Sir Ken Robinson sees the violence inherent in the system.

This is entertaining and at least a little thought-provoking:

I agree that standardized testing is disastrous, and I think many (if not most) people working in education would agree.  One problem I see in thinking through how this might apply to higher education is that those who end up teaching at colleges and universities (like me) are the people who were good at the system to begin with.  We’re invested in it not only materially, because it is or we hope it will be the source of our income in the future, but culturally as well, because it represents an important part of how we think of our place in the world.

Even aside from that, isn’t it worth preserving some of that emphasis we have in the arts on aesthetic experience?  I already have classrooms full of kids who can’t seem to disconnect from their smart phones and complain when I implore them to use the entire fifty minutes they have to take an exam, rather than finishing up and leaving after half an hour.  I suspect that Robinson has primary and secondary education more in mind here, where kids are expected to sit for hours at a time, and the experience is often uninspiring.  What about college, when students are still very much making the transition to adulthood and the environment is almost always less structured than the one they left behind?

I think we already try to do this in history, where a lot of us draw on the Socratic seminar model, trying to engage students in active discussion.  However, in teaching I’ve found that they’re mostly not all that interested in grappling with big concepts or critically engaging with the material.  Often, they just want you to spoon-feed them information, and only what’s going to be on the test.  It’s likely that they’re products of the anesthetizing testing culture that Robinson describes, but they’re also stretched thin by heavy courseloads, jobs, and family commitments.

This intersects with some thoughts that have been swirling in my head as a result of the Wisconsin protests.  Teacher’s unions are one of the last bastions of organized labor in the United States, and they’ve drawn a lot of fire for protecting the tenure system and generally, you know, wanting to be paid salaries that reflect their investment of time and social importance.  Some critics have called for greater teacher accountability, usually measured at least in part through standardized testing.  Rethinking Schools gives a list of reasons why this is a terrible idea, noting that it’s another step toward reforming the education system along free market principles.  Of course, it’s absolutely detrimental to developing students’ critical thinking skills and creativity.  If being able to conceive of multiple answers to the same question is a trait that we want to encourage, multiple-choice testing is obviously the wrong way to go about it.  But what I really want to know is…

…does this mean I can feel good about playing a Monty Python clip in section since we’re talking about medieval slavery?

Ken Robinson would approve.

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The power of positive thinking(?)

I’ll be frank: I have not been happy with my dissertation process lately.  From articulating major questions to identifying key actors to framing a narrative arc for the (hopefully) eventual book, it seems as though since my prospectus defense I’ve been moving backward rather than forward.  I actually feel like I have less of a clear sense of the project now than I did, say, three months ago.  Needless to say, this has been distressing, and I want to thank everyone who patiently listened to me moan about just how difficult writing a dissertation can be.  I know what you were probably all thinking:

Judge Judy tells it like it is.
Judge Judy tells it like it is.

If not, you’re more patient than I, and if so, I wouldn’t blame you.  Yes, getting a Ph.D. is hard.  That’s kind of the point.  If there’s anything I’ve learned from reading other academics’ blogs, it’s that the whole thing doesn’t get easier.  Creating new knowledge (as Historiann often puts it) is always going to be a difficult process, and just about everyone feels insecure about their work at some point.  At the end of the day, however, it still has to get done.

With that in mind, I’m trying to turn over a new leaf of sorts, doing less whining about how difficult the process is, and more, you know, work.  Welcome to my New Year’s resolution, a month and a half late.  I pledge optimism and productivity; I said nothing about punctuality.

In other news, Jenny started a blog!  Treat her well and she might organize your closet.  Seriously, she likes to organize things.  She also has quite a thing for pens.

Ciao, kids!

Everything old is new again.

I get tired just looking at him.

There’s a reason I don’t read the Wall Street Journal, and it’s pretty much the same reason I don’t watch Fox News: I’m not particularly interested in antediluvian op-eds.  This recent article from WSJ is a great example.

The article describes a recent study in which researchers found that women from countries with better healthcare systems preferred less masculine men, which they measured by showing (white) women from different countries two “subtly different” pictures of a man, and asking which they found more attractive.  Okay, right off the bat, those two faces are about “subtly different” as Bill O’Reilly or Michael Moore (fair! balanced!) are “subtly opinionated.”  Moving on to the the text of the article, we find some well-worn ideas about what it means to be masculine, and it’s no great shocker that this entails “fitness, fertility, and dominance,” which are all the by-products of elevated testosterone levels.  I’m certainly not trying to argue that hormones don’t influence behavior, but it seems that a study like this (not to mention the article) reduces an incredibly complex process (like attraction) to a single variable.  That this variable is biological only serves to reiterate and reify old stereotypes about virile primitive masculinity versus decadent overcivilized Western manhood.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such pervasive cultural tropes served as the basis for denying political rights to people of color and justified the imperial reach of America and Western Europe across the globe.  With in mind, perhaps it should be no surprise that here a marker of global class (healthcare, although the U.S. is… well, that’s a different story) is fused with and masked by biology and heredity.

The author keeps the late Victorian gender anxieties relatively at bay until near the end of the article, when she unleashes them with full force:

The big question that comes of the study is this: Is it possible that modern medicine—and by extension modern life—inadvertently devalues masculinity? Possibly. Is the Marlboro Man, that smoking-hot icon of American manhood, under threat of being extinguished? Given American women’s apparently strong masculinity preferences, the answer is no. We are not ready to get rid of our macho men. (Then again, we also have yet to improve our health index ratings.) Yet there are some smoke signals that suggest change is just over the horizon.

Sounds like somebody’s been reading The Strenuous Life.  But the really astounding thing here is just how fabulously the author misrepresents evolutionary process in the very next paragraph:

As the social environment shifts, so may women’s mate preferences. While Stone Age forces once wired women to associate strong cues of masculinity with their children’s chance of survival, times are changing. The promise of improved health care in America could be one example of a shift.

Let’s first just take notice of the implied parallel between “Stone Age” women (were they also tracked through their IP addresses?) and women in the developing world.  That aside, evolution is a slow process–public policy does not have a measurable effect on hereditary traits, at least not in the way the author suggests.  That is to say, healthcare reform is not going to spark an instantaneous shift in American women’s dating and mating patterns such that testosterone and “manifest masculinity” (no relation?) will go into decline.

Or maybe my good friend and sometime-commenter Catherine said it best: “I feel pretty confident we can provide humane medical care to the citizens of this nation without threatening my almost pathological attraction to large burly men.”

Amen, sister.