Saturday, April 30, 2011

Prague, 1968: Memory #2

In this, the second piece in a series that will, I hope, cover the entire year of 1968 through my own experiences, I write of my departure from Prague, a couple of weeks before the arrival of the Russian troops who displaced the power of the Dubcek regime.  I hope I am, finally, beginning to discover how to make at least a little personal sense of that most peculiar incident in that most peculiar year, and I hope I am doing it for others in these "memories."  The first piece can be found here.

The main train station was huge and underpopulated. Nothing like the Munich hauptbahnhoff or Paris's Gare du Nord except in size and, perhaps, age. To me, as I rushed in from the police station, the long row of empty ticket windows was as daunting as long lines of anxious travelers would have been: I had no idea if there were some reason no one was buying tickets. No idea if the people behind those windows even intended to sell tickets.
It wasn't going to work, buying a a ticket in Czech. My rudimentary French and German generally managed to get me what I wanted (after a bit of perplexed negotiation and pantomime); I couldn't even say 'hello' in Czech. At the first window, I asked if the man spoke French, tried German, then English. Got only a negative head shake. At the next, the same. At the third, I said simply “Deutschland,” hoping that would be understood and sufficient. The man said something, but I didn't understand. He then wrote a number on a slip of paper. I counted out the amount from the bit of Czech currency I had and he handed me a ticket, a destination and track number printed on it. As I turned away, I noticed a kiosk selling newspapers, among them The London Times. I bought a copy, and probably some bread someplace. I had to have eaten, but I don't remember getting any food.
Looking across various boards, I soon found where I should be, and entered the train. The car was old, and there was no one else in it. It was laid out like the ones in Western movies, bench seats in twin rows, a large window next to each. The floor was bare and stained, the cloth seats not much different. A small table could be pulled up from the wall under the window. I did that, laid the newspaper upon it, and pulled the upper part of the window down before settling in.
As the train started to move, I realized I had made no distinction between East and West Germany when I had bought my ticket—but also told myself I probably couldn't have, anyway, my command of the language being that weak. It didn't really matter: I was going somewhere at least... somewhere? In another part of the world, that might be OK, but somewhere, here, could be a dead end. What if the train were heading straight east, towards the Soviet Union? What if I ended up on the border with Poland or Hungary—or even East Germany. I couldn't cross into any of them—and I couldn't stay here... hmm.... I began to imagine that I was disappearing without a trace.
With nothing else to do, and wanting to stay away from idiotic speculation, I reached into my pack for one of the books I'd traded for a couple of days earlier. The one I pulled out was a small volume called Anthem by Ayn Rand, a writer I'd never heard of at that point. Almost from the start, the book annoyed me: Here I was, at the mercy of systems way beyond my control, from railroad to national borders, reading about someone able to rise above all of these, simply by strength of personality and will. The book just made me feel smaller and more insignificant than I'd already imagined, shrinking away to nothing, disappearing right there in my seat.
When I started to close the book, I notice a film of gray on the pages. I shook it onto the table: black dust. I'd been holding the book over the newspaper; there was now a book-sized outline, a reverse shadow surrounded by gray. Standing, I pushed my head as far out the open window as I could (which wasn't much), to try and see what this was. Ahead, as we rounded a curve, I saw the locomotive, not electric or diesel, as I would have expected, but coal-burning, spewing a trail of smoke that covered the cars behind.
That, the car, and the family that had gotten on at the last of the frequent stops started me thinking that this was a train not only to nowhere, but to the past.
Today, I would recognize them as Roma, at least four generations of Roma. Then, they simply seemed like they'd stepped out of a storybook from a long-forgotten century. The matriarch, colorful scarf over her head, leathery skin, only a couple of teeth, long and full skirts, layers of blouse of multiple colors, sat down across from me after the rest of the family was settled. She tried to talk with me, but I couldn't understand a word she was saying.
Eventually, I realized she was trying to guess my nationality. “American.” I pointed at my chest. “American!” She laughed, turned to her family, and shouted, “American!” Turning back to me, she rubbed thumb and middle finger together and said, “Gelt, gelt.”
I spread my arms and smiled, “Keine gelt.” She laughed again, clearly not believing me. I still had some of the Russian cigarettes the Yugoslavs had given me. Rummaging through my backpack, I pulled a few out and handed them to her. She smiled and they disappeared. After a few minutes more of trying to talk to me—or of trying to get more out of me (I don't know which)—she got up and returned to sit with her family.
Station after station, I looked out for the name (which I've long forgotten) on my ticket. The Roma got off someplace, and I had the car once more to myself. Finally, at the point where I'd almost decided I really was headed for the U.S.S.R. and oblivion, we did pull into the correct station.
Unlike the pre-WWI extravaganza in Prague, this one was small and in the middle of noplace. But it did have, inside, a map of the country—with a star indicating “you are here.” I stared at it, realized I wasn't at least, on the Russian, or even Polish or Hungarian border—but that I was on the East German one. I searched over towards West Germany, and saw the name of a town near that border.
Cheb!” I shouted its name at the man at the lone ticket window. He looked up startled, motioned me over, and kept motioning. I started shoving money at him; he sorted through, took some, pushed the rest back along with a ticket, ran out of the booth and the building, motioning for me to follow. He sprinted across the tracks towards a short, red electric train passing in the distance, waving. It slowed, then stopped. I climbed aboard and he turned back to his station after giving me a grin and a final wave.
The day was fading as I descended from the train at the Cheb station. At a ticket window, I asked the way to the “zoll,” the “Douane,” the closest words I knew relating to the border. The woman behind it looked at me strangely, but pointed. I hurried outside, pulling my raincoat from my pack, for it had begun to look like rain.
The road the woman's finger brought me to did take me out of town. But it got smaller, and then even smaller. I kept walking though, wondering where I was headed, but with no real alternative.
Eventually, I came to a small village. It was getting pretty dark. Someone, I figured, must speak German in town, especially this close to the border—assuming we were close to the border. A couple of kids were walking along towards me. I said to them, “Deutschland?” and pointed ahead. They looked at me, uncomprehending, but motioned for me to follow them. I did. One of them ran ahead, shouting to someone else.
Other children joined us, and a couple of adults, including a kid on a motor scooter, who circled around and around. The kids swarmed ahead to the doorway of one house and waited in anticipation until the door opened and a man stepped out. He spoke to me, but I could understand not a word.
Seeing my blank expression, he asked a question. Of it, I thought I gleaned one word. It sounded something like “Russki.”
No, no. American.” I pointed to my chest.
American!” The crowd started laughing and yelling, the fellow on the motorbike circling faster and shouting. The man raised his arms—he seemed to have the control over them of a schoolteacher—and they began to quiet down. He had, fortunately, a few words of English. Not enough so that we could really talk, but enough so that, with a little work, we seemed to communicate.
He pointed me to a path, telling me to follow it to get to the border. I thanked him and started walking. The kids trailed along for a few minutes, the guy on the scooter being the last to tail off home.
This path, like the road I'd been on before, got smaller and smaller, finally ending at a gate before a small house, two German shepherds on the other side warning me quite loudly not to go further. It had begun to rain and was completely dark.
In the distance, off to the right, I could make out lights, like those of a town, and a row of them trailing off to the left, like those over a road. There were also moving lights, like headlights.
Well, something to aim for, at least. I turned into the field, walking between rows of some crop or another, waist high and wet. By the time I got to the road, the water from the plants had soaked my underside as much as the rain, now just a drizzle, had done to the rest of me. I was thoroughly miserable, wondering if I would ever get through the evening. I turned towards the town.
Traffic on the road included several cars with German plates. A good sign. I increased my pace. Maybe those were lights of the border itself, not a town. Maybe, if I were lucky.
There was a sign on the roadside, just where the buildings started, one word on it: “Cheb.”
I had walked in a gigantic circle.
All I had to show for several hours of trudging was the water that now chilled every part of me.
What to do?
Well, if this were Cheb, then the border must be the other way.

The night would only get stranger from this point on.  I'll try to write about the entire rest of it in the next installment.  It was an eventful night, however, and it might prove necessary to divide it further.  Next, I should at least get my young self up to the border station.  Across into Germany?  We'll see.

Drive-by Lying

The cowardice of the drive-by shooter: Never put yourself at risk.

That's what Andrew Breitbart does.

With no responsibility to anyone, Breitbart can manipulate anything any way he wants, never caring that he will be caught, never caring who he hurts, for no one can do anything to him.

If they try, he can hide behind the shirts of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Outside of his so-called "journalism," only children (and drive-by shooters are children, even if grown physically) hide in such fashion, never taking responsibility, always putting blame on the victims.  Only children and, of course, the abusers in abusive relationships.

Shirley Sherrod was a Breitbart victim, her career destroyed so that he could promote his own vanity by shooting at the NAACP.  Instead of being ashamed of what he's done, Breitbart claims to be 'excited,' now claiming the important thing is something else entirely than what he did.

Now, a labor activist and part-time teacher named Don Giljum has lost two jobs, one with a union, one teaching, so that Breitbart can strut his stuff once more.

Breitbart and his people are just so proud!  Breitbart has promised to 'go after teachers,' and this is his first drive-by in this particular crusade.  Or should I say, "charade."

This has to stop.  We, as Americans, have to start forcing the Breitbarts of the world (including Donald Trump, but that's another story) to take responsibility for what they are doing.  We need to stop allowing them to force their drive-by horror on us.  We need to stop them before they destroy any more lives.

Here's what Breitbart's drive-by this week is like:
The video posted on Breitbart’s BigGovernment website is entitled “Thuggery 101: Union Official, Professor Teach How-To College Course in Violent Union Tactics.”  The violence that is being done, however, is to the academic freedom and employment security of the instructors, and to the privacy and safe classroom environment of the students, some of whom speak on the video clip.  When students voice their views in class, they should not have to fear that their comments will be spread all over the Internet.  When faculty members rightly explore difficult topics in class, they should not have to fear for their jobs or their lives. (Death threats to the instructors have been posted on Breitbart’s blog).  [from an American Association of University Professors press release]
 The University of Missouri-Kansas City continues to review approximately 18 hours of unedited video from the Labor, Politics and Society class. From the review completed to date, it is clear that edited videos posted on the Internet depict statements from the instructors in an inaccurate and distorted manner by taking their statements out of context and reordering the sequence in which those statements were actually made so as to change their meaning. Such selective editing is disturbing and the release of students’ images without their permission is a violation of their privacy rights. [from the Provost's Office, University of Missouri at Kansas City]

The University of Missouri system has been besieged with angry letters and phone calls, and top officials at its St. Louis campus have asked an adjunct faculty member to resign, as a result of the conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart's posting videos this week that appear to show two labor-studies instructors advocating union violence.
A contributor to Mr. Breitbart's Web site produced the two videos, which run roughly seven minutes each, from about 30 hours of lecture footage taped as part of a distance-education course and uploaded onto the university's Blackboard course-management system. [from The Chronicle of Higher Education]
 It's easy enough to find Breitbart's dishonest edit of the class.  Crooks and Liars has posted the unedited full quote from one of the instances.

Here are some other links:

Letters of support for Don Giljum can be sent to University of Missouri-St. Louis Chancellor Thomas F. George at and Deborah Baldini, Associate Dean for Continuing Education at  If you do, you might want to call into question forcing a resignation with no investigation, no due process, and clear violation of academic freedom.

Over the next few days, I will be posting more about Breitbart.  Check back here.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Prague, 1968: Memory

It eventually becomes possible to write about things that one has puzzled over for quite a long time, finally making some sense of them.  The year 1968 was, for me and many of my generation, quite formative.  It was bizarre in ways that can hardly be believed, even decades later--and I don't mean bizarre in terms of the major events--though it certainly was that, too.  It was bizarre for many of us personally, for American culture had turned topsy-turvy and it was possible to try things that, quite frankly, shouldn't even BE tried.  It was possible to do things that should never be done.  And things happened to us that, bluntly, should never be wished on anyone.
In this, the first piece in a series that will, I hope, cover the entire year through my own experiences, I write of my arrival in Prague, a couple of weeks before the Russian troops who displaced the power of the Dubcek regime.  I hope I am, finally, beginning to discover how to make at least a little personal sense of that most peculiar year, and I hope I am doing it for others in these "memories."
August 6: The Czech border station was quite spare. I recall but a single man who stamped our passports with visa information and waved us on. There must have been more, but I don't remember them.
The entire country seemed relatively empty compared to the Austria behind us. The trees, starting some hundred meters or so from the border, looked as though they hid nothing. The pavement showed little sign of car traffic—certainly, there was none right then. In memory, it reminds me of a turn-off into an abandoned sub-development. If there was a village nearby, we couldn't see it.
We walked towards the main road to turn north, towards Prague. Up until then, we'd had great luck. Only minutes after getting to the autobahn entrance at Munich, a car had slowed, stopped, and later dropped us outside of Linz, 200 kilometers on. Almost immediate, another offered to take us up to the border, though the driver wasn't even going that way. This was my first experience hitch-hiking with a woman, and I was seeing the advantage.
She was a few years older than I, perhaps twenty-two or twenty-three to my sixteen. We had met that morning at the youth hostel in Munich, where I had gone to shower. I had had a particularly bad night, a horrible night, and wanted to get out of town as quickly as possible. She had heard that you could now get Czech visas at the border, and for almost nothing—for a week's stay, no less—but didn't want to hitch alone. By noon, we had agreed to be on our way.
Each of us traveled light. Her backpack was bigger than mine, but not by much. Mine was stuffed with two changes of clothes, a few toiletries, a long military-style raincoat, a couple of paperbacks I'd traded for just as we'd left Munich, and my stack of maps. I didn't need much else; when sleeping rough, as I sometimes did, too many belonging could prove a problem.
My companion, whose name slipped from my brain even before I returned to the States at the end of the month, told me that she didn't think our luck was going to hold. Not a single vehicle had passed on the road ahead during the five minutes we had walked towards it. Not only that, she said, but she was starting to have cramps.
At that point in my inexperience, I had no clue what she was talking about, but she was clearly in pain. A few minutes after we had turned north on the real road, she told me to stay where I was and disappeared into the woods. When she came back, I could tell from her face that things weren't much better for her, and she told me something had better come along soon. I was used to empty roads, rideless roads at least, and had learned to be a little patient. When I told her just to take it easy, she glared. I shrugged and we continued walking.
I don't know how long we trudged up the road, or how many vehicles passed us. I think there was a tractor, but could be confusing that with one a few days later. Maybe a car passed, or a truck or two. But that was it. The woman was feeling worse as time went on, and getting angrier about it. I probably sulked: Whatever was wrong with her wasn't my fault, and there wasn't anything I could do about it, anyway. My only concern was that I'd smoked the last of my cigarettes.
It must have been getting on towards evening when a bus overtook us from the south. My companion said “Fuck it,” stepped into the road, and waved it down. To my surprise, it stopped. The driver pushed the door open, and we climbed in.
The people inside—we soon saw they were all young men; they filled about a quarter of the seats of the bus—greeted us. First, all in the same language and then in a number of different ones. I recognized German, French, Italian, and finally English. They were Yugoslav students, they told us, heading for Budĕjovice where they were studying. We could accompany them.
They offered, after we had talked for a time and they had found we were exotic “Americans,” to give us a room for the night (they'd decided we were lovers—and refused to accept the woman's vehement denials, and mine, less loud). We accepted, though she gave me a look that made it clear I'd better stay clear.
Not only did they provide us with a room—twin bunks, she on top on one side, me on the lower opposite—but they bought us dinner, beer, and gave me a couple of packs of Russian cigarettes (my first experience of those monstrosities). The next morning, they gave us breakfast, then took us to the train station and helped us buy tickets for Prague. Three things made this palatable: First, I hadn't spent anything at all since entering the country, so had a little extra. Second, I did realize that there probably wouldn't be more traffic than the day before. And, finally, the cost of the ticket was hardly a cost at all.
That the woman was through with me was obvious as we got off the train. I had recognized this the day before, but we hardly knew each other, so wasn't really upset. Besides, I couldn't blame her. I knew she felt insulted, for I understood that I was way to young to be considered her lover without embarrassment on her part. I also knew that she had only needed me to help her get to Prague, and now we were there.
When we exited the main train station, she asked me, quite pointedly, what I planned on doing, and where I would go. I said that I didn't know, but that one of the Yugoslavs had given me directions to a student hostel I could probably afford. She said she had the address of another place, one she'd been given a few days earlier. We quickly agreed to go our separate ways on the steps outside, me to the right, she to the left. Out of her own guilt, I suspect, she suggested that we get together next day for lunch. As neither of us knew the town, we agreed to meet again right there.
As I walked, directions crumpled in my shirt pocket, I looked around. The city was gray, covered with soot, and somewhat crumbly. The buildings were older than what I was used to seeing anywhere but in the restored areas for tourists of what little of the rest of Europe I'd really seen. The doors were huge and heavy, none providing any indication of what lay behind. Eventually, I climbed on a tram that took me away from the old area. Getting off where directed, I found the hostel. It was more expensive than I thought it would be, but I figured I could swing it for one night. They took my passport and handed me the key to what proved to be a suite with living room, bedroom, kitchen, and (something I hadn't seen in quite some time) private bath.
I couldn't resist. For an hour, I bathed, then washed out all but the clothes I had on and hung them over the tub to dry.
Later, I went out, making my way back to the center of town, where I walked around, looking at things. I don't remember much of what I saw, other than the synagogue in whose graveyard Kafka is buried. I do remember the Charles Bridge and the castle on the other side, but the city frightened me a little. There was no one I could talk to, and very few people on the streets.
A bit hungry, my eye was more towards eating places than anything else. I did find a store, of sorts, and purchased a bottle of what looked like soda pop. But it was sticky with syrup and tasted so sweet it made me a little sick. When I set it down and abandoned it, I felt rather guilty: Though the city was grimy, there was no trash anywhere.
It's possible that I didn't eat until the next day. It wouldn't have been the first time that had happened. But I doubt it. I vaguely do remember managing to buy a few things and taking them back to the rooms—but that could have been another time in another country. Next morning I did check out, retrieving my passport and heading back to the center of town, where I did a little more wandering and looking. I was rather bored, though, and thought I'd probably move on, heading back towards Germany. 
 First, I'd meet the woman.
She was there, right when and where she said she'd be. When she saw me, she came running. She grabbed me by the elbow, saying, “We've got troubles. I talked to some people this morning. Our visas aren't for a week, but were simply for a day. We were supposed to get longer ones yesterday morning.”
Well, what do we do?”
I don't know. But we have to do it now.”
Who can we ask? I've yet to meet anyone, except for those Yugoslavs, who speaks any English. My little German and French won't help, even if we find people speaking those.”
I don't know. All I can think of is finding the U.S. Embassy and asking there.”
I had seen it, the day before, but didn't remember quite where. We set off in the general direction, and eventually did come across it.
They wouldn't let us in. Not that I blame them. Even though I had washed my clothes as best I could, they still weren't much better than rags, and my hair was shoulder-length--a no-no to many Americans of the time. She also had long hair, was dressed in jeans. We looked to the Marine guard (I am sure) like we belonged in Haight-Ashbury, not Prague, and, more rightly, in jail. The best he could do, he said, was direct us to a police station down the way.
There, after a number of hints and proddings, the woman realized that she could, for a small bribe beyond the cost of a visa, extend hers for a week, even though “technically” that should not be allowed (there was someone there with rudimentary German). For me, because I could not afford that, they “relented” and gave me until midnight to get out of the country.
I headed back to the train station as quickly as I could.

And there commenced one of the longest and strangest twenty-four hours I ever hope to experience. It included guns and trains, coal dust and rain, a presidential nomination and a former SS officer who had learned perfect English as a prisoner of war. It got me out of the country and to Nuremburg, but without sleep. It got me two new friends there, an Italian and a Brit, with whom I split a liter of vodka and a small bottle of mixer. It was exhausting, but it will have to wait until my next small bit of free time for writing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Trust, Education, and the Irony of the Tea Party

Andrew Milton, of the blog Speaking of Education, writes:

law, contracts, lawyers and all have come to be the mechanism by which problems get solved. One result is that we more and more rely on external authorities (the state paramount among them) to decide on best outcomes and mandate their pursuit.

It's an inexorable process. The authority of the state and laws is comprehensive and definitive, transcending any trust-built choices coming out of actual relationships among people. Why bother working things out, since the state just mandates anyway?
Most of the solutions proposed for our "problem" of education today center on legalistic and bureaucratic policies requiring more government oversight, not less.  "Accountability" requires someone to be accountable to and, because we lack trust (or faith) in anyone, its recording has to be on some sort of numeric scale (as if numbers are any more trustworthy than people).

People, particularly people on the right (personalized today by the Tea Party), do not trust teachers or the unions that represent them.  So they want their politicians to oversee the schools.  Problem is, they don't trust politicians either, and want to limit their power by decreasing the money the politicians manage.  Without the money, the politicians have less leverage over the schools.  Without money, they can't mandate the measurements.

The real route towards improving our schools lies through improved teacher-training, something that has happened over the past several decades.  When I returned to teaching full-time some seven years ago, I was surprised to see how much better our education departments are today than they were a generation ago.

Unfortunately, better training isn't enough.  Success must be built on trust in the trained teachers, to classrooms where these teachers can act as individual agents, drawing on their own abilities, training, and backgrounds.  Again: for success, the road must be paved with trust.

That trust is deserved, even if not given.  Just look at the record.  The American educational system has taught more students well over the past century than any other in the world--and continues to do so, bested only by systems that do not face the strains of ethnic and economic diversity that bedevil us here.

We can do better, yes.  And we have the trained teachers who can do that.  But they are leaving teaching, staying a few years, at best.


Because they aren't trusted.

Because they aren't trusted, they aren't able to utilize the skills they have developed.  Instead, they must slavishly follow patterns developed by bureaucrats far from the students, patterns mandated by politicians pandering to a voting public acting on fear and mistrust, not on knowledge.

The Tea Party cannot decide what it wants, smaller government or stronger government.  No... let me rephrase that: The Tea Party wants both smaller government and stronger government.  But it cannot have both.  Certainly not without trust.

And the Tea Party is not willing to trust anyone.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Righthaven, Pam's House Blend, and Fair Use

A few minutes ago, Pam Spaulding (@Pam_Spaulding) twitted a link to a posting on her blog, Pam's House Blend.  It seems she got caught up in the Righthaven copytroll mess and lost what is (to her and, I am sure, to me) a great deal of money in a settlement, almost enough to kill her blog (let's hope she survives).

I've been following Righthaven for some time now, and even had contributed the following to The 2010 CCCC-IP Annual:

The 'Fair Use' Challenge

This could be the year that the 'fair use' doctrine finally loses its potency as a protector of academic activity, especially online.  Righthaven LLC may be forcing the courts to establish rigid, individualizable guidelines for what has been a poorly defined (though significant) part of American copyright protections and rights.  'Fair use' “allows anyone to copy, quote, and publish parts of a copyrighted work for purposes of commentary, criticism, news reports, scholarship, [or] caricature”(Heins). According to the U.S. Copyright Act (§107):
In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include --
(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) the efect of the use upon the potential market for value of the copyrighted work.  (Copyright Law)
Defining in detail just how much of something can be used -- and in what specific circumstances -- will cast a pall over attempts at incorporating parts of extant works into new ones. Until this changes, the lack of definition in the law provides important protection for the artist, the scholar, and the student.

Founded by people associated with Stephens Media, a holding company controlling the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and with MediaNews Group, Inc., the owner of The Denver Post, Righthaven has initiated some 200 lawsuits against bloggers and others over the past year or so.  Most of the suits, so far, are being settled out of court, but at a cost that will make bloggers, writers, students and scholars think twice about pushing the currently amorphous limits of 'fair use' as they use material they find on the Internet.

Given the risk-averse nature of most schools and colleges, this may lead to even greater attempts to contain student (and faculty) activity on the Web, placing it behind increasingly strong barriers.  Protective and proprietary software systems such as Blackboard may end up limiting, even more than they do today, student ability to interact directly with the Internet—an important part of their learning.  In addition, faculty may find themselves reluctant to 'network' publicly as freely as they might from fear of punitive results, their role as public intellectuals further curtailed.

Making matters potentially worse, in November of 2010, The Denver Post published a “Notice to Readers About Denver Post Copyright Protections” that reads, in part, “fair use of our content restricts those who want to reference it to 23reproduce no more than a headline and up to a couple of paragraphs or a summary of the story” (Terms of Use).  The Notice continues with a 'request' that a link to the Post's website be included.  What's most interesting about this Notice—and most disturbing—is the way it assumes that 'fair use' can be defined by a particular entity for its products.  The use of 'our content' makes it clear that the Post is not speaking for other organizations but is defining what it finds acceptable as 'fair use.'

The move from a generalized legal concept to one that can be crafted by an individual organization would mean that users would have to check in each individual instance for what the particular media outlet defines as 'fair use.'  If a Notice such as the one The Denver Post published could not be found, bloggers, scholars, and others quoting from an article would have to assume the most narrow interpretation of 'fair use' possible.  The Post includes a threat with its Notice: “we will use all legal remedies available to address… infringements.”  The company is not kidding: Righthaven was created to do just this.

The Righthaven model, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is fairly simple: “They find cases by (a) scouring the Internet for parts of newspaper stories posted online by individuals, nonprofits, and others, (b) buying the copyright to that particular newspaper story, and then (c) proceeding to sue the poster for copyright infringement. Like the RIAA and USCG before them, Righthaven is relying on the fact that their victims may face huge legal bills through crippling statutory damanges and the prospect of paying Righthaven's legal fees if they lose the case. Consequently, many victims will settle with Righthaven for a few thousand dollars regardless of their innocence, their right to fair use, or other potential legal defenses” (Esguerra).

Because of its cozy relations with Stephens Media and MediaNews Group, many of the copyrights purchased have come from newspapers owned by those companies.  The results of Righthaven action have included suits against a man in Las Vegas for quoting a story about his own activities (Righthaven v Anthony Curtis) and another against an autistic youth in North Carolina for posting a picture without permission (Roberts).  Though the Electronic Frontier Foundation has taken on Righthaven, backing the defense of the blog Democratic Underground (Electronic Frontier Foundation), the cost of fighting Righthaven proves prohibitive to most, so they often settle, for a still-stif penalty.  Bloggers and others not yet targeted but wanting to use material Righthaven might gain copyright to will find that they must either abide by Righthaven's own narrow interpretation of 'fair use' or avoid the material altogether, finding other sources.

In October of 2010, Righthaven lost a round in court over its claim of an overstepping of 'fair use' rights (Green, Oct. 20) in one of the lawsuits it has brought.  In February, Righthaven appealed (Green, Feb. 15).  Though this legal story has achieved some notice on the blogs and in newspapers, it has yet to find real attention in the academic community.  It should.

As academics, we have a duty to argue for the broadest possible interpretation of 'fair use,' for the concept as established, in part, to further our activities as teachers and as scholars.  This is an area where our public intervention can prove significant and appropriate.

Works Cited

“Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code Circular 92.”  Web. 8 March 2011.

Electronic Frontier Foundation. Web. 8 March 2011.

Esguerra, Richard.  “Righthaven's Brand of Copyright Trolling.”  Electronic Frontier Foundation. Web. 8 March 2011.

Green, Steve.  “Righthaven defendant wins first lawsuit dismissal motion.” Las
Vegas Sun.  October 20, 2010. Web. 8 March 2011.

Green, Steve.  “Righthaven Appealing Fair-Use Ruling in Copyright Infringement Case.” Las Vegas Sun.  February 15, 2011. Web. 8 March 2011.

Heins, Marjorie.  “The Progress of Science and Useful Arts”: Why Copyright Today Threatens Intellectual Freedom.  Second Edition.  New York: Free Expression Policy Project, 2003.  Web. 8 March 2011.

Righthaven v Anthony Curtis.  Web. 8 March 2011. For more examples see and

Roberts, Michael.  “Brian Hill: Hobby Blogger Sued by MediaNews, Righthaven Is 20, Chronically Ill, Autistic.” Denver Westword. Web. 8 March 2011.

“Terms of Use: Notice to Readers About Denver Post Copyright Protections.” The Denver Post.  November 14, 2010.

So, How DO You Measure Writing?

We've all sorts of standardized writing tests and all sorts of grading rubrics.  Also, classroom teachers grade their assignments in myriad ways, further complicating any survey of what it means to grade a piece of writing.  Test administrators put that aside: they know that there is little consistency of "standards" in the classroom (in the college classroom, at least), little assurance that the grades one teacher gives will be replicated anywhere else (too many teachers, not willing to get with the program, still read and respond instead of evaluating by rubric).  Test administrators, after all, want every grader to come to the same evaluation result of any one particular essay.

Unfortunately, the only way they've managed to do this is to "kill" the essay the student has to write for the test, to leave it "formulated, sprawling on a pin," to steal a phrase from "Prufrock."  They make it into a static "thing" open for analysis and judgment.  They then take out their measuring tools and see if it meets predetermined "standards."  They can trumpet their results: "We know what good writing is!"

But do they?  Of course not.

At its heart, good writing is effective communication.  It is based on an understanding of the point one desires to get across and of the audience one is addressing.  The text itself is merely a vehicle, not the end in itself.

We've made "text" into writing's god, yes, but it needn't be so, and the rules we've made for defining this god are capricious and, in many cases, inconsistent.  They have less to do with the effectiveness of what is written and more to do with cultural norms.

Of course, there have always been voices crying for us to allow our writing to "speak" (George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" comes to mind), but the impact of these has been negligible.  We end up, in our schools, falling back again and again on the five-paragraph theme (or some version thereof) as the base for our evaluation of writing: "Write what you're going to write; write it; write what you've written."  "Thesis statements" and "topic sentences" hover around almost every discussion of student papers.  Word counts, sentence structure, convention....

Communication is almost forgotten.  Teachers don't expect to learn from student papers, anyhow, and prefer to evaluate papers based on presentation of information gleaned from elsewhere--on "research."  Thought, struggle with ideas and their presentation (their communication) has little to do with writing in most school environments--even in those writing classrooms where "opinion" is used as a base.

To measure writing effectively, we need to step back from writing-as-text, an attitude towards written communication that is nothing more than one of the bi-products of what Walter Only calls the "literacy" culture.  We need to see writing within the context of communications acts, something B.F. Skinner was struggling to convey in his unjustly derided Verbal Behavior.  When we can do that, we can start to evaluate writing in fashions useful to students, to education, and to the culture as a whole--if we are willing to return to one factor that we've been erasing, and that is the teacher-as-audience.

The problem with relying on teachers and looking for effective communication is that evaluation in such a manner cannot be standardized.  Effective communication leaves no residue of the communication, only of the act (the text, the recording, whatever). 

The only way for us to really measure writing is to return faith to the audience of writing.  In our educational system, that's the teacher.  As we continue on our quest of make everything measurable, we leave out teachers as audience, for they are individual, not standardized.

The best way to measure writing is to train our teachers to be effective listeners and readers, training them through extensive reading and discussion--not of rules, but of what people have written and whether or not the work engages each (or any) individual reader.

The best way to measure writing is to trust teachers to read fully and respond appropriately to what students are writing.  The best way to measure writing is individually, not against some rubric of another.

This goes against the grain of our current mania for the lock-step, the assembly line of education.  But it is, in fact, what has made American education the powerhouse it was for well over a century.

Once, we trusted our teachers, and they did a good job for us.  Today, we don't, and they are unable to do a good job for us (one cannot measure writing simply by examining text for formal features).

Until we once again trust our teachers, we will be unable to effectively evaluation student writing.

We best measure writing by listening to audiences.  In schools, teachers are the audience.

It's as simple as that.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Whaddya Do About Bad Teachers?

One of the beliefs behind the American system of education is that good education happens best within a range of student backgrounds and abilities.  Students working together are inspired by those doing better while they reinforce their knowledge by aiding those doing worse.  There are limits, but the vast majority of us can contribute to the success of any classroom.  This is true even in "elite" classrooms, as it is in "special needs" ones.  Even when they've been selected out of the mainstream, students work at differing levels and with distinct abilities.  The whole point of the classroom is to use this mix effectively in providing education for all.

One of the reason we expose our students to a variety of teachers stems from a related understanding: Different teachers have different skills and backgrounds, and provide their students with different things.  Each student responds differently to different teachers, some working well with one, some with another--but all do need to learn to work with all, another of the assumptions behind American education.

There are three points, here:

  1. Everyone can learn.
  2. Each learns best in a particular, perhaps distinct circumstance.
  3. The best education has flexibility built in, meeting differing needs of different individuals.
If we believe that education based on these points is best for all, we separate students out only in extreme circumstances.  As teachers, we work with all of the members of the classes assigned to us.  If we believe in this, we never do what I've seen some college professors do, which is push students out of our courses until only those remain who we can easily "teach."  No good teacher believes that good teaching means only working with good students.  Instead, we use the "personality" of the whole to reach and help even its weakest members, a process that also aids the strongest (the truth of this lies behind Fred Keller's Personalized System of Instruction and Benjamin Bloom's Mastery).

We never start with the idea of failing the bad, of getting rid of those who don't meet our standards.  Yes, some do fail, and others never live up to their potential.  But we always start with the belief that all can succeed.  And we don't kick them out on the basis of one test, or even two.  In our public schools, we keep trying as long as we can.  Even in our colleges, it takes a long time for someone to fail out completely.  A bad student, we know, is a potentially good student--and the process of going from bad to good can help not only that student, but all of the others he or she comes into contact with.

Most of us understand this about students.  Why, then, do we lay aside our knowledge when it comes to how we evaluate teachers?

Stereotypes and visions of evil unions leave many of us imagining education as the refuge of the lazy and the coddled.  But, as anyone who has taught will tell you, that's not the case, certainly not in most public schools.  Most teachers work hard in difficult circumstances, and would also like to work "better."  They can't do this, though, when their livelihood is dependent on student scores on standardized tests, for the tests have been established as "make-or-break."  

We provide very little possibility for real professional development in our schools and colleges.  In schools, we rely on mentoring (a good idea, but not nearly enough), farming most of the rest out to Masters in Education programs, many of dubious value.  In colleges, we have hardly more than an occasional "observation."  It's little wonder that outsiders, today, continually yell that we must get rid of the bad teachers. Certainly, we're doing little to make them better.

We should be, if we believe in the principles behind American education.  And we could be.  Opening classroom doors, team teaching, taking teachers from the front of the room and mixing them with the students, professional-development courses within the walls of individual schools... these and much more can improve the teaching of all but a few in the profession.  

Know what?  The very processes of working with teachers will also improve the learning for the students. It doesn't just wait for the end.  Better students learn more by helping those having troubles, the ones in trouble also learn more.  just so, students learn more when their teachers are learning.  In fact, they learn best when the teacher, like them, is struggling and working hard--in a protective and supportive environment.

Anyone who has been to college has seen this.  The professor who has taught the class year after year, using the same notes, the same texts, the same exams, teaches much more poorly than the new instructor feeling her or his way through the material at the same time the students are.  Learning is collaborative, and that collaboration extends to the teacher.

No good teacher "knows it all" when entering the classroom.  A good teacher may be learning things different from what the student is learning, but a good teacher is learning, nonetheless.  Until we recognize this, and stop our punitive evaluations, replacing them with a system fostering growth and improvement, our schools and colleges will never improve, but will continue to be mired in accusation and mediocrity.  

Sunday, April 17, 2011

No More Teachers?

At the start of "Good-bye, Teacher... " Fred Keller quotes one version of that old doggerel:
Good-bye scholars, good-bye school;
Good-bye teacher, darned old fool!
I learned it as:
Good-bye pencils, good-bye books;
Good-bye teachers' dirty looks.
It doesn't matter; the point's the same.  We were glad to get rid of teachers, for the summer, at least.

We hated them.  Or, at least, we thought we did.  They repressed us, kept us quiet and indoors.  Made us read and study.  "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach," we said.

The disdain for teachers and for their profession started early and, for many Americans, remains strong.  Young and naive, we didn't believe we ever learned at school, that we pretty much taught ourselves everything we know.  Many of us still don't.

By "we," I mean "we."  I hated school until I got to college, and found my teachers repressive, petty, and unfair.  Only a few were any good: a Mr. Board (I'm sorry I don't remember his first name) who taught American Studies at Holland High School in Michigan in the sixties, who showed me teachers could think and could challenge, and who let it slide when I skipped school the day Woody Guthrie died. One or two others.  Most of my learning came from the books I devoured and the people I talked to and argued with--everywhere but in school.

The few good teachers I had were different from the rest, from the ones I so abhorred.  They knew two things in common, how to motivate students and the content of their fields.  Beyond that, they were all unique, each with his or her own style and methodology.  So, I thought, they didn't count.

When I became a teacher, I thought hard about them, and have tried to develop my own motivational abilities and a classroom style and method reflecting my own personality and (most important) the needs of the students.  At some point, I dropped my resentments against all those bad teachers I suffered through and started concentrating on the few who were good.

Which is where I started to diverge from the mainstream of thought about teaching in the United States.

The generalized and previously unfocused disdain for teachers in the United States has coalesced into a movement whose prime, if unspoken goal is removal of the teacher from education completely.  It has long been seen in the home-schooling movement, where parents feel they can take on teaching duties more successfully than the professionals.  (And it's true--but it's also not something that can be true for most families.  It takes wealth and stability, and educated parents, for home-schooling to work.)  It is manifest, today, in attitudes towards teachers' unions, which are seen as coddling lazy teachers with easy schedules and huge amounts of free time each year.

It is seen, today, in the mania for standardization, especially in our charter schools, where teaching is reduced to the following of a script.  One former charter-school teacher writes:
I asked my supervisor why everything was scripted, and she informed me that this was a way to ensure teaching consistency across each grade level. In the past, she explained, some students had been getting quality instruction, while others were getting less quality instruction; scripts were a way to eradicate that inequality and make sure that everyone received the same thing. Mediocrity, evidently, was acceptable, as long as it was uniform.

The idea of uniform teaching baffled and infuriated me for a number of reasons. It reduced teaching to regurgitating lines off a page, and learning to nothing more than acquiring information and regurgitating it right back. Use of scripts insinuated that we were incapable of designing instruction on our own and that manuals created by faceless executives were appropriate for all of our students.
The idea doesn't baffle me: it's a way of reducing teaching to clerical duties that can be performed by anyone, making the teacher expendable.  Allowing that anger at teachers from our early days that still boils within us, whose steam still pressures us, to find release.

It's a sign that we Americans have not grown up or have regressed back to childishness, that we have become so immature we cannot recognize the good in the bad, that we don't see that, for all its weaknesses, the public-education system that developed over the past century-and-a-half, a system based on the individual teacher, has been extremely successful and has, for all we might have hated it, allowed us to achieve more than any country in history.

It's a sign, too, that we believe our own myth, that we made it on our own in the face of obstacles like all those teachers who were out to destroy us, not letting us 'be all we could be,' not coddling us as we believe they should have been doing.  It's a sign that we think we could have done it all, if left to our own devices.

Our desire to destroy teachers is a manifestation of an insipid and short-sighted libertarianism that also grasps onto the writing of Ayn Rand with its vision of the super-individual, the one who can do anything as long as all of those standing in the way are pushed aside.

Our desire to destroy teachers stems from a childish vision of our own individualism and empowerment, from belief that we are better and more deserving than anyone else.

Not only is our desire childish (as Ayn Rand is, appealing to immature belief in one's own unique, if unappreciated talent), but it is self-destructive, leading to the tearing down of what has built us up.

If we want the possibilities for the future to return to the level of the past, we have to start growing up finally, as American culture, and to start seeing that life is greater than any individual, as is success, and that we, if we are going to improve the future, need  to set aside our own resentments about the past and find what was good there.  We are going to have to learn to understand the value of others, particularly of teachers and guides.  We are going to have to come to see again that no individual stands alone, but stands with the assistance of others.

Throwing out the baby with the bathwater has never proven a satisfactory course... unless it's the baby we wanted to get rid of in the first place.

And only the least mature among us could really want that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Peace Corps Essays: ToC

Table of Contents
Series Preface xv
Jane Albritton
Foreword xix
John Coyne
Introduction xxv
Part One
On Our Way…And Back Again
Why I Joined the Peace Corps 3
There at the Beginning 10
Tom Katus, George Johnson, Alex Veech, L. GilbertGriffis
Learning to Speak 19
Tom Weller
First and Last Days 29
Hena Kisoa Kely and Blue Nail Polish 31
Amanda Wonson
Coming to Sierra Leone 35
Sarah Moffett-Guice
Sierra Leone
Shattering and Using Book Learning 41
Susan L. Schwartz
Sierra Leone
The Adventures Overseas 44
LarryW. Harms
A Toubac in the Gloaming 50
E. T. Stafne
Family Affair 53
Arne Vanderburg
The World
Your Parents Visited You in Africa? 60
Solveig Nilsen
What I Tell My Students 68
William G. Moseley
Slash and Burn 75
Two Years Lasts a Lifetime 84
SallyCytron Gati
Sister Stella Seams Serene 90
South Africa
Late Evening 99
Lenore Waters
Ivory Coast/Côte d’Ivoire
The Forty-Eight Hour Rule 101
Martin R. Ganzglass
Full Circle 108
Delfi Messinger
Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo
A Promise Kept 111
Beth Duff-Brown
Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo
The Utopia of the Village 127
Heather Corinne Cumming
Part Two
WhyAre We Here?
The Engine Catches 133
Susanna Lewis
Yaka 137
KellyJ. Morris
Nous Sommes Ensemble 141
Anna Russo
The Sweetest Gift 144
Jayne Bielecki
Cape Verde
The Conference 149
MarcyL. Spaulding
Girls’ School 157
Marsa Laird
Testimony 163
Stephanie Bane
African Woman 171
Dorothea Hertzberg
Burkina Faso
My Rice Crop 173
Edmund Blair Bolles
Gentle Winds of Change 179
Donald Holm
La Supermarché 185
Jennifer L. Giacomini
Mokhotlong 191
Allison ScottMatlack
Changing School 196
Sandra Echols Sharpe
The Season of Omagongo 204
Alan Barstow
Tapping 212
Eric Stone
The Drums of Democracy 227
Paul P. Pometto II
Part Three
Getting Through the Days
Boys & Girls 233
Ryan N. Smith
The Gambia
I’d Wanted to Go to Africa, But the Peace Corps 235Sent Me to Sierra Leone
BobHixon Julyan
Sierra Leone
Breakfast 242
Jed Brody
Daily Life 245
Kathleen Moore
Watoto of Tanzania 250
Linda Chen See
Begging Turned on Its Head 257
Karen Hlynsky
Sierra Leone
Time 261
Patricia Owen
Learning to Play the Game of Life 265
Lawrence Grobel
A First Real Job 273
Sierra Leone
It’s Condom Day! 277
Sera Arcaro
The Civilized Way 282
Who Controls the Doo-Doo? 288
The Ride Home 292
Bina Dugan
The Little Things 296
Stephanie Gottlieb
Burkina Faso
There Will Be Mud 299
Bruce Kahn
The Hammam in Rabat 305
Shauna Steadman
Straight Razors in Heaven 308
Paul Negley, Jr.
Big Butts Are Beautiful! 311
JanetGrace Riehl
Monsieur Robert Loves Rats 315
Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo
Imani 319
Daniel Franklin
Burkina Faso
Part Four
Close Encounters
Hail, Sinner! I Go to Church 327
Floyd Sandford
A Visit From H.I.M. 335
Carol Beddo
Moon Rocket 342
RobertE. Gribbin
Bury My Shorts at Chamborro Gorge 346
Thor Hanson
Near Death in Africa 354
Boeuf Madagaskara 358
Jacquelyn Z. Brooks
The Baobob Tree 362
Kara Garbe
Burkina Faso
The Sports Bar 369
Leita Kaldi Davis
One Last Party 373
Paula Zoromski
The Peace Corps in a War Zone 376
Tom Gallagher
Holding the Candle 382
Suzanne Meagher Owen
A Morning 385
Enid S. Abrahami
A Brother in Need 389
Genevieve Murakami
A Tree Grows in Niamey 396
Stephanie Oppenheimer-Streb
Jaarga 400
For Lack of a Quarter… 408
Irene G. Brammertz
Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo
Crazy Cat Lady 411
Michelle Stoner
Elephant Morning 419
Aaron Barlow
At Night the Bushes Whisper 425
Jack Meyers
Part Five
Sustainable Peace
Children of the Rains 441
Michael Toso
Acknowledgments 447
About the Editor 453