Thursday, December 24, 2009

Santa, I want. . .

LA CUCARACHA by Lalo Alvarez,480136

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

'Why, it's old Fezziwig. Bless his heart'

Old Fezziwig

Christmas is almost here. The seasonal decorations are up, brightening the winter gloom, and Christmas music can be heard in all the stores and radio stations. I am no longer Christian, having left the Church forever when I was nineteen but there are Christmas traditions for which I have a soft spot, one of which is watching Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Dickens was at his pedantic best with this tale, laying out his ethical system in no uncertain terms. The funny thing is that I have never thought of it as being exclusively Christian tale.

My favorite version is the black and white 1938 version with Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge, Gene Lockhart as Bob Crachit and Kathleen Lockhart, his real-life wife as Mrs. Crachit, and their daughter June making her screen debut. But my favorite character is the young Scrooge’s boss, Old Fezziwig. He is a businessman who teaches Scrooge his art but he also has boundaries: He declares that Christmas Eve is a time for celebration so he tells them to put away the ledgers and set the place up for a party. Much dancing and merriment ensues. Returning with the Ghost of Christmas Past, even the cold-hearted Scrooge is delighted to see him.

They went in. At sight of an old gentleman in a Welsh wig, sitting behind such a high desk, that if he had been two inches taller he must have knocked his head against the ceiling, Scrooge cried in great excitement:

'Why, it's old Fezziwig. Bless his heart; it's Fezziwig alive again.'"

I love Fezziwig because he teaches a gentle lesson of proportion and balance. In Fezziwig’s world, work has its place but so does gaiety, dancing, and love. He created a joyous atmosphere in a place that without his influence would be dour and dull. He provided the one bright spot in the joyless life of young Ebenezer Scrooge.

Classrooms can be like that. In my classes we deal with some terrible stories of poverty, violence, dictatorships, and massacres. There is nothing remotely cheerful anywhere on the syllabus. Nor would I make light of the many sorrows we witness in the course. But there is a boundary between us and those stories, and what I want to do is to make the learning a joy; I want to undermine the disdain for history that many students start class with; and I want them to remember my classes with joy and enthusiasm.

I realize that I will not attain 100% success. As Abraham Lincoln said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” No matter how hard you try, some students will simply dislike you. What can you do but shrug it off? What is harder is being fair to those who are openly disdainful, aggressive or rude. I always find myself bending over backwards to be fair to such students. It helps to remember that they don’t know you personally; all they know about you are the parts of yourself that you’ve chosen to share with them.

One of my happiest memories of college is of an elderly English professor named Father John Coleman. He taught poetry and composition. Whenever you said something that he found engaging, smart, or remotely interesting, he'd point at you and say, 'Take an "A"!' He didn't care much for grades, and I have a vague recollection that he gave us each an A in the class but that didn't matter; he must have had the best attendance in the university. I looked forward to it every day. His cheerful demeanor made the class a joy.

History is not like literature. Many students come in with a bad attitude about studying history: they don’t like it; they don’t like you; and, they hate every history teacher they’ve ever had. You can only unravel a limited part of that antagonism.

The problem of students’ dislike of history is usually laid at the feet of their high school teachers when the problem is actually systemic: High school teachers can only teach the school board-approved curriculum using the approved texts. Teachers have no choice. School boards are inherently conservative and rigid. No matter what progressive ideas may be taught in secondary-education teacher programs, the legions of teachers are constrained by the school-board’s narrowness of mind. Conservatism on school boards is the lowest common denominator: More school board members lean towards conservatism because they do not want to take chances with their precious children. I don’t say that flippantly or disrespectfully. Their children are their most treasured possessions (for lack of a better word) and they don’t want to take any chances on some new-fangled, unproven ideas.

I learned this is a very vivid way when I was the president of the California NOW Foundation, which was associated with California NOW (National Organization for Women). The Foundation had chosen to fund the first handbook of resources for gay and lesbian teenagers. It was authored by a teacher at Fairfax High School. Its publication in the late 1980s caused a huge hullabaloo and the Los Angeles School Board responded by holding hearings. I went to speak on behalf of my board in support of the publication. It made no difference that we were in what outsiders regard as one of the most liberal cities in the world; the “threat” brought the most conservative from surrounding counties to the school board meeting to shoot down the handbook. The fundamentalists organized in the churches and brought busloads of their congregants to oppose its publication. It was the kind of blow-up that greets same-sex marriage today. The teacher who wrote it, Virginia Uribe, was filling a very dire need: Gay and lesbian teenagers were isolated and often abused by their peers. Many committed suicide.

What struck me about the opposition was the extreme fear that they showed. They were terrified that we had published a “how-to” manual that show their children how to engage in homosexual sex and thus undermine traditional heterosexual relationships. No matter that it did nothing of the sort but ultimately, the idea that these at-risk teenagers could come to believe theirs was a normal human sexuality, so contrary to their traditional beliefs, was unsupportable to them. When their children are concerned, most people err on the side of conservatism.

The oft-mentioned liberalism of higher education results from an unspoken commitment to teaching the young to think for themselves. Primary and secondary educations do not have the same calling. There is no academic freedom in grade school or high school. Only college professors have protected speech, much to the aggravation of parents and other citizens who would prefer that their children are never exposed to Karl Marx or other controversial thinkers.

Thus, many students approach their university history professors with suspicion and wariness. It’s not only that they have had to learn by rote, boring names and dates, it is also that their earlier teachers have been charged with teaching them the canon, that is, the accepted, agreed-upon version of American history as approved by the school boards and carefully taught by their teachers. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz! This is why our approach must be at once light and serious. We aim to teach critical thinking; most high school history classes offer traditional history presented in traditional ways. Instead of repeating the accepted version yet once again, (snore), we are teaching them to ask why, to question authority, and to try to understand the context of the events in the world and in our country.

Fezziwig ran what appeared to be a rather staid business but he was loved for the atmosphere he created. To persuade university students that what we are doing goes beyond their earlier studies, and to draw them into the joy of intellectual exercise, we must make the atmosphere in the classroom light, so they will come to enjoy the intellectual challenge of this work itself.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Football, Basketball, Rah, Rah, Rah. Sigh.

There are many athletes in my classes but there are few who could be considered scholar-athletes.  The women athletes, including the basketball players, are typically the best students: they make few excuses, they get their work done on time; and when they know they have an upcoming trip, they arrange to get their work in early. I have never had a flaky woman athlete.  

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin

Students who are members of the crew teams are also fairly good students. Golfers, swimmers; tennis, Lacrosse, baseball, and soccer players, and the other sports are good to middling, not remarkable students usually, but they are decent and do not cause one undo aggravation. I can only remember one swimmer who gave me trouble: He was absent much of the semester, missing tests and papers. He failed. The next semester, he showed up to take the class again; he was present for a few weeks then he started missing classes. I sent him a note telling him that he really didn’t want to fail the class again. He came for two sessions then reverted to his previous behavior.  He failed again. The third semester that he showed up at my door, I stopped him coming in.  You don’t want to put us both through this aggravation again, I told him; take something else.  He did.

Then there are the football players, and worse, the basketball players. Is it any surprise that the university spends more money on them than any other sports? It is a toss-up as to who are the worse students. They have early morning practice and frequently come to classes to sleep. They have afternoon practice so the rest of the day is scheduled around them. They have tutors and others who keep track of them but we, the professors, and the athletic staffs, have different ideas of what a good student is. They not only miss class because they are traveling for the school team but they frequently schedule doctor and other appointments for the hours they should be in class and they lack the maturity to realize that gaming the system will not help them in the long run.

It is a very schizophrenic system. On one hand, promising athletes are courted for their academic prowess, and the academic rules are bent to accommodate them; on the other hand, they are worked so hard in their sport that they have very little chance of doing well in school. By “doing well” I don’t mean just maintaining a gentlemen’s “C.”  Many of them have cavalier attitudes towards their schoolwork. I have gotten in their faces on more than one occasion trying to get them to focus on their schoolwork because the plain fact is that 99.9% of them will never play sports professionally.

Their reliance on tutors explains a great deal about them. Some years ago, I had an exchange with a basketball player whose essay exams were far, far worse than his term papers. I leaned into him about working on his writing. What difference did it make, he demanded to know, whether he did it alone or had a lot of help. “You won’t have tutors holding your hand for the rest of your life,” I told him. “What happens when you have a little boy who says, ‘Daddy, how do I write a paragraph?’ Will you tell him, wait while I get my tutor? Tutors are supposed to help you learn to do things on your own; they aren’t supposed to be crutches!” Tragically, he was killed when a drunk driver crashed into his car; he didn’t live long enough to have a family.

Tyson Wheeler, center.

I can only remember two student athletes who really excelled in their studies in spite of the extreme demands of their sports:  Football player Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, and basketball player, Tyson Wheeler (Class of 1998).  Ibrahim was a stellar character who had more energy than the sun. He was an “A” student, a poet, president of the student body, captain of the football team, and the winner of the 1998 Diversity Award for Student Excellence: a star in any universe.  I asked him once how he managed to study so much in spite of all his extracurricular activities, especially the demands of the football team. He said that he set aside time to study, and he plugged his ears on the team bus and studied; Tyson gave a similar response. It is a simple answer but one that reflects their self-discipline. If only I had more students like them!

Sometimes, frustrated at the cavalier attitude many of them have towards their classes, I have thought wistfully about scheduling all my classes for times that they couldn’t possibly attend.  It wouldn’t be right and I would not do it, but it has crossed my mind. 

I think there are only two solutions to these problems, neither of which the university will adopt.  First, I would get rid of the both the football and men’s basketball teams. They use up a disproportionate amount of funds with very little return. The football games are sparsely attended; they have not had a winning season in the 17 years I’ve been at URI. Supposedly, the alumni are keen on them but it isn’t reflected in their attendance at the games. Moreover, I do not think that there has ever been a URI football player who made it into the NFL.

Basketball is a grayer area because it occasionally has a winning season and some of them make it into the NBA. But in addition to a heavy practice schedule, they travel a lot, missing many classes.  Furthermore, it is offensive that the basketball coach makes more than the president of the university, and may make more than the governor. I do not know what possible justification there can be for that, particularly in a time of economic collapse. 

The other solution is one that cannot be taken unilaterally; it is one that the collegiate athletic associations would have to enact.  First of all, one must recognize that basketball and football are primarily parts of the fund-raising function of the university. Football and basketball players should be eligible to play to play college sports for four years; if they do not make it onto the professional teams, they should then be given a full college scholarship for four years. Essentially, playing their hearts out for four years should earn them the chance to pursue the studies towards careers that are their second choice. An exception could be made so that those students demonstrating clear academic promise and the desire to play and study concurrently could choose to do so. Adopting this program would show a real commitment to assuring that they emerge not only with a degree but with an education.

Postscript: Ibrahim Abdul-Matin has done a wide variety of jobs since his graduation, including becoming a National Urban Fellow in 2008. Lately he is the "sports guy" for The Takeway on National Public Radio.  The last I heard, Tyson Wheeler was playing basketball professionally in Europe. 

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Library, or Paying Lip Service to the Life of the Mind

The Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons

When I was an undergraduate at the University of San Francisco, I worked part-time at the public library. The San Francisco Public Library was always at-risk when the city budget was in play.  Years later, when Proposition 13 crippled the California state budget, libraries around the state closed and finding a way to fund an entity that the politicians in Sacramento considered expendable became a major challenge.

In law school, we were taught that the “A” students become professors; the “B” students get rich in business, and the “C” students run for public office, so there is little surprise that the politicians care little for the preservation of knowledge.

Now I find myself as a tenured professor at a Rhode Island state university and the politicians still short-change the university, and the administrators who are supposed to preserve the best of the university and carry it forward, are cutting the library up, page by page. Today we have the excuse of a global economic crisis, but even during the prosperous days of  President Bill Clinton’s administration, the library suffered. For my entire career here, the library has been systematically starved. You know the drill: First they cut fat; then they cut more fat; then they keep talking about fat even as they cut muscle. It takes a while to cut through all the muscle. Then finally, bones are being split and marrow is being scooped out.  If this appears to be mere hyperbole to you, then I ask how you would describe almost 20 years of negative or flat funding even as expenses go up; firing much-needed staff; running the library of the jewel in the crown—our Graduate School of Oceanography—without a doctorate-level specialist?  It sounds like a Tibetan Buddhist Sky Burial: the body of the dead is systematically dismembered, the flesh stripped from the bones, the marrow is scraped out, and finally, the bones are broken into very small bits; then the vultures sweep in to consume every bit; nothing at all is left.

Every state university budget in this country is strained by the cuts in the state budget, but in our case, former president Dr. Robert Carothers treated the library as a second-class citizen from the very beginning of his administration. I arrived in 1993, the third year of his administration, and at the end of a $13.5 million expansion of the library which included a new façade graced with an unattributed epigram by Malcolm X, “MY ALMA MATER WAS BOOKS, A GOOD LIBRARY...I COULD SPEND THE REST OF MY LIFE READING JUST SATISFYING MY CURIOSITY.” President Carothers did not initiated the renovation of the library; he inherited it from President Edward D. "Ted" Eddy. Nevertheless, the restored library set the standard for the rest of the Carothers’ administration: When he retired, the physical appearance of the campus had been radically transformed by all his new buildings, $700 million of new buildings and improvements on four campuses. But even though the moving quotation from Malcolm X set the mood of the campus, the contents of the library, both human and books, deteriorated. Librarians were reduced to little more than a skeleton crew.

I do not wish to condemn Dr. Robert Carothers nor demean his many accomplishments. He achieved a great deal despite going head-to-head with a Board of Governors that regarded him as being recalcitrant at best.  I am simply baffled by his blind spot—the library—and wonder how one that cared so much for the university could ignore the organic heart of the university, the library.  The faculty depends on it; the students depend on it and live within its walls.  Why did he give it short shrift?

Then in a baffling tribute, the library was renamed for him when he retired last summer: It became the Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons. Considering his sympathies and the fact the he often joked about his job saying, “And you get your own football team!” I think they should have renamed an athletic complex for him, not the library. If I had been the president, I would have said, "And you get your own library!"

In part, the library was the victim of the winds of change, of a change in societal values as well as a revolution in technology. The advent of computers and their wide distribution during the late 1990s made the acquisition of knowledge much easier but also much more expensive.  Once the computer revolution really took hold in the university, computers and printers not only had to be furnished for the library but also for banks of computers for use by the students in several centers around the campus, and computers and printers had to be provided for the entire faculty. Then they had to be updated as the computer revolution rolled forward with what seemed increasing frequency.  Can you imagine if the amount of money paid for computers and all the attendant technology had been plowed into books, librarians,  and the traditional necessities of the library?

Today it is relatively inexpensive to replace a computer but for the first ten years, new computers cost $1000 or more each. It was a very expensive venture. Somewhere along the line, the library and computers services merged and a new problem emerged: How does one find an administrator who knows both information technology AND university libraries?  At the same time, an unexpected assault hit the library: The price of serials went through the roof as the result of a predatory move by the publishers. They charge a fortune because it is a non-competitive market and they can get away with it; they hold the exclusive rights to publication and a university library is their prime market. In the face of diminishing budgets, the library did the only thing it could; it started cutting back on the number of serials it subscribed to. Every year now, academic departments receive a list of its serials and it is asked which ones can be cut.

Following that, another more productive move took place, and that was to put all the Rhode Island colleges except for Brown into a library consortium. It works but it’s slow. One cannot simply decide that one needs a book and drop into the library to see if it’s in. The books I need which are the newest in the Latin American field are never owned by URI so I am almost always needing books from other colleges. It’s frustrating. Tomorrow, I will go by the Brown University library to borrow the books I am considering for my spring class on Latin American women.

When they cut the budget, the least important items—least important to the administrators—are cut first.  The library is very close to the bottom of the pile. It doesn't make money-making items; it doesn't produce revenue, and it doesn’t produce fund raising dollars. Its value is abstract, and its effect is indirect.  We are told that alumni have no interest in libraries; they are only interested in athletic facilities but I wonder if this isn't a self-fulfilling prophesy. 

The library should be a place the students love, that they spent many of their undergraduate years in happily working. They should think back on many quietly spellbound hours in its stacks.  Wouldn't it stand to reason that they would be in favor of spending their dollars on it once they'd graduated, thinking of it as the true mater (mother) of their alma (souls)?  As long as the library doesn't have the books and journals they need; isn’t opened when they need it to be opened; and as long as it charges an arm and a leg to make print copies in, their feeling towards it will not be warmth but frustration.  Keeping it operating on a bare bones budget does nothing to make them love it or to give it a second thought after they graduate.

The libraries of my youth, my public branch library, the main library and my university libraries, all have deep roots in my soul.  Does our library hook into the souls of our students? How do we do that?  How do we awaken in them a desire to nurture the place that nurtured them?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Merry Finals Week, Ho-Ho-Ho


The Christmas season is upon us. Amidst the holly, the evergreen wreaths, and the houses decorated to brighten the bleak landscape, it is the toughest part of the semester. Everyone is exhausted, students and professors alike, but for the next two weeks, we are racing to the finish line, panting and sweaty. Somehow, we will get through it, even though at the moment, we cannot imagine how.

This semester has been particularly brutal because of the H1N1 virus on top of the ordinary challenges. Students have been coming down with the usual maladies and dealing with personal disasters: mononucleosis; concussions, and damaged knees and shoulders from playing football; colds; migraines; parents dying unexpectedly.  This semester, I had a young woman in my class whose father, aged 52,  is fighting a losing battle with a brain tumor. She is thin as a reed and always reeks of cigarette smoke. I am sympathetic but troubled by the cigarettes, knowing what lies ahead for someone with that habit. I know she is stressed out, but when the stress ends, will she be able to stop?

The H1N1 epidemic has really thrown me. Fortunately, I have not been affected by it directly, but the stress of its presence in our midst has really affected my classroom. So many students have been absent that I feel like I am continually administering make-up quizzes and going over lectures that they missed. I have always had a strict attendance policy which counts attendance as part of the grade. The semester, we were instructed by the administration to tell the students that if they felt sick, they should stay home. I understand the need for this policy in order to minimize the epidemic, but I knew what would happen.  All those first-year students who are enjoying the new freedom of college, and the seniors who have decided that they know everything there is to know, have used the epidemic as an excuse to blow off their classes.

I gritted my teeth and did as I was told, with the consequences I expected: Some students have missed 7 or 8 classes; most of these are one-day absences which indicate that they are not falling ill from the virus. A suspiciously large number of students miss class on Friday morning, a sure sign that they started the weekend early by going out drinking on Thursday night and are too hung over to come to class on Friday. One student has missed 14 sessions, about half of the semester so far. When Mr. 14-missed-classes showed up last Monday, I called his name a second time in disbelief when I was calling the roll: “You’re here?  I thought you’d dropped the class,” I told him. He had his term paper in hand—it was two weeks late.  His explanation?  He took six classes this semester and every time he was planning to come to mine, he’d have to do work for one of the other classes. He’s a senior and he plans to graduate in May. But how does he expect to make up all the work he missed in the 14 sessions he missed? That’s more than a month worth of classes. Would I give him extra credit work?  No; absolutely not. If this was a job, he wouldn't be allowed to miss a month, and then make it up with some contrived assignment. Extra work is more work for me than for him and I am not sympathetic to this kind of an excuse. 

Most professors do not take attendance at all. I started doing it the second semester that I taught here because during my first semester, I did not have an attendance policy, many students missed many classes,  and one student was out over 20 times. He came to see me after the grades were posted to demand to know why he’d gotten such a poor grade. 

My classroom: Washburn 112

Some students chafe at my attendance policy but I have seen the difference in the quality of their work when they attend classes regularly. My response is simple. I am very clear about the policy; if you don’t like it, drop the class and take something else. 

One can read a book to learn a subject, but the reason one attends classes is that the professor makes a subject come alive, using a variety of materials. The insight one gains from attending a class is much greater than what learns from reading a single book on a subject.  Learning to learn on one’s own takes time. Undergraduates must learn how to do it. I don’t think that I could do it well until I went to law school where great emphasis was put on learning on one’s own. Moreover, one did not miss law school classes on pain of death. 

When students miss class, they miss the lecture, but they also miss the class discussions; the documentary films; the group work; the opportunity to develop the ability to have intellectual discourse. While the overwhelming majority of students will not become academics, the ability to listen to various arguments, pick them apart, and understand when the charlatans in public office are trying to pull the wool over their eyes, is at the very heart of why going to classes, at least in the humanities, is important.

For a professor,  lots of student absences make it very difficult to deliver the curriculum and to manage the small groups. It’s fine for the students who come but I am left with the frustration of knowing that the absent students will only gain a vague outline of what they missed when they copy their classmate’s notes. They miss essential material but I am not going to put my notes on the web. I believe strongly in the importance of class attendance and I am not going to make it easier to skip class. 

The relaxed attendance policy has also meant that many students are handing papers in late and there are lots of phony excuses. The thing I hate the most about teaching is the way the students lie right to your face and there is nothing you can do about it. You know they are lying but how can you prove it?  Usually, it’s impossible.

I am dreading finals week. If I don’t have half a dozen purported illnesses and make-up exams, I will be very surprised. 

The second thing I hate about teaching is the grading, and now I must get back to it. 

Monday, November 30, 2009

Gordito or Gordita? Obesity: It's Not Just About Looks

Fernando BOTERO Angulo

I was sitting in my car, gazing out at the parade of students rushing to their next classes, and I thought, “These students are really fat.” For the rest of the day, as I walked down the halls, as I watched my students coming in and leaving my classes, I kept thinking, “They are really fat.” 

Until the weather turns so cold that students have to put on layers, there's a lot of flesh on display: Throughout the summer and until it turns too cold to do it, I see young women wearing super-tight tops with plunging necklines (yes, I know, that's a funny thing to wear to class), or short tops that show off their waists so you can see the tattoos on their lower backs. I wonder if the display is deliberate or if they are wearing such tight clothing because they are outgrowing them.

I am no fashion model myself; I have had a serious weight problem against which I have struggled for most of my adult life, and my family members are fat, but I wasn’t heavy when I was 21 and when I think back to my classmates, I can only remember a single classmate in high school and one in law school who were obese.

When I was 22, I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles and the transition from walking everywhere to a car culture really made a difference. I started to put on weight. I was working as an elementary school teacher, earning $500/mo. We didn’t have much money and eating cheap was important. Carbohydrates are very filling and I didn't count calories.

Brooklyn pupuseria

Pupusas--I gain five pounds just thinking about them

Maybe it is a characteristic of what I think of as “poor people's food” but the comfort foods that I crave compete for the fattiest food on the planet: pupusas stuffed with cheese or ground pork; tamales made with lard and cornmeal; fried fish or fried chicken; chorizo with eggs; fried platanos with beans and sour cream; yucca con chicharones…fat, fat,fat. Just spread that manteca right on my thighs; I can feel my arteries hardening. I don't know how anyone eating a Salvadoran diet can be skinny; I don't know how they can avoid heart disease. Even though I crave it, I seldom eat it; the guilt is so strong that once I've given in to it, it haunts me for weeks, keeping me away for two or three months until the next time I can no longer resist.  

It's not just about looks. Latinos/as prefer softer-figured women to the anorexic American ideal, but diabetes, high blood pressure, arterial sclerosis don't check to see if your name is Smith or Gonzalez.

I don't know what I would do if there was a Salvadoran pupusa shack on every other corner, distributed like McDonald's or Burger King or Wendy’s restaurants. (In El Salvador or Guatemala, there are pupusa sellers everywhere, on the streets and in public parks.)  Fast food is easy, available and cheap. You can come home exhausted and it takes five minutes to buy it and another five to eat it. But the calories pack the weight on. I resist those fast food hamburgers just by remembering something that happened to my dog. I had been craving a hamburger so I stopped by one of those drive-through windows and bought one. I ate about half of it then gave the rest of the meat, alone, to my dog. This omnivore, with the indestructible stomach who can eat anything without getting sick, gobbled it up then ran outside and threw it up. That is the last time I ate a fast food hamburger. 

Sad to say, most of my Latina/o students, as most of my black students, are well on their way to the dreaded diabetes diagnosis but the problems cut across races and ethnicities. Americans are fat. I wish I could say something to my students but I have no credibility on this matter and it crosses a line that is unacceptable for a professor in any case. My own attempts to lose weight have been erratic. I lose it and then get stressed out or lose my resolve and I gain it back. Sometimes, I just want to say, “You don't want to look like me.” 

Recently, one of the historically black colleges, Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, announced that it would no longer allow obese students to graduate without taking a course in nutrition, That's harsh but I can understand the desperation that Lincoln's administration much feel. It is an overwhelming problem for Americans; I don't know how you fix it.

I want to tell them, change your habits NOW. Lose the weight NOW. If you don't, when you're 50 and facing the results of poor eating habits and overweight, including diabetes and assorted other weight-related problems, you’ll be sorry. I am. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The General Education Curriculum, Again

 Green Hall, Home of URI's Administration

We have a new provost who took one look at our general education requirements, declared them a mess, and mandated a complete revision. I have been at this university since 1993 and this is at least the third full revision since my arrival.

I suppose it would not speak well of a new provost if he were to approve the general education requirements as they are. Someone might think he was not doing his job. How could he put a line in his curriculum vitae reading, “Revised general education curriculum,” if he had merely studied them, spoken to the faculty leadership about the process, and decided that they were reasonable and worth keeping? No; that would not do at all. Who would hire him in the future?

There is nothing like revising a general education curriculum for keeping faculty busy and out of the administrators’ hair.  It may be the number one time-waster for faculty members. We continue to work on it dutifully, believing in our hearts that it matters; that this one will be the definitive one for our generation.

These continual revisions make no sense. It isn't like we are testing one educational method; giving it time to mature and see the results. It's more the Louis XIV-approach to the flowerbeds at the Palace at Versailles: If he looked at a bed of flowers that bored him, he'd order it replaced. The gardeners had to have full greenhouses to be ready to change a bed of mature red flowers for a bed of mature other-colored flowers on a whim. The result had nothing to do with taste or elegance. 

We should have known that the years spent working diligently on the general education requirements would be wasted the minute a new provost appeared on the scene. It has nothing to do with educating our students; it’s just being ready to throw out, willy-nilly, everything we've worked for, at the king's whim. And yet at the heart of this process is the sincere desire of the faculty to prepare our students for life-long learning. I don't know what the provost wants but I know that what WE want, which is why we will jump through all the hoops yet again. The sad thing is that the students will never realize how cynically their teachers have been manipulated. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

2012: The End of the World?

Tradition says that the Maya cycle of time will end on December 21, 2012. Should we prepare ourselves for the end of the world?  The Maya calendar is slated to end on that fateful day but does it signal the end of time as we know it? The next presidential election is due to take place in October of that year—could the Maya have had a presentiment? Are the Republicans coming back in November 2012? Argh!! On the other hand, look on the bright side: if the world is coming to an end on December 21, they’ll never get a chance to actually come to power.

Not to put too fine a point on it, ancient Maya tradition also required human sacrifice for the sun to rise every morning so I wouldn’t place much faith in fear-mongers selling 2012 as the end of the world.

All kidding aside, I have been wondering where the deep desire for apocalyptic disaster comes from. The United States is one of the most religious countries in existence; over one-quarter (26.3%) of our population is made up of Christian Evangelicals who believe in the literal truth of the Bible including the visions of the Apocalypse and the coming Rapture; that is a huge number of Americans waiting eagerly to catch the train to the other world.  While Evangelicals make up the the largest single group of believers in the United States, Roman Catholics come in at 22% and mainline Protestants are 16% by comparison. 

However, one could hardly expect them to be spreading the word about ancient Maya writings; the ancient Maya represent the most “pagan” of cultures to the Evangelicals; would they give any credence to such a prediction?

The noise about “the end of time” is coming from some of the New Age believers in our midst. They combine religious beliefs cafeteria style, including whatever catches their fancy and they imbue them with significance. Religion in the United States tends to be an exercise in cherry-picking in any case because the traditional barriers between religious groups do not exist here. There are no ghettos confining the Jews; the RC Church may still preach hell and damnation but as many Catholics admit to having abortions as non-Catholic even though it is a practice strictly forbidden by the church on pain of eternal damnation; there are intermarriages between members of just about every religious group you could imagine. 

Jews come in Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and atheist varieties. But you will also find “JewBu's” who are those born into Judaism who still have some identification with Judaism yet incorporate many Buddhist practices and beliefs into their lives. 

Atheists and agnostics are allowed to live in peace in this country (as compared to Europe in the days of the Spanish Inquisition) and even to publish obnoxious screeds about all the religious groups surrounding them. (Though if, like Salman Rushdie, you publish something that is perceived as anti-Muslim, you will be in deep trouble.)

Some of the authentically ancient cultures of this hemisphere, the Aztecs, Maya, Inca, Olmec, and Toltec cultures (most of which were virtually eradicated by the Spanish), have been adopted by some of the New Agers, even if they have only a very slender reed on which to fasten that belief. We know next to nothing about Toltec culture, one of the oldest of the pre-Columbian societies, for instance, and scholars argue about the little we do know. Most of the New Age interpretation of these ancient cultures is, in my opinion, nonsense. 

Some followers of the Toltec Way for instance, revere the writings of the late Carlos Castañeda, a 20th century anthropologist who went into rural Mexico during the 60s and not only studied their ways but became a bit of shaman. His use of the word Toltec, to mean generic sages or "spiritual warriors" contributed to the confusion over the culture. He died in the 1990s, to the shock and disappointment of his followers who could not believe that he would die, especially of something as pedestrian as cancer. His modern followers have taken up and expanded his practices. These gurus have quite a following. 

I actually had a brush with Castañeda through one of his followers. I met NuryAlexander in the elevator at UCLA where she was in the same graduate program I was in. She was very elusive but eventually she told me that she was Castañeda’s daughter; I discovered that many of my classmates knew this fact. This was in the late 1980s and I was quite impressed by this information, particularly when she brought him around to UCLA for lunch on my birthday in December 1989. He gave me an autographed copy of his “Power of Silence.” I never questioned that she was his daughter; after all, who else would have been able to convince the secretive Carlos Castañeda to come with an autographed book to the birthday of a total stranger?

I knew Castañeda’s writings: Everyone of my generation did. I found them curious but had never been drawn into doing drugs beyond briefly sampling marijuana, and was less enraptured of him as were others I knew.

I remember at the time being tickled with the gift but disappointed that I was not invited to attend one of his circles. Nury told me that he said I was too “of the world.” I was not sure what that meant but I chalked it up to my dogged grounded-ness—I have never been in the airy-fairy crowd. Indeed, I studied history because I prefer things that are down to earth.

I lost track of Nury; she was very hard to keep in touch with. Then last week, things took a strange turn: As I was looking into "the Toltec Way," in preparation for this entry in my blog, I Googled “Castañeda”; the first entry that came up was a Wikipedia article about him. I read this passage:

A real girl was brought forward at various public sessions Castaneda and Tiggs and introduced as the Blue Scout, and Tiggs was referenced as her mother. This is strange because that girl was someone named Patricia Partin who had real, known biological parents other than Castaneda and Tiggs.

The remains of Partin, sometimes referred to by Castaneda as Blue Scout, Nury Alexander and/or Claude, were found in 2003 near where her abandoned car had been discovered a few weeks after Castaneda's death in 1998, on the edge of Death Valley. Her remains were in a condition requiring DNA identification, which was made in 2006.[6]   

Nury Alexander? Our Nury Alexander, my classmate?  I am still in shock. I was so taken aback that I simply shelved this blog entry as I absorbed this news about my old friend.

I am deeply saddened that Nury was drawn into a cult that led to her untimely death.  I knew her as Castañeda’s daughter; the truth is far weirder: She was his legally adopted daughter but also his lover. We, her classmates and professors at UCLA, did not know her real name nor did we know anything about her real life, neither as Nury Alexander nor as her previous identity, Patricia Partin. Reading all of the articles about her involvement with Castañeda, I feel a sickening sense of shock and disgust. How could have been going on so close to us and we never knew? 

I have never given much thought to the members of my generation who were lost to drugs and cults; bad enough that 58,200 were lost in the jungles of Vietnam. I have known people drawn into the Moonies, and to Scientology, which is regarded as a cult by some people.  Now that I consider the so-called gurus selling the Toltec Way as a mystical ideology, I am angry.  How many more will waste their precious lives while making snake-oil salesmen rich?

Atheists see little difference between organized religions and cults like Castañeda’s but there is a difference. Traditional religions, while they are not without their problems, seek to answer the basic questions people have about life, to preserve a set of traditions and practices, and to sanctify familial relationships. They are not inherently destructive but rather, life-affirming. All cults cannot be lumped in the same pile but among the things they have in common are that they separate families and create a set of practices that isolate them from their families and native cultures.

I always wondered what happened to Nury. In a way, I wish I’d never found out.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Not All Scars Are Visible

Wall of Remembrance, El Salvador

Teresa* showed me a picture of herself in a book about the Salvadoran civil war. It shows a group of guerrillas, seated at a table, their faces concealed behind bandanas. How do you know it’s you, I asked. “Because I was there; I remember my compañeros,” she says. Looking carefully, I recognize her eyebrows.

She stood before my class, a diminutive, vivid figure who looked much younger than her 54 years. Thirty years ago, she was a guerrilla in El Salvador’s civil war. She lost her husband, a guerrilla leader, when a shell tore off his shoulder and part of his face; a brother was killed; and a sister was disappeared. Another sister was kidnapped, gang raped and tortured; she won asylum in Canada but the scars of war did not fade; she now lives in an institution for the mentally ill. All of them were casualties in a war that killed 75,000 of her countrymen and -women. Her voice thickened with emotion as she recounted the losses in her life. 

While my students were touched by her losses and her passion, a few were particularly stricken. One young man spoke of his parents’ escape from Liberia during their civil war. They never speak of the horrors they endured or who they left behind. He said that hearing Teresa tell her story, he understood for the first time the sorrow in his mother’s eyes. Still another sent me a note thanking me for bringing her to the class. 

A student of mixed Dominican and Salvadoran parentage had a similar reaction. His mother came here during the civil war; she will not speak of her ordeal. Yet another student, a Cambodian, talked with Teresa for a long time after class ended, about his parents’ flight from Cambodia after the terrible secret bombing by the United States. These things have never been mentioned in his history classes before, he said. It was as if the whole world was keeping a secret. 

Reviewing her talk a few days later, one young woman asked about Teresa’s anger towards the United States for having funded the dictatorship that killed so many of El Salvador’s people. It was so “over the top,” she said; was she exaggerating? If you were born and have lived your whole life in this country, you might think so. 

United Statesians live in a kind of bubble and feel very put-upon when we incur the resentments of the world. Do we deserve this anger? Does the United States really do things like that? After all, people brave all sorts of terrible trials to come into our country illegally; if we were so bad, would people be dying to come in here?

There are two different issues here: One is U.S. foreign policy and its execution; and the other is the image of wealth and prosperity that we project to the world. 

Most of us barely are aware of what happens within the halls of Congress unless it affects our lives directly. The debates about health care momentarily raise our consciousness but most of our compatriots cannot name their U.S. Senator or Member of Congress. Only a tiny percentage has ever written a letter to any national official for any reason. Congress goes about its business largely undisturbed by citizens’ protests except when the media have whipped them into frenzy over an issue and when they do, it’s over an issue that is close to home.

Even though we may be unaware of it, Congress passes hundreds of bills in a session on many foreign issues, some of which offer nothing benevolent to the world. For example, we have been following the coup in Honduras. Did you know that last year we appropriated $44 million in aid, and an estimated $47million in FY2009 to Honduras? $47 million to the fourth-poorest country in the western hemisphere? What is the money being used for? 

We have 725 military installations outside the US territory. How do they stay in operation? Congress appropriates funds. What are they doing? Good question. The C.I.A. has operations all over the world, and it has a history of funding covert wars and all sorts of military dictatorships. During the second half of the twentieth century, it was involved in coups and military actions all over Latin America. How were they funded? From your taxes and mine; in most cast cases, secretly. What would happen if they appropriated all those funds to our schools, or for universal health care?

We participated in the coups in Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1973), among many others; and funded a Contra war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua during the 1980s. When Congress did not appropriate the amount that President Ronald Reagan wanted, he bypassed Congress and obtained arms in an illegal scheme called the Iran-Contra Affair. He then apologized sweetly and was not impeached as he should have been for it. 

How many billions of our tax dollars go to military, C.I.A., and illegal foreign activities? There’s no way to know but the people against whom these forces are directed feel the effects, and a rich vein of hatred against the United States is the result. It is the reason that you sometimes hear foreigners distinguish between our government and our people. The secrecy is the reason that most Americans do not understand why people hate us. But ignorance and inattention play a role as well.

So why are all those foreigners trying to immigrate to the United States? In Mexico, half of the population lives in poverty and one-fifth live in extreme poverty. According to an IPS (Inter Press Service News Agency) report, “Nearly half of the country's indigenous people have earth floors in their homes, and nine out of 10 have no separate kitchen areas, while 40 percent of indigenous households have no clean water.”  

El Salvador has the fifth-lowest per capita income in Latin America and suffers from extreme environmental degradation and water pollution, in part, because of the defoliation of its landscape during the civil war. 

Why do you think they want to come here? 

*not her real name.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Life Is More Powerful Than Books

Dictator Augusto Pinochet

President Salvador Allende of Chile

This September, Dr. Felicia Nimue Ackerman, a philosophy professor at Brown University, published an essay in the Providence Journal, “What we will not say in my classes.” This is the beginning of her essay:

“BROWN UNIVERSITY’S fall semester classes began this month, and I began by telling students my usual ground rules. This presentation goes approximately as follows: 

“I expect you to come to class, but you don’t have to give me explanations for any absences. I will suggest paper topics and completion dates, but you don’t have to stick to them. I have one strict rule, though. In my courses, we never, never, never, never . . .” 

At this point, I add that I hope all these “nevers” are arousing everyone’s curiosity. Sometimes I ask students to guess. What is it that we never do? 

We never discuss our personal lives."                                                                                                    

I couldn't disagree more. Her essay reminded me of two experiences I had when I was a graduate student teaching assistant at UCLA.

One of my students was Mai, a young Vietnamese woman enrolled in the freshman summer program (much like our Talent Development Program at URI) who was the most fanatically intense student I have ever had. She took down every word I said and studied the entire weekend. She came to class exhausted from having studied half the night. I began to worry that she would make herself sick and I spoke to her about approaching things in a more moderate way, (This is the ONLY conversation like this I have ever had with a student.) Finally, I asked her why she was pushing herself so hard. She began to cry and she told me this story: 

She and her family were boat people. They had been standing on the shore, scrambling aboard the boat when Viet Cong soldiers came and started shooting. Her father jumped in the boat and pulled his children in; mom was helping them by pushing from the ground. When the soldiers started shooting, the boat took off leaving mom stranded on the shore. Her father and the children, including my student, came to America; they didn't know if mom was alive or dead. My student was working so hard because she wanted to finish college in as short a time as possible so she could go to law school to become an international lawyer, and go back and look for her mother. I had little doubt that her mother was dead but I had heard of a group that looked for missing Vietnamese people and I put her in contact with them. 

Our class had been discussing immigration and the civil wars in Central America. After she told me about her experience, she agreed to tell our class. You can imagine how shocked her classmates were that she had undergone such an ordeal. They gave her a great deal of support. I have always believed that sharing the story with them helped her a great deal and it opened their eyes to things they had never imagined. 

Another student I had during that period was Ana, a Chilean student. When were discussing the overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, she looked stricken; so much so that when the class ended, she did not leave her seat. I asked her what was wrong. This was her story:

Her father had been a minister in Allende’s government. General Augusto Pinochet, with the help of the United States, overthrew President Allende, the democratically-elected president of Chile, and installed himself as dictator. He detained 30 to 40 thousand people. He tortured and disappeared and/or killed some 3000 people during the 17 years he was in power. Ana was 5 years old when the coup occurred. 

Her father disappeared during the initial days of the coup. The family was sick with worry, sure that he had been killed. Weeks later, he was brought home, half-starved, ill; the signs of torture on his frail body. The family was told that they must take what they could carry and that they were being sent to the United States. (I do not know why her family merited this treatment, especially after what they had done to her father.) Certain that they were going to be killed, Ana’s mother gathered a few belongings and gathered the children. They were taken to the airport where they were indeed sent to New York. They arrived with the clothes on their backs and little else. Ana was so traumatized that she stopped talking and stopped eating. It took a long time before they could convince the child to eat; it was years before she spoke. And they were the lucky ones; they got out. 

Ana wanted to tell the class about it but wanted to be sure I would not object. After hearing her story, her classmates looked shell-shocked. All the lectures, books and movies that I used to bring history to life could not compete with the lived-experience of oppression described by their classmate. 

We were lucky that these two young women were able to share their experiences with us. I grew up in a household where my mother adamantly refused to talk about the past except in the sunniest, Pollyanna ways and I did not know until I was in my thirties that she had lived through La Matanza, the infamous genocide of 30,000 indigenous people in the western departments of El Salvador. 

Neither history nor philosophy exist in a vacuum. These are humanities; in one way or another, they reflect and distill human experience. For my students and for me, Mai’s and Ana’s stories were gifts; each a dose of reality as an antidote to the sunny version of heroic history our governments tell our people. Undoubtedly, Felicia Nimue Ackerman would disagree. (967)

Monday, October 19, 2009

On Distance Learning

University of San Francisco, my alma mater

To me, getting a college degree via “distance learning” is like having a cab driver deliver your babies: You do it out of necessity not because it’s the best choice. 

Colleges and universities have always been arbiters of wealth and advancement in American society with elite private universities with huge endowments able to skim off the best students while state universities duck the endless cuts to their budgets by a state government and a citizenry who don’t value intellectual achievement. Community colleges are the unsung heroes of the system, providing remedial help to those whose secondary educations have fallen short and a foot in the door for the ambitious poor who cannot afford the tuition at the barely-subsidized state universities.

In fact, the funding from states to their universities has become so slim as to be barely significant. I teach at the University of Rhode Island, where only 11% of the university's budget is provided by the state of Rhode Island. Offering so little to the state’s flagship university, it is unmitigated chutzpah for the governor to cut the budget of the university, forcing students into paying more tuition. How far must the state’s share drop before we officially stop being called a state university? It seems to me that URI creates far more income for the university than it requires for its functioning. 

Lately, spam offering sexual enhancement pills and devices seem to have been surpassed by advertisements for quick on-line professional and PhD degrees. I don’t know how many of these are charlatans looking to make a killing but the gradual acceptance of distance learning as part of a regular college curriculum concerns me greatly because it creates an educational market where legitimate universities and the credentialed professoriate are mixed in with those who lack the proper qualifications for university instruction. 

The opportunity to listen to a professor’s lectures, to the comments and questions by their classmates, and to view the films that are shown are invaluable in gaining an understanding of a subject. I cannot judge chemistry or art history classes, but in my field, Latin American history, it is hard enough to understand the textbooks with  2- or 3-times-per-week contact; trying to do it on one’s own is forbidding, particularly for beginning students. 

There are advantages to the DL system: Students have direct time with the professor on-line but this does not make up for the fullness of the experience in the classroom. In terms of the professor’s time, only a small number of students can be enrolled in the class if anything besides Scantron tests (electronically graded, objective exams) are employed. I believe that part of mission of a liberal arts education is to produce literate citizens: Students need to write, and not just for English classes. 

I attended the University of San Francisco, a small Jesuit university; except for classes that fulfilled requirements for all students such as “Introduction to Western Philosophy” or “Physics for Non-Science Majors,” which were quite large, classes in my major typically had no more than 10-15 students. It might have been different for those departments with a large number of majors like English or history, but philosophy had only 38 majors. Naturally, this meant that even though I was a working-class student whose classmates were predominantly middle-class, I had the privilege of a lot of face-time with my professors, particularly since they were almost always in their offices when not in the classroom, and always welcomed our visits. My experience was closer to the Oxford or Cambridge model of tutors and small seminars than to any of my experiences as a professor. 

My undergraduate degree is in philosophy; I took very few tests besides essay exams, and very few of those, at that. Mostly, I wrote papers: Short papers, long papers, research papers, and opinion papers, all of which received careful attention from my professors. However, it was a very different situation from the one encountered by my students today.  

I teach in a state university. My classes usually have between 30 and 40 students; small by the standards of the University of California at Los Angeles where I did my graduate work (400-student lectures) but bigger and less personal than my undergraduate experience. On-line courses are restricted to 20 students each but the degree mills out there are unregulated; they could have 20 or 80 students or more; who’s to know?

When I was in the eighth grade and decided, on my own, to attend an academic high school, I did it with no guidance from my eighth grade teacher who celebrated my Italian- and Irish-American classmates but spent virtually no time with me, despite the fact that I had the highest grades in the class. (I earned more degrees than any of them.) You’ll do all right, she told me, and I had to figure everything out for myself. As a working-class high school student, I had little guidance when I picked a university. As good as my high school was, they did not provide counseling in choosing a college; or maybe they did but not to me; it has often been the case that I was ignored—like many Latino, working-class students--by guidance counselors. In college, when I asked for advice about graduate school, my otherwise attentive Jesuit professors didn’t take me seriously. I was a good student but the idea that I--a working-class Latina--aspired to study for a doctorate in medieval philosophy at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto or at Yale University was downright comic to them. With a little help, I would have arrived at my goals much earlier. That’s the thing about not being a part of the upper-classes, or even the middle-class; nobody believes that you can succeed because you don’t have the right background with all the shadings that that implies. 

Yet despite my economic challenges, I managed to achieve my goals; it just took me a little longer. I figure that I am ten years behind my colleagues of the same age because I had to figure out my own route and draw my own road map. Given today’s economic situation where so many of us have lost a significant portion of our pensions, I’ll have to work longer anyway. Maybe I’ll catch up by the time I retire.  

When I started college, I was armed with only an electric typewriter; I cannot even imagine what it would have been like to have had the resources, a personal computer and the Internet. The UC Berkeley Extension offered “correspondence courses,” but they were even more attenuated from the classroom than today’s distance learning classes since they relied on the U.S. postal service to transmit the student-teacher correspondence. 

What will happen to today’s working-class students? Some, like me will stumble along and with luck, find themselves in one of the outstanding graduate programs (like my other alma mater, UCLA), earn a degree and find a great job. What I fear is that instead of offering wonderful opportunities, the proprietary on-line learning programs will bestow second-class degrees on them, burden them with staggering debt, but offer them little chance to really “make it.” They will be proud when they earn their degrees but the market will chew them up and spit them out, giving the good jobs to those who attended "real universities."                                (1225)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Thinking About Human Sacrifice in the Americas

Recently, a student asked me about "Apocalypto," actor-director Mel Gibson's 2006 saga of a Maya peasant in pre-Colombian Mexico. Is there a Latin American history professor anywhere who hasn't been asked about  "Apocalypto"? Is there anything more sensationalized in Latin American history than human sacrifice?  If one goes by "Apocalypto," the Maya hunted-down and sacrificed anyone they could get their hands on.  In the film, a farmer with the physique and endurance of Superman is hunted down, captured, prepared for sacrifice but manages to escape despite what would be crippling wounds for anyone else, and outruns a jaguar as well. All of this is against the background of continual and unending human sacrifice; rows of captives painted blue and dragged to the altars to have their hearts ripped out while still alive, and their bodies tossed down the back side of the pyramid like so much firewood. Can you imagine the stench? The vermin?

I have always taught my students that religion is the incarnation of culture but some aspects of ancient cultures, like human sacrifice, are difficult for them to grapple with. Looking at Latin America's pre-Colombian history, the great tributary empires like the Maya, Aztec, and Inca, practiced human sacrifice not because they were inherently cruel and bloodthirsty but because they were trying to exercise some control over the unpredictability and arbitrariness of the natural world. The sacrifice was not random but part of a cosmology. Moreover, some empires, like the Aztecs were more centered on human sacrifice than others--like the Maya. 

Why didn't the Aztecs sacrifice just anybody or everybody? They sacrificed warriors captured in battle because warriors, according to their belief system, were seen as the most powerful and valuable members of society and thus the best sacrificial offerings to the gods who they regarded as capricious and cruel. The stakes were very high: Without adequate appeasement, Tlaloc, the rain god, could withhold the rain that made their crops grow; Cinteot, the Maize god could produce an inadequate crop and they would starve; and Huitzilpochtli, god of the sun, would lose its struggle with the Darkness and all would be lost. Only the sacrifice of the best could ensure its victory. The sacrifices, contrary to popular misunderstandings, did not occur daily but only at special festivals. There were other special festivals where children were sacrificed. The ancient peoples of the Americas did engage in other activities besides human sacrifice!

The same impulse that has motivated cultures around the world to develop arcane and elaborate strategies for dealing with the capriciousness of life and the natural world motivated the Amerindians to perform human sacrifices. Religion is complex because we use it to engage the forces that threaten us and at the same time, to create a protective barrier around ourselves. The big question is (to those who care about these things), is religion humanly motivated, divinely mandated, or divinely inspired? Or is it just the expression of our need to do SOMETHING in response to our feelings of helplessness? From our 21st century perspective, we have no doubt that there are no gods of rain and corn and the sun; only the Aztecs' desperate attempt to appease the hostile and overwhelming forces of nature. 

Atheists and humanists like Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," and Christopher Hitchens, author of  "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" regard our modern religions in the same way that modern people regard the religion of the Aztecs. Is it possible to examine another's beliefs without feeling superior or patronizing? 

The Spaniards, whose devout Roman Catholicism informed all of their actions, had little question about the religious practices they witnessed: To them, the Aztecs, Inca and Maya were simply savages, and there was no question that they were motivated by mere superstition rather than devotion to the "One True God." Their embrace of human sacrifice was the proof the Spanish needed.  The tables were turned, however, when the Spanish massacred the indigenous people they came in contact with, generally for no apparent reason. When the dust had settled, the Europeans' massacres coupled with the diseases that they spread inadvertently, had killed 90% of the indigenous people.

I think about and struggle with how to present these issues every semester when I teach the conquest. I still tear up when I read the words of the Aztec account of the conquest, even though I have taught "Introduction to Latin American Civilizations" every semester for the last 17 years, , "Broken spears lie in the roads; we have torn our hair in our grief. The houses are roofless now, and their walls are red with blood..." These are among the saddest lines in human history. 

I make no apology for being a deist so I ask myself how could those who ostensibly worshiped a benevolent creator of life, massacre whole peoples with impunity? How? How? But then, that is the real "big question" of history for those who care about these things. How do religious people of any stripe justify the killing of those who oppose them? More fundamentally, why do people kill randomly and how do we stop it? Ironically, one would think that stopping the killing would be the proper role of religion rather than providing people with a sword and a crucifix to stand behind. 

Mahatma Gandhi said, "The most heinous and the most cruel crimes of which history has record have been committed under the cover of religion or equally noble motives." Not to let religion off the hook, but Adolph Hitler (Germany), Josef Stalin (Russia), Nicolae Ceausescu (Romania), Slobodan Milošević (Yugoslavia), Pol Pot (Cambodia) and Roberto D'Aubuisson (El Salvador) balance the boat, for they remind us that men do not need religion as an excuse to kill people. Hitchens and Dawkins lay all the blame at the foot of religion and simply ignore the "equally noble motives" because, it seems to me, that they are more interested in scoring the point against religion than in looking honestly at humanity's propensity for violence. 

By now you're probably thinking that you have landed in the territory of religionists of some sort who hate atheists. I'm a moderately religious secular Jew which means I'm not much of a synagogue-goer though I share certain core Jewish beliefs and values; and I love the melodies, and many of rituals of the Conservative movement in particular.  I don't hate atheists; I hate intolerance which is a word much tossed about by liberals until they encounter people they really disagree with such as religious fundamentalists. 

If I didn't teach Latin American history, I might ignore some of these questions completely but because that is my subject, I struggle with how to portray the Church fairly, with its persecution of Jews and its murderous relations with the native peoples of the Americas; and with the blood sacrifices by the indigenous people of the Americas that inspired the Spanish to think that they were dealing with demons, using that as an excuse for their own murderous impulses. From their perspective--and, incidentally, the traditional way of viewing the conquest--they believed that they "brought civilization" to the new world. If one ascribes great importance to the human sacrifice, then the Spanish did indeed bring "civilization" because it brought it to an end. If only someone had found a way to civilize the Spanish and other Europeans. (1231)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Justice Sonia Sotomayor - Trial by Fire

President Barack Obama and Justice Sonia Sotomayor portrayed as gangbangers on   They got his hair wrong!

I have been bouyed by the ascendance of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. I never expected to see a Latina on the court in my lifetime; maybe gazing down from heaven but not before. 

I have a law school degree but I didn't practice law. My experiences as an intern and the time demands when I entered a practice quickly made me realize that I really didn't want to be a lawyer. My daughter was an infant then and nothing could make me stay at work beyond my eight hours. But it was also that I hated many things about the last firm I worked at, among them, the lawyers who took advantage of their working-class clientele and spent most of their time on the phone discussing their investments; the cutthroat competition, and the exploitation of the all-Latina staff.  Moreover, the neighborhood scared me.  When I came to work one morning and walked past the corner phone booth which was covered with blood from a weekend altercation, I nearly fainted.

They had hired me because I was bilingual but when I translated carefully--because legalese is not the easiest jargon make understandable to working-class clients--they complained because I didn't do the instant and slapdash translations they had come to expect from their clerical staff.

The day I quit was one of the happiest days of my life. I had dreamed of being a judge but I'd have to be a lawyer first and I just didn't have what it takes. I closed the door and walked away; several years later, I found myself in graduate school, studying history, but that's another story. 

When Judge Sotomayor was nominated, I wrote articles in support of her and when she was confirmed, I prepared a public presentation on her career and nomination. Among the things I found in researching her career were almost 300 cartoons and photoshopped pictures of her, most of them criticizing her nomination; most of them caricaturing her in the most racist and sexist terms, such as the one above. By the time I was done, I felt beaten-up just looking at the hatred pouring out at her. How she withstood the barrage is beyond me. It is disheartening when an occasion such as her nomination gives the racists and sexists an excuse to crawl out from under the rocks where they've been hiding. 

I presented my talk during our university's "Diversity Week." In part, I wanted to talk about some of the nuts and bolts of the legal system; things that non-lawyers might not understand. I wanted to show the differences between the federal and states' systems; how a circuit court judge is only one of three on a panel of judges; how only about 80-90 cases of the 7000 sent to the court are heard by the court.

I also wanted to talk about Judge Sotomayor's nomination itself and to go beyond the quick glimpses of her life as offered up in the press to talk about what her record had been; how many cases are reviewed by the circuit court that she had come from, and how cases came to be heard by the Supreme Court. Most people would not have the patience to sit and sift through thousands of drawings and pictures to cull such a collection but I wanted people to see, in concrete terms, the racism and sexism directed at her. So I set up a slide show of the 300 cartoons and images to be screened as the audience came into the auditorium to be seated. It's one thing to hear or read about them; it's another thing to see each image, after image, after hateful image.

The slide show was very effective; as I waited to be introduced, I could hear the gasps from the audience as they watched the slides. 

Most of the people who talked to me afterwards said they had no idea of how the system worked. Social studies classes, even in good schools, stop short of explaining these fundamental functions. Civic education never gets to the Supreme Court yet the decisions made there affect all of us. Maybe it's considered too complicated for high school students to understand but if they can be made to understand calculus, they can get a rudimentary understanding of the legal system.

Misinformation about the courts allows demagogues to persuade an ignorant public that the Supreme Court is hijacking the law instead of actually showing how the judiciary checks the executive and legislative branches of government. I was very happy with the way the talk went. 

The morning after my talk, I exhausted but relieved to be done with it. I was dragging a bit as I went to teach my classes. My get up and go isn't what it used to be! Stopping at my mailbox, I saw an envelope from The United States Supreme Court. I had written a congratulatory note to Justice Sotomayor and sent the articles I'd written in support of her. I was giddy as I opened it. She thanked me for the articles and my good wishes. It made my day! We chose different lives but we're always happy to learn that people understand our journey.                      (873) 

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"I am the decisive element in the classroom"

Washburn Hall, my home at the University of Rhode Island

I have a yellowed scrap of newspaper on my desk at the university, an old Ann Landers column with a quote from psychologist Haim G. Ginott (1922-1973) that has guided my life in the classroom:

"I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. My personal approach creates the climate. My daily mood makes the weather. As a teacher, I posses a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be an instrument of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or deescalated, and a child humanized or dehumanized."  

My students aren't children but they are no less affected by my moods. Every day, I pump myself up so that I am lighthearted and energetic when I cross the threshold of my classroom. I may be under the weather or suffering from some personal sorrow but I consciously shut it out when I walk into the room. 99% of the time, I succeed though the past year was a very difficult one personally for me. 

A few months ago, I walked into the classroom on a day when I was emotionally stressed to the breaking point. I was trying very hard to gear myself up for the day's teaching but I realized I hadn't succeeded when one of my undergraduates, a young man built like a bear, said to me, "Are you okay?" a moment after I'd set my notebook on the podium. I smiled and said something like, "I'm just having a hard day." To which he replied, "Wanna hug?" Sweet boy. I laughed and thanked him saying that I would be fine but his kind gesture had snapped me out of it. I said to him later that he must have a close relationship with his mother. He gave me a big smile.  

There is a kind of chemistry in the classroom that is as delicate as butterflies' wings. For three hours a week, for fifteen weeks, their eyes are on you. You are doing many things besides imparting knowledge about your specialty. You are honing their ability to think and express themselves clearly. You are exposing them to worlds that they never knew existed until they met you. You are setting an example of being an teacher, of being an intellectual.  

Sometimes you connect with them so deeply that they go out of their ways to keep in touch with you after they leave your classroom. Usually, you don't know the effect you have on your students and there is no metric to measure it. You know when they show up in a second and third class you teach or when their younger siblings or friends show up in your classes telling you how much their friend or sister had enjoyed the class. Most of the time, you have no idea of your effect on their lives.

Teaching is like planting a tree; it is an expression of faith in the future.                        (517)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Half of Our Students Drop Out Before Graduation

Justice William O. Douglas (1898-1980)

Some time ago, I had a student who was very diligent and hard-working; who always sat directly in front of me in the first seat of the middle row. Then she disappeared for a week; I became worried and sent her an e-mail. Nothing. When she reappeared after having missed four classes, she was wan and pale. After class, she stayed to tell me a hair-raising tale of a drug-dependent mother getting out of rehab but having nowhere to go because she had been in and out so often, no one else but this one daughter would have anything to do with her. After knocking herself out to find a place for her, her mother had taken off and overdosed. It was a long, sordid tale, and it was heartbreaking to see this young woman struggling to deal with it. I spent many hours listening more than anything else. I am not a psychologist and when I hear such stories, I know I am not equipped to help in any concrete way, and I refer them to our student psychological services or another agency in the university that can help. But I always listen.

For the rest of the semester, I would often find her sitting on the chair outside my office door, studying. She felt safe there, she said. I was happy that she felt that way.

According to a report published in U.S.News and World Report published in August, one-third of our students drop out after their first year. Half of our students will not graduate from college. [Dropouts Loom Large for Schools,] These are shocking statistics but they are unchanged for three decades. There are many reasons: The loneliness and homesickness of being away from home; the overwhelming financial pressures--even a state university is an expensive proposition, and if you drop out, the debt must still be paid. There are the many temptations and distractions--the drinking that starts on Thursday nights and continues through the weekend so Friday classes are missed and Monday classes are attended through a hung-over haze. Marijuana and other drugs, some of which I have never heard of, flow freely on college campuses. Members of football and basketball teams have punishing practice and travel schedules that interfere with their schoolwork.

Many students come to college expecting a training in a specific skill but lack the maturity to make the best of the resources offered here. Some are overwhelmed and never get a handle on things. And what we in the humanities wish to impart--the skills for lifelong learning--may seem too attenuated to them to have any value. Some of them, like the student above, are dealing with life crises that we can't even imagine.

The financial burdens result not only in enormous debts that burden them long after they have graduated but also require them to work long hours just to keep body and soul together. I have students who come to class bleary-eyed because they worked the night shift and they're exhausted. Others are raising children and get up at 4 in the morning to study for a couple of hours before waking the kids to get them ready for school.

From my perspective, I cannot imagine how they can learn when they have so little time to study. Moreover, they are not trained to study as we were. People can make fun of the hours the nuns had us spend diagramming sentences, but we know our grammar. For me, one of the great joys of seventh and eighth grade was a program called SRA (for Science Research Associates) which was pioneered in the schools in the 1950s. Basically, it was a system of color-scaled cards with reading selections and questions on the readings. The better your reading got, the higher-level color you would advance to. It was very competitive but only with oneself. For me, it was the incentive to finish other work quickly so I could get to the SRA cards. It was fun and I learned about people and things I never would have encountered otherwise. I remember one card in particular about the late Supreme Court justice, William O. Douglas, who was an environmentalist. He had overcome childhood asthma by becoming an avid outdoors-man. If I hadn't read about him there, I might never have encountered him. I went to law school and found him once again, only to find that he was a First Amendment absolutist as well. I guess that information was too political for an eighth grader!

Many of my students don't know how to read effectively. They tell me they hate to read; that the books they read in my classes are the first complete books they've ever read. When I heard that for the first time, I thought, "So what are you doing in college?" I have heard it now so often, that I find myself wondering what has happened in the primary and secondary schools for this to be the case.

A class lecture and discussion will not make them competitive with students who've had the time to put in reading or working in the library. How do you keep from dumbing down your coursework? I talk with friends who teach in the exclusive private schools and they don't have the same issues. The problem is, my students will be competing with those well-prepared students, and they will be laboring under that disadvantage.

Somehow. we have to find a way to bridge the gap.