Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Higher education does not care about its unemployed graduates. It is football season!

"How adrift were you at twenty-two?" is not only internally poetic and philosophical but is also a quick online questionnaire at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

I would love to include that questionnaire as my first day activities when classes begin in a few days.  But, I won't--I cannot afford to drive away even more students than I currently do!

I could give those questions to any number of young people I come across.  Like the young woman who works at the grocery store that I frequent.

I first met her a few years ago, when she started working there.  Through small talk when she was scanning my purchases, I came to know that she was a student majoring in psychology at the local big university that is attached to a minor-league football team.  Every time I was at her counter, I chatted with her--she was always bubbly and excited about college and the world, which made this tired old curmudgeon happy.  When I asked her about career plans, she knew one thing: “I don’t want to become a lifer here.”

As she was getting close to graduation, more than a year ago now, she continued to have that excitement in her and carried out the typical American college student's plan to travel through Europe for a few days.

I still see her working at the same grocery store. Scanning groceries and bagging them.  I don't know how she feels about it because I intentionally avoid going to her counter.  I worry that I will ask her about life.  I don't want to do that.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, whom I have cited plenty of times in this blog, have a new book that follows up on where their previous work ended.  In this essay in the Chronicle, they are not optimistic about the long-term future of the typical college graduates including the likes of that grocery store checkout woman:
In terms of economic outcomes, two years after graduation 23 percent of those in the labor market were either unemployed or underemployed (working fewer than 20 hours per week or in jobs where the majority of workers had not completed even a year of college), and less than half had full-time jobs that paid $30,000 or more per year. They also were struggling to become independent: 24 percent were living at home with their parents, and 74 percent reported receiving continued financial assistance from parents.
Their book is based on case studies, in which they track down some of the students they had interviewed for that previous book.
As colleges have sold themselves as economic-development vehicles, and their degrees as tickets to the middle class, the ethos of the marketplace has become their master, overshadowing their civic and intellectual purposes.
The tight embrace of higher education and the economy has an obvious downside: When times get tough, colleges take a beating. Predictably, tales emerge of recent graduates with expensive and worthless degrees failing to make their way into adulthood. They come from many of the same colleges, we are told, that are the envy of the world.
As college costs increase, so do expectations about payoff and questions about value. How should colleges be judged, if not by the financial success of their students? Is it higher education’s job to fix the economy?
To readers of this blog, and to anybody who has had the unfortunate experience of listening to me, these are not new issues at all.  The tragedy is that despite all the mounting evidence, we continue to go about with higher education with more of the same.  How unfortunate!

Arum and Roska argue--and I concur with them, of course--that colleges are to be blamed a lot for how things have turned out:
We find it implausible that in a globalized knowledge economy, the current state of affairs will continue indefinitely. Not just because the growth in college costs is unsustainable, but also because legislators, families, and students will have difficulties justifying why resources are increasingly allocated not to improving instruction but to building new dormitories, student centers, and athletic facilities. While this might be an effective institutional strategy for attracting 17-year-olds as consumers and keeping them satisfied with "bread and circuses" once enrolled, it has produced a competition to provide the best amenities and student services money can buy and the least challenging academic demands and expectations.
It is high time for educators to say enough is enough. If we continue to sit on our hands, the public’s faith in higher education will continue to erode, and poorly designed accountability frameworks will likely be imposed upon the system. And we will have ourselves to blame.
"Colleges," Mr. Schneider says, "may be really sorry they went down this road."
Oh yeah?  How about 'em Ducks!

Monday, September 01, 2014

Do you ever dream of falling in love with ugly people?

About the time that Dream Girl was released was also when I started looking at the world that eventually has brought me to where I am now.  No, I don't mean to suggest in any way that I owe my American life to Hema Malini; be patient and read on!

It was back in my early teenage years, which now seems like it was a previous birth, that I fell in love for the first time.  No, not with Hema Malini.  Why are you so obsessed with Hema Malini? ;)  My feelings were directed towards a smart and beautiful classmate of mine.  Well, I fell in love--not we.

It was also about the same time that I started thinking about life in ways that made me question a number of different of things all around me.  Discussing love and life cemented my friendship with a classmate, who became a wandering Indian in his one way.

One of the challenging questions was about why we felt attracted to whoever it was.  If the girl wen't beautiful, would I have been drawn to her?  What if she weren't good looking as she was?

The teenage insecurity raised even more of an urgent question: what if I were nothing but an ugly pile who could not, and would not, attract anyone?

That question of my unattractiveness became an excruciatingly painful one--literally--when my nose repeatedly hosted big zits after big zits.

Could it be that the world is a painful place for those of us who are not attractive to look at?
From the toddler gazing up at the adult to the adult gazing down at the toddler, we ruthlessly privilege the beautiful. The ugly get screwed.

Think about the old historical paintings and sculptures and stories.  It is Adonis and Aphrodite and Amitabh and Hema Malini. Right?
The Greeks venerated the beautiful explicitly, memorialising good-looking athletes in statue form as quasi-deities, making celebrities out of adolescent pretty boys, and even going so far as to occasionally spare the lives of opposing soldiers on account of their beauty. But a culture where beauty is worshipped is also a culture where the ugly are oppressed. Burckhardt recounts the tale of ‘the Spartan child, later the wife of Demaratus, who because of her ugliness was daily carried to the temple of Helen at Therapne; there the nurse stood before the statue of the most beautiful of women and implored that the ugliness might be taken away’.
If that was back then, the pressures are even worse now, I would think.  American comedians routinely joked, and continue to joke, about British teeth.  If you have been to California and looked at all those beautiful men and women with their perfect teeth that are sparkling white, you know why the jokes are always about the Brits.  Plenty of Indian women, and men too, vigorously scrub themselves with creams and lotions that are marketed to make them supposedly beautiful from their less attractive dark selves.  There are hair transplants for us bald and balding men because bald is ugly. We short people are ugly. We ugly people are then forever trying to fit in, it seems like.
Whereas beautiful people make us inclined to deify the human race, to help our species ‘say yes to itself’ in the form of statues and monuments, the ugly sap our spirit and our energy, making us depressed about the future of our kind. Is that taking it a bit far? Probably. But think of the dystopian scenes in the film WALL·E (2008), where the humans of the future are depicted as bloated porcine slobs, wheelchair-bound, unable to stand up without mechanical assistance, their jawbones reduced to mere hypotheses.
So, we ugly people then console ourselves with platitudes like "beauty is skin deep" or "what's is inside is what really matters."  And then we also look to one of the most brilliant of us ugly people, Socrates, to defend us:
Nietzsche associates this transformation of the concept of beauty from outer to inner with a revolution wrought by the weedy nerds of history, the priests and philosophers emblematised by Socrates. Socrates rejected the Greek assumption that physical beauty was necessary for happiness, claiming instead that reason would bring virtue and virtue would bring happiness. He was famously ugly yet he managed to make reason beautiful to the point where handsome young men would fall hopelessly in love with him, lamenting their own spiritual ugliness and begging for his attention like yapping puppies. Nietzsche had a cynical interpretation of all this: ‘with dialectics the rabble comes out on top’. What better way to get revenge against a culture that takes beauty to reflect nobility than to simply redefine beauty as an inner quality possessed only by intellectuals?
I leave it to Socrates, and his work!

Friday, August 29, 2014

To everything ... turn, turn, turn

And like that the summer is seemingly gone.

Not gone, gone yet.  But, change is in the air.

In fact, it was even on the ground; it was a shock to find these leaves even before August had ended, and when the official end to summer is more than three weeks away!

A far change from the corner of the old country where I grew up.  There, the  significant deviation from the hot days and months was when the rains came, and when the monsoon downpours that then filled up the gully by our home.  We would watch through the window the volume and the velocity picking up as the water became muddier by the minute.

There were seasons of different kinds in the old country.
Like the mango season.
The wedding season.
The annual school holiday season.

Seasons are how we mark time.

In this corner of the world that is home to me, I joke with students that if it were not for the seasonal changes in the temperature, I would not know how to get ready for classes.  With the academic calendar wonderfully in sync with the changes in the conditions in the natural world, if it were the glorious summer all year round, then we might never ever get to any serious work at all.

But, perhaps life in a tropical paradise where nobody really worked is not a bad thing;  after all, life is not about working, and if one simply enjoyed the existence in a tropical paradise, who is to say that a life thus lived is inferior to one that is governed by work and calendar!  Does it really matter if one simply lived, ate, had sex, and died convinced that it was a wonderful life, without having ever wondered, even for a nanosecond, how all these came about?  Is it condescending and judgmental to claim that a life not examined is not worth it?

You see, this is what happens as the summer begins to yield to cooler temperatures.  Frivolous thoughts are pushed aside and yield to contemplation.  It is no surprise, therefore, that even Hollywood waits until the fall and winter to release the serious movies--when the berries abound and when the roses are in bloom, it is difficult to imagine that life is not an endless Oregon summer.

The seasons change.
We, too, change.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Peripatetic Pedant Professes: These feet are made for walking

The day warmed up in a big hurry.

I wimped out of walking when the iPhone reported it was 81 outside.  "Maybe I will walk in the evening" I told myself as I tried to work on the syllabi for the new academic year that will begin soon.

Evening came.

It was a freaking 91 degrees even at  half-past-six.

I was left with only one option: walking canceled.

The day felt incomplete.

So, of course, a pretentious post on walking is the result!

This New Yorker essay, which notes that "people are made for walking, but we are not very good at it" includes extensive commentary on Frédéric Gros' A philosophy of walking:
The purpose of walking, he tells us, is not to find friends but to share solitude, “for solitude too can be shared, like bread and daylight”; the philosopher Kant’s life “was as exactly ruled as music manuscript paper”; when walking, the body “stops being in the landscape: it becomes the landscape.”
I like that interpretation.  To share solitude, with the river and the birds and the trees, and smiling--and the rare unsmiling--humans.  Well, even with those damn bugs.
Contemplative walking is Gros’s favored kind: the walking of medieval pilgrims, of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Henry David Thoreau, of Kant’s daily life. It is the Western equivalent of what Asians accomplish by sitting. Walking is the Western form of meditation: “You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. But having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood.”
I do wonder whether this view of life is a male perspective.  The stereotypical male is more comfortable with the solitude in many, ahem, walks of life than the typical females who are social even when it is about going to the restroom.  In any case, it works for me as a male.

I checked the weather app.

All clear to share solitude with the river--today, and for quite a few days more too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Maybe students would prefer me tweeting my course syllabus?

This is a post with two objectives:
  • to discuss one of the madness in higher education, which is about the course syllabus, especially because I am trying hard to get them done (yeah, right!)
  • to convince some of you readers about how we put Twitter to wonderful use, and we don't merely tweet about what we ate 
Speaking of what I ate, should I tell you about the awesome beet-salad that I made for myself the other day?  Why not; it is my blog, after all!

Sliced boiled beet in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, finely chopped garlic, and fresh ground pepper
topped with shredded cheese

Anyway, back to the objectives.  As always, Rebecca Schuman had a wonderful column at Slate.  It is all about the "Syllabus bloat" at American colleges and universities.  Excerpting from there will not do any justice. Read it in full.

I tweeted about it
Within minutes, there was a response from Schuman; I guess some of us academics never go to sleep! ;)
And then quite a few other responses.  More than that, the retweets:

A simple addition means that my tweet about Schuman's article was retweeted to 10,561 Twitter users thus far.   Of course, some might be in more than one of these loops.  Let us assume that it was 9,000 separate individuals whom the retweets pinged.   From there, it would have been retweeted more.  Just like that, with the click of a mouse button Rebecca Schuman's article gets distributed!

I cannot even begin to imagine the logistical hassles of sharing ideas and news in the old days, even twenty years ago!  For people like me who love to live in the world of ideas, there has never been a better time in history than now.

It is such an awesomely different world that the youth are beginning to explore.  Which is why the Mindset folks at Beloit College include in their latest compilation of "reminder to faculty to be wary of dated references"
"Press pound" on the phone is now translated as "hit hashtag."
Should I add that to the course syllabi and tweet about it?

Wait, I already did--about the Mindset ;)

PS: A note to the reader who thinks he is funny--don't even dream of "tl;dr" as your comment ;)