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Aug 29, 2008

Till When?

I was trying to rent a van from UNC facilities, for the Nomadic conference in October. No problem, but they require each driver to take a 75 minutes class on van driving safety and state policies. Even though I drove a 15 passenger van for thousands of miles and hours, there is no waiver. Even though I can probably read the state policies myself, in just a few minutes, I'd have to go and listen to someone about them in person. Can you test me on policies? No. This whole thing irritated me somewhat, because it does sound like a waste of my time. There has to be a better way of ensuring safety and compliance than making everyone, regardless of experience, and of how we prefer to learn.

So, I was irritated until I realized that this is exactly what we make our students to do, only a lot more. No matter how much they already know and are able to do, there is no practical way for them to test out of a class. Even though some of them are like me; they prefer to read information quickly and try to apply it right away – we still want all to come to classroom and listen to our ramblings, our posturing, and our stories. The time spent in the holy union of buttocks with chairs is still the main measure of someone's education. We are just so used to this that the absurdity of the situation is hard to notice.

How long can we sit out in our narcissistic castles of education? In the age of Google Book and Google Scholar, the Wikipedia and the on-line research databases, we still measure education in credits – seat time, really, – and we insist on being paid for it on per-credit basis; and we want more and more, when information became so cheap it is really free. Whatever miniscule accountability measures we adopt are all on top of the seat-time machinery, not instead of it. I just don't think this is going to hold much longer.

We will probably rent the van from a private vendor, even though it is slightly more expensive. At least, they don't require me to learn what I already know, and to hear a lecture where a brief reading will do. Sooner or later, our students will make the same choice. Someone will force the legal changes undermining our monopoly on education. Someone will figure out a way of determining how much people already know, and how they can demonstrate their competency. Finally, someone will also figure out how to put control over learning into learner's hands, so they can chose how they want to learn, as long as learning takes place.

I am not sure when this is going to happen, and who will figure out all these things. I want to be one of them, for sure, not to watch our common ship slowly sink into oblivion. There should be a better way to teach and learn.

Aug 22, 2008

White Privilege

This week, we had a diversity workshop for college faculty on white privilege. By all accounts, it was very well done. The conversation was meaningful, and it felt right. The presenter Linda Black used a framework that originates with Peggy McIntosh's White Privilege concept. Most of us, college professors either knew the concept before, and if not, had no trouble grasping it. What remains unanswered though is what to do about it. One can say that as college faculty, we have an obligation to teach the White privilege to our students, so they understand how it works. However, it simply pushes the question one level down: once we manage to explain our students how the privilege works, what then? They will ask us what THEY should do about it.

The real problem is not with understanding that there exists the invisible privilege associated with one's race, class, sexual orientation, etc., but with what to do about it. This is a relatively new historical phenomenon. In the past, privilege was explicitly claimed by specific dress, language, behavior, or other visible markers. Now much of privilege exists by the means of not marking itself, and instead by marking everyone else. He is an African-American writer, we say, but she is simply a writer. These guys are Islamic terrorists, but Timothy McVeigh in is simply a terrorist. I do not wear "I am straight" sign on my forehead, but will silently assume we all know I am straight. Because the power is manifested by being "normal," buy being non-exotic, how do you refuse to exercise it? In other words, how does a White guy refuses to exercise the privilege, if it is exercised by doing nothing? How do you not do nothing?

One way to do control one's privilege is by watching one's behavior and language. His is what I and many of my colleagues do. It is surely important, and can be learned. However, let us be honest, these measure are not too effective. Just by bringing my White face into a conversation, I may change the power dynamics of a conversation. The same goes for gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. We can control our behavior and language to some degree, but cannot control our skin color, gender, and sexual orientation. There is bias by behavior and bias by being; the former can be somewhat changed, the latter – I am not so sure.

What makes it more complicated, is that the White privilege is always contested, and sometimes very successfully. In certain settings and situations, women, and minorities will claim their own privileges. A small example: let's say the conversation changed to childbirth. Most (but not all) women will immediately reverse the power equation to imply that only they can produce any valid judgment about it, and men's opinions are not taken seriously. We all do that code switching hundreds of times a day; we manipulate contexts of social interactions to claim and exercise power. We claim many kinds of authority and privilege over each other, unconsciously. In these games, it is very difficult to distinguish the systemic kinds of privilege McIntosh is taking about, from other, less systemic, and more contextual power plays. I'd risk claiming that most people are incapable of making these distinctions on the go. A regular White guy who feels momentarily powerless will generalize this feeling into the entire issue of White privilege. The absolute majority of men, Whites, upper class, straight people – you name it – do not feel very powerful, and thus have a hard time recognizing the concept of the invisible privilege, even when they have a good intellectual grasp on it.

I am just trying to outline the real difficulty that anti-bias project faces. The solution seems to lie with some process of de-normalizing Whiteness, maleness and heterosexuality. While there is a lot of good thinking about these issues going on in scholarly communities, I don't think we are really there yet. In other words, the issue is not only with lack of efforts, but also with the lack of practical, manageable solutions. How do you make the normal questionable? Can there be no norm at all?

I imagine there could be a way to systematically analyze our institutional policies, documents, and practices for normativity or privilege (I am sorry for the jargon; not sure how else to say it without writing a long essay). But I don't know if such a process exists, or if there are instruments helping to do that. I am sure anyone can find a few examples where, for example the choice of textbooks or T&P documents, or illustrations may reinforce certain group privileges. Any social practice can be examined: who is likely to benefit? Who is likely to be left out? However, I am not sure if there is a more holistic and systematic way of assessing our institutional practices. Does anyone know? And if it does not exist, can we try to develop it? Something practical, manageable, with lists, criteria, ratings, that would allow to focus on the most important things, and be done in a reasonable time with reasonable effort? Not too complex to invite faking?

My hope is that our College Diversity committee would try to do something like that. We can always use more workshops; let's also focus on sensible self-examination.

Aug 15, 2008

Ten Profound Truths about the Japanese culture

Can one visit a country for a week or two and then claim any level of understanding its culture? Not really; it always annoys me when people make deep comments about the two countries I really know well – Russian and the U.S. – after doing the touristy things. So, to be fair, my brief visit to Japan taught me nothing about the Japanese culture or way of life. But the doing the superficial observations is such fun! So, let me embrace my shallowness, and talk about the small things.
  1. The Japanese have a thing about their toilets. First, there are a lot of them, unlike in major US or Russian cities. They are all free. Most toilets in decent places have seat warmers; some also have built-in bidets, which will wash and spray your bottom at a push of a button. Wasteful? Not at all. Like Europeans, the Japanese figure that if you wash only the certain parts of your body often and on demand, you're less likely to take many showers a day and conserve water. However, besides the luxurious warm toilets, they also have the squat toilets, if you prefer that. The trick is to figure out in which direction to sit on those, because they are located with your side to the door.
  2. You need a small towel with you at all times to wipe off the sweat from your face and neck. That and a hand fan are pretty much a necessity. You can get away with napkins, but you need to go to Starbucks to get napkins, because the Japanese has a prejudice against paper napkins, and you won't get them at most places, even where you buy ice cream.
  3. The Japanese overwhelmingly don't speak English, despite having studied it in school and college. Language instruction sucks everywhere, in case you're wondering. When you have no reason to learn a language, no school will help you do that.
  4. Everything costs about twice as much as you expect, which is a function of the weak dollar. However, fruits cost about ten times of what you expect. Why in such a warm and rich country do they have a shortage of fruit? I have no idea.
  5. Everything is about half of the American size: cars, fire trucks, benches, seats, meal portions. Overweight Japanese are a true rarity.
  6. Sushi in Kyoto on Shijo street, next to the river are to die for. That is the sushi heaven. Whatever you do, don't eat the sea urchin roe in the raw; it will make you puke. However, the rest of the food is delicious, not spicy, and looks quite healthy.
  7. My wife Svetlana thinks that the Japanese are the best people on Earth, and everyone else is a troglodyte in comparison. Of course, this is because she is an artist, and Japanese really do have a great sense of style, balance, and color. It is evident even for me, not a great designer. She claims that even a Japanese janitor or landscaper is a true artist, judging from the way they arrange and adorn little things. She says the subdued color schemes they use are unparalleled, maybe with Italy coming as close second. Japan is virtually kitsch-free. America is drowning in kitsch, Russia is the kitsch empire.
  8. The Japanese don't only drive, but also walk on the left. It is hard, but important to remember, or else you will run into people all the time.
  9. Japanese nod a lot; or rather, these are short bows. And they bow a lot, even when they say "No." They also say thank you and thank you very much and thank you oh so very-very much all the time, especially when they try to sell you something. However, they don't try to sell very hard, and their store clerks are not nearly as annoying as the American ones, and not nearly as rude as the Russian ones. All shops are air-conditioned (remember the sweat towel) which makes shopping there an enjoyable experience, except for the item #5. I am otherwise extremely annoyed and bored by shopping. But if it is 100 degrees with 100% humidity outside, that cute little Japanese shirt looks rather interesting.
  10. The Japanese are a lot like us.
These are the ten most profound truths about Japan I could produce.