Thursday, June 23, 2011

"It's a Beautiful Day in This Neighborhood"

A few mornings ago, my wife and I took our dogs for a romp in Marine Park near our home in Brooklyn.  Another dog owner told us there had been a shooting over on Stuart Street by the school on the west edge of the park the night before.  We could even see a bit of the yellow tape along the street from the center of the park where our dogs were cavorting.  One person got on her cellphone and collected more information.

It turns out the alleged shooter was sometimes in the park with his dog, a German shepherd named Eva.  I don't recall him, but my wife has spoken to him. 

The New York Times soon also had the story:
When a group of teenagers began to kick parked cars and rip open bags of garbage on a quiet street in Marine Park, Brooklyn, on Saturday night, a few residents ventured onto their front lawns and yelled at the group to leave. Others stayed indoors and watched from windows.

One neighbor, Thomas Dunikowski, 30, went further. A recent arrival on the block, Stuart Street, he got into a scuffle with one of the young men. Then he retreated into the house where he lived with his young family.

The next thing the neighbors heard above the shouting of unruly teenagers was rifle fire.

From an upstairs window, the police said, Mr. Dunikowski fired a semiautomatic rifle into the street, wounding at least two teenagers on the street below.
Rumor has it this wasn't his first brush with anger, that he had slashed tires at the end of last year.

The story is that he shot from an upstairs window into the crowd of kids, perhaps as many as two dozen shots.  Supposedly, he then hid the rifle on the roof, got undressed and into bed, and pretended to have been there all along when police arrived.  He was charged with resisting arrest, so something else must have happened then.

What's strangest about this is the number of people trying to excuse Dunikowski--including the mother of one young woman who was slightly wounded by a flying fragment:
The Brooklyn man who allegedly opened fire on a bunch of rowdy teens is a hero, not a menace, says the mother of one of his inadvertent victims.

Thomas Dunikowksi, who was arraigned on attempted-murder and weapons charges yesterday, was "just trying to protect us," said Larisa Kaprovskaya, whose 21-year-old daughter was hit in the leg in the wild Saturday-night shooting.

"They started to come here and were kicking my car," she said of the gang of 20 teens. "They were screaming at my face. They started to surround us. And then I heard the shooting. It was like the Fourth of July."
Now, it may be true that police have been slow to respond to complaints about the kids around the park.  It may even be true that some of them are children of police officers.  It may also be true that there just isn't enough for kids to do in the neighborhood.

But all of that is beside the point:

It is never OK to start shooting into an unarmed crowd.  No, it is never OK to start shooting into any crowd.

There is always another solution of some sort, even if it takes creative thinking to find it.

Dunikowski is no hero, not by any stretch of any imagination.  He did not protect anyone (not really--it was a group of kids, for crying out loud); he did not make anything better; he did not put himself at any risk.

One person, this morning when we were at the park again, started to say it was liberals that would be condemning Dunikowski.  My wife lit into him before he was even finished.  She wasn't mean, but firm--and he had to concede the point that what the man did was inexcusable.

Most people in the neighborhood, to give them credit, agree.  But the fact that anyone at all would defend Dunikowski's action is shocking.

And shows just how far we are drifting from the American ideal of a law-abiding society.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Writing for Yourself

The other day, when I should have been doing something else, I Googled myself.  One of the pages I found was on Writing Skills for a site called Paper Due.  At first, I was flattered, thinking someone was actually using something I had written to aid others in developing their prose style.

Then I was, well, "horrified" would be too strong a word.  "Bemused," perhaps too weak.  Anyway, I realized that the site is selling papers on the topic of "writing skills."  Potential writing teachers can buy them, using them to satisfy their own teachers that they know a little about what they might, one day, be doing.

Except, of course, they won't.

An old article of mine is cited in the sample paper provided, above the caption "This essay and over 100,000 other essays and term papers are available just for you."  The paper fragment shown talks about the first article I wrote when I was beginning to dabble with teaching again after a long lay-off.  I wrote it ten years ago for an e-journal on basic writing, a publication that, while still available, is pretty much forgotten.

Though I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with the paper, my own ideas on teaching writing have progressed a great deal in the decade since I wrote it--and I was a little surprised to see anyone citing it.  There's much better stuff out there now.  Whoever put together that paper for sale, clearly, is not a specialist in writing pedagogy, but simply a paid hack with skill enough to find appropriate (though not the best) articles on a topic and cobble together an essay for sale.  All that seems done with my essay is a summary, not an analysis or use of my ideas to make some greater point.  That's not scholarship, not even on an undergraduate level.

One of the topics, recently, on a listserv I follow was whether or not it is possible to teach writing without being a writer.  I don't know the answer to that, though my inclination is to believe that writing helps.  Certainly, though, you can't teach writing without learning about writing--and you can't do that without writing.  So, the fact of a paper on writing skills being offered for sale is doubly ironic.  Whoever buys one will be cheating themselves, any future employers, and certainly any potential students.  Not only will they have gained nothing themselves (except a grade), but will be kicking failure onto another generation.

In the Civil War, it wasn't uncommon for young men of means to pay others to serve for them in the Union army.  Understandably, they didn't really want to get into harm's way.  Though they might have been morally reprehensible, they caused little harm--except, of course, possibly to the person who went in their stead--and that person knew perfectly well what he was getting into.

In this case, there can be real harm... to students who will be judged, one day, on the quality of instruction that just wasn't up to par.  Perhaps teachers of writing don't really have to be writers, but they certainly do need to know something about their subject--and they cannot learn that through purchased papers.

[The above was written for ePluribus Media.]

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cult Pop Culture

This set, which includes an essay I did on Joss Whedon, looks like it is going to be fun.  Certainly, it was fun to write my little bit.

It's all serious scholarship (Bob Batchelor, the editor, insisted upon that), but there's no reason that scholarship cannot be enjoyable--or even make one laugh.

The set isn't out yet, but if you have a couple of hundred bucks and care about those little corners of pop culture that seem to constantly seep into the mainstream, check the books out.

Books ain't cheap these days, but that doesn't mean they don't have value.  The first book by one of my office mates is also now out, Domesticity and Design in American Women's Lives and Literature: Stowe, Alcott, Cather, and Wharton Writing Home (Routledge Studies in Nineteenth Century Literature).  It's a wonderful book, even if Amazon doesn't yet have a cover picture for it, and even if Routledge feels it will only sell to a niche of scholars.

Also, my third book in the 'Blogosphere' series (this one written with Robert Leston) will be off (quite late, but quite good, I think) to the editor tomorrow. We should have been done months ago, but the project's target, information in the digital age, keeps moving.  It's not easy writing about something that won't hold still!

I just printed out the entire manuscript and will be going through it, adding in final changes from Robert, until sometime tomorrow.  It should be available by the end of the year.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Little Ranting

What have we done?
Today, intellectual exploration is reduced to a game of Trivial Pursuits. 'Right' answers are rewarded and 'wrong' ones are simply eliminated--at best, they are ignored, not explored.  Finding the 'answer' is simply a question of choosing between various options from a list. It requires no more intellectual rigor than a game of hide-and-seek. 
Given that this is an approach that many Americans grew up accepting, even long before the digital age, the search-engine design of Google, Bing, and most any other can appear particularly appealing, even comforting, to many users.  Answers can be found, it seems; truth can be discovered.  To make matters worse, the search engines are extraordinarily effective in a number of arenas. We really can find things out! The problem lies in being able to discriminate: when and how can search engines be used effectively and when and how not.
In what has proven to be one of the most quoted passages of the eighteenth century (the first line of it, at least), Alexander Pope wrote:
A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir'd at first Sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts,
While from the bounded Level of our Mind,
Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc'd, behold with strange Surprize
New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!
So pleas'd at first, the towring Alps we try,
Mount o'er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;
Th' Eternal Snows appear already past,
And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:
But those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing Labours of the lengthen'd Way,
Th' increasing Prospect tires our wandering Eyes,
Hills peep o'er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
Like the multiple-choice tests we grew up with, the frame of the search limits us to 'short views,' never allowing us to 'tremble to survey... the lengthen'd Way.'  Yet it is this we need (in our education and in our lives)
             Though it may sometimes scare us, this is what we should want.
Neil Postman said that “School teachers.... will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television, as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile.”  This is a view still common, probably more so, as the mechanistic view of teaching has, if anything, grown.   And it is being put into practice: “over 7,000 students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools [are] enrolled in a program in which core subjects are taken using computers in a classroom with no teacher. A 'facilitator' is in the room to make sure students progress. That person also deals with any technical problems.”
This belief that teachers can be superseded by technology is one of the reasons many find it so easy to attack teachers today, and their unions—they see no danger in it, for they see no place for teachers in the world of the future.  But it is teachers, and not machines, who are best able to help make digital information, for those attempting research on the Web, pliable and useful.
Again, it is teachers who make us able to use our machines.
Replacing them, we move from vision into permanent blinders.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Oh, How Helpful!

[I wrote the following as the start of what will be regular Wednesday postings for ePluribus Media.]

In his 1973 book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney demolished the idea that outsiders can come to Third World countries and bring them out into the developed world.  Our "help," as that help is almost always offered, is almost always counterproductive, leading to a culture of dependency, not enabling independence and growth, as the helpers might believe.  I discovered the truth of that during my own time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the late 1980s, and wrote about it with another former Peace Corps Volunteer, Bronwyn Hughes, a few years later.

We described how it was best that outsiders from the developed world seek initiative locally and support it rather than bringing in their own ideas about what would work for a community not their own.  Our piece first appeared in an online journal that no longer exists.  Later, in 2007, it was republished in the ePluribus Media Journal.  Called "Nothing New: A Small Enterprise Development Project in West Africa," it can be found here.

Though, generally speaking, development experts had already been moving in the direction we recommended before we wrote (and many do now operate on assumptions that, like ours, stem from Rodney), there are still many people, particularly those looking at the developing world from the comfort of what Rodney called 'the metropole,' who believe they can solve Third World problems from afar and for the people in the developing countries.  Rather than listening to the people and helping on the basis of what they've been told, they want to tell the people what's good for them--what they should do.

One such project, one that I've written about, is called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC).  It was going to save the developing world through offering cheap laptops to schools.  It hasn't done so, and the developing world has already bypassed the laptop, embracing the cellphone--which, in local hands, may prove a much more useful tool than the cheap laptops ever could be.

Another such project, the call for a $300 house, is going to receive more attention today, for it is the subject of an op-ed in The New York Times.  The piece, by two people with real development experience, explains the real dangers of assuming that "we" in the developed world know what's best for "them" in the developing:
Many families have owned their houses for two or three generations, upgrading them as their incomes increase. With additions, these homes become what we call “tool houses,” acting as workshops, manufacturing units, warehouses and shops. They facilitate trade and production, and allow homeowners to improve their living standards over time.
     None of this would be possible with a $300 house, which would have to be as standardized as possible to keep costs low. No number of add-ons would be able to match the flexibility of need-based construction.
     In addition, construction is an important industry in neighborhoods like Dharavi. Much of the economy consists of hardware shops, carpenters, plumbers, concrete makers, masons, even real-estate agents. Importing pre-fabricated homes would put many people out of business, undercutting the very population the $300 house is intended to help.
The $300 house, in other words, would make people more dependent, not less--just as the second-rate OLPC laptop does (the computer is fine, as a secondary device, but it is extremely limited--the new smartphones have a great deal more flexibility and are being embraced, as a result, with a great deal more enthusiasm in the developing world).  Instead of enabling people by providing tools they can use, they give, instead, a finished product that is produced elsewhere to designs envisioned elsewhere that cannot be easily altered on the ground.

The best piece I have seen that really explains this clearly is by the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, though I have also written on it elsewhere.

Though most people (nearly all people) with direct experience in development will recognize the truth of what Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava are saying in that Times op-ed today, there are too many others elsewhere who think they know better.  This, as Rodney would point out, were he alive today, is the real problem with development--and why it leads to 'underdevelopment.'

Until we understand that, "we" in the developed world will always be in danger of doing more damage than good when we try to help.  Direction, anywhere, needs to come from the people who live there, not from outsides, no matter how well-meaning.