Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Deceptively Simple Question

"Are there more males or females in the world today?" As we transition to our next unit, "Women and Children/The American Family", we must look to the past to understand why today looks the way it does. Nicholas Kristof, and his wife/co-author, Sheryl Wudunn, have recently written a book, Half the Sky, about what they believe is the preeminent issue of the 21st century: the oppression, the abuse, and the murder of women worldwide.

Answer the question in the comments section of this post. Don't google it or head to a reference book. What we're interested in is your answer, and, more importantly, what makes you say it.

UPDATE: We're so pleased with the responses so far, but we'd like to resolve this question in the interests of moving on with the rest of our inquiry into this unit of study. Here is Nicholas Kristof's response to the question (emphasis added), as quoted in an interview on NPR's On the Media:
Almost everybody you ask says that there are more females, you know, because in the U.S. there are more females, in Europe there are more females. But worldwide there are actually more males, and that is because so many women have been discriminated against to death.

But there are somewhere around 100 million women who have vanished because of this kind of discrimination, and that’s more than all the men who were killed in all the wars of the 20th century; it’s far more than were killed in all the genocides. When you have that kind of oppression that just feels like a transcendent issue.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


From the An American Studies archives:
In New York City a billboard emits highly focused sound that resonates within the skulls of passersby. It’s a novel way of advertising, a potentially terrifying intrusion and, according to technology writer Clive Thompson, the leading edge of a new civil rights battleground – the right to privacy in your own mind.

Have you seen Minority Report? Do you remember the scene in the mall when Tom Cruise's character is bombarded with advertising messages inside his own head?

If intrusive ads don't seem that worrisome to you, consider this: there are scientists currently working on a device that shines an infrared beam on your forehead, a sort of remote MRI, that can "read" your mind to determine if you are in "mental anguish". What this means, for example, is that before we tell a lie, a simple brain scan can reveal it. Imagine the antiterrorist uses for this at airports.

What do you think about any/all of these issues? For more information, listen to this excerpt from NPR's On the Media, which is the source of today's post:

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Obama on Afghanistan

Using an online tool called "Wordle", I copied and pasted the transcript of President Obama's speech and the website automatically generated a "word cloud" of the text. The more frequently a word (or short phrase, like "al-Qaeda") is utilized, the larger it appears in the "cloud" (colors are irrelevant). Keep in mind, though, that the user has the ability to specify the maximum amount of words to be rendered. For this speech, I chose 30 as the maximum. Click on the Wordle for a larger image.

Keeping in mind how carefully constructed a Presidential address is, what, if anything do these oft-repeated words reveal about the message (or perhaps the story) the President was trying to communicate to the American people?

P.S. Check out CNN's version, by contrast.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Competing Narratives?

Recently, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman lamented how the shooting tragedy at Fort Hood was actually a product of Arab buy-in to what Friedman calls, "The Narrative". Though he addresses the other side by stating that Major Hasan (the alleged shooter) may have been mentally ill, Friedman claims instead that this 39 year-old American-born and educated killer was just another Arab who came to believe in the Big Lie:
Propagated by jihadist Web sites, mosque preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books...this narrative posits that America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand “American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy” to keep Muslims down.

Friedman argues that despite twenty years of US foreign policy, "largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny", most Arabs and Arab-Americans still cling to The Narrative. Read Friedman's short editorial piece, then skim the 600+ reader comments that follow, particularly those of "Phil in the mountains of Kyushu, Japan" and "Bill Nahay from Austin TX". Ask yourself to assess this writing in a critical manner, as we did in class both with the history textbook reading and the Fox News WMD article. You might respond to the following question: does Friedman propagate a myth in order to obscure his own storytelling?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Creative = Common?

Last Friday, I stayed in district to attend our school's annual Institute Day. This time I was "voluntasked" (worth copyrighting?) to co-lead a session on Creativity. With less than a week to prepare, a copse of papers to grade, and the nagging tug of my blogging duties in and out of class, I wanted to say no, but this is a topic I care a great deal about, so I agreed.

Hearing the alarming fatality numbers on PowerPoint™ presentations, my co-presenters (Murphy, Kajfez) and I decided to show, not tell. We asked the teachers in our sessions (about 60 in all) to play with pictures, language, and cartoon captions before we led a short discussion.

The conversations in sessions and afterward offered some interesting comments. I'm also sneaking in comments from parent-teacher conferences and some student comments here. Use any one of them as springboards for your own blog comments:

"Creative assignments are fine and good, but when do we start preparing students for college?"

"Who can be creative in a stressful, time-driven environment like NT?"

"When I was a young kid I was very creative, but that's not what gets rewarded in the real world of tests?"

"No one pays attention to human development in school. It's who you are right now vs. the national average that matters."

"School tells a story of how the world is, not how the world might be."

"Whenever a good enough idea emerges, people often stop thinking about new ideas. 'Why re-invent the wheel?' they'll say."

"Some people are just born creative."

"It's such a myth that creativity flourishes in isolation. It's all about working with other people."

"If we practice creativity we become more creative. It we practice routine we become robots."

"There are so many ways to measure creativity, but schools only measure a tiny fraction of these."

"Necessity is the mother of invention; we only truly create when we feel we need to."

"People should always have the chance to opt out of being creative."

Children of City Water, Light, and Power

After Parent-Teacher Conferences, most of my colleagues spent the next day in Institute Day meetings. But I, along with Mr. "LawDawg" Lawler, headed downstate to our State Capital, Springfield, Illinois for a conference on educational technology. The hotel hosting the conference featured the tagline, "The Place to Meet". When I explored the hotel website, I noticed that all of the building photographs, save one, featured interior shots of the facility. I didn't think to wonder to why.

When I arrived late at night after conferences, I used a provided "chip-clip" to tightly seal the curtains of my $85 "executive suite", and set my alarm for an early wakeup. When I awoke the next morning, I threw open the curtains to see this image, which I captured with my phone. (Click on the photo for a larger image)

I guess I was a little shocked and wanted to share this experience. Using "The Facebook", I posted the photo and got the following response from my cousin:
Cleo P
That's where I was raised. My father worked for the state.
Yesterday at 7:46am
Spiro Bolos
Cough cough -- sorry, Cousin!
Yesterday at 7:55am
Cleo P
Yes, everyone left as soon as they hit 18.
Yesterday at 8:13am
That last statement really hit me hard. It made me start to wonder about the life we provide for our own children and the choices we make toward that end. Certainly, I have made decisions about where to live based upon the welfare of my children, but it's undeniable that what I do for a living and where I work has also forced these choices. Talk to your parents. What sorts of choices did they make for you and why? What are the implications of those choices, either positive or negative?

Want to learn more about these structures in Springfield? The City Water, Light and Power (CWLP) smokestacks are the three tallest structures in our state capital, built originally in the 1960s, and may stand for another forty years,

Sunday, October 18, 2009

It's a Free Country, Isn't It?

How many times have you heard something unpopular or disagreeable defended with the slogan, "It's a free country, isn't it?" But how free is our free speech?

In light of our Constitution analysis last week, consider these questions: Should all types of speech protected equally? Where should the line(s) be drawn? What regulations, if any, should be placed on political speech?

Last month the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in a case that tests the limits of political speech. Specifically the case concerns a scathing documentary about then-candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton called Hillary: The Movie. The Federal Election Commission ruled the film was (in fact) a 90-minute campaign ad "susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her." Lower courts agreed.

The corporation that funded the movie, Citzens United, was allowed to screen the movie in theaters and could have sold DVDs of the film, but it could not show the movie on television because the film, as political speech, was subject to the restrictions of the McCain-Feingold Act that allows the government to limit political speech on broadcast media. According to the New York Times, the Supreme Court must now decide if the government can limit the public's access to movies -- even political hatchet jobs -- shown on television. In considering a re-argument of this case, the Supreme Court is also considering throwing out its own 1990 precedent that allowed for limited access.

Surprisingly, there are conservatives (like McCain) who advocate for limits and liberals (like some members of the ACLU) that are fighting such limits. The Court's ruling should be made within the next few months. Should the government be able to regulate political speech broadcast over the radio and television? What of books and magazines? When does political speech become propaganda? Should propaganda enjoy the same Constitutional protections of free speech?

Body or Barter?

Whenever I surf the net, which is admittedly quite often, I often see ads that seem to be specifically targeted at me. For example, I see a lot of ads for anything related to, let's say, "zombies". But I'm not sure if it's because of my age, my habits, my income, etc. Or is it just a coincidence that I play video games associated with that theme? :)

It's an emerging and increasingly ubiquitous marketing technique called "behavioral advertising", and it's based on where you go and what you do on the web. (FYI: each computer on the internet has a unique "IP address" which discloses certain information about the user).

Is your data (ie., information about you) "body or barter"? (in the words of UPenn professor Joseph Turow, who blogs here) Meaning, is it something that naturally is your property, or is it something you can choose to trade away for some kind of benefit, like ads that appeal to you or discounts on products you buy?

And yet it may be too late to pose that particular question. After all, consider how much data you have already given to various sites you use like Facebook, Google, Pandora, etc. Consider how much data your parents have given to grocery stores via loyalty card programs. As we transition to our next unit, is the right to privacy absolute? Where does the digital domain fit in to this civil liberty?

An interview with Joe Turow:

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fear oFlu

Vaccination; 041028-N-9864S-021 Yokosuka, Japa...Image via Wikipedia
Are you getting the flu shot? If so, are you then getting the H1N1 ("swine") flu shot? In about a week, and at school, I'll be getting my first flu shot in about 7 years. Personally, I used to be allergic to the shot, but I don't have that excuse any longer. When asked why I have avoided the flu shot for so long, my usual reply was to offer my "expert" medical opinion: the flu shot gave me the flu. That was the story I told. And I now have come to believe that it's a false story.

But there is a battle brewing between the media and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), as reported on the NPR show, On the Media. The issue is a classic correlation versus causation mixup. As host Bob Garfield posited, "At some point, someone's going to die, shortly after having been vaccinated with the H1N1 vaccine", and the media will report on this occurrence, and conclusions will inevitably be drawn. As medical reporter, Ben Goldacre argues, "Health scares are a lot like toothpaste. Once they're out of the tube, they're very very difficult to get back in." Consider such culturally specific scares as the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism (in America), that hepatitis shots cause multiple sclerosis (in France), and that polio vaccines cause infertility (in Nigeria).

What is the proper role of the media in this situation? Government watchdog or public health information service? Where do you get your information about your health? Why do you think Americans are increasingly fearful of all kinds of vaccines?

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Monday, October 05, 2009

danah boyd @ Wilmette Junior High

Danah Boyd
Image via Wikipedia
danah boyd (yes, there are legally no caps in her name), social media researcher, is coming to speak to parents and the rest of the community at Wilmette Junior High School on Wednesday, October 7th at 7pm. See if she really speaks for the youth!

Here is an excerpt from a recent interview she gave to make it better, an online journal for Chicago's North Shore community.

Does social networking broaden our children's social circle? If so, how?

Typically, no. Youth primarily use these sites to communicate with the people that they already know from school, church, summer camp, etc. There is no doubt that these tools strengthen social relations, just like the phone or any other channel of communication. But the focus is not on strangers; it's all about friends.

What are the appropriate concerns for parents about social networking? What, if anything, should we watch for that could lead our children into trouble?

Risky offline behavior like drinking, drug abuse, isolation, emotional distress, etc. Online at-risk behavior is directly correlated to offline at-risk behavior. The Internet actually makes at-risk behavior more visible than ever before. It's rarely the cause of it. So if you're seeing something that haunts you online, it would be really helpful to focus on where it's coming from rather than focusing on the technology as the root of the problem.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Today in class we read Robert Pinsky's poem Shirt. (Wait for the play button to appear): Listen to Pinsky himself read the poem. Feel free to read the poem again several times on your own. It's surprisingly dense and makes some stunning imaginative leaps.

Remember: your extra credit assignment is to:

  1. choose an article of clothing you were wearing today;
  2. determine the country of origin where the clothing was manufactured;
  3. investigate the working conditions in that area (feel free to use the web here, but also consult our expert librarians. you might also consider interviewing people from the region or people who are familiar with the civil or labor situations in that country) — yes, even if the U.S.!
  4. determine U.S. trade agreements/restrictions with that country;
  5. relate your findings to the poem and to Frederick Douglass;
  6. write your investigative and imaginative findings in an original poem of your own, a dialogue, a short or an online multimedia creation — 2 page max — essay (on, say, the question of whether one can be free without being economically free), or by choosing some other genre to convey what you've learned. You might take a tip from Pinsky and invent a character in order to relate part or all of what you have to say.
Of course it's complicated. That's why it's called Extra Credit. Remember this outside project is due Monday (though we will give you extra time if you have a plan for an idea you'd like to pursue by then). NOTE: Pinsky's poem appears below.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Construction Sites

Plans to construct a new Wal-Mart in a depressed community in central Virginia have caused a stormy new controversy. The proposed location, the Wilderness Battlefield, was the site of a fierce Civil War battle in which Grant faced Lee. In the two day battle, 30,000 soldiers died. Local residents were divided on the issue -- whether to preserve the land as holy ground or to accept Wal-Mart's offer to revive the sagging local economy -- but historians were nearly united in their opposition of the proposal.

Yet after a year long court battle, the super-store has now been given the green light.

Where do you come down on this issue? How can we -- or how should we -- balance our current needs with our obligations to the past? 

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Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11/01: the Questions

Today is the 8th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Since the members of our class were relatively young at the time of the event, we are curious about your questions regarding 9/11.

To some, it might seem like a waste of time just to ask questions, but I am reminded of this quote by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner from Teaching as a Subversive Activity:

Once you have learned how to ask questions — relevant and appropriate and substantial questions — you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.

What are YOUR questions about September 11th? Click on the comments link to contribute to the discussion.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Careful, this may be banned in your school.

Until the President's address to school children is available via live stream on Tuesday, please watch this very short PSA (Public Service Announcement, featuring various NASCAR drivers, which I found on the official White House web page promoting the Tuesday speech. Why do you think this video is featured?

Monday, September 07, 2009

Just Another Labor Day?

United States or Soviet?Image by Jo Peattie via Flickr

Although for most of us it's just another day off or an extended weekend, Labor Day is an excellent time to reflect on those men and women (and children!) who came before us, helped build this country, and whose lives continue to reverberate in this new century.

Think about it in today's context. Even though today's economy is said to be in recovery, according to Bloomberg News, "the average workweek held at 33.1 hours, six minutes...that was the lowest since records began in 1964, [and] the unemployment rate rose to a 26-year high of 9.7 percent."

Perhaps now, more than ever, it would be instructive to closely examine the nature of work in the USA. Toward that end, curators at The National Archives have designed some wonderful virtual exhibitions that pay tribute to American laborers and many others. From their website:
Imagine working in a coal mine.
Or in a steel mill.
Or at a telephone switchboard.

Work and workplaces have gone through enormous transformations between the mid 19th and late 20th centuries. You can view these changes through photographs held by the National Archives and Records Administration.

My own contribution was to download a video from their site, and make it into something new and (hopefully) more compelling. Although the video was completely silent, I changed the work by simply adding a soundtrack. This video now features a soundtrack by Thievery Corporation, who remixed a song from the Doors, a band popular many years ago. See the parallels?

Hopefully you'll understand this "secret" message: don't be afraid to respond to media that usually is intended to be one-way. The internet and computer technology has made it possible for anyone to become a creator and to "talk back" to media. "Work" such as this can be very fulfilling and meaningful. Hopefully, this small "labor of love" will encourage you to think about today as more than "Just Another Labor Day".

Lastly, since we are starting our course with a "Stories and Histories" theme, what narrative do you see being weaved through this video?

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Friday, September 04, 2009

Link "The Facebook" to your blog!

We know how much effort you have put into the blogs so far, but we also know how much you love Facebook. As featured in the technology blog, Mashable, Facebook now allows you to share your Facebook content on your weblog. Just go to Facebook's "widget page" where you can share a name or photo badge in the sidebar of your own blog. See? (click on image to see full size)

But could this kind of cross-posting be an example of "crossing the line"? Consider the words of danah boyd, social media researcher and blogger, who states:

Many teens have ZERO interest in interacting with teachers on social network sites [eg., Facebook], but there are also quite a few who are interested in interacting with SOME teachers there. Still, this is primarily a social space and their interactions with teachers are primarily to get more general advice and help. In some ways, its biggest asset in the classroom is the way in which its not a classroom tool and not loaded this way. Given that teens don't Friend all of their classmates, there are major issues in terms of using this for groupwork because of boundary issues.

Breaking News: danah boyd will be speaking at Wilmette Junior High School on Wednesday, October 7th, at 7:00 pm.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

An American Redemption Story: Michael Vick

Michael Vick (en), of the Atlanta Falcons (en)...Image via Wikipedia
About seven months ago (1/27/09) I blogged about Michael Vick who was once again being maligned for his participation in a vicious dog fighting ring. The Vick case struck me as especially interesting in two ways: the sometimes over-the-top rhetoric used to describe his actions (many animal rights' activists and sports fans called Vick "another Hitler" -- a bizarre equation by any rational analysis), and the way in which Vick's journey seemed to imitate what psychologist Dan McAdams calls the "redemptive myth."

According to McAdams, the most powerful life stories are narratives of personal redemption, through which people transform pain and suffering into a life designed to benefit the self and others. Listen to the strains of this redemptive story in Vick's press conference announcing his new job with (that most American of birds!) the Eagles.

At the press conference Vick is accompanied by his (Christian) spiritual advisor -- and former NFL Super Bowl winning coach, Tony Dungy -- and quickly they mention Christian forgiveness and the importance of atoning for a "horrible mistake" and the fact that "everyone deserves a second chance." Check it out here:

Is Vick's story redemptive? Does his redemption depend on his success on the field or is it enough that he has "learned his lesson"? Is the redemptive story an especially American story?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Top Two News Words (by hour)

Back in my college days at U of I, I became familiar with the loud sounds of a band called Poster Children. They were relentless in their dedication to DIY ("do-it-yourself") touring, DIY music -- and, for our purposes, DIY thinking.

In that spirit, Rick Valentin, one of the founding members of the Poster Kids, created a piece of art which is deceptively simple. On the surface, the art piece appears to be completely functional in its purpose. According to Rick, "Top news sources are parsed by a computer every hour and the two most frequently used words are determined and printed out on a continuous sheet of paper."

But as critical thinkers, we might ask the question: what are the sources of "top news"? Scroll down to the bottom of the online version and take a good look. Our blog, An American Studies, will feature the "Top Two News Words" all year long in the blue field above the blog banner. What, if anything, does this automated tool say about the state of our media in the USA?

Curious about this seminal band who once worked with the inimitable Steve Albini? Listen here:

Poster Children - "Get a Life" from Junior Citizen.
Poster Children - "6x6" from New World Record.
Poster Children - "If You See Kay" from Daisychain Reaction.
Poster Children - "Machines (Take Good Care of)" from the Single of the Moment.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Are Computers Making Us Direct Objects?

Our computersImage by aranarth via Flickr

Last summer, The Atlantic Monthly featured a cover story titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The article, written by Nicholas Karr, suggests that we have become jittery and superficial readers. Karr cites recent scholarship from University College London suggesting that visitors to their research site skim rather than read, hopping from one source to another rarely returning to any source they’ve already visited. Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts warns that the style of reading promoted by the Net may be weakening our capacity for deep reading, turning us into “mere decoders of information.”

Rather predictably, this summer featured a reaction piece called "Get Smarter" that wonders "if Google is making us smarter"! The author Jamais Cascio, citing contradictory studies, concludes that computers aid our "fluid intelligence" and that computers help us with "the modern phenomenon of having multiple activities and connections under way simultaneously." One theorist even calls our current life style "a [self-] induced form of ADD."

So, who is right? In my opinion, neither of these schools. Both make the mistake of seeing computers as the principal actors and the human beings who use them hapless and passive victims of the cyber-revolution. There seems to be a trend these days to capitulate to technology as if it is the answer to our problems rather than the means to achieve the answers we seek.

On a more local level, I attended a conference last year in which a "computer expert" expressed the desire to equip every student with technological literacy upon graduation. A noble goal, to be sure, but, when I asked how this would be achieved he said, by putting a computer into every student's hands. Vigorous head-shaking and self-congratulation ensued, which ended when I asked if a computer was really the same thing as technology. Suddenly I felt quite alone, a kill-joy, a virtual party pooper, by pulling the plug on the enthusiasm that had been brewing.

But a computer is not the same thing as technology, just as certainly as flint is not the same thing as fire. (If you don't believe me, ask my scout master!). How are computers affecting your life -- or more to the point, how are you using computers to affect your life?

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

"Post-Racial" America?

Selling Obamacare - July 22, 2009Image by Mark Sardella via Flickr

After enormous effort to shift the focus of Americans from the economic crisis to the unarguably important (yet tremendously complex) issue of health care, the Obama administration was (perhaps inevitably) derailed by a single reporter's question about the dust-up between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the Cambridge, MA police.

The question, "What does that incident say to you? And what does it say about race relations in America?" President Obama's impromptu response, "the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home" touched off a gasoline bomb in the media. A media, I would argue, desperate for the Next Big Story of the slow summer news cycle.

I find it unfortunate that the attention of the country has wandered from a unique historical opportunity (toward fixing a major systemic problem in American life) to tediously analyzing an off-the-cuff presidential soundbite. But perhaps this blog, and others like it, is a better forum for this issue of race, in an era some have argued is "post-racial" since the election of America's first African-American president. How would you answer the questions? Perhaps we can offload the debate from the shoulders of the politicians and get them to focus on more pressing issues?

Here's Jon Stewart's take on the media circus (warning: some explicit content):

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
White House M.D.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Jolly Banker

Thinking about progress in America, this song was originally written by Woody Guthrie in 1946! Music and performance by Wilco, who have a new album out in June.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

What is your "green light"?

From The Great Gatsby:
[H]e stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward -- and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock (25-26; emphasis added).
The New York Times recently featured an article entitled, "Gatsby’s Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers". As you think about what it is that you desire most, consider the responses of these urban and immigrant students in a Boston high school.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Welcome, Louis Masur!

In anticipation of Louis Masur's visit to our school for American Studies Day, each one of our students took an original photograph of an American flag, gave it a caption, and uploaded to the web in a shared presentation. Afterward, I took all the images and set them to music using the amazing ANIMOTO website and Broken Social Scene's "Capture the Flag". See the fascinating results below by pressing "play".

Friday, May 08, 2009

Promote this!

We are eagerly anticipating the arrival of Louis Masur, for both his Tuesday evening presentation, displayed below, and his generous offer to spend the entire American Studies Day (Wednesday) with us for multiple sessions, including one on the music of Bruce Springsteen. Masur is the author of The Soiling of Old Glory and currently teaches at Trinity College.

In addition to hearing Masur’s keynote address on American Studies Day, students will engage with panel discussions which relate to the theme of the day, and which highlight student projects and research. We are also glad to include that day opportunities for the students to hear other professional speakers and artists, notably an AP photographer as well as the local blues band Mississippi Heat.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

American Studies is BACK!

A pyhsical proton proton chainImage via Wikipedia

Despite persistent H1 N1 rumors, and after several grueling weeks outside of class researching and writing the Junior Theme, both of your teachers were in clear agreement that it was a fantastic return to form on Friday. No matter where you stood on the issues, clearly, American Studies is BACK.

One thing I really learned in class was how important it is for us to continue to rely on face-to-face communication. Most of us love the tech, but looking back on the previous post, it was striking to me how quickly the virtual discussion (below) diverged from the intended focus.

But another important point was that even though the comments began to devolve into borderline nasty discourse, (referencing a beast of burden defined here), I still feel that we are all a pretty tolerant, respectful bunch of people. Doc OC and I briefly considered deleting a few comments, but realized that this is a teachable moment to remember that we shouldn't assume the worst, and that it's best to critique the ideas, not the person.

So, in the interest of debating the ideas, can we continue this discussion in a civil way?

My main concern is that there was a lack of critical thinking regarding the various terms we toss around rather casually. Can we agree upon certain "operational definitions"? For instance, the term, "theory". Here is the definition I will use, taken from Kenneth Miller in the On the Media piece cited here:

[theory]: a unified testable explanation that actually explains how different facts, how observations, how fossils, how facts about genetics or molecular biology, how these can all fit together.

So the interesting thing is that theory actually represents a higher level of understanding than fact. Fact is just a single isolated, repeatable observation. A theory is something that explains how all these facts fit together.

And we use the word “theory” like atomic theory, for example, not because we're not sure that atoms are real – we're pretty darn sure – but rather because atomic theory explains all these isolated observations and facts.

My other concern was with what is a common logical error, made by many of us in the heat of the moment. It's sometimes called a "negative proof fallacy", which basically means that if you can't provide evidence that my idea is wrong, then my idea is right. The problem with that, of course, is that we all know from many discussions that the burden of proof is on the person making the argument, not the person who is perceived to need convincing.

So, in a blog post that ended up being far too long, bring the evidence for your particular point of view. Stay focused on ONE thing at a time for clarity's sake. Be realistic about the limits of Church/State interaction in U.S. public schools. And, if you need help embedding links, you know where to find me!
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Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Evolution of Creationism?

A recent On the Media episode explored the way in which evolution is discussed in Texas science textbooks. (Since Texas is the largest purchaser of textbooks, their decisions impact textbook writing for the nation). The state once required creationism to be taught alongside evolution as "competing theories." Part of the problem is the word theory, which in some cases connotes speculation or suspicion. To scientists, however, the word means a unifying explanation of a range of phenomena that is testable and verifiable. By this standard, creationism and evolution are not competing theories; only evolution offers empirical data.

But, since it's hard to find a scientist of any repute to endorse creationism or to challenge evolution, the position of the religious right has "evolved" into a more insidious challenge. Textbooks now insist that all terms -- including, perhaps especially, evolution -- are to be examined for their advantages and disadvantages. This is the ultimate aim of the relativist: to see all knowledge as flawed resists the idea that some knowledge is more valid than others.

Are we to treat genocide, for example, as a "theory" in deference to deniers?

What of the man-made environmental catastrophes we currently face?

What of politicians caught in scandals who say, "Am I perfect? No." Aren't they hiding behind the idea that everyone is flawed, so we can never really judge anyone's actions?

Where else do you see the fight over truth being waged?

Monday, April 06, 2009

Flag-Draped Coffins

The Obama administration has lifted an 18 year old ban on photographs of the flag-draped coffins of returning servicemen. The issue has been fought on personal and political grounds. Supporters of the ban say the pictures can weaken morale and are an intrusion on family privacy. Critics of the ban say the photographs are covered by first Amendment rights, and that they offer a glimpse of the human toll war exacts. Furthermore, they note, family members of the deceased must agree to the photos before they can be taken. (For a closer look at the issue, click on the title of this post and check out the attached article in the New York Times).

Where do you stand on this issue?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Picture This

When documentary film maker Errol Morris asked Dartmouth professor, Hany Farid, why we trust photographs so much, Farid gave this answer:

HANY FARID: The short answer is: I don’t know. The longer answer is: if you look at the neurological level, what’s happening in our brain, roughly 30 to 50 percent of our brain is doing visual processing. It’s just processing the visual imagery that comes in, and if you think about it in terms of bandwidth, there is a remarkable amount of information entering into our eyes and being processed by the brain. Now, the brain samples like a video camera, but 30 frames a second, high resolution, massive amounts of information. Vision is a pretty unique sense for the brain. It’s incredibly powerful and is very valuable from an evolutionary point of view. So it’s not surprising that it has an emotional effect on us. The Vietnam War, the war abroad and the war at home, has been reduced to a few iconic images — the Napalm girl, the girl at Kent State. What seems to emerge from major events and eras are one or two images that effectively embody the emotion and rage, the happiness and anger. The whole thing somehow is enfolded in there. The brain is just very good at processing visual imageries and bringing in memories associated with images.

ERROL MORRIS: But text is often brought in visually as well.

HANY FARID: Sure, but processed in a different part of the brain. So, yes, the visual system has to process it, but where it’s actually being processed is not in the back of the brain where the visual processing is, it’s on the side of the brain. It’s the language center, which is completely different.

Think about Mr. Farid's conclusions as you watch this brief video of "Pictures of the Year." It features the two pictures Farid mentions and the work of Stanley Forman:

Pictures of the Year

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Myths of Rules and Incentives

Now that we have viewed and discussed Barry Schwartz's TED Talk, think about how the mythology of rules and incentives applies to your own life. Schwartz mostly related his ideas to the financial crisis, but what about applying these to school rules and incentives?

For example, I was at an educational technology conference last week in which many of the presenters argued for the integration of cell phones in the classroom. These educators strongly believe that the policy of banning cell phones in school is wrong-headed because it is based upon a "myth". According to proponents of this idea, the myth is that cell phones disrupt the learning process. Instead, they argue that cell phones in the classroom would actually enhance learning. I am undecided on this issue: what do you think?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Childhood Myths

Historian Steven Mintz's book, Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood sees Huck's journey on the Mississippi River as a metaphor for childhood in the United States — the "youthful wonder" and the "unsettling underside" found in the novel's "more sinister aspects." However, Mintz warns, "a series of myths have clouded public thinking about the history of American childhood." He lists the following six myths:
  1. the myth of a carefree childhood
  2. the myth of home as a haven a source of stability
  3. the myth that childhood is the same for everybody
  4. the myth that the United States is a particularly child-friendly society
  5. the myth of progress (children keep learning, developing and growing in a straight slope) and
  6. the myth of decline (children start off perfect, pure and become corrupted)
Which of these do you see in the novel? Which of these do you see in your parents' attitude toward child-rearing? Ask your friends and your family (especially people from the older generation, like Mr. Bolos) if their views on children and parenting have changed in past generation or two.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

cowboy presidents

This week we talked about the "Myth of the West" in art and how President Ronald Reagan made use of the cowboy myth in advancing a new narrative of America (and a new narrative of his presidency). George Bush has both used and been accused of playing with the same myths.

The on-line American Popular Culture discusses Bush and the cowboy myth this way: In an address to the nation, on March 17, 2003, George W. Bush declared, “Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing.” The ultimatum aroused a multitude of commentary in editorials and news articles that depicted George W. Bush as a cowboy sheriff who told outlaws to get out of town or face the consequences. On March 19, for instance, Reuters ran a story titled “High Noon for Cowboy Era” in which the lead sentence declared that, for Arabs, Bush's ultimatum was a throwback to the Wild West. Bush's language struck many observers as dialogue straight out of a Hollywood Western: "You have until sundown to git out of this town."
Eric Baard, writing for the Village Voice in 2004 offered a piece called "George W. Bush A'int No Cowboy." Here is an excerpt:
George W. Bush is a fake cowboy. From media accounts, you'd reckon that the president was a buckaroo to the bones. He plays up the image, big-time, with $300 designer cowboy boots, a $1,000 cowboy hat, and his 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas. He guns his rhetoric with frontier lingo, saying that he'll "ride herd" over ornery Middle Eastern governments and "smoke out" enemies in wild mountain passes. He branded Saddam Hussein's Iraq "an outlaw regime" and took the vanquished dictator's pistol as a trophy. As for Osama bin Laden, Bush declared, "I want justice. And there's an old poster out West, I recall, that says, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive.' " Britain's liberal newspaper The Guardian noted that "such language feeds the image overseas of Mr. Bush as a hopelessly inarticulate, trigger-happy cowboy."

But many commentators also point out that the cowboy image became a potent means of coalescing support for George W. Bush as a fast-acting, straight-shooting, brave president. Regardless of your political stance, it is clear the cowboy will not die with Bush.Remember, John McCain was a "maverick" and the Iranian government has accused now President Obama of using "cowboy rhetoric" in warning that regime of its nuclear ambitions.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Myth of Cowboys

With your peers, write down as many characteristics as you can of the American "cowboy" as he is portrayed in American popular culture. See what our class generated below (thanks to the typing talents of Christy!):

After reading E. Martin Pedersen's "The Dreary Life of the Cowboy: Memoir and Myth in Cowboy Ballads", use it as a source and please post comments that you believe contradict the myth of the cowboy. What most surprised you about the "reality" of cowboy life?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Justice: Man's Best Friend?

Former pro quarterback Michael Vick was sent to jail on conspiracy charges for forcing dogs to fight to the death. Vick and his friends gambled on these fights and many dogs died or were badly injured. Vick was sentenced to 23 months in jail and lost tens of millions of dollars in salary and endorsement deals.
This July he is eligible to leave prison and hopes to rejoin the NFL. As part of his "reformation," Vick was asked to take an empathy test that followed a film of horrific animal abuses. Above is a link to the test along with Vick's answers. (Vick earned a 73.5 out of 100)! Wait for it to load: it's worth seeing it in his own handwriting.

For me this process raises many questions: Was Vick's sentence -- far stiffer than many people who have been found guilty of killing human beings -- too harsh? What do you think of Vick having to submit to a PeTA empathy test? Can empathy be taught? How does the Vick story relate to our study of mythology -- Vick's and ours? Will Vick's story follow the redemptive arc?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Myth of Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus on December 21,...Image via WikipediaBefore listening to the excerpt below from On the Media, think about what you believe to be true about Rosa Parks' historic refusal to sit at the back of the bus, and her subsequent arrest. Americans commemorate this 1955 act as the catalyst for the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, an early success of the Civil Rights Movement.

But what do we really know of this historic event? Better yet, what do we believe about it? To what degree has Parks' act been mythologized by the press, popular culture, and even educators? For example, as yourself the following:
  1. Approximately how old was Rosa Parks at the time of the event?
  2. Where did she sit on the bus?
  3. Why exactly did she refuse to move from her seat?
  4. What were her views concerning non-violence?

Why is it that we believe so strongly in the myth of Rosa Parks? For more about the details of this event, see Rita Dove's article in Time magazine. Read it carefully: your own biases may prevent you from truly understanding what happened.
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Monday, January 19, 2009

The Forgotten King

The title of this post is intentionally ironic. Of course, today, we are away from school because Dr. Martin Luther King is commemorated by name with his own national holiday. And just about everyone alive is familiar with his "I Have A Dream" speech. However, as we look forward to tomorrow's historic inauguration, we invite you to compare and contrast what you have learned as a school child about this man, to this particular speech (about the Vietnam War, in an excerpt from a sermon given at Ebenezer Baptist Church, on April 30, 1967) Why? Because:
...after giving the speech...King was dropped from Gallup’s annual list of the most admired Americans and was ridiculed by the New York Times, among too many others. Soon after, he was murdered (Robert Scheer,
Although it is over 20 minutes long, you are encouraged to listen to as much of it as you can (it's audio only). We know what amazing multitaskers you are. Press PLAY and have it on in the background as you IM your friends and surf the net ;) Ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Why is this post called, "The Forgotten King"?
  2. Why was this speech so controversial?
  3. How does it relate to our course themes?
  4. Can you make connections to today?
A full text version of this speech is available HERE.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Our Biases?

In the hopes that we can further facilitate your efforts on the final exam, here is an interesting Wordle ("word cloud") I created on Friday. Basically, I fed the entire text of this year's "An American Studies" blog into the program. I made sure that I took out content generated by the students, such as the American Values word cloud, which, due to the repetition of the words, would unduly bias the entire content of the blog. I also limited the word cloud to under 30 words. Keep those factors in mind as you analyze the content of this image.