Category Archives: Jeff’s recent reflections

Relatively recent reflections written by Jeff Ginger, the new caretaker for Duenos.net

The Value of STEM?

Just some disorganized thoughts on this one. So we have this concept called STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education – where the US falls short according to many measures (though, interestingly, our national report card has yet to include engineering until recently). People invoke it as a kind of mandate frequently, and to what purpose matters quite a bit:

  • If the question is should we be doing things like trying to get more socially excluded populations into engineering – I’d say absolutely yes. This has as much to do with how we broadly socialize women and people of color to participate in society as it does how they experience education (yes, this too is part of socialization, I realize).
  • If the question is if we should emphasize STEM activities more in schooling – I’d say maybe. I wonder what STEM is in opposition to (or an advancement over).

Step 1

First off, what are we missing if we break it down by basic subjects?

The humanities, social sciences, languages and the arts.

Scratch that, we’ve got STEAM, advocates who take the position that design is what makes innovation in any STEM field possible – I’d agree on all accounts, except for say, math.

And, actually, there’s an interesting similarity between Art and Math – they both gain considerably more value when embedded in application. Math for Math’s sake is about as relevant or job-related as Art for Art’s sake, I think. Graphic design to communicate ideas or make interfaces more usable – or – statistics and predictive algorithms to make experiments possible or to solve problems – these seem to ring more true to innovation and “usefulness” for me.

Update: Er, scratch that too – according to the NSF “Science” here includes the social sciences. I think many people aren’t including these when they refer to STEM, however. Anyway, continuing…

So, generally, do I think we have too much emphasis on the social sciences, languages and humanities in schooling?

  • Well, at the K-12 level I’m not sure we actually have any significant social science. I mean sure there’s geography and social studies (which is history, really) but generally I don’t see a lot of psychology, sociology, anthropology and political science in high school – and I think actually it would be great to have more of those. In high schools like mine the tests we were being taught for (ACT/SAT sure but also more importantly AP tests) didn’t include those, they included emphasis on base subjects like math or English.
  • Languages, I think offer another similar dimension. Sure learning French or German is probably less useful and a sign of privilege or specialization. But you had better bet Spanish, Portuguese, Russian or Chinese would help you greatly in the future economy and job landscape.
  • And then we land on the humanities. Generally I’d say that we teach the same American-centric history too many times and that English focuses far too much on making sense of written texts instead of the grand entourage of media we engage with today. These issues aren’t an unsolvable problem, though, we could just focus more on contemporary history and on cultural studies that think of “text” in a multimodal kind of way. And both of these areas help to emphasize important subset skills – perspective taking, critical inquiry and rhetoric – or the effective expression of ideas.

So, really, I’m not ready to say we should deemphasize them. I would, however, be ready to suggest that we replace Math class at the high school level with Engineering class – where advanced math would be taught but always in application to something – integrated into practice where possible.

Step 2

Second, what are these disciplines (or subjects) really about? I feel like we’d be better off to think about it in terms of literacies or skills. What kinds of competencies do we want our students to have coming out of an education system. STEM, to me, suggests the following:

  • Science – Experimentation, causality and empiricism, internally consistent truth
  • Technology – Well, for me this is digital literacy, and I’ll get to in a second
  • Engineering – Problem-solving in an applied context, most often with physical objects or systems
  • Math – Problem-solving and algorithms in an abstract context

So, really, I’d agree that we might not be focusing enough on some of these skills, but I’d also say that they’re not any more important than others that might be cultivated by the humanities and social sciences – critical and creative thinking, expression and perspective-taking and so on.

Digital literacy is hard to really reconcile in all of this – I see it as a composite of skills and perspectives – but on another level you could think about just pure competency in being able to manipulate tools as a fundamental. That is, everyone should know how to type, use a mouse and find information on the internet. In my dream world I’d rather say everyone should know how to question the black box, reverse engineer, remix, program, control a 3D interface, draw with a mouse, present stories on the internet and so much more. As you can see my categories already branch into any number of the skills and areas mentioned above.

Step 3

So, in other words what’s this really about?

I think it’s about an assumption of mapping schooling to jobs. We have great demand for jobs in STEM (and STEAM, really) but not so many in the humanities like history, English and cultural studies or social sciences like sociology, anthropology and political science. And, really, that wouldn’t be a problem if the humanities were like aviation or sculpture, where only a few people go in, make it out and land jobs, but instead we have situations like UIUC, where our highest enrollment major is Psychology (1150 students in 2013), but there is probably not that much demand for people in psychology-related careers. Similarly we have a rather high count of people in communications (742), political science (552), and animal sciences + vet med (applied but probably not that many jobs – 923). Engineering, science and business majors dominate the majority of enrollment, comparatively. The other “useless” majors aren’t actually as populated as you might expect – English (323), history (217), sociology (207), anthropology (126), global studies (195), recreation (163) and so on. Though you do see interesting things like 300 PhD’s in computer science or 90 PhD’s in English but that’s a different issue.

So, at the end of the day – I think I want to go back to just focusing on ways to integrate engineering and other practice/problem-solving based learning into all curriculum for kids and focusing on areas where we have inequalities, such as women enrolled in engineering, or, from a different perspective that’s important to me in particular, men (or extroverts or people of color!) in library science. 🙂

Gets Me Some Tech Skills

I was asked for ideas on how someone who has a very strong humanities and social services background could work on “website making/social media/general tech skills” and this was my reply.
As often stated (probably?), I think website design can be broken down – writing copy, writing code, doing graphics/layout and designing experience (UX; a combination of all). You probably don’t need any more practice with the first but the other three have many avenues. UX is worth your while and severely needed in the nonprofit world, but you’ll have to do some translation for many of those folk. Coders don’t exist there. Developers are a rare pink unicorn in one of those scenes from planet earth with millions of birds. Coders often aren’t socialized to do world-saving work, and they get paid gobs in other fields. Graphic design is handy for all of the things (print, web, identity, making, life) but also kinda hard to learn without specific projects. Luckily you have some of the foundational skills, like the ability to notice details or general concepts like negative space.

SO substantive resources:

  • For coding – you could learn HTML/CSS but I think it might be more helpful to learn an introductory language like PHP (and MySQL for databases to go with it – this is what WordPress is based on). There are many free online resources, start with W3C Schools and go to something more serious from there. More hardcore (application-specific) people may tell you to go for Python or something off of this list -> http://www.hongkiat.com/blog/sites-to-learn-coding-online
  • Graphic design – I have a book that’s trapped in storage in Glen Ellyn right now that has a hundred great design challenge prompts. Tasks like make a mail-order army of robots. I’ve done a few and like it, but I think learning how to operate fancy-pants programs is as much of a challenge as figuring out how to make things look good. One route is to learn to make great looking designs using simple tools, like Powerpoint 2010 or 2013 (better the newer you go) or another is to just start following scripted tutorials for Photoshop or Illustrator. Try learning the pen tool to make paper cutting designs, you can make money better than Kay Wahlgren and help dad retire. I can probably get you any Adobe program you like, or try Inkscape or Gimp (the true we-have-no-money route).
  • User Experience – See if you can get into this class -> https://www.coursera.org/course/hci. Don’t bother with the assignments, just watch them. It’ll teach you concepts behind usability and user testing methods. Or you could try reading The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley. My professor uses this to teach composite design in LIS (an interdisciplinary field that likes people!).
I think ‘social media’ skills are a little overrated. It’s worth learning the capabilities and social norms for each network or medium but I encourage people to pick just a couple and commit investment to those. Generally my impression is that what lies beneath them are good writing for the affordances of each and a sense for audience – things I suspect you already have 🙂 But this might also be that I just feel annoyed by continuously hovering over a monitor watching the endless flow of information stream by, with meager attempts to redirect it amongst the flurry of hyperactive internet squirrels. I’d rather be more selective and intentional with my attention, something I think I’d even call a digital literacy. Yes, thank you Howard Rheingold, but I still think meditation is silly.

I’m not sure what general tech skills might be. You can move a mouse and type pretty darned well, and glean information from different screen formats rapidly in a non-linear fashion. Check.

Anyway I think you nailed it. Pick a project. Shattons of nonprofits need help. I just talked to the Urbana Independent Media Center Python Users Group the other day. The Fab Lab has plenty of things they could work on for us – a better sign in system, automated inventory, an interactive project board or hacking the CCK in our broke-ass Drupal install to be friendly for retirees. Or many groups have crappy looking websites or need better flyers or logos or good looking report designs. Perhaps better than this – you could learn video production and help a group produce their image on YouTube by telling a story about the impacts they make (CI Club example – http://youtu.be/_pBjjW2E2Mg), a lot don’t have time or knowledge to do this kind of thing. Or many service users whom they have never tested and may have vastly different understandings of computer interfaces than they do. I learned my friend’s mother doesn’t really know how to save and upload photos of her daughter to Facebook to share so she just tags herself in them instead. This is in part an interface design issue – I’m sure the system could be recreated to facilitate this behavior and perception of use.

If you need projects I have plenty here for you, but I suspect you have a network up there that could use the help 🙂 Hope that helps!

And on the upswing

Karma has a way of working itself around. ‘Nuff unpleasant vibes on this place lately I think.

I’ve been reading Netsmart, by Howard Rheingold, in response to a suggestion by Sally Jackson (one of the founding gods of the Fab Lab!). It serves as the motivation for much of this post, but also a worthy bit of literature for the dissertation pondering process.

Beyond Flaws

I’ll start with a happy snippet. I’ve been hanging out with these hydro engineers lately and they’re great. One reason I like them so much is that they’re very willing to proactively accept and support people despite their flaws and differences. One of our friends forgot to buy a bus ticket to get to Chicago for a flight and realized this about 6 hours before at 1am on a Saturday night. Almost without hesitation a trio stepped up to drive him directly up to the airport, crashing on a family couch before heading back the next day. They were only hung up on his mistake and forgetful personality for a sum of about two minutes, and actually really saw the ride as an outstanding opportunity to hang out. The group hasn’t even known each other that long, a year or so, and they’re willing to go to bat for one another like this.

Books on Bicycles

Rheingold identifies five literacies that together constitute a view of digital literacy (of a kind; he says they’re in process of changing the world):

  • Attention
  • Participation
  • Collaboration
  • Critical consumption of information
  • Network smarts

Most of what he mentions is nothing particularly new to the canon, but it does partially address what has been an open question for me for some time. I’ve asked many students and scholars what attitudes and perspectives they believe facilitate a person’s ability to effectively learn and employ digital tools. It’s easy to get a myriad of answers, and really it all depends on your granularity, but I’ve been particularly keen on patience, persistence, curiosity and independence. Motivation and confidence underline all of these, but the reason I bring any of them up at all is that they illustrate the cultural and personality-oriented dimensions of digital literacy – we learn, perform and express ourselves in contexts that shape our interpretations of meaning. Anyway what’s notable about his arrangement so far is attention. He suggests readers rethink how they direct attention, what they place it on, and why they do so.

For instance, multitasking often isn’t actually what it’s often named – if you’re driving in the car listening to music you’re probably actually multitasking, but most of the time we’re using computers, switching rapidly from screen to screen, we’re actually quickly task-switching – and there’s a cost each time we do so, which may vary by individual and circumstances. To be digitally literate might also include being cognizant (critical) enough of your own tech-toy uptake to mindfully direct your attention. I don’t think this means simply not being on Facebook or refusing to use Wikipedia. I do think this means taking a step back, examining your behaviors, goals and generally what matters, and then acting in accordance. My decision to read Rheingold’s book on an exercise bike instead of via audio book is actually a result of this process for me: I’m scribbling on the pages.

Tom Fairbank suggested I read the book Nonviolent Communication (Marshall Rosenberg) a while back and I’ve finally started to dig into it a bit. Besides being useful for determining how to better talk to people like my mother (and also wonder if when Tom talks to me with these methods if I am becoming my mother) it relies on a set of principles that matches Rheingold’s concern for attention:

  • Make observations
  • Take stock of feelings (yours and others)
  • Pay attention to needs
  • Make requests to proactively facilitate needs

An example the book gives is a teacher complaining about how she hates giving students grades. She states it as “I have to give grades because the district makes me” but this doesn’t actually recognize that she really has a choice. If she replaces the language that implies a lack of choice it comes out something more like “I give students grades because keeping my job is important to me, I’ll lose it if I don’t.” Note how the emphasis of ownership of problems, honesty and, ultimately goals and needs changes form between these two. I think it goes hand in hand with the bit about how we place attention on technologies.

My interactions with people that are mediated by electronic mediums are many but often cause frustrations – I’m great at observing how people miss emails or imply things through action (or more often lack thereof) but I don’t think I communicate my feelings and needs about it as much or as poignantly as I ought to sometimes. One observation, as of late, is that in-person interactions are downright more successful for me, I’m seeking them out more often. Which leads to the next item…

Quitting Opayboopud

OkCupid sucked for me. I mean granted I was trolling the website from the getgo – my user name was “JeffGinger” and eventually I became so disillusioned with it that my profile actively read “I’m probably using this website wrong. If you message me I’m just going to invite you to do something in person.” Anyway I kept finding myself crawling around on there at late hours of the night when I was feeling lonely, hoping there’d be a new girl hiding or, by god, a response to any of the messages I sent out. It was demoralizing – nobody ever answered and people didn’t pay attention to me because my profile wasn’t mysterious and I’m not generally all that handsome. Even when the site worked and I went on a date with someone I quickly realized I can’t handle getting to know someone who lives 50 minutes away and has no natural intersections with my life.

There are many reasons people find online dating troubling. It’s a kind of shopping mall effect – so many people to choose from, and yet so many reasons to not like them. Everyone is neatly categorized and identified and yet they’re all idyllic representations of self that probably don’t capture actual (or critical) dimensions. And, after it all, if you can’t find a person on the site, with its millions of choices, then by god there must be something wrong with you.

Clearly it does work for some people. I’m told in Chicago there are so many people who use it that are comfortable with casual dating that it’s functional. Down here in Chambana, a town teeming with single youth of all kinds, my observation was that it was a place for people who have comfort issues or trouble getting to know others. At one point I counted 8 people from GSLIS on there.

Funny interlude story – a professor from my department used the site. She was very mature about it – sent me a message saying hello, establishing a kind of friendly “there’s no shame don’t worry I won’t pay attention to you” kind of rapport. Very good of her. I then tried the same move with a fellow PhD student (who I know finds me extra annoying) and she never answered, despite being active following. To this day I am terrified of her.

Anyway I don’t mean to hate on it too bad. I know some people have success with the site and really need it to facilitate their personality. Or perhaps they’re a single mom, whatever. Point it I think it’s terrible for my personality type. I am infinitely happier meeting people through friends in real life and letting the mystery and interest be organic, rather than declared or implicit from the start. Rheingold (see, he’s back) also offers a perspective on this I really like:

I found Baron instructive regarding specific ways social media challenge traditional definitions of sociality. Baron is right, in my opinion, to urge us all to cast a critical eye on any form of socializing that can be turned on and off at will. In my own life, volume control has been a net benefit, but it’s not without its shadowy side. My craft as a writer demands that I spend my days mostly alone in a room. Given my circumstances, gaining the power to click into a virtual community increased my daily social interaction, since I was already isolated. After twenty-five years of online socializing, however, I understand (and caution others against) the danger of confining myself exclusively to communities I can click on and off. I’m healthier, and so is my society, because I’m embedded in family, neighborhood, hometown, campus, and social cyberspace. The people I’ve met online as well as mostly communicate with through virtual means have come to my rescue in times of peril, bought me lunch in Amsterdam and Istanbul, showed me caring, and shared the fun that any kind of community worthy of the name strives for—but I learned long ago that I also need to maintain my face-to-face connections.

I think with something like dating and relationships you’ve gotta be able to be exposed to that person – fully, in their real life context. I’m friends with a lot of people at the Fab Lab that I would have never ordinarily found if I didn’t just get exposed to them by working and being present around them. Every relationship I’ve had that’s been successful has been in a context where she knows me through seeing me around my friends, actively engaged in life. It may be just a way to get past my lack of Ryan Gosling good-looks, but more likely it’s a way for people to reveal the categories OKC will never capture.

And, in the meantime, when I’m feeling lonely these days I reach out to people who aren’t romantic interests that I haven’t been investing enough in. It’s a much healthier response 🙂

By God, That’s Coincidental

Okay, last one. There’s been an oddly large amount of coincidence (good fortune) in my life lately. It’s kind of wanting to make me believe in God. I mean, I guess I already do, in that I see God as love (and also a social construction that has very real human-shaped-second-order agency!), but this all seems too convenient to not be the result of something more personified. Who knows, I’m just gonna keep working on extending the positive event chain.

Hyperbolistic Depression

Hyperbole and a Half ran a come-back post recently on depression. It might say something about my current peer group, or perhaps society in general, that I saw it referenced by at least a dozen friends and acquaintances on various social media sites.

It’s a profound illustration of what some people have to deal with, and I’m glad she wrote it. I feel bad for her, and, more importantly, I feel like I understand her perspective, one that I’m sure would ordinarily be alien to me.

I have two notable points to make:

1) In reading the post, it was easy to identify who I am in this story (pictured above). I have a savior complex. That is, I’m a privileged, empowered white hetero boy who grew up upper middle class, who has always been able to make a difference in his surroundings and make himself be heard. When a person comes to me with a problem, especially if they’re posing as a helpless attractive female, I don the cape and pick up the sword and fire my problem-solving death rays at them. I may not be qualified, I may not understand their problem, it may not even be the actual problem that’s bothering them, I just do it instinctively. People complain, I want to fix complaints. I have to actively police myself to not do this, ordinarily. It’s revealing of my own discomfort with being useless. I don’t actually know how to just sit there and be a passive listener. I don’t think I will ever say something like “boy those fish are super dead” in response to this question. I can’t generally be depressed and defeated along with the person complaining in this context – I don’t want to, but I also just don’t think I actually know how to. SO, this means I’m not the right person for ultra-depressed people to open up to. Check.

2) While that’s all fine and dandy, what I’ve found is that very few people are consummately/comprehensively depressed like this. A lot of the time only a part of them is dead. For instance, I’ve had some of my heterosexual male friends (around my age) who have never really dated express that they think romantic desire has died in them. I think people can be contextually or partially depressed. Generally with my friends who tell me this I haven’t had a lot of luck helping them to solve their problem – US society isn’t well-structured for people who don’t follow the standard steps in the sprint to the white picket fence (dating in college, job plus marriage after). I think their solution often requires single assertive women, and it seems like often those women are often paying more attention to the loud, confident men in front, not the depressed, inexperienced guys in back. Or at least, that’s what often happens when I try to set them up. Anyway so my actual response is exactly what is criticized by Allie’s blog post – I try to help them work with other problems. It’s not formulaic, exactly, but I think one of the root issues is confidence and people skills, so if I can get the romantically deceased dudes out with a gang of friends and doing things those other issues get better, usually. I don’t think it’s a direct solution, but I have faith that it’s worth doing.

Revisiting the Passive

Most people that know me well have at one point or another heard me complain about people (often women) who are ‘passive’ in damaging ways. And I still think this can happen (one of my present roommates provides a powerful example but I don’t want to waste space criticizing him), but as I’ve spent a lot of time in GSLIS, a place where extroversion is about as rare as men, social conservatives and people of color, I’ve started to gain a little perspective.

Here, for the literature review, some terrrible reading that I dragged out of the archives that will make you hate me:

So  the metric I generally operate under, when thinking about passiveness and assertiveness is a spectrum based on initiation and response. People who initiate, lead, speak up, negotiate and otherwise make themselves known through action would be assertive, people who are responsive, reactive and compromise fall in the middle as reciprocative, and people who follow and don’t alter their thoughts or activities noticeably based on social stimuli and communication are passive.

Very few people really fall into that last category, and most of those that do are probably those with more severe social disorders or conditions. Hating on shy or introverted people is stupid. I think what I’ve really been struggling with over the years has been in part people who are passive aggressive, and whether or not people are confident or positive, and these intersecting threads that are hard to tease out at times (because they’re so contextual).

Anyway this post is not about this, really.

It’s that my narrative that I clung to so desperately when I was younger, that girls are (were) passive and cause hurt because of this, is only 50% right, at best. The reason so many people have avoided me, not answered my messages, talked bad about me behind my back (I was once lucky enough to be cyberbullied at age 26 – real-time tracking making fun of my soul-crushing break up via multiple Twitter accounts established by GSLIS students) or otherwise reacted to me in passive (evasive) ways is because of who and how I am.

At best it’s that I’m weird, at worst I think it’s that I’m downright undesirable. I’m pretty convinced that if I were more attractive than I am I wouldn’t have problems with this – the handsome surprise contact is a flattering secret admirer, the ugly one is a creep, so to say. But, generally, I think people find me annoying. Since I’m so frequently an initiator people probably assume that I’ll just be fine if they forget about me – afterall, they likely assume they’re probably just one minimal contact amongst hundreds (I’m 1400 Facebook friends cool, right?). And that’s shit, really, because I took the time to make the effort to do reach out to them, which shouldn’t be dismissed, but it is, all the freaking time.

I sent out gifts in the mail to approximately 50 friends this past Christmas, a spread of variety of folk of different genders. About 25% responded or acknowledged in some way or another and there was no discernible difference between men and women. Keep in mind, I’m not bitter about this, I didn’t expect responses, and I encouraged people to continue the positive event chain in their own lives. In fact I still owe responses to some of them (sorry Alicia and Matt!). What I want to emphasize is that it’s not so much that girls are passive, it’s that people don’t have time for this shit. I have to come to grips with not being worth their time.

If I think back over people that I’ve found annoying in my life, I think the only one I’ve gone to lengths to avoid or not react to is my mother. I’m terrified of becoming her – so very out of touch and untold levels of obnoxious. Now, in my world of self-imposed isolation as a miserable attempt to finish a dissertation, the second a friend reaches out to me they’re greeted with overwhelming verbal vomit, like this blog post. And no one wants that. If Tom Fairbank, my sister and a few others weren’t immune to me I’d probably have given up long ago.

Anyway I don’t know if I have that much of a point to saying all of this, other than acknowledging to the world that, yes, I get it, I’m annoying as hell and while you feel bad for me occasionally, you don’t really want to hang out with me. That’s why it was always essential that I had groups of friends over. The question is how much I want to bottle myself. I can be subdued, ask the right questions, douse the intensity, play the ‘be mysterious’ game, all pretty unhappily. It was pointed out to me recently how easy it is for me to slip in and out of making arguments and discussions simultaneously personal or theoretical/hypothetical. Now that’s yet another flaw I get to police, along with the savior complex, pigeon holing, inability to be apathetic, duty for social good and more I’m forgetting at the moment.

I think my sister captured the meditations on this better than I could:

I actually thought it was really interesting to hear your concerns about how you interact with other people, and talk about how to choose or not choose whether to continue acting in a way they might find annoying. It’s so hard to balance being yourself and conforming to or reflecting the situation you’re in. And I think it takes a good amount of self awareness to get to where you are. I also think it’s shitty that some of these groups have made you feel shitty, though. I realized another factor in your situation might be getting older; energetic positivity is much more widely embraced and followed in idealistic college years, but in masters years it wanes, and in phd programs it dies and becomes reviled. That’s the academic course; I think in so-called RL, it follows a similar trajectory but for different reasons. People get out into the working world, or don’t, and realizes how much it can suck to have and to not have a job. They have to do taxes, sign leases, worry about carpet stains, try to make friends without the support structures they’re used to, etc. And so energy saps away–or is redirected into sterile, accepted gym environments, rather than games and adventures–and world outlooks shift to become cynical and jaded. People begin to compromise on every front, including romantic ones. I think there might be an upswing when they start to have kids and have to get excited about things like Blues Clues and delude themselves into believing their progeny will inherit a world worth inhabiting, and they become interested in making it a world worth their children living in. Maybe that will be your moment again. Who knows.

 

Storyography for Lincoln Hall

To be part of this – http://www.lincolnhall.illinois.edu/storyography. Overdone. Intentionally.

Back during my time as an undergraduate I belonged a registered student organization known at Positive Event Chain. The goal of the group, loosely defined, was to take part in events that would spread good Karma, the notion that doing something nice for someone else would prompt them to help other strangers and so on. Functionally this resulted in our group running activities like giving out free hugs on the quad (before this was cool to do) or delivering people hand-written comments like handing out fliers.One such event was our yearly Secret Santa Spoof. We would always meet in Lincoln Hall (because it was almost always open and I later had a key as a sociology graduate student) and over the years observed that one of the girls Acappella groups would have a gift exchange leaving nice wrapping paper in the trash bins. So our event became a deviant re-use activity, of an odd kind. Each person would pull a name out of a hat and that person would become their giftee. They would then venture out into the depths and nooks of the building in search of odd gifts found in corners and beneath piles. We could go out for an hour and gather derelicts like old tires, trophies belonging to clubs from the 1970’s, theater props or costumes, misshapen hunks of wood, ancient cassette tapes and any other strange relics of the past we could find in the basement, attic or wherever else in the building. We’d then wrap the gift, invent a story, and give them to each other in the room as jokes. Nobody ever actually wanted these gifts, of course, so they’d end up back where they were found, but we had the understanding that they wouldn’t be given again the next year. This event went on for about three years and brought some good laughs until the lot of us graduated.

I snuck in to Lincoln while the construction was nearing completion and revisited some of the depths of the basement that we were never able to get into. I never realized just how large it was! It was a little sad, however, seeing how the spaces that once could have worked as exemplar horror movie sets (my friend even made a flash video using them) had been painted white, freshly lit and replaced with pristine, sparkling parts. No more piles of random junk, low-hanging pipes, graffiti and dangerous jagged metal.

So instead I think I’ll stick with my memory – an echo of a Secret Santa parody that encouraged people to do good deeds and relinquish the beauty held in moments.

Questioning Equality

You’ll notice the red equal signs all over Facebook today. An example of resistance (as opposed to reform):

http://www.againstequality.org/

“Against Equality is an online archive, publishing, and arts collective focused on critiquing mainstream gay and lesbian politics. As queer thinkers, writers and artists, we are committed to dislodging the centrality of equality rhetoric and challenging the demand for inclusion in the institution of marriage, the US military, and the prison industrial complex via hate crimes legislation.”

I’m somewhat with it because I’m really pretty ‘meh’ about the necessity and value of marriage. But on the other hand I do think that if we’re going to have the idea/institution we ought to present it with at least a semblance of equality of opportunity. The other two issues seem similar – yes, we should reduce (or in some views eliminate) the military and drastically alter the prison system – but if we do not have the power to take these actions (because we must compromise in a democracy that includes the radical right) we ought at least strive for equality of opportunity. Maybe it’s just the name I have a problem with – against equality – instead of considering, questioning, critiquing and understanding society in our efforts to achieve equality of opportunity.

A more sexy approach

I watched this TED talk the other day:

Generally I thought this talk was good. She gives easily-identifiable examples and lands on next steps at the end, something many cultural studies people don’t do so well. I thought one of her suggestions was unreasonable, but we’ll come back to this. What inspired this post is that I made the mistake of looking at the comments below the video. One user, likely a young man, had been going back and forth with the other contributors. I’ll examine one comment of his:

“I agree somewhat – at least in the importance of being direct. It’s such a shame, then, that people like this C. Heldman would tell men that such behavior is ‘objectifying women’. She instead denies male sexuality and pushes this ‘nice guy’ attitude which doesn’t do anyone any good.

Men judge women on appearance, then we look at other things. That’s? not bad, it’s just the way we were built. Men should not be shamed into acting unnaturally just because it makes some women uncomfortable. IMO”

I’m not really clear what he’s talking about in the first part of the statement, but I think the second part is worth unpacking a bit. My first reaction is to disagree with him – not all men judge all women based on their appearance, but certainly many people get first impressions of one another. I’ve sometimes felt a little shameful in how I’ll spot physically attractive women out of the corner of my eye in a crowd and won’t pay the slightest bit of attention to others. I know this is primarily a socialized recognition but at times it feels almost instinctual – how fast and with how little information my mind manages to make these evaluations. It’s perhaps well-practiced. I can’t say I can subscribe to any notion of human nature (if anything it’s our “nature” to create our own ways of being to shape the world around us) but it’s not surprising he chooses to rely on this false discourse – “it’s just the way we were built” – by who? What evidence do we have that all men are ‘built’ in a way that makes them “judge women on appearance” ? I do assume he’s referring to primordial or carnal instincts and urges, not the assemblage of experiences and learned behaviors from which our identities are built. Suggesting that some biology controls us mostly or entirely alleviates any responsibility he might have for his own actions.

I was ready to dismiss his comment entirely until the very last sentence. “Men should not be shamed into acting unnaturally just because it makes women uncomfortable.” Again I’m not sure that there is such a thing as ‘naturally’ in this case, but let me put my own twist on this. I deal with some measure of guilt in my pursuit of romantic partners. No amount of feminist idealism is going to dramatically alter the hormonal component of attraction. I’ve certainly had the kinds of people I’m attracted to change over the years of my life, but this process has been gradual and not actively guided. The TED speaker may not be asking men to simply switch off the way they’re attracted to women like a light-switch (10:15 mark, her next steps) but I can certainly understand why this (presumably) young man might feel like that’s what she’s asking.

Try as I might I will likely never be attracted to overweight women. I could choose to date one, but I wouldn’t be able to successfully or responsibly have sex with a person who’s overweight (stated crudely, “I couldn’t get it up”). I know this preference is probably hurtful, on some level. But ultimately our social control can only go so far. Trying to rearrange what body types “society” reveres as attractive is just plain difficult – and it’s a process. Pointing out objectification and encouraging women to give up makeup and high heels and the like is absolutely necessary (and I actively push for these kinds of changes), but I’m not convinced it will change what body types most currently existing heterosexual men are attracted to. My children will grow up being encouraged to find women or men of many healthy body appearances attractive but this doesn’t solve the issue for myself or the guy who made this comment. This reality makes the speaker’s pitch feel considerably less satisfying or actionable – and can almost come off as the notion that in order to be feminist and stamp out objectification (hetero) men must stop being attracted to female bodies. Or, alternatively, that they must completely suppress or ignore their hormonal urges and first impressions and determine their attraction based purely on other things, like confidence or talents or power.

These days I’ve reached a sort of compromise – I police myself, trying to give equitable attention to women (and men) of many appearances and clearly never find myself in a relationship with women who don’t have real character and integrity. I’m not ready to advocate that we give up on finding bodies attractive. I think bodies are great, and while I don’t want to constantly objectify them I’m alright with people finding certain forms of them desirable. I doubt very much the speaker would object to suggesting healthy bodies should be recognized and valued. What’s more is that the strict cultural studies approach often grounds us too deeply in the negative. While we do need to point out the negative influences objectification of the female form has I think it’s worth taking other positive actions – complimenting women who don’t bother with high heels or encouraging women to look for and expect value on the basis of their opinions and assertions in the world around them.

In other words, let’s go with more positivity. Don’t tell (hetero) boys not to be attracted hot chicks (or to ignore that they’re hot), tell them to look for and encourage depth in women.

I am an explorer!

So I spent 30 minutes collecting outstanding screen shots in Far Cry 3, including a really cool lost abandoned hotel section that you aren’t supposed to interact with… and then I alt-tabbed and figured out I was doing it wrong and it only saved the first capture. SADFACE. I could write on how this is an interface fail… or install Camtasia… or be a productive citizen/PhD student and not play more computer games.

Anyway I was going to explain how it’s a really amazing looking game and how I wonder if money could be made just creating really impressive-looking fantasy landscapes, minus the violence (Tom Fairbanksonian). This abandoned hotel I found was probably for a level or section that they removed or never finished, but you can wing-suit (yes, you get one of those!) or hang-glide on top of it and find yourself floating in mid-air on top of holes in the roof or balconies. It’s just a glitch, but I found it refreshing to be able to discover something I wasn’t supposed to in a game – often these days they’re so scripted and controlled that sort of thing is really hard to do, usually the kind of activity saved for people who do nothing but mess around in games all day.

SO since I don’t have my own pictures for you I’ve just included some taken by others below. Cheers!

PS – this game teaches you to do a lot of drugs, but if you have sex with the lady who wants you to cheat on/kill your GF you die, so… MORALZ!!

PPS – I played a lot of this game as my dad built furniture watching the Rambo trilogy, and, I must say, this game is much better than those movies in all ways

Unbaby Almost

About a month ago I was tickled to discover Unbaby.me, a plugin for Facebook that attempts to detect pictures of babies and replace them with an image feed of your choosing. It’s a neat idea, but the system fails on two accounts:

1) It traces words and phrases like “OMG SO CUTE!!! 🙂 🙂 :)” to determine if a picture is likely a baby. This takes out small furry animals as collateral damage, which I’m actually okay with, and also sometimes pictures of people. Sorry Ashley Bradarich, you’re still a celebrity but I love you for it. Your devil-angel photo is certainly TOO CUTE FOR WORDS HOLY GAWDS!!1!.

2) I set mine to relay the amazing website designs image feed on DeviantArt but since people there don’t understand what categories are I get results like the following:

See, this is my kind of information science. IR can be so much more fun than convoluted math equations.