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Tolkien on teaching

Today marks the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the final movie in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien saga (at least until he decides to make nine movies out of The Silmarillion). Its release during final exam time is fitting since Tolkien famously started writing The Hobbit while grading. As reported by Alison Flood in The Guardian:

Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, and would mark School Certificate exams in the summers to add to his salary. In a letter to WH Auden, he wrote: “All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children. On the blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.”

In a recently rediscovered letter, Tolkien also noted that:

“All teaching is exhausting, and depressing and one is seldom comforted by knowing when one has had some effect. I wish I could now tell some of mine (of long ago) how I remember them and things they said, though I was (only, as it appeared) looking out of the window or giggling at my neighbour”.

Tolkien dealt with the “everlasting weariness” of grading by creating an entire world that is adored by millions. The rest of us can try to overcome memories of our students looking out the window and giggling with their neighbors by going to the movies.

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Today is December 15, which means that there are 10 more days to gear up for Christmas or, alternatively, ten more days until you will stop hearing “Jingle Bell Rock” everywhere you go. In either case, here are some snarky Christmas-themed posts to pass the time:

2014: Christmas as social control

2013: Christmas at Fox News

2012: Kevin McCallister, murderer?

2012: Toys for rich and poor

2012: Toys for boys and girls

2012: Thoughts on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

2011: Holiday advertising gone wrong (a.k.a. the Folgers commercial)

2010: The world’s most offensive Christmas song

2009: Christmas spells relief

Christmas Bonus: A subscription to the Jelly of the Month Club? No, its the Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog for 2012, 2013, and 2014

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook and I promise I will stop playing “Jingle Bell Rock” (and doing the dance from Mean Girls).

Christmas as social control

Bentham and Foucault might have been interested in the panopticon but every December we get a view of  true social control in the form of an overweight man at the North Pole. Santa Claus (or Sandy Claws, as he is sometimes called) is just the latest in a long line of beings whose sole purpose is to control children through fear (Krampus is another example, as is the Belsnickel, as Dwight demonstrated on The Office). Recently, though, Santa has been doing his spying by proxy (giving him more time to bully young reindeer).

In Santa’s place are his elves on the shelves, a team of small elves who began taking up residence in people’s homes in 2005. These elves observe the behavior of children and then fly back to the North Pole to report their observations to Santa each night. The magical ability to do so begins when the elves are named (before this point they are apparently in some sort of coma during which they can be sealed in boxes and sent to stores around the country) but the elves are in danger of losing their magic if touched. Upon returning each night, the elves hide in a new place and children delight in finding them each morning. Apparently, some of the elves also like to get into mischief, making them both spies and hypocrites.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

If you have continued reading, prepare yourself for a shock. The elves are actually inanimate objects with neither magic nor the ability to report to Santa Claus each night. Instead, adults in each household are responsible for moving the elves around (thus touching them and ruining any magical potential that they may have had). As you can imagine, this creates quite a bit of work for these adults, to the point that there are posts dedicated to dealing with the fact that they forgot to move the elves. The elves have also been copied in various ways. Telling children that Santa can see them when they’re sleeping and knows when they’re awake and knows if they’ve been bad or good seems much easier, especially since adults are likely to run out of creative places to hide the elf after about the third day.

Assuming that the intention of Santa, Krampus, the Belsnickel, and the elves on the shelves is social control, it seems that the elves would be both the least effective and the biggest pain in the ass. Imagine if the prison designed by Bentham made it possible that prisoners could be observed at any time unless they touched the prison wall, in which case a door came down that cut off the potential view of the guards. There might be no escaping Santa’s creepy spying or the Belsnickel’s judgment, but if I was a kid and I wanted to get away with bad behavior you can bet that the first thing I would do is touch the damn elf.

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In addition to being the time of the semester when students suddenly realize that they have been slacking off for 15 weeks and hope that they can make up for it with an extra credit assignment, it also appears to be the time of the semester when their computers are most likely to self destruct. In the past two days, one student’s laptop screen stopped working while another student’s computer refused to boot. And the epidemic is not limited to students in my courses. Across campus students are experiencing rampant computer failure. This is most frequently combined with a complete lack of ever having backed anything up.

Despite the tone of my comments, I have real sympathy for students in these situations. The only possible solution that I can think of is for students to frequently use their computers for coursework throughout the semester so that the computers are not caught off guard by the sudden need to function 24/7 in the last few weeks.

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Despite the fact that I can access journal articles online and read them on my iPad, technology hasn’t had a dramatic influence on what I do. The same is true in the classroom:

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In an interview with New York Magazine (via Slate), Chris Rock offers some thoughts on racial progress after Ferguson, changing the typical framing of this issue and focusing indirectly on the issue of power. He says:

When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. … So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

Also making the rounds on Facebook is an article about the experiences of Kiese Laymon, a black faculty member at Vassar College. Like Rock, Laymon highlights the differential power afforded to whites vs. blacks, even when the whites are campus security guards and the blacks are professors, concluding:

We are so much better than the sick part of our nation that murders an unarmed black boy like a rabid dog, before prosecuting him for being a nigger. We are so much better than powerful academic institutions, special prosecutors, and the innocent practitioners of white racial supremacy in this nation who really believe that a handful of niggers with some special IDs, and a scar(r)ed black President on the wrong side of history, are proof of their—and really, our own—terrifying deliverance from American evil.

This, combined with other recent events, demonstrates that we still have a long way to go to change the structural elements that will allow whites to be “nicer.”

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When I initially read The Hunger Games novels by Suzanne Collins, I appreciated the third book for its depiction of the messiness of revolution. It is not surprising that this messiness allows people from a variety of political orientations to connect with the story, as Sarah Seltzer and sociologist Mari Armstrong-Hough discuss at Flavorwire:

Beyond just advocating personal resistance to forces of political control, she says the books put forth the idea that “violence breeds docility.” “I don’t mean that threatening people with violence makes them docile, because it doesn’t. I mean that teaching people to be violent and consume violence makes them docile,” she explains. “The Games institutionalize a political docility not so much because they threaten violence to the districts’ children, but because they create a society in which people think they must choose survival over solidarity. I think a lot of people, regardless of their political affiliation, feel like there has been a lot of being forced to choose survival over solidarity going around in the US.”

Via: The Society Pages

See Also: Katniss Everdeen on the Academic Job Market and The Hunger Games and Movie Relationships

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