The Roaring Twenties

I have a tendency to take arbitrary numerical milestones literally. I try to close out my accounts as much as possible prior to the New Year, for instance, and my mind often wanders to other forms of autobiographical numerology about the number of years I’ve taught at various places, the timing of my book publications, etc. Now I am approaching one of the biggest of arbitrary numerical milestones — my fortieth birthday, which has me thinking a lot about the stereotypical experience of decade-based units of life (your 20s, your 30s, etc.). In my case, the objective life milestones match up weirdly well with the arbitrary deacde-based milestones. When I was 20, I did a study abroad semester in Oxford that completely changed my life, or at least made me realize that a different life was possible. And when I was 29, I finished my PhD and got my first academic job. There isn’t as clear a milestone happening right now, but my 20s and my 30s both map onto pretty clear stages in my life — the latter being a much happier time, in fact the only time in my life (perhaps aside from early childhood) when I would say I was happy most of the time.

I was not happy in my 20s, nor was I much fun to be around. Continue reading “The Roaring Twenties”

Classics and Class Aspiration


There’s something about “the classics” that seems to appeal to working class aspirations. When lending libraries were established, records tend to show that working class people mainly checked out the classics. In the Soviet Union, the Russian classics were prioritized even though they were obviously aristocratic and bourgeois in character, and classical music and ballet training was extremely robust. That effort found its echo in America in the Penguin Classics and the postwar efforts to popularize classical music, both of which were important in establishing the new “middle class” largely made up of workers.

My own life shows a similar trajectory. I was classically trained on piano, at the prompting of parents who — as I have slowly figured out as an adult — aren’t personally very interested in classical music, and I always seized upon any list of “classics” that I could find. During my naive and ineffectual college search, where I wound up defaulting to Olivet Nazarene University because (a) I knew about it and (b) I knew I could get a scholarship, the only college brochures that actually jumped out at me were from St. John’s. Reading a list of big books — that’s how you do it. I joke that teaching at Shimer College, a Great Books school, is my chance to finally get educated.

To be “educated” — as though it can be attained, as though there’s a list you can check off. It’s a seductive idea, at least to me, and I still catch myself thinking in those terms. For instance, I mostly don’t find opera intuitively appealling — it’s too long and the plots are often ridiculous — and yet I have this sense that I “should” go, simply for the sake of familiarizing myself with opera and filling out that part of my “education.”

This drive to be “educated” in some objectively verifiable way is of course naive. Continue reading “Classics and Class Aspiration”

On that one grade inflation article that’s going around

You know, this one. I’ve never faced nearly the level of complaining that some do, perhaps because I’m an old softy and also perhaps because I’m a white dude with a beard. Maybe a combination of the two — one year I should shave and see if it makes a difference.

My general guideline is that the average for a given class should be in the B-range. I’ve had classes that are more at the B+ level and a couple that were closer to B-, but generally it seems about right. The problem I see conceptually, though, is that I don’t have “room” to make the kinds of distinctions I’d like to make. If B is average, then A is “solidly competent” — it’d be nice to have room for “mediocre” (C), “competent” (B), and “exemplary” (A). I wind up skewing it so that “competent” is in the B+/A- range, but obviously students don’t feel like those are similar grades at all. Another problem is that it doesn’t seem like there’s any actual role for a D. The distinctions are harder to make the worse the papers get, so it doesn’t make sense to have a wider range of distinctions on the low end of the scale.

As the article points out, though, however satisfying it would be to recalibrate back to a grading system that actually reflects our sense of the quality of the work, it’s not realistic as long as the stakes are so high. Does a student really “deserve” to lose a scholarship, for example, because one professor is randomly being a hard-ass and grading “correctly”? Do they deserve to have their career prospects permanently blighted?

I don’t think they do, but I can only treat the symptoms by grading according to generally accepted grade inflation practices — the only real solution to grade inflation is to decouple college from debt and brutal meritocratic competition. Then people could study what they want to if they show an aptitude for it, and we could afford to do that because we’re the richest society ever in human history and maybe we can get by with fewer baristas so that people can enrich their lives, get in touch with their cultural heritage, and learn useful skills. It would cost money, but there are huge piles of money in corporate coffers and rich people’s bank accounts that are doing nothing but either sitting there or else promoting asset-price bubbles — so we could just take all that money away from them and do something that contributes to something with a recognizably human meaning and purpose. And then our grades would not be inflated and everyone would be happy.

The story of Twitter

Some guys came up with a web service called Twitter that would facilitate sending group text messages. They imagined people would use it to help coordinate in-person socializing — for instance, you could send a message to your group of friends saying you were at a certain bar, and they could come by. In principle, that seems like a useful service.

As it turns out, though, people started using that service for completely different purposes, because it turned out to be a flexible and convenient way to communicate brief thoughts, links, etc. Often the platform actively impeded the uses people were finding for it, and the implementation of supplementary features (such as discussion threading) was slow and inconsistent.

Now there’s been an IPO and the people who created this service are multi-millionaires. The people who actually turned Twitter into what it is, however, get nothing — unless you count the increased number of ads.

A theory on e-book pricing

As far as I understand it, the price of the physical book is a trivial portion of the cost to produce a book. The difference in price between hardcover and paperback may have misled us in this regard, but what you’re paying for with a hardcover is traditionally earlier access to the book, with greater durability as a kind of bonus. Though I do not know the details, it seems obvious that the price differential between an e-book and a physical book is far greater than the price of the physical artifact — indeed, it’s almost certainly much greater than the cost of the physical artifact plus storage and shipping costs.

What accounts for the price differential, then? Part of the problem is surely that almost no one would buy e-books if they were the same price as a paperback. Yet I propose that the real root cause is Amazon, which has already aggressively pushed down physical book prices and irrevocably damaged the profitability of traditional publishers and bookstores. They’ve already racheted down what people are willing to pay for books, and e-books give them a pretext to cut the price even further.

Hence my theory: e-books, at their current price levels, are loss-leaders meant to ensure Amazon’s long-term control over publishing. My worry, though, is not so much that they’ll raise prices once they get monopoly power, but rather that they simply won’t do the stuff that traditional publishers have done — that they’re ushering in a world of universal self-publishing, with no infrastructure for providing editing and other services to authors who are not able to pay for such services out of pocket.

Chicago State University faculty fight back

In recent months, faculty from Chicago State University, a public university on the far South Side of Chicago, have taken to the internet to expose the chronic mismanagement of their institution. Their latest find is that the school’s Provost plagiarized significant portions of her dissertation, but the critiques have been fierce and wide-ranging — and the administration has tried repeatedly to get the blog taken down. Those with a taste for polemic will surely enjoy the blog, and it will be interesting to see the degree to which the blog winds up contributing to changes at Chicago State. For all our faults and political incompetence, academics are surely gifted at complaining — and so if complaining turns out to be a powerful political strategy, that would serve as a rare beacon of hope in the academic landscape.

Follow your dreams!

I watch a lot of Hulu, and so I watch a lot of commercials — indeed, a lot of repetitions of each individual commercial. I go through cycles: I’m initially relieved to see a new commercial to break the monotony, then instantly sick of it already the second time it shows, and then gradually work up to the point of sublime over-analysis. In addition to the permanent damage this has done to my mental health, it has given me a finer-grained appreciation of a genre that most of us simply ignore.

There is one iron law of commercials: the consumer’s long-term life goals are always and only their “dreams.” The viewer of a commercial does not have a passion or a vocation — he or she has precisely a dream… and the financial sector is there to help them follow that dream.

In this one simple formula, we see the hegemonic tendency of neoliberalism put on display. Our entire economy runs on dreams. No longer is capital content to extract surplus-value from labor, it wants to extract surplus-value directly from the meaning we can find in labor. We are so desperate for some type of non-alienated labor that we’ll do it for free for the hopes of one day doing it for pay. Universities, publishing — essentially every industry with any promise of creative expression runs on dreams, dreams that are fulfilled only for the smallest number of people necessary to make them seem attainable for the vast masses of broken, exploited dreamers.

This is in one sense a proof of Marxism, a proof that labor and production are a crucial part of what it means to be human, as well as a proof of how much we — in the wake of Fordism, which provided a security that to us living today seems like an intolerable prison — recoil from alienated labor. And somehow this situation has not produced liberation but simply opened up new and more intimate terrain for exploitation. Capital is happy to indulge our fantasies. It is happy to play along with our distrust of capital by allowing us not to sully ourselves with such petty considerations as money when creative self-expression is at stake. When we fail, it leaves us space to arrive at a healthy balance between blaming ourselves and resenting the imposters who stole our place by succeeding — something we unfailingly do, for free.

The Devil: Made for TV?

The last decade has witnessed an explosion in supernatural themes, in novels, movies, and television. Vampires and zombies have been particularly successful, but few mythological creatures have been left totally unexplored. That’s why the absence of the devil from our entertainment landscape is so striking. There are lingering rumors of some kind of Exorcist remake, but that doesn’t really have much hope of being a long-lasting TV franchise. Thankfully, I’m here to help.

Basically, someone needs to make a show where the devil and his legions of demons have decided, like the vampires of True Blood, to make themselves known to the general public. Their primary ambition in “mainstreaming” would be to institutionalize the act of selling one’s soul, and they could also run a sideline of short-term demon possessions for various purposes, perhaps to be able to get away with a crime — this could be run by “rogue” demons. The main characters would be a demonic middle manager and his minions, and through various plot contrivances we could get a peak at higher levels in the satanic hierarchy. Subplots would include following the lives of people who’d sold their souls, plus watching short-term possessions play out. The rogue demons offering possessions could be pursued by a kind of demon police. Surely there are thirteen decent episodes in this premise.

This show would be the logical outgrowth of the sociopath trend and could potentially be the step too far that killed it — asking us to identify and sympathize with figures who are destroying human souls by means of debt.

Muted fantasies: An open thread on a stolen idea

The Billfold asks several people what they’d do with a $20,000 windfall, and the result is predictable — the majority are thinking primarily of paying off debt. My impulse is similar. I’d put half of it into savings, almost just for the novelty of it, and use the rest to do some combination of paying off my credit cards and buying certain consumer goods. Maybe I’d get cable! I’ve gone without for three years now, but I miss it. And how much does a nice upright piano cost? Though it’d be a huge pain to move it…

What about you, dear readers? In what depressingly utilitarian ways would you mostly respond to a financial windfall?

Cutting costs through increasing administrative overhead

One part of the president’s new higher education plan that particularly worries me is the requirement to collect data on graduates’ job prospects. This is because I teach at a very small school that has the rare distinction of arguably having insufficient administrative support. The existing burdens of data collection and reporting already strain our staff to the limit, and the idea of adding a totally new type of data collection effort — which will be burdensome to design and require constant maintenance — would be frankly intimidating for an institution of our size.

Then it struck me: there’s already an organization that, in principle, has a huge amount of information about the job prospects of college graduates — namely, the federal government. It knows where students go to school because of its administration of federal student aid. While this doesn’t cover literally every student, the ones receiving aid are the real concern of the policy in any case — the rich kids can presumably fend for themselves. It obviously knows a great deal about student loan defaults, etc. It also collects annual information on income from literally every U.S. citizen and resident. Given the appropriate software tools, I assume that government agencies could collectively draw up a pretty comprehensive report on these matters going back for years — and unlike individual schools, they have the ability to legally compel people to provide further information if the existing data is inadequate.

What possible advantage, then, would there be in forcing individual institutions to gather and report the data themselves? If anything, it leaves open more room for misleading and even outright fraudulent reporting. Hence I propose that if this kind of data must be gathered, Big Brother should contribute to cutting college administrative costs by gathering the data for us.