Thursday, August 26, 2010

marcus's rules of order (for himself)

I, Marcus, swear to abide by the following rules to the best of my ability. It is my belief the they lead to civil, intelligent discussion in which the goal is to seek truth, rather than to win points, mock, humiliate or dominate -- all of which I consider ignoble wastes of time or worse.

I invite you to call me on my own hypocrisy. If I violate any of the following rules, drop me a line saying, "You just violated rule 03!"

I also invite you to follow these rules. I believe they will pay off great dividends for you and for this the world in general.

Finally, I invite you to suggest changes and amendments to these rules.

01. I will never engage in ad hominem attacks. An ad hominem attack is an attack on the arguer as opposed to his argument.

It's pretty easy to understand that "You're an asshole!" doesn't add anything to the argument except bile, but most ad hominem attacks are subtler than that. They piggyback on legitimate points.


"Don't be an idiot! In a democracy, everyone gets a right to vote!"

"What you obviously don't understand is that History is not a science!"

"For the fifteenth time, not all forms of punishment are equally bad!" (It's a little hard to spot the personal attack in this example. "For the fifteenth time" implies "You are so stupid that you can't understand something, even if I say it over and over again!")

These combo statements are bad because they send a mixed message. Refuting someone's point with logic says "I want to have a rational discussion with you." Adding in some form of "You idiot" says "I want to humiliate you." And the stealth (slipping the insult in with the valid point) makes the play for dominance all the more horrible. If the person on the other end only responds to the logic, he's letting himself be insulted; if he only responds to the insult, he's ignoring the logic. If he tries to do both, he waters down the discussion.

02. I will never give as good as I get.

This is the hardest rule for most people to follow, and many people disagree that it even should be a rule. But if I care about promoting real discussion and ridding the world (as much as possible) of chest-beating shouting matches, I'll swallow my pride and take the high road. If someone calls me an asshole, they are violating rule 01. Sorry, but if I call them an asshole back, I am also violating rule 01. As Mom said, "Two wrongs don't make a right."

I have two honorable options: (1) ignore the insult and just respond to the debate points -- if there are any debate points. Or (2) opt to leave the debate. If I make this choice, I may explain why, without insulting the insulter. I can say, "I am sorry, but I have a personal policy against participating in debates that include personal attacks. So I'm going to leave now."

After I leave, the insulter will almost always claim victory. I need to live with that. He's claiming victory because he believes that's the whole point of the debate -- for someone to win and for someone else to lose. I need to remember that my point was to seek truth. He and I are not playing the same game. Let him win his game. It's not my game. Whatever I do, I should never play his game. If I do, he wins by default.

Bonus points: give one warning but don't leave. It's fine if I leave after the first insult. But sometimes it's worth staying long enough to say that I will only stick around if there are no more insults. People are imperfect; they get defensive despite their best intentions not to. (It happesn to me!) Sometimes an insult will slip out. If I feel I am up to it, I should give people a chance to apologize and I should accept their apology with grace.

If, after that, they insult me a second time, I should opt out.

03. I will never say, "You can take anything to extremes," because that's never a meaningful answer.

If someone says, "If we take your logic to extremes, we wind up with Nazi Germany," there are three meaningful responses:

1) "You're wrong. If you take my logic to extremes, you actually wind up with X," X being something other than Nazi Germany. You then need to explain why you wind up with X instead of Nazi Germany.

2) "You're right. You've made me realize that I need to qualify my claim. I don't dismiss it. It's still a valid claim under many circumstances, but I can see how it's problematic when..."

3) "You're right. I never fully considered the ramifications."

04. If I concede a point, I must always fully and opening concede it. And I am never allowed to mix conceding a point with changing the subject:

Example of the wrong way to do it:

Me: The problem with our educational system, is that it forces kids to do things they don't want, and forcing people is wrong.

You: So you think it's wrong to stop kids from playing in traffic?

Me: Okay, not that, but my point is...

WHOA! "But the point is" is changing the subject. What I should have said is...

Me: You know, you're right. I said you should never force kids to do anything, but now that you bring up the dangers of playing in traffic, I realize that I don't really think things through. You're right about that. (Pause.) Okay, let me try to rephrase what I believe. I do think you have a point, but I don't think MY point was completely wrong. I just need to refine it. You see...

05. I will either stay in the discussion or bow out gracefully. It's never someone else's fault that I'm leaving. I will never leave by saying something like, "Since you can't discuss this rationally, I'm outahere!"

It's okay to say, "I have a personal policy against taking part in flame wars, but it's also hard for me to resist insulting you the way you're insulting me. So rather than violating my principals, I'm going to leave." It's also perfectly fine to say, "You know. I'm tired, and I just don't feel like discussing any more." I will separate my leave-taking remark from my argumentation. It's never okay to use a good-bye to get "one last dig in."

06. I will never assume intent or mindset.

I will never say, "You obviously think you're always right" unless someone has said "I am always right." I will never begins a sentence with "people like you always say..." It's fine, acceptable and good to ask questions about mindset. "You say you're a Republican? The Republicans I know want low taxes. Do you want low taxes?"

07. I will never use sarcasm as a weapon.

"You're quite right. NO ONE should EVER have to go to SCHOOL! If no one went to SCHOOL, we'd be living in a PARADISE!"

If my message is "you're really stupid," then I'm engaging in an ad hominem attack. (See point 01.) If my point is "School is a good thing," then I need to make that point and explain why.

08. I am not allowed to fall back on bad behavior when all else has failed.

"You know what? I tried reasoning with you. I explained things to you really clearly. In fact, I explain things FOUR TIMES. You never listen. You know what? At this point ... fuck you!" I need to either stay in the discussion and keep trying or opt out gracefully. (See point 05.)

09. I will never say, "You're missing my point," "You're still not hearing me," or any variation of those phrases.

No matter how clear I think I'm being, if the other person isn't responding as if he heard me, there are two possibilities: either he's not thinking clearly or I'm not speaking clearly.

I am not the one to judge whether I'm speaking clearly or not. No one is objective enough to do that. Which is why writers need editors. In any case, "you're missing the point" is gratuitous information. If I'm debating Creationism, debate THAT. I shouldn't waste time discussing whether or not someone is missing my point.

If I feel that someone is missing my point, I should explain it again, switch to a different point, ask questions to see if I can figure out the cause of the confusion or opt out. (See point 05.)

Bonus points if, in stead of saying, "You're missing my point," I say, "Maybe I wasn't being clear. How about we look at it this way..." A little humility goes a long way.

10. If I feel frustrated and need to vent, I will either leave the discussion and vent elsewhere or I will stay and discuss my feelings without blaming anyone else for them.

If I blame someone else (even if it is "their fault") my goal has changed from truth-seeking to something else -- maybe to righting a wrong or criticizing. Sometimes that's inevitable. But at least I should be fair to the people I'm talking to by making the new game clear: "You know, I need to stop for a minute. I can't go on discussing the Middle East situation right now, because I'm hurt by what you said..."

It's also okay to say, "I am really frustrated right now." What's not okay is to engage in any of the bad behavior (ad hominem attacks, sarcasm...) outlined in these points.

11. I will never nitpick at minor points that have nothing to do with the main thrust of someone's argument.

If someone says, "You think that technology is perfect? That's what people said about the Titanic in the 1920s," it adds nothing to the discussion to retort with, "The Titanic sank in 1912!" The person was making a point about the hubris of claiming a technology is perfect. My goal should be to agree with him about THAT or to disagree and explain my reasoning -- not to win points.

(It's okay, at a time when it won't derail the conversation, to say, "Oh. Just a note. The Titanic sank in 1912." Conversational ninjas can even say this immediately, as long as they phrase it like this, "Well, the Titanic sank in 1912, but I take your point that...")

12. When (not if) I violate any of these rules, I will apologize.

It's hard to argue fairly. Even if I start with the honest goal of seeking the truth, people will push my buttons (and I'll push my own buttons), and sometimes without even knowing it, I'll bark at people. Unwittingly, my goal will switch from truth-seeking to winning. This is natural. It happens to everyone. I must have the humility to accept the fact that it will happen to me. The honorable thing is to admit it and fix the problem.

If I find you can't do this -- if apologizing is deeply painful or irritating, so much so that I can't bring myself to do it -- then I should at least note I've you've completely quit seeking the truth. My argument is now totally about ego. Again, that's not a horrible sin. It means I'm human. Sometimes humans have to withdraw and lick their wounds. It's honorable to take a break, even a permanent one if I must.

If I choose to continue, I should say "You know, I just realized I made a personal attack" (or whatever you did.) "I'm sorry. That was wrong of me." I should pause after doing that, making sure to never combine an apology with a change of subject, or it will sound like I'm fleeing from the apology. I should never say, "I'm sorry I attacked you, but my point is..." Instead, I should take a deep breath, find some humility, look the other person in the eye and say, "I was wrong." Full Stop. Then let him speak. After my mistake has been dealt with, I am free to continue making my argument.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

the unopenable door

Thought experiment: you move into a house and discover there's a locked door in the basement. It's a super-strong, steel reenforced door -- like a bank vault. You try everything you can to open it but nothing works. You call in an engineer, and he tells you that the door must remain closed. If you try to bash it open somehow, you'll bring down the whole house on top of you. (I realize this is silly. There's ALWAYS a way to get a door open. But please accept this unopenenable door -- as magic if you must.) Question: once you realize you can't open the door, how would be feel about continuing to live in the house?

I ask this, because some people seem to be much better equipped to deal with mystery than others. This is far from the only thing that leads some people to become mystics and others to become skeptics/scientific thinkers/atheists, but I believe it's one key ingredient.

(There's a great TED talk by J.J. Abrams, the TV producer, in which he talks about how his grandfather gave him a box from a magic shop. It has big question marks painted on it. He's kept the box for decades without ever opening it. He feels it's vital that he has this mystery in his life. I told this story to my wife and she just about blew a gasket. She wants to kill J.J. for not opening that box. She wants to kill him even more for adding that mystery to her life without giving her any tools to solve it.)

I'm betting some people read my unopenable-door experiment and thought, "I could live with it." Others thought, "It would drive me BATSHIT INSANE! I would HAVE to move." Still others thought, "I'm sorry, but even in a story, I can't accept the idea of an unopenable door. So in spite of your request that I take that as a given, I simply can't. There IS a way to open it, and I will keep trying!" Others thought, "I'm going to assume that what's behind the door is _____," and you can fill in the blank with God or some other fantasy. (For a fun evening with friends, pose the door story to them and see how they react. You will learn a lot!)

Despite the name, mysticism tends to deny (or solve) mystery. Why does it rain? Because the rain God wants it to. Etc.

It's always fascinating to me when a theist asks me, "Well, if God didn't do it, how do you explain X?" Embedded in that question is the idea that "I don't know" is not tolerable. That it's better to make up an explanation (or accept one someone else made up) than live with mystery.

We tend to categorize people as theists and atheists, but I think this relationship to mystery transcends those categories. I've noticed that there are scientists who are very uncomfortable with mystery. They may have BECOME scientists because, though they can't just trust bullshit like so many theists do, they cling to the idea that, given time and work, all will be known. A mystery, to them, is just a question that doesn't YET have an answer.

But if you really confront the truth, we simply don't know if all questions can be answered or not. And it's a certainty that all questions (even most questions) won't get answered in your lifetime. You will die with mysteries. How does that make you feel? I think that's a KEY question. How do unsolved and UNSOLVABLE mysteries make you feel?

(Many animals are compelled to explore their environments. Presumably this helps them make sure there are not lurking dangers. An unexplored nook or cranny might contain a tiger. When we ask people to give up mysticism and theism, we need to understand the ramifications of our request: learn to live with some possible tigers that you'll never be sure about.)

I've also noticed that many scientists (and scientific types) are troubled by axioms. To me, the most challenging thing that theists say to us is "You take things on faith just like we do." The answers I hear most often are "Yes, but we do that as little as possible" and "Yes, but we're always willing to revise those axioms."

I agree with both those statements, but I also note how quickly scientists (many of them) tend to change the subject when their faith-based beliefs are even brought up. I suspect, again, this is because the existence of axioms implies mystery. Yes, we may one day understand the human brain and the nature of black holes. But will we understand what causation is? Maybe, but it it seems distinctly less likely. (Unless you're one of those people who cling to the "religious" belief that, given time, we'll understand everything. Now THAT is an article of faith!)

If I'm right about this, it all leads to a big question that, alas, I can't answer: why do different people have different tolerance levels for mystery? Is it a genetically encoded personality trait? Is it learned? I have no idea. I would love to see this tested in the lab. I would love to see if we can detect differing tolerances for mystery in infants and other primates.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

school is abuse

Someone online posted about a school that gives students DAILY assessment tests. I remarked that this sounds like hell to me. A few people countered that it's much better than leaving kids to do homework and only occasionally checking in on how they're doing.

I had to admit I'd been glib, and so I broadened my remark by saying, "Homework sucks, too. A school has failed when it has our kids captive for EIGHT HOURS A DAY, for TWELVE YEARS, and that's not enough time to teach -- when it needs to force kids to do even MORE work at night, when they finally get to go home. Good LORD! What is happening during those eight hours?"

To which I got this...

It's school. It's not something you necessarily need to like. If I had my way I never would have gone and played Nintendo all day instead.

"We will probably never agree about this," I said, "but learning should be fun." Learning IS fun when we're small children. When we're babies, learning is FASCINATING. Then something kills this fascination for many people. I would argue that "something" is school -- traditional school (with homework, tests and requirements) as it exists in America and many other countries.

I would also argue that school needn't kill the joy of learning (and that the fact that it does so, for so many people, is extremely damaging to mental development). It sickens me when people treat school as a Force of Nature: "Whatcha gonna do. That's just the way it is."

I understand (and sympathize) with this feeling, because it's how most of us experience school. It's certainly IS something that "just happens" to us. Everyone we know goes through it; Our parents went through it; our children went through it. It seems like a natural part of life, like teething and going through puberty. But it's worth remembering that this is an illusion. Whether you agree with me or not that school sucks, it's not natural -- it's a human construction.

When a ritual becomes this embedded in culture, it stops being open to debate for most people. Not because they're close minded. But because ... who debates whether or not trees should have leaves? Good or bad, school becomes a rite of passage. It may be crap, but it's that crap we all have in common.

And questioning school is dangerous. If there's something fucked up in our upbringing -- in years and years and years of it -- that means, on some level, our parents abused us (generally unwittingly), and who wants to think of their parents that way? It means we're abusing our kids. And who wants to think of ourselves that way? I probably damage my own point by even suggesting that or by using the word "abuse." The knees are GOING to jerk.

But fuck it. Stunting someone's mental development; making them spend twelve years of their life in a crappy environment ... I don't know what else to call it.

Well, I could call it "just school" or "that's how it is" or "I went through it and I turned out okay." All the platitudes that usually tumble out...

When something is embedded in our culture, it also tends to make us very unimaginative -- at least when it comes to that thing. You can't change a rock or a tree. They are the way they are. Same with school, right? Institutions are institutions because they are institutions. The Post Office may be fucked up -- but it's the Post Office!

Please argue with me and tell me what school is fine (or the best we can expect it to be) and that it does little damage to people. Or that it's great and it helps people. But BEFORE you do that, please read everything you can about education (including the hundred-years-worth of literature on alternatives to what we do now), as I've tried to do over the last 30 years. And please spend 20 years in the classroom as an active thinker, as I have done. During that 20 years, make sure you question the institutional defaults EVERY DAY. Don't (necessarily) reject them; QUESTION them. Isn't that what you're teaching your students to do -- to question?

Read Vivian Paley's books; read "How Children Fail." Read about Summerhill in England. Read reports of adults who went through non-traditional schools and see how they fared in life and how they look back on their school experiences. Do all that, and then, using logic, reject those books and experiences. I'll be waiting and I'm open to be convinced.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

to BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUEST ion

I don't think that reading Shakespeare in strict iambic stress patterns is really the best way to communicate his language. -- post on a web forum.

Sorry to harp on this, but it's sticking in my craw. Which is because I'm a Shakespeare geek. Here's what I think is true: lecturing people (e.g. in a class) about iambic pentameter is not (generally) the best way to make people (especially newbies) like Shakespeare. By God, there's so much more accessible stuff! Sex, violence, amazing characters, exciting plots, beautiful words and phrases...

But I utterly reject this idea that if you speak the verse using the rhythmic plans Elizabethan poets used and intended, it sounds stilted an unnatural. I claim the exact opposite. So this may be a technical point, only worthwhile for actors and orators to think about, but it's true nonetheless. If you've heard stilted performances (who hasn't?), that's not because the actors were being too metrical. It's because they were doing something else wrong.

Sticking to the meter doesn't mean POUNDING it. We all stress certain syllables when we speak and leave others relatively unstressed. But that DOESn't MEAN we SPEAK like THIS. We don't say everything like Alec Baldwin in "Glen Gary Glenn Ross" when he says "PUT the COFFee cup DOWN." But we still stress some syllables more than others.

I just scanned the famous "to be or not to be" speech. I did it by the book. You'll see my attempt below. (Note: in that attempted, i DID use CAPS like THIS, which SEEMS like GOing OVerBOARD. But that's just because I have to somehow indicate stress here using typed characters alone. What I'm trying to convey is SLIGHT differences -- not pounded, shouted ones. For instance, if you say "always" using a standard American accent, you say ALways and never allWAYS.)

Here's what's interesting. After scanning the text for stressed and unstressed syllables, I watched David Tennant perform it.

I hope you agree with me that, whether or not you like his performance, that he doesn't sound stilted. If you're not looking for it, or if you're not trained in it, you probably can't even tell he's speaking metered verse. He sounds very natural -- just like he's talking using whatever rhythm he wants.

He's not. He's being ABSOLUTELY technically accurate. I was surprised and pleased to find that his interpretation matched mine EXACTLY! But I shouldn't have been surprised, because that IS the natural way to speak the verse.

Again, I would suggest he sounds natural and unstilted BECAUSE he's sticking to the blank-verse rhythm. If he tried to play against it, he would sound really odd. This isn't always the case. There are lines here and there you can play with without anyone (except a scholar) noticing. But if you stray too far from the rhythm, I promise you it will sound odd. It will sound like singing notes off key. When you don't notice it, that means it's working.

Here are a few notes for people who are new to blank-verse (a.k.a. iambic pentameter).

Standard blank verse is made up of five pairs of two syllable words, e.g.

In sooth I know not why I am so sad. (Opening line of "Merchant of Venice.")

1. In sooth
2. I know
3. not why
4. I am
5. so sad

in sooth | i know | not why | i am | so sad

Each two-syllable pair is called a "foot," so a standard line has five feet.

Standard feet stress the second syllable more than the first:

in SOOTH | i KNOWN | not WHY | i AM | so SAD

Don't try to force it. Just say the line naturally, and, if you're like most people, you'll find that without trying, you naturally stress it that way (remember, my caps are just meant to illustrate SLIGHT differences in stress -- not that you should shout or pound every other syllable.)

That's the basic rhythm, and it's sometimes called tee-TUM, tee-TUM, tee-TUM, tee-TUM, tee-TUM.

A main part of the fun is that Shakespeare and his contemporaries set up that rhythm and then vary from it. They stray away from it and then circle back to it, like jazz musicians flirting and improvising around a melody. And they generally don't stray from it any old way. They stray from it in very specific, formalized ways.

The most common stray is the "feminine ending," which adds and extra (unstressed) syllable onto the end of the line. E.g.

1. In sooth
2. I know
3. not why
4. I am
5. so sad
6. now

in SOOTH | i KNOWN | not WHY | i AM | so SAD | now

In fact, the opening line of the "Hamlet" speech -- and many of the subsequent lines in that speech -- have feminine endings:

1. to be
2. or not
3. to be
4. that is
5. the quest
6. ion

Actors often interpret feminine endings as less confident or more ruminative than masculine ones (sorry, sounds sexist -- don't shoot the messenger). This certainly makes sense in a speech like this, in which Hamlet is trying to work out something really complicated and painful. It's not an easy, confident speech for him.

Other recognized variations are "trochees" and "pyrrhic feet." A trochee is the exact opposite of a normal iambic foot. Instead of tee-TUM, it's TEE-tum. Instead of unstressed-STRESSED, it's STRESSED-unstressed. You most often find trochees, when you find them, as the first foot of a line:

Now is the winter of our discontent. (Opening line of "Richard |||")

It's more natural to start with "NOW is" than "now IS," right? Try saying it (the whole line) a few times and see if you agree.

Pyrrhic feet are feet where both syllables are unstressed:

My father is a man who loves to cook. (I made that one up. Like it?)

my FA | ther is | a MAN | who LOVES | to COOK.

Probably, most speakers won't stress either word more than the other in that second foot ("ther is").

Let me be really clear and say that there isn't a RIGHT way to scan a line. There are ways that most people (who have experience scanning) will feel are more right than others. Pretty much no one is going to accept "IN sooth *I* know NOT why *I* am SO sad." I find that hard to even say.

Other lines are open to debate -- and different actors will stress different syllables without breaking the meter. But it's a matter of degree. Those actors (if they are skilled and if they sound natural) are not totally dispensing of the meter, and they are not straying far from it. And they UNDERSTAND the meter, so when they choose to stray from it, they are making an informed, bold, conscious choice.

Finally, I'll mention that a trained classical actor scans all his lines, makes sure he understands the meter, talks over any difficult rhythms with his director or fellow actors, makes decisions about how to scan ambiguous lines... and then lets it go.

No one (if they want to sound natural) counts out the syllables as he's speaking them on stage. That's stuff for homework -- for early in rehearsal. By the time the play opens, the rhythm is in the actor's gut (hopefully), and he can just think about the juicy character/emotional stuff and feel totally confident that his preparation will make the rhythm take care of itself -- and that they rhythm, WHILE it takes care of itself, will HELP him sound natural and help him find the emotional power of the verse.

(And, by the way, almost every actor I've ever met has said that scanning greatly helps him learn his lines, and that verse plays are much easier to memorize than prose ones.)

Here's my scan. Try reading it once by yourself and then reading it while listening to Tennant.

to BE | or NOT | to BE | that IS | the QUEST | ion: [feminine ending]
WHETH er [trochee]| 'tis NOB | ler in [pyrrhic ]| the MIND | to SUF | fer [fem end]
the SLINGS | and ARR | ows of [pyrrhic] | out RAGE | 'ous FOR | tune, [fem end]
or to [pyrrhic] | take ARMS agAINST | a SEA | of TROUB | les [fem end]
and, by [pyrrhic] | op POS | ing, END | them. [beat] | to DIE | to SLEEP
no MORE | and by [pyrrhic] | a SLEEP | to SAY | we END
the HEART | ache and [pyrrhic] | the THOUS | and NAT| [chral] ["natural" pronounced as two syllables.] SHOCKS
that FLESH | is HEIR | to – ‘TIS | a CON | sum MAT | ion [fem ending]
de VOUT | ly to [pyrrhic] | be WISHED. | to DIE, | to SLEEP
to SLEEP,| per CHANCE | to DREAM. | ay, THERE'S | the RUB,
for in [pyrrhic]| that SLEEP | of DEATH | what DREAMS | may COME,
when WE | have SHUFF | led OFF this MOR | tal COIL,
must GIVE | us PAUSE. | [ beat] [beat] | THERE'S the [trochee] | re SPECT [difficult like -- just a guess/metrical interpretation]
that MAKES | ca LAM | i TY | of SO | long LIFE.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

the artist vs. his art

My response to this (from an message board): "I often struggle with this issue because to purchase a book is to support the artist, the author. And yet finding out that an author might be homophobic or ultra-conservative will inevitably change how I perceive the text. It shouldn't, but it somehow does."

These are two questions here, both of which fascinate me and have for many years:

1) Should we support artists who are immoral in their lifestyles?

2) Is it wrong to associate they artist's lifestyle and political/social views with his works?

I am not going to take a definitive stance on either of these issues (because I don't think there is one), but I will speak to how I maneuver through them.

First of all, I DO think I am potentially culpable if I knowingly give money to someone who uses that money for evil. In some cases, this is pretty obvious. If I give you money so that you can buy a gun, knowing that you intend to shoot someone with it, I am partly responsible for the subsequent murder. But the further removed my payment is from clear-and-present danger, the more (I believe) I'm morally absolved.

For instance, let's say you're a non-prejudiced writer who has a son that is a KKK member. I know that you disapprove of your son's views, but I also know that you love him and maintain a relationship with him. I feel okay about buying your book, even knowing there's a possibility that you MIGHT give some of that money to your son, and that he MIGHT give some of that money to the KKK. Someone else might not think my decision is okay, and I can't really justify it, except to say that when there are more and more "mights," I feel less and less responsible. My decision to give you money didn't directly contribute to the KKK. Two other people had to make decisions in order for some of my money to reach the bad guys. (And then the KKK would have to spend that money on something evil -- not just on getting sandwiches for lunch -- in order for my money to fund anything evil.)

I also have a deeply held belief in freedom of expression. Which means that though I don't support Nazi actions (KKK actions, homophobic actions, etc.), I do support someone's right to have Nazi thoughts and even to speak out about them. More generally, I want to live in a world in which any and all ideas get expressed, and in a world in which we make a distinction between ideas and actions. I want ideas to be expressed -- even heinous ones -- because, once they are on the table, we can discuss them (and in some cases denounce them). If they are secret, we can't engage them in any way.

So I'll go further than my above writer-and-son ethic and say that I totally support your right to express homophobic ideas. If you're beating up gay people, I don't support that. But if you're saying "Homosexuality is a sin," I do. I don't believe it's a sin. In fact, I find that idea loathsome. But I want you to express it if it is your idea. I want that idea on the table if it exists. Let's confront it rather than hide from it. So I'm fine with buying Mr. Homophobe's book -- as long as I have no evidence that he's directly contributing to gay bashing or denying gay people jobs.

I'm not naive. I realize that ideas can lead to actions. But I think it's VERY important, in a culture that values free expression, to not let that fact lead us towards censorship. I know that not-buying-a-book is not the same as censorship, but I think it's generally important to take a stance of all-ideas-are-allowed-though-some-actions-aren't. That's my value. You don't have to share it. But it does allow me to buy books by, say, a misogynist without feeling guilty, without feeling that I've betrayed my Feminist values.

After all, how am I going to really understand the mindset of a misogynist if I don't listen to him? And if I don't understand him, I am ill-equipped to fight him.

Okay, second question: Is it wrong to associate they artist's lifestyle with his works?

No, it's not wrong. It's natural. We evolved to think of stories as tales told to us by people we know. Tales around a campfire, etc. Most of us grew up first hearing stories from our parents, our teachers and our friends. It's a somewhat strange experience to "hear" a story from someone you've never met and will never meet. So your brain creates a storyteller. Your brain naturally wants to view as story as a piece of communication -- something told from a specific person to you. And, naturally, if you learn biographical details about the author, it's likely you'll imagine the person connected with those details is the person telling you the story.

So how would you feel if someone beat up your best friend and then told you a story? Would you be able to just listen to that story in a neutral way? I doubt it. A similar (though perhaps muted) effect happens when you learn that say, Roman Polanski raped a young girl. The guy at the campfire who telling you a story is a RAPIST!

That said, I think it's possible to learn to avoid (or at least dampen) this kind of thinking. And I think it's worth doing. Why? For reasons I went into above. Because it's useful to confront ideas that come from all different sources. Ideas ARE neutral, even if the people telling them to you aren't. I am devoted to creating a world in which all ideas (regardless of their sources) have free play -- even if that world is just in my own head. Again, I'm just reporting my values -- I'm not expecting you to share them.

How do you learn to disregard the artist when viewing his art? I'm not completely sure, even though I've done it. If you tell me the author of the book I just read (and loved) hates Asians, I will just shrug -- which doesn't mean that I am a fan of bigotry. I just don't care whether the author likes or dislikes anyone. I'm not interested in him. I'm interested in his book.

I think I got that way from decades of reading "The Classics." Shakespeare wrote some bigoted stuff. So did most classic authors in most eras. If you read tons and tons of stuff by the dead white males, you get pretty used to admiring the art while not admiring (sometimes loathing) the artist.

It also helps to not deify artists. I've devoted years of my life to studying Shakespeare's works. But I'm sure the guy farted and picked his nose like the rest of us. And maybe he beat his wife. Maybe he supported slavery.

This doesn't shock me, maybe because I'm a cynic. I don't expect people to be on their best behavior until proven otherwise. And I don't expect artists to be special people. They are normal people who happen to write books, paint paintings or make movies. They are, in my mind, as "evolved" as auto-mechanics and sewer workers. They just have different job descriptions. Most people in all walks of life has some good points and some really ugly bad points. I don't expect artists to be different. If you do, that's fine, but I think you're living in a fantasy world.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

power dynamics in the classroom

In an online forum, a young teacher asked for advice. She was upset because some of her (adult) students were surfing the web instead of listening to her. My response:

I've been teaching for almost 25 years. I've taught all ages, from two-year-olds through people in the nineties. It took me a few years, but I found that the best way to teach is to rid the classroom of power dynamics. By "the best way," I mean two things: least stressful and most conducive to learning.

There really is a recommendation at the end of this. Sorry that what follows is so long, but I think the issues involved are more complex than they might seem on the surface.

I'll explain why I think power-dynamics have no place in the classroom, but before I do, I'll go over the four reasons why it's hard to get rid of them:

1) Because sometimes you need them for safety and/or stopping chaos. Safety is really only a problem when you're teaching children, so I'll say no more about it here. Chaos stops people from learning. So I would never allow anyone to play a computer game in my classroom, if that game involved keyboard pounding and sounds, because the "chaos" from that would hinder other students from learning and distract me from teaching.

So I DO allow power-dynamics in this case and this case only. I forbid people from disturbing others. I am 100% up-front (with myself and my students) about my dictatorial stance on this matter. I explain why I'm doing it and I do it. But I understand it's the exception to the rule.

2) Because my ego doesn't want to let go. If I drop all power dynamics, I am no longer special. That's hard to give up.

3) Because students expect it. Most students are young. They grew up with mommy and daddy in charge; then their school teachers were in charge; and they transfer that expectation to me.

Even older students do this, because they've been taught that when you go to school, the teacher is the boss. I've had students who are twenty years older than me ask my permission to go to the bathroom. It's embarrassing as hell. I don't ever want anyone to ask my permission to pee. But such is the power of life-long conditioning.

4) It's just the way school traditionally works. Traditionally, teachers are in charge and students are subordinate to them. Almost no one questions this overtly (there's plenty of passive-aggressive questioning of it. See this: , which is one of the most sane things I've ever seen about teaching and parenting). It needs to be questioned, because the traditional mode, especially when combined with 21st-Century values about personal freedom and independence, leads to tension and students not learning. But it's hard to fight traditions -- even bad ones.

A sub-issue to tradition is the Should Syndrome. It occurs when teachers say things like, "yes, well, students SHOULD pay attention" or "students SHOULD show respect." I'm not going to argue with those statements, but shoulds are meaningless. Some students DON'T pay attention, and some students DON'T respect the teacher. It's so easy to get indignant about what people SHOULD do rather than trying to solve the problem.

Here's why power dynamics are bad:

1) They distract the class away from the subject, which is whatever the class is about. The class, instead, becomes about a teacher trying to enforce rules and students trying to follow them, thwart them or get around them. Of course, that's not always the case. Sometimes you get lucky and the students have no problem with the rules. Then you can move forward as if the rules didn't even exist. But you can't count on this.

(Note: there's a "positive" version of a rule-breaker. It's a rule-follower. When a classroom is about rules, some students thrive by being "little angels." They learn less about the subject than they do about pleasing-the-teacher, and they get positive reinforcements for doing so.)

2) You, as a teacher, have constant stress (as made apparent by your question) about enforcing the rules.

3) Students have constant stress about rules they don't like or about classmates who are breaking the rules.

4) Have you ever read any Transactional Analysis (TA). It's a dated, flawed form of psychotherapy that contains some interesting, useful ideas. At it's core, it posits that humans have three core states or personas: parent, adult and child. A parent is a boss (maybe a benign one; maybe not); an adult is a individual human being who isn't in charge of anyone else or under anyone else's sway; a child is a subordinate who may or may not chafe against his boss.

In TA, a single person can take on all these roles at different times, depending on the situation.

Many relationships fail, because people relate to each other in an imbalanced way. This sort of relationship is doomed to be pathological:

YOU             STUDENT
Parent-\ Parent
Adult \ Adult
Child \----- Child

By setting yourself up as a boss with rules, you are saying "I am the parent and you are the child. And, as the child, you will get in trouble if you break the rules." Once you cast people as children, they will act like children. They will resent being bossed around and act-out. If you think "they should be more mature" or "they should respect authority," see The Should Syndrome, above.

This also doesn't work:

YOU             STUDENT
Parent-\ Parent
Adult \------ Adult
Child Child

In fact, it's worse. It's a sort of "we're all grown ups here" lie, in which one of the grown ups is more powerful than the others. It's unstable and the students either switch to parent mode (unlikely), which means that two parents (student and teacher) will overtly duke it out for authority, or (more likely) they fall back into child mode, and act out passive-aggressively.

Here's the goal you should shoot for:

YOU             STUDENT
Parent Parent
Adult --------- Adult
Child Child

Only then can REAL learning happen. When an adult talks to another adult, it's a real conversation. Time is not wasted on power dynamics, ego, stress and resentment.

Left to their own devices, most students will not opt for this sort of relationship (see above, when I mention 60-year-olds who ask permission to pee). They don't come to class expecting to be treated like adults, because none of their teachers in the past treated them that way. So even if you're an adult teacher, they come in primed for you to be a parent and immediately go into child mode.

As a teacher, it's your job to be an adult and treat your students as adults (whether they act like adults or not). It's your job, because adult-to-adult communication is what leads to learning. Other modes lead to rule-following and rule-breaking.

I refused to give my elderly student permission to go the bathroom. That's not my permission to give. Adults get to go to the bathroom when they want to. Using non-condescending language, I told him that.

Note that you will encounter a few students who think of themselves as adults. As far as they are concerned, they paid to take your class. They have the right to listen to what they want to listen to and ignore what they want to ignore. It's fine if you don't share that value, but acknowledge that it is a real value some people have, even if you think it's wrong. You can't prove to them it's wrong. You can accept that they have it or you can fight with them.

And it's not so odd -- even if it's not traditional in a school setting. Most people feel that way when they go to a restaurant. When I pay for a dinner, I'm going to eat what I want to eat and leave other food on my plate, even if that offends the chef. If I read a book, I may skip a chapter than bores me, even if that pisses off the author. Some people approach school that way. Maybe (to you) they shouldn't. (See The Should Syndrome, above.)

"But if they don't listen, they won't learn!" Okay, but if they are adults, they have the right to choose whether or not they learn.

Understand that you are just one of a long line of teachers these students have had by the time they got to your class. They are used to having boss after boss after boss. They expect you to be a boss. Some of their bosses have treated them unfairly in the past. They naturally resent that. They will take that resentment out on you if you let them. They way to stop them from doing so is to not be a boss. Don't try to be a "cool boss." They will see through that. There's no difference between a cool boss and a boss. Both are bosses. The cool boss is a boss that is also needy for attention. (See "The Office.")

Having said all that, I'm not going to tell you to just let them surf the web, even though, were it my class, that's what I'd do. (I've done it in plenty of classes. I've even suggested it to students. Sometimes I say, "I can't promise to be interesting all the time. If I veer into a topic that isn't important to you or that you already know, feel free to surf the web and rejoin the class when it is meaningful to you." I often check in with students about this. "Hey, if you've tuned out, you might want to tune back in now, because I'm going to change the subject...")

If it really bothers you, be an adult about it and treat the students like adults. How does one adult ask another adult to refrain from some sort of behavior? By asking. You ask, you explain your reasons, and -- because you're talking to an adult -- you accept the fact that they are autonomous and may, after hearing your desire, fail to do what you want. If they fail to do it, you can express your disappointment and reassert your desire. Also, it REALLY helps to not treat them like perverts -- as if their desire to surf the wen is obscene. Surely, there's part of you that can relate. (Have you ever been bored in class? Maybe you have, but you didn't act on it the way they do, but at least you can relate to the feeling.)

When a parent asks a child to stop doing something, the explanation is "because it's wrong" or "because it's disrespectful." When an adult asks another adult to stop doing something, it's because "what you're doing is causing this specific real-world problem" or because "it really bothers me." It's fine if you want them to stop because what they're doing just bothers you. Just be honest about that. That's YOUR issue, and you're asking them a favor -- to help you with your issue. Don't make them feel like they are bad. (Don't do this even if you think they are bad. It will backfire on you. When you tell people they are bad, they get defensive and act out, usually passive-aggressively. And they certainly don't learn.)

One of the best teachers I've ever had hated it when people came late to class. He had the respect for us to express his needs to us in an adult-to-adult manner:

"Hey, I know it's hard to always be on time. Believe me, even though I hate lateness, sometimes something comes up in my life, and I'm late to important things. But I think it's really disruptive when people walk in late. It distracts everyone else as the latecomer makes noise, finds a seat, etc. It definitely distracts me, and I have a hard time teaching when I'm distracted.

"So I'm going to ask you not to come to class late. Clocks aren't exact, so five-minutes-late is okay, but please don't come later than that. If you find you're running later than that, just don't come. I promise I will not get mad at you. If it happens over and over, I might have to lower your grade, but I won't get mad. Things happen. But don't come late, okay? Thanks."

It was amazing! There was never a problem with lateness. Whereas in most of my other classes, people walked in late all the time and the teachers would just get pissed off and chastise the latecomers. The chastisements didn't work. People still came late. But simply by treating his students like adults, that great teacher got what he wanted.

art isn't easy

I got into an email discussion with someone about some lyrics from Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George." In the song, an artist is desperately trying to raise funds for his art. He sings:

Art isn't easy
Overnight you're a trend
You're the right combination
Then the trend's at an end
You're suddenly last year's sensation!
All they ever want is repetition
All they really like is what they know
Gotta keep a link with your tradition
Gotta learn to trust your intuition
While you re-establish your position
So that you can be on exhibit...
So that your work can be on exhibition!

Our discussion centered around the last two lines. My friend asked me why the artist started to sing about putting himself on exhibition and then changed it to putting his WORK on exhibition. This is my attempt at an answer:

Why do people make art? I'm sure there are many reasons, but most of them can be thrown into two categories: to show off or to study. "Study" is not exactly the right word. What I mean is that someone might paint the Brooklyn Bridge because he's fascinated with its form: its lines, angles and colors. Someone might direct "Hamlet" because he's in love with Shakespeare's language and wants to get up close and personal with it. Etc. There's a social element, too, of course. He wants to share his love, fascination, insight and obsession with others.

The other motive -- the show-off one -- comes in a variety of flavors. A LOT of artists create art to get laid. This is a form of "peacocking." A bird shows off his bright feathers; a painter shows off his brush strokes. Think of groupies and rockstars, etc. Other artists just want to be seen as special or creative or smart.

(It's important to note that these drives needn't necessarily be conscious. A peacock doesn't think "I want some nice peahen ass!" when he fans out his tail. It's instinctual. I am married and not looking for groupies, but that doesn't mean I'm not partly driven by peacocking instincts. It's not a rational-based drive. The same might be true for studiers. It's not necessarily the case that they say, "I want to study the Brooklyn Bridge." They might just feel oddly attracted to it for reasons they don't understand. This drive is probably based in an instinct as primal as the sex drive -- the need for an animal to explore its environment.)

How do you tell if a specific artist is a peacock or a scholar? The acid test is this:

God: What's your favorite subject?

Artist: Desert landscapes.

God: Okay, here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to give you enough money so that you don't have to work. You can just paint your landscapes full time, for as long as you want.

Artist: AWESOME!

God: There's one catch: if anyone besides you ever looks at your paintings, they'll disappear. So you'll have to make them just for yourself. No one else will ever be impressed by them. No one else will care about them. No one else will even see them.

How will the artist react? Well, it depends on the artist. Most artists will be disappointed, because whether they are show-offs or not, they are usually communicators. But one kind of artist will totally lose interest. The ONLY reason -- or the main reason -- he is into art is for peacocking. Another type may be sad about it. He may even consider it a deal breaker. But at the very least, he'll be tempted by God's offer. He's SO into landscapes that even though no one will ever get to see his work, he's very tempted by the idea of getting to spend unlimited amounts of time doing that work.

(When you ask this kind of artist why he does what he does -- why he dances, writes, paints, acts -- he often says "because I have to." I can tell you from personal experience that this feels very true. Of course, I won't die if I stop directing plays. But it FEELS very primal. And not always pleasurable. Often, I don't enjoy what I do. I don't necessarily hate it, either. It doesn't seem to have much to do with enjoyment. It's "who I am." If you took my audience away, I would be upset. I might quit for a while. But I'm pretty sure that eventually I'd find myself creating again. Even if it was just telling myself stories in a dark room.)

The question is whether or not these two goals -- the self and the work -- can coexist happily. Obviously they sometimes can. We all know of brilliant artists who are also very popular and seem to love the spotlight. The problem is that (in my view) that's just good luck. While the two goals won't necessarily clash, they are likely to clash. (And notice how while some movie stars seem to bask in the spotlight, others flee from it. Just the fact that someone is a star doesn't mean he wants to be one. He may love acting but hate losing his private life. But he can't necessarily control the fact that fans adore him.)

As an audience member (viewer, listener, reader, etc.), I care more about the art than the artist. I don't want my experience to suffer because an artist didn't carry through on his work because he thought it would make him look bad. I don't want to have to watch some gratuitous special effect thrown in because the artist wanted me to be impressed with his showmanship. What I want is to fall in love with his story's characters; be excited by its plot; be enthralled by the colors in a still life; the melody of a song; etc.

The HARDEST part of making art is avoiding sidetracks. You have a vision. But it's SO easy for that vision to get derailed. Lack of money can derail it; lack of energy can derail it; lack of time can derail it... wanting to get laid can derail it. To create something worthwhile, you have to focus, focus, focus. You have to keep your eyes on the prize. This is why self-promotion and "study" are (usually) at odds. The former tends to detail the latter.

(Less often, the latter can derail the former. An rock star can get into the business to meet girls, but then get totally seduced by the art and science of harmonics, rhythm, melody, etc. He might find himself passing up a date because he wants to finish writing a song!)

Most normal humans have both of these urges. We want to be loved (liked, fucked, though of as special...) and we want to study (to immerse ourselves, to experience, to work through problems...). So my categorizations of the show-off and the scholar are extremes. I am probably more of a scholar than a show off, but I definitely have an ego. I get exhibitionist urges. What helps me is to just note that these two drives exist and to be as conscious as I can about which is driving me at the moment. And to think as clearly as I can about what my goal is and whether or not my current state is moving me closer to or farther away from that goal.