier to avoid American politics. Unfortunately, I had to come back to the US to live. I love my country, but love being an ex-pat. And I was here for the worst political campaign in my memory.

Trillions of pixels have been spent talking about the divide in our country this past election exposed. My candidate didn’t win the nomination, but I switched over to HRC for expediency’s sake. She wasn’t who I wanted. Sorry, fellow feminists, but I don’t support women because they are women. HRC has done a lot for women, and she’ll go down in history, which I hope will be kinder to her than America has been, but she’s politically coming from a different place than I am.

But the prevailing Republican candidate made me wonder what had happened to my country. This was worse than 1980 when Reagan got the nomination. People joked that a bad actor had gotten the nomination, but at least the man had political experience—he’d been governor of one of our largest and richest states, one with a diverse population and warring needs. He had some experience, and while not a genius, he was no idiot. He had principles and morals and loved America with a strong patriotism. No one ever thought otherwise.

But this one? Our new POETUS? As a New Yorker, I’d been subjected to tabloid headlines about this man’s self-centeredness for the past 30 years. He’s shown himself to be sexist, racist and morally corrupt for decades.

He’s a master showman and an expert in smoke and mirrors, I’ll give him that. As good at creating a national fantasy as he was in creating the worlds designed in his casinos, places purposely constructed to keep reality at bay and fleece the suckers. No one ever beats the House. That’s a maxim as old as gambling dens themselves. He sells a dream and gives enough of a taste to build a need.

His promises to America will be as hollow as his promises to Atlantic City. He will suck out the life, destroy the middle class, make the poor poorer and increase crime. Don’t believe me? Look at Atlantic City today. Ask people from there. The casinos promised prosperity. They created it, too, and it was sucked out by the owners who lived anywhere but Atlantic City. Organized crime moved in with its drugs and its prostitution, its corruption. But today, organized crime is the least of America’s worries.

This is a man who has never shown the smallest amount of compassion for his fellow humans, who calls heroes stupid, and glorifies the worst traits of this nation: ignorance, self-glorification, anti-intellectualism, false piety and self-aggrandization.

I don’t actually hate him, though. I pity him. Because while he’s a master showman, he doesn’t run this circus. I truly believe he’s the tool of masterminds, people much better at the game of manipulation than he is. He’s so out of his depth, he even looks lost. He’s not the first US president to have “handlers,” or even a power behind the throne. But I do believe he’s the first to be handled by a foreign power. He’s a puppet. A bold, brash, self-serving puppet, but a puppet in the hands of people so much smarter, so much more in control of themselves and their actions, that our country is in the worst danger it’s been in years.

Rumors about sexual peccadillos and pettiness? Smoke and mirrors. Thirty years of poor education has created an American voting populace with no critical thinking skills. If you’ve read my writing, you know I’ve been singing this song for the past 10 years. A large percentage of American college graduates cannot tell the difference between a fact and an opinion. And they are the “educated” ones. Many Americans don’t know how to find reliable information on the internet. 

Another problem is that our press is no longer free. It’s in the hands of too few controllers.  On top of that problem, reporters too often see themselves as the shapers of news narratives instead of the people tasked with reporting it. The job title kind of says it all.  In Journalism 101, I learned rule one of writing a news story: get verification. Have none of today’s reporters even watched All the President’s Men much less read it? Woodstein went to great lengths to verify, verify, verify. Ben Bradlee, where are you when we need you?

The salacious bits become the focus, comedians mock the politicians (which is part of their job) then the reporters pick up the jokes as news. It’s an endless cycle that leaves many Americans morally outraged or entertained depending on their worldview yet unaware of what’s really happening. The American press has been a weapon of mass distraction for going on two decades now.

Sadly, over three years ago, I wrote about how the American people had to rise up and take control again.  And someone else sensed this need, this anger, this frustration, and tapped into it. An “outsider” who was relatively new to politics, though he had run for president before. A showman, quite literally, who is an expert at “give the people what they want.” But this time, unlike his 2000 run, he had expert backing. Millions and millions of angry, frightened people flocked to his campaign.

Folks who decried the “softening” of America enjoyed his taunts, his violence, his hate, his pettiness. Here was a tough man who put women in their place, knew that “retarded” was an all-purpose taunt, and didn’t take shit from no one. And he was a TV star! He made them laugh and always gave a good show. He didn’t rely on boring facts to make a point. He echoed their desires with his pithy soundbites.

He probably wouldn’t have won if it weren’t for some help from people who needed a puppet in the White House. This man’s narcissism played into their hands perfectly. There were plenty of other, more qualified Republican candidates—one of them surely should have gotten the nod. Ted Cruz was more experienced. And he also had the “angry outsider” schtick down pat.  Marco Rubio was more photogenic and appealed to many of my students. Why not them? Was it just the will of the American people? How long has outside influence been at work? Frankly, I didn’t think the poor Republicans had much of a choice going in, but their ultimate choice surprised many.

So now, instead of healing, the crack is getting wider.  Over 65 million Americans out of 200 million registered voters are terrified about what will happen next week. Another 63 million are mostly jubilant (though like Brexit voters last year, there’s a lot of buyer’s remorse being reported). And 80 million registered voters didn’t bother to vote, so who knows what’s up with them.

We’re in for a bumpy ride. I do believe there are ethics violations already in place. The word treason is also not too strong for me. Others, with more powerful voices, agree with me. We wonder what will be done.

Unfortunately, I’m a scholar, far too familiar with history not to have some uncomfortable moments. Things I see happening in my nation’s capital have me deeply concerned and writing my representatives. As I live in a Red State, I know this is like spitting into the wind, but like I said, I’m an idealist.

I will be blogging in the future. Change is coming. Real change. Often terrible change. I tell my students I want them to use their voices. I have one to use, and I will.

November 14, 2016

Some Timely Advice for College Students, Mostly Freshmen

I just realized that it’s been 4 months since I’ve blogged. It’s been that kind of year. But today as I was preparing a weekly “letter” for my online students, I started to pass out advice not only for writing the final draft, but for surviving the last weeks of term.

Although this has nothing to do with culture, culture clash or other things I usually write about, I decided to post it because frankly, it’s good advice.

So, here you go. I teach English, but this works for all students, especially those facing writing projects:

You’ve done the outline you’ve done the research. Now it’s time to write the first draft.

My best advice to you? “Get it down, then get it right.” That was something I learned from a master teacher when I was in grad school learning how to be a composition teacher (yes, I did take a number of classes on how to teach and how to teach on line.)

What does that mean? It means try very hard to write your first draft without stopping to correct. Get those ideas down on paper because you can always polish them up later. Often when we write we agonize over a sentence and in doing so forget where we were going with the thought. You have the information in your head. Just write it!

Then give it a day to “settle” and step away from it to clear I from your head. Then go back and work on the revision. Clarifying the logic, making the words pretty, making sure you have enough evidence. THEN go back and edit it, preferably on a different day. Again, you want to give your brain time to “forget” what you’ve written. See, our brains are smarter than we give them credit for. They know what we want to say, so when we read something we’ve written, our brains see what we think we wrote. By giving ourselves some time off, it becomes a little harder for our brains to trick us into seeing what we want to see.

And for people with learning disabilities like me, the end of term means stressing and rushing. I find myself struggling more and more with my dyslexia under these circumstances. I force myself to slow down and calm down. Breathing helps. I know you’re breathing, but when we’re stressed, we breathe much more shallowly, which deprives the brain of the oxygen it needs to function at its best. Take some good deep breaths, in slowly, out slowly, to oxygenate your brain.

I’m a big believer in the science of high performance. Our bodies are the greatest machines run by the most brilliant computers on earth. We can’t run them on substandard care and expect their peak performance. If your life is anything like mine, sleep gets cut first, but I am also trying to avoid junk food, eating lean proteins, mostly vegetarian, unrefined carbs and fruits and veg.

Eat breakfast. It really helps! During the week I don’t have much time, so I make a peanut butter on a whole wheat sandwich thin and bring my travel mug of tea. Filling and easy. And a multivitamin won’t hurt. I actually take a lot of different vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements to support my crazy life, especially D as I don’t drink milk. I had low D this summer and was exhausted. After a blood test and a prescription I was much, much better.

Sorry about the life advice, but I teach humans, not just names on a screen. I have a lot of experience, so I want to share. I would be saying the same in a f2f class!

So, that’s what I said to my students and I share it with all students. Good luck with the end of term.

I will be back soon. I have SO much to say but no time to say it. Hold on to your hats, folks, the Broad is coming back!

July 13, 2016

Eternal Rest Grant to Her, Oh Lord

In September of 1983, I started graduate school at the College of St. Rose in Albany, NY. I was clueless as to what that meant; clueless as to what I wanted to be, other than “a writer;” and I was basically playing it by ear.

My second semester there, I had a class with Dr. April Selley. To my 22-year-old self, she was an elder, very strict, kinda scary, and frankly, sometimes odd. She was the best professor I have ever had and have ever known. She went on to be one of my dearest friends. Today she died. Demon cancer.

april

My beautiful friend. I barely have any pictures of her.

While April and I became close friends–she once said I was probably one of the few people on earth she could live with–to me, she was also always “my professor”. To me, teaching is a sacred bond between two people. When we’re very lucky, that bond extends beyond the classroom, but the pupil always owes the excellent teacher respect for the knowledge given. I respect and love many of my former professors, and I try hard to be the professor who honors the sacred bond with my students. I learned that from April. She complimented me on my passion and love for my students once. She cried when I said, “but that’s what you taught me. I am only trying to be like you.”

I can’t even explain to you her brilliance. She earned a PhD in literature from Brown, so that should tell you something. Her scholarly focus was on Cooper, Poe and the Transcendentalists, but her passion was Star Trek. She’s a contributor to the Star Trek Encyclopedia and has done much work on the topic. She’s lectured on it, written on it, and frankly, fangirled about it, though I doubt she ever used that term.

She was an award winning poet. Her poetry was often deeply imbued with her Catholic faith as well as her feminism. “The Three Middle Aged Women in Speed” is about the three women who die because middle aged women are expendable. She wrote about Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe talking in Heaven about the pressure of being icons,  and the murder of a great-aunt by a rival in Portugal. A poem I’ve been thinking about today is her “Cleaning Out the Refrigerators of the Dead.” That is the last service we do for our friends, and it always tells a story.

I am not there to do that for my friend. This is the down side of living in America–it’s so big. She died in Rotterdam, NY, where she lived. She taught at Union College. But she’s going home to Bristol, RI to be waked and buried. There’s no way I can be there and back next week. I have responsibilities here. April will be the first to totally understand.

After I earned my MA, I went on to a PhD program. April would write to me and give me advice.  This was before email. She’d actually handwrite a letter in her beautiful handwriting. She helped me more than any other professor I’d had. My other professors were thrilled that I was going on, but she took the time to write and encourage. That meant so much to me–the first college graduate in my family–the first to go to graduate school–the first to earn a PhD. I was a working class kid. What did I know?

A year after I moved to Taiwan, she got a Fulbright grant to teach in Japan. One of her poems about that time can be found here. Since I was so close, she came to visit me and Taiwan. We did a few things together, but I was busy with my son–it was the Chinese New Year holiday and my mom had gone to the US. But we sat up late one night singing along to the Dogstar CD I’d bought. We both loved the band–me for the music, her more because it featured Keanu Reeve, and I think she was his biggest fan.

She actually wrote an analysis of every film he ever did, rating his performance. She loved his acting and thought the man erudite and charming. She once drove hours over a mountain into Vermont during a snowstorm to hear him do a talkback after a film during a festival. She found him modest, polite and nothing like his public image. She also thought he is the most beautiful man on earth, but honestly, it wasn’t a crush. She admired him. She got me to, as well.

After the Dogstar we started rocking out to The Monkees and The Jackson 5, dancing around the room until my 5 year old came in to check on the crazy adults.

That’s when I realized April wasn’t old. I was 35, she was 41. Not a big spread.

And she was so funny. We could laugh together for hours.

So brilliant and funny and kind, but she was good. A good, good person.

When the secretary of her department had to retire due to dementia, April was the one who took over her care. Thora had no family, so April got home health care, did her shopping, made sure things were maintained. Thora has now outlived April, and I hope someone steps in in April’s name. April got nothing from Thora’s estate nor did she expect anything. That’s April.

When I had to move back to the US in 2007, April found me at least a summer job for the AOP program at her college, Union. She let me stay in her house rent free. She took me out to dinner. She let me stay the next two summers as well, so I would have summer income as I couldn’t find a full time job. That’s April.

She lit a candle for me in church every Sunday for ten years, before I even returned, so I could get a job. She said I was the hardest case she ever had, but that was April. She refused to give up. And she had total faith in God. That didn’t mean she wouldn’t nag him.

She fought leukemia a while back, but lived to tell the tale. But this time, a rarer, more virulent form of cancer attacked. She fought so hard. The last time I heard from her she told me she couldn’t die. She’d paid too much for the damn computer she’d just bought. She had to live long enough to make it worth it.

I’m not sad today. Sad isn’t my style.

I’m angry.

I’m angry that I’ll never get to read more than the first two chapters of the novel she was writing. She’d asked me to be a reader, and I loved it. Funny, poignant. Now I will never find out what happens.

I’m angry that she didn’t earn more fame for her writing. She was honestly brilliant at it.Her voice should have been heard by millions, not thousands.

I’m angry that I’ll never see that beautiful handwriting on a birthday card or the annual Christmas letter in July because she never actually had time to write them in December thanks to teaching.

I’m angry that she never got to read my paper on Louisa May Alcott that was so rudely rejected by a literary journal last winter. I was supposed to mail it to her in March, but I didn’t have time. Hers was the opinion I valued most on the topic. And she seemed interested, too.

I’m angry that she’s been so ill lately that she couldn’t talk to her friends on the phone.

I’m angry that she’ll never get to see my kid on film. She was such a booster.

I’m angriest that the last letter I sent telling her I knew I’d never see her again on this plane, but that I will love her forever, my sister of the heart, would have arrived in today’s mail. She died in the morning.

No, what I’m angriest about is that we won’t get to be crazy old women together. She was determined, stubborn, goal-oriented, brilliant. She’d have been a hoot of an old gal. She was 61. That’s not old enough, not by a long shot.

Everybody says good things about the dead, but April Rose Selley was one of the best people I’ve ever known in my life. The world has lost more than it realizes.

I know that you will be resting in peace, my darling April. If anyone deserves Heaven, it’s you. Well, for all I know, you’ll be nagging God face to face because you really are that stubborn.

 

August 8, 2014

The End is Near

I am writing this with something of a heavy heart: this is one of my last The Broad is Back columns. Faithful readers won’t be shocked to learn that the Broad is going to be abroad again. After seven years back in the US, I’m leaving again for a job.

My heart is heavy because I don’t really want to leave. Once again, I’m being pushed to leave my family, my friends, the familiar, but I’ve done it before, and I can do it again. I don’t have much of a choice, because since I’ve been back in the US, I have not been able to find full time work. I’ve been working two, three, sometimes four jobs at a time trying to make ends meet. There have been a few “flush” times, but for the most part every year I’m back in the US I fall deeper and deeper into debt.

Luckily, much of that debt is to the National Bank of Mom, so the terms are easy and it doesn’t impact my credit rating. The only other debt I have is my student loans, another debacle facing Americans. Every time I have to get a low income payment adjustment or that double edged sword, the deferment, the interest added to my debt goes up and up and up. In fact, my debt is now twice what it was when I graduated, purely on fees and interest. I paid for years, but then hit a stretch, going on 10 years now, of financial difficulties. I could pay off the principle, but the interest and fees are killing me.

Full disclosure: I have to admit that I did get two job offers, both in the NYC area, where I am from and where I’d theoretically like to stay. Both offered salaries that would have meant my rent would have been over 50% of my gross income. A doctorate and experience were required for both, but neither was going to pay a living wage. I had to turn them both down for economic reasons.

The dean at one school, a publicly funded one, mind, actually admitted in the interview that their salaries were geared for people who were in a dual-income situation—someone’s spouse or partner. I had a teenager and a husband working on getting a visa with no promise of a work permit for at least nine months. That’s just bad policy. I should be paid what I’m worth and what my job is worth. I have a doctorate; fewer than 3% of Americans have that degree. Tells you what Americans value, doesn’t it? We say we value education, but we don’t. I didn’t go into teaching to be rich, but don’t insult me. If I can’t afford to house, feed and care for my family in a reasonable commuting distance, I can’t possibly take the position. This past year, I commuted 20 hours a week, so my idea of reasonable is rather generous.

Again to be frank, if I were offered a position at that salary now, I’d take it and moonlight. But why should I have to? My doctor keeps telling me that I am destroying my health working 60-80 hours a week. And I am, so this must change. But if I worked less, I’d be homeless.

So I applied to a position in Dubai, and three days later was given an interview. A few interviews later, I was offered the position with a salary and package that blows away anything I’ve been offered in the US. I won’t be anything like “rich,” because I’m still a humanities professor, but I’ll be able to pay bills and support my son.

To be brutally frank, I feel like I’m being exiled from my country. I’ve applied for US teaching positions all over America, so it’s not like I didn’t try. I’ve sent out over 300 applications in the past seven years, and actually had a number of interviews. I’ve been a sub a few times and a visiting professor, but nothing permanent. I’m an award winning professor with 25 years of experience and a PhD from a very highly regarded school. I’ve done scholarly work, as much as I can, while teaching seven to eight courses a term, usually 11 months a year. Believe me, every term, I turn down adjuncting work because I’m that good at what I do. That’s not hubris. It’s the truth.

Am I angry that I can’t get a full time position in this country? Of course I am. On some levels, I’d even say resentful of a system that is destroying higher education and taking advantage of people who have a vocation for teaching. I am not a nun! I’m not a missionary! This is a profession, but I’m certainly not being treated like a professional. I’m not alone in this. It’s a national disaster that I’ve written about many, many times.

But there’s no use crying for water from the moon.

I’m off to start another adventure. I’ve never lived in the Middle East before, and now that I’m reconciled to leaving behind my family and friends, I’m looking forward to new exploits. Nothing beats living somewhere for learning about the culture. And Dubai is a very international place, I hear, so I’m sure it will be exciting and vibrant.

The Broad is Back is a reference to my original blog, A Broad Abroad. I will be starting A Broad Abroad Again in order to record my adventures overseas, and I look forward to seeing you there. I will post the link when it’s up and running!

I came back to a very different America, and sadly, more and more I feel like a stranger in a strange land. Sometimes it’s easier to feel like that when I truly am the stranger.

Thanks for your time and your faithful reading!

April 6, 2014

Poor Education Spells Death of Freedom

“The only sure bulwark of continuing liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of the people, and a people strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over the government.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

The longer I’m back in America, the more my heart is breaking.  When I came back almost seven years ago now, I was frankly shocked by the difference in the freshmen I started to teach. Their skills were worse; their knowledge base was worse; and their critical thinking skills were practically non-existent. I was teaching the same demographic I had taught before I left, so that wasn’t a factor.

 

The bulk of my teaching is at urban community colleges, but since I’ve been back I’ve taught at elite schools and middle ranked private and state schools as well.  The only differences I see are classroom skills levels, or in some cases, the ability to quickly adapt classroom skills.

 

 

I am slowly and surely becoming convinced that liberty is at stake here: my students’ as well as my country’s.  I have written about this before, so obviously this is pressing on me.  I don’t actually have time to write now.  I have one week left until spring break, and I have much to accomplish before then. But I think during that break I will take the time to work out some of my ideas on this blog.

 

 

But in the meantime, look to your children’s education. Look to your own education. Who is behind educational reform? If you say “government” or “the overly strong federal government” please look again.

 

 

Look to your sources of information about what’s going on in the United States. Look beyond the razzle dazzle of partisan politics, the rhetoric of Left and Right. Most of that is absolutely meaningless.

 

 

We the people, a hackneyed phrase, perhaps, but we the people have got to rise up and let our voices be heard. So many people try to argue that “they” are trying to make America a “godless country”. That will never happen, because right now, the mightiest god worshiped here in Mammon.

December 1, 2013

Fight the Ignorance: World AIDS Day 2013

Filed under: New Broads — by maggiec @ 10:17 am
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Nothing drives me crazier than willful ignorance, and one social issue I hear more willful ignorance about than just about any other area is AIDS and AIDS awareness.  I teach the very groups that are disproportionately impacted in the US–young Black and Hispanic men. To hear what they have to say about HIV status, AIDS and homosexuality boils my brain. Ignorance in this instance is not bliss. It can kill.

Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism. I’ve had too many students lose a parent or other close relative to AIDS (though one parent lost to AIDS is too many). It’s not like many don’t see the effects first hand in their neighborhoods. But while seeing my friends and loved ones ravished by the disease spurred me on to action, it seems to take them more into denial than anything else.

They aren’t the only ones I hear ignorance from, but they are the groups I spend the most time with day to day. They are the ones I’m invested in on so many levels.  But I say the same to all groups.

So we need to continue to educate, continue to have the uncomfortable conversations.  Maybe people will start to listen if only to shut us up.

And AIDS is not just a health problem here in the US. In fact, we get off relatively lightly due to our wealth and public health education. But worldwide, 700 babies are born HIV+ a day, mostly in developing nations where this status is too often a death sentence. For me, this is unacceptable.  Through efforts, this number is going down every year, but not quickly enough.

While I support the fight of organizations like (RED), I also continue to educate folks here.  It wasn’t easy the first time I talked about protection with a group of students.

The first time I did it, World AIDS Day 1989, I closed my classroom door, told the students what day it was, said, “Whatever you say stays in the room. Any questions?” I was overwhelmed by questions, fears, ignorance. But it was one of the best classes I ever had, and I still remember that class as clearly as if it were yesterday.  I would do the same thing in every class, eventually using Magic Johnson’s film Time Out, every year until 1998. By then, there was plenty of information available to students elsewhere, so I would just announce the day at the beginning of class and see if anything grew out of that.

And what do I still tell people?

  1. Know your status. It’s a simple test. Don’t be afraid or ashamed. Knowing is always better than not knowing. Early detection can change your outcome.
  2. Limit your number of sexual partners.  The more is not at all the merrier in some instances.
  3. Know your partner’s status and sexual history (discussion is key–if you can’t have an open discussion with someone, it’s probably best not to be having sex yet)
  4. Use latex condoms to help fight the spread of the HIV virus (and all the other nasty STDs that are rampant, as well) Use them for every contact, and learn how to use them correctly. Use only water based lubricant.
  5. Avoid having sex while drunk or high (you can see where this one is problematic)
  6. Don’t share needles or other drug equipment
  7. And don’t judge people for their HIV status, their lifestyle, their choices.  People make poor choices sometimes (like sharing needles or having sex with strangers), but that doesn’t make them bad people.

November 12, 2013

Learning a Cornerstone

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

So begins one of the shortest yet most powerful presidential addresses in American history. And this year, it will be 150 years old. And younger generations don’t know a word of it.

The bulk of today’s post is by my favorite guest blogger, my cousin Dolores, a very aware and involved woman.  You can tell we’re related sometimes! Today she sent me this email, so I’m sharing here because it’s important.

Ken Burns, famous producer of some outstanding documentaries, was a guest on Morning Joe this morning talking about a new project he has put together celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.  He set up a website that you can access –www.learntheaddress.org  – & he has an incredible array of people each speaking a sentence or two of the speech….every living President does it, in addition to a varied group of well known celebrities.

He talked about a boys school in Putney, Vermont – all of their students are dyslexic & he said each & every student has memorized the speech.  He also said one of the saddest statistic is that 83% of college graduates do not know one word of the speech!!!  Unbelievable.
November 19th is the anniversary of that speech….might be a wonderful idea if every parent and grandparent, aunt, uncle, etc. accessed that speech for their loved ones…..explained it, give its context, & ask their children to learn it!!!

October 3, 2013

Still Hoping for Power to the People

“We want to empower our people; we want to strengthen them; we want to provide them with the kind of qualifications that will enable them to build up their own country themselves.” ~ Aung San Suu Kyi

When Aung San Suu Kyi said these words, she was referring to the people of Burma, but I think this is what we should want for people in all places.  But instead of empowerment, much of American culture (and I’m speaking as an American–I know it’s similar in other places) sets out to disempower the people.

Yesterday I spoke of our broken educational system. I do often wonder quite seriously how much is done deliberately. We have a popular culture that glorifies ignorance, stupidity, vapidity and violence. We undermine authority figures in almost all genres of entertainment. Authority isn’t a bad word, but if we teach people it is, no one will want it or seek it other than those who turn it into a bad word through their actions.

This post started on my other blog, but as often happens when I’m thinking about things that are important to me, it spills onto this one.

I’m deeply disturbed by the state of America right now. Not just the current crisis, but by all the factors that brought us here: poor education, weapons of mass distraction, selfishness and even a sense of ennui in so many people. Working hard for too little money, scraping by, living paycheck to paycheck dulls the mind to other things.   According to a report released last year, over two-thirds of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.  It’s hard to think about eroding freedoms when you’re worried about missing work and getting pay docked.

This is a trend that must be reversed.

I teach to empower people, but as much as I want to give my students the tools they need to take control of their own lives, true control, free from the overbearing corporate influences playing on people today, no one can be empowered with the desire to wield power.

So many people are perfectly willing to abdicate responsibility for their own lives. This is a sad way to live.

Actually, as I tell my students, this can be a fine way to live. Nothing is your fault when it fails and no hard decisions need to be made. Multitudes aer plenty happy in this kind of life.

Those who want to live freely know that they must have power over themselves. And as Francis Bacon famously wrote, “Knowledge is power.”

Societies have changed radically in the past. All things are cyclical. When I call for change, people tell me, “You can’t change anything. This is the way it is now. It is what it is.”

Lie. That’s a lie sold to us by people who don’t want change. We can turn this around, hopefully. It will not be easy, but it can be done, but only if people want to be empowered.

 

October 2, 2013

Another Fine Mess You’ve Gotten Us Into

Sequestration. That’s a rather benign sounding word, isn’t it? Doesn’t sound like it could hurt a fly. Automatic budget cuts that put some people temporarily out of work and cut services doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

And as everyone here in the US knows, we’re in day two of sequestration. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

On Tuesday morning, I found myself steaming mad. Why? Because a small, and I mean small, core of hard line Republicans are holding America hostage because they don’t like a law that was passed by both houses, signed by the president and decided upon by the Supreme Court of the United States. Welcome to democracy, folks. Welcome to the “three ringed circus” that is American federal government.  Checks and balances. Sometimes you don’t always get what you want.

Maybe it’s not a great law. It’s certainly not perfect. But bad laws have been passed before. Then even repealed sometimes. But the repeal didn’t come from playground level hissy fits. It came through getting out to the people and changing their minds. Engaging in discussion that leads to change. Instead of winning the people, theoretically the most powerful force in a democracy (but I’m not an idiot. I know the reality of that scenario), most Americans are now livid with all of the government.

Personally, I’m glad.  We need to be mad. We need to be hopping, spitting, crazy mad.  And we need to channel that anger, hone it to a fine point and use it to say “Enough! We the people are taking, no, wresting back our government!  Because obviously the people we’ve elected are not fit to lead.”

I pray that this comes to pass.

As Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.” The press is this country is freer than in many, I admit. But it’s tamed. My first career was as a reporter, a legislative correspondent in Albany, NY, to be precise. That was 30 years ago. A lifetime ago. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hirsh just wrote about the decline in the quality of the American press. He called it “pathetic,” which sums it up from my view. Very interesting reading, and you can find it here, ironically in The Guardian, a British paper!

The whole point of this blog is that I left America for 14 years, but now I’m back, so I comment on the changes. One of the huge changes is the quality of the news media. While I was gone 9/11 happened, and that event, terrible and evil, has done more to change American cultural values than I care to admit.  The Internet has changed people, as well. Because of it and jumps in technology, ideas about personal privacy are shifting at an alarming speed.

Whistle-blowers are vilified and praised. That’s a topic for another day, one I don’t find myself ready to discuss.  But we have truly undergone a cultural sea-change.

And then there’s education. This, as faithful readers know, is my personal bailiwick. I am a professor. I teach writing and literature, but mostly writing these days because few students can write well and even fewer can read. I teach college level students, but I’m teaching skills I learned in 6th-10th grade. If I had to guess, I would say the average reading level of my students is 8th-9th grade. They struggle to read The New York Times, a paper routinely read in American high schools. I do not teach stupid people. I teach bright people, lovely people, hardworking people. But they have been very poorly educated in New York City’s public schools.

When my parents attended New York City’s public schools, they were the finest in the nation. In fact, my mother remembers observers coming from all around the world to see how excellent public education was run. She graduated reading adult level works, in two languages, with a third language at conversational level. Sure, she was a smart cookie and worked at it, but she went to the neighborhood PS4 and Long Island City High School. Now I’m not saying New York City doesn’t still have some fine schools, some of the finest in the nation. But statistically speaking, over 50% of New York City high school graduates are not prepared for college level work or an entry level job when they leave school. And that comes from the city’s own reports.

Sure, there are a lot of challenges facing New York, and I’m not picking on New York, but I’d guess that about 80% of the students I teach are from New York City high schools, so it’s what I know best. About 5% are from other places in America and the rest are from foreign schools. I had a class last term with a student from Italy, one from France and one from Germany. I almost wept with joy as their academic skills were so strong. Until I wept with pain that their American peers were so weak.

And I do spend time from students from other places and even at other schools, good schools, Ivy Leagues, even. And I am amazed, constantly, at what they don’t know that I know I knew when I was their age. This is what happens when as a culture we glorify stupidity and are proud of ignorance.

And sometimes, in the dark recesses of my slightly Orwellian soul, I do hear whispers of “This is not a terrible mistake.” And Orwell’s whispers are joined by Huxley’s ruminations in Brave New World. There are times I think the brave new world is now. (Though to be perfectly honest, I do not believe in a huge government conspiracy. A huge corporate conspiracy is much more likely. As far as I can see Congress is the lap dog of corporate interest in this country. Corporations really don’t want you educated. Why educate a slave race? That was Hitler’s view. It’s rather pragmatic when striving for world domination.)

So, we live in a populace without a truly free press and with men, and women, since it’s the 21st century now, who are unable to read. We are not safe. We have much to fear.

If our government is so easily hijacked, it needs to be replaced. If the people ruling this country are so weak and ineffective that a tiny minority can close down government, well, I can’t see why they are staying in office. With pay yet.

Many have called for their pay to be docked. We the people are their employers. Fire them. And if we don’t do that, at least don’t pay them. Not that I think the predominantly wealthy people who run this country will suffer much with the loss of a month’s salary or so.  But how many of the federal workers who are now sitting home, effectively out of work, are living pay check to pay check? How much do support staff, park rangers, computer tech people make?

I realized yesterday that I had to do more than tweet my anger, that 140 characters weren’t enough. Well, I’m about to hit 1200 words, and all I can really say is please, Americans, let’s join together to stop the madness. Even if we’re of different parties we have to realize that what’s happening in America is a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. It’s stupid, pig headed stupid, and we deserve better than that!

 

August 21, 2013

Free Might Not be Better

I saw a tweet today, and it prompted me to write. The tweet said, “It’s this simple #education should be #free #strikedebt” But as an educator, and as someone who has lived in places where education is free, I know it’s really not that simple.

First, education is not free. You may want to screw capitalism, young tweeter, and yes, your professors are usually rather idealistic, but I have to eat, too. I need to pay my rent, get healthcare, and buy clothes. Researching isn’t cheap. I must get paid. And I’ve invested years and hundreds of thousands of dollars into my education. I have loans, too.  So first you must pay us. And then there’s the equipment, the buildings, all the things that make up a university. It all must be bought and maintained. Running a university is an expensive endeavor.

So free education is actually paid for through taxes. That’s the whole idea of state schools.  In fact, I work for a public college.  And here’s part two of the “not simple” part.

Once upon a time, CUNY was free. If admitted, one earned a top class education for the price of books and supplies. An excellent deal.

The kicker was not everyone got in. And not everyone got into his or her first choice.  My mom was a top NYC high school student, graduated Long Island City High School, class of ’50. She had her heart set on going to Hunter College. But Hunter only accepted X number of women (it used to be a women’s college) from each of NYC’s high schools based on the woman’s class standing. Mom was X-1. She missed getting in by a less than a full point on her average. She went to her next choice, Queens College, but she still talks about missing Hunter with regret.

This still happens in countries with free education. Not everyone gets in. There aren’t free options for everyone. Students get in based on academic merit. In some countries, especially Asian, there’s a national exam and students get placed into a university and a major based on numerical test results.  In other places, students’ high school transcripts are the main bulk of the determination of if and where they get in.

Students who don’t get into a free education can still go to school, but they choose private options and pay.

CUNY did have open admissions for free for almost a decade, but the financial realities ended that in 1976. Open admissions also meant remedial classes were instituted. These are intensive classes with more hours than regular classes, and they are very expensive. I teach remedial or developmental or pre-credit (pick your label–they mean the same), and I believe in the rightness of having them. If high schools aren’t doing their job, my colleagues and I will do it. I’ve had students in my remedial classes go on to graduate from the community college I teach in and transfer to NYU, Columbia, Yale and all of the CUNY senior colleges, which are some of the best schools in the world.  Proud doesn’t even begin to cover it.

But. And there’s always a but. But the drop out/failure rate in those remedial classes hovers around 50-60%. I start each term with 28 and end with 12-15, or in a good term, 16. And not all of the 16  pass the class. They just finish it, often passing the second time they take it, if they haven’t lost the desire.

That’s a lot of money. Yes, these students are paying tuition, but one subsidized by the state and city. I have also taught at a private school, and earning an associates there costs about $20,000. Currently an associates at a CUNY school is $8400. And most of the students have financial aid, so they are paying substantially less than that. That’s a heavy subsidy, and that’s the tax burden.  Someone is paying that money, just not the students or their parents.

So, free education is great, but it closes the path of education for many people. That’s a negative.

But I also believe that the requirement for a college education in this country is out of control. Some companies now will not hire someone as a word processor, mail clerk or office assistant without a college degree. This is madness.  A college degree now holds the weight of a high school diploma when I graduated. Something is wrong with this picture.

In the countries I have lived in with free or incredibly inexpensive public education, college is not required for career and life success. In America we have devalued college educations by making them required for everything.  But that’s a blog for another day.

So, it’s not so simple. Free education is a wonderful and worthy idea, but nothing is free. What are we willing to trade for it? Higher taxes? Less access to higher education?

I do realize the counter argument: we could afford to provide education to all students if we stopped the war and ended the military build up. Totally agree, but I live in the real world. Don’t always like it, but so it goes. I do think the war will end. Eventually. But obviously the war is still rewarding, somehow, somewhere. I don’t see it, but then I don’t play in that schoolyard, so to speak.

I admire the young debt strikers, honestly I do. The student debt crisis in this country is the next financial disaster. It’s bigger than the housing debacle, and it’s not going away.

But as a thinker, I do not like reductionist arguments. Granted, Twitter isn’t the place for nuanced argument, but things saying things are simple when they are not is never a good start to a conversation.

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