28 February 2013

Chronic Instability

Is it really true that the night is darkest just before the dawn? Or is that just a metaphor about emotional processes? It's definitely pretty dark out there, though there's a riot of birds chirping; clearly, they know light is going to return soon.

I've been awake for the past four hours, alternately tossing and turning, getting work done, panicking about how little sleep I've had, and fretting about the inconsistency of my own body's responses to medication.

Last week, I got a cold.  Sometimes, I get a cold, I keep biking and running and going to the gym all through it, and it goes away.  Other times, it takes hold of my chest and ties a rope around it and makes it difficult to get breath in, get breath out.

At which point, I get a prescription for predisone, a kind of steroid that doesn't give you big muscles or superhuman sports ability.  It's just supposed to make me breathe.  But the effects of the prednisone aren't consistent, either.  It usually makes me pretty high, but if it's working well, I get a lot done during the day and I don't get quite enough sleep and I recover and move on.

This time, though, it's knocking my sleeping schedule to hell.  I think maybe I got five hours once night this week.  Tonight (last night? do I admit to it being over, or do I still think I'm going to try again to court Morpheus?) I've had three.  I don't function well on less than six or seven even when I'm not sick, and trying to let my body rest and recover when I feel like I've had a few gallons of coffee is impossible.  I'm trying hard not to get cranky with my family and colleagues; getting weepy in the car is fine, but not getting sleepy.

The pharmaceutical model is that if a medication worked well in enough of a test population to get approved, then it's assumed that it will work that way, consistently, in all of the bodies for which it's subsequently prescribed.  That's what the marketing will tell you.  The reality is, medications work differently in different bodies, and sometimes they work differently in the same body at different times.

Inspire: to influence, motivate, animate.  Expire: to die.  Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.

I've been re-reading Simi Linton's Claiming Disability, and I don't want to disagree with any of the important points made by the volume, in particular the key point that people with disabilities must control the discourse.  But somehow the book does not speak to my own embodiment of dis-ease.

It might be because, while Linton is very careful to avoid identifying disability in general with any one physical or mental condition, she does discuss the visibility of disability as a crucial component in its construction, though she acknowledges, in a discussion of "passing" as non-disabled, that disability is not always visible.

My dis-ease is invisible.  I "pass" unless I make a distinct effort to inform the world that my body works differently.  Those around me would be aware that I'm having difficulty breathing only if I tell them: there's no visible marker.  For me, "claiming disability" requires making an assertion about something that no one else can see.  It's subject, then, to belief -- or to disbelief.  "My smoking won't hurt you." "It's all in your head."  "Just take the stairs."  It's not a matter of passing as disabled, it's a matter of having to assert a disabled status when everyone else can "see" a person without markers of physical difference and therefore a person who must not be disabled.  Plus, no one likes a whiner.

And here's the dawn.  The taxicabs and the buses and the trains over the Williamsburg Bridge will soon drown out the chatter of birdsong.  And  I'll give up on ontology for another day, and perhaps try again to sleep.

25 February 2013

What Professors Do: Write Assignments

Writing assignments for papers and projects we want our students to complete is another one of the things that professors do each semester. This isn't simply a mechanical task, but rather an intellectual challenge that ties the goals for the course and for the program with what students can be expected to produce at a given point in their academic careers.

I have to come up with an idea of what it is I want to the students to do, whether it's a short exercise in reading texts carefully with a dictionary to find the nuances of word meanings, or a longer research project in which students will come up with original ideas based on previously published scholarship.

I have to make sure that the materials covered in the course up to that point support the project I want the students to complete, in terms of information about the field, knowledge of research tools, and analytical skills. I also think about how writing the paper or doing the research assignment will help the students learn what I want them to get from the course.  (I'm generally interested in getting students thinking carefully and critically and asking good questions, rather than transmitting a bunch of facts.)

As I write the syllabus for the course, I'm already thinking about what kinds of research and writing assignments I'll be giving.  Sometimes I write out the assignment details when I write the syllabus, while I'm thinking through the issues of what I want students to learn and how I will help them learn it.

Conveying the instructions for a project in a one- or two-page description of the assignment is a challenge.  I want to be reasonably concise, so as to avoid overloading students with information, yet detailed enough to give a clear idea of what process they need to go through to get to the end result.

Each time I teach a course, I change the assignments, sometimes a little bit, sometimes a lot.  I need to make sure students can't recycle their classmates' papers from previous semesters, and I also tinker with descriptions and instructions each semester to try to make sure everything is as clear as possible.

23 February 2013

Ten of Tens, March Update

Take-out happened this week -- twice -- but for the first time since the beginning of the year.  Virus also happened this week, and night-time asthma and vomiting, and an out-patient surgical procedure... so it was a more than usually stressful week.

I've been getting better about cooking on the weekends so as to have ample leftovers available for lunches, and for dinners on short notice, during the week.  And I'm ready to re-commit to avoiding take-out and all its trash.

This is all part of the ten of tens, in which I make the effort to change one thing each month that will make a positive environmental impact.  In January, I tried to eat more local food, but failed pretty thoroughly; I also stopped eating take-out, which wasn't the official plan for the month, but had been on my radar.

In February, I redoubled my efforts to eat more local food, but have largely failed again.  Recently, I recalled research on "food deserts," defined as urban areas more than one mile away from a supermarket.  In short, this research acknowledges that if food is more than a mile away in a place where people don't typically have cars, or more than ten miles in rural areas where it's assumed that they do, then it's difficult to deal with grocery shopping.

The nearest farmer's market, at Tompkins Square, is 1.3 miles away and operates only on Sunday; the bigger one at Union Square that's open four days a week is 2.3 miles.  On a warm spring or fall day, or even a steamy summer one, I'm quite happy to hop on my bike, load it up with produce, and ride back home.  But in the cold of winter ... particularly if there's precipitation ... the time required to put on all those layers and the energy required to face the temperatures has been defeating me.

However, I'll keep trying.  Aided by the fact that spring is on its way.  And for March, I'll work on limiting water use: shorter showers, less running water while washing dishes.  A nice easy goal, because I already know March is going to be a bear, with three of four weekends committed to travels of varying length.

Meanwhile, not eating takeout has become a good habit.  And with a few additions to freezer and pantry, it will be that much more solid.

22 February 2013

Starting Small

In recent weeks and months, I've come to realize that decisions I made 20 and even 30 years ago to move far from the town where I grew up are now limiting how much I can be with my parents as they get older.

A little over a year ago, I was rear-ended (in my car) by a runaway truck, and escaped (miraculously?) nearly unharmed, except for a shoulder injury.  The physical therapists told me to stop doing yoga because I needed to rest the shoulder, and over the next several months as they worked on it and gave me exercises to strengthen it I learned just how complicated a joint the shoulder is.

I still fear being hit from behind, mostly when I'm driving or riding my bike, but I also feel a fairly constant sense of vigilance about what's around me.

Between the lingering fears,and current worries about various illnesses and infirmities among people I care about, I find myself drifting in a fog of anxiety.

Three days ago, I decided that even though the shoulder still aches, it's time to return to yoga.  I made a very, very small commitment to myself: one sun-salutation sequence each day.

Once I get going, I tend to continue, whether for ten minutes or thirty.  But the fact that I made such a tiny commitment makes it easy to start, no matter how badly I want simply to fall into bed at the end of the day. I'm not going to beat myself up about how little I practice, and if I should miss a day, I'm not going to beat myself up about that, either. 

But as I resume daily practice, I'm reminded of how much I need stillness, balance, simple awareness of breath. I'm finding hope that I will be able to move through fear, through worry, through regret about decisions that can't be unmade, and find equilibrium.

If I can get anywhere, it will be by starting small.

19 February 2013

Fighting an Epidemic

It's clear we have a problem with gun violence: the numbers of people who die from guns, whether shot by others or as suicides, are far higher in the US than in comparable developed nations.

We can argue about the causes: is it violent movies, television shows, video games?  Is it laws that allow people to buy guns without licensing or background checks?

The gun makers, it turns out, are willing to spend money on the bet that playing violent games will encourage people to buy guns: they work with the developers of the games to make sure their guns get prominent placement.  Meanwhile, they donate lots of money to the National Rifle Association, whose leaders say the problem is violent video games, not gun ownership.  And other people say the problem is neither guns nor violent cultural artifacts, but untreated mental illness.

In short, we have an epidemic problem.  The more time we spend arguing about it, the longer it will take to arrive at a solution.

If the epidemic involved disease, and there were multiple possible transmission vectors, we'd be addressing them all, rather than arguing about which was the most important factor.

In this case, we have multiple factors that may be contributing to the problem.  Rather than arguing about which is most important, we need to address them all.

We need legislation that requires background checks and licensing, nationwide.  We need research and education about the effects of watching violent video and playing violent games.  And we need better recognition and treatment of mental illness, and a reduction in stigmatization of mental illnesses that leads people to refuse treatment.

15 February 2013

Just Imagine It For A Minute

What if cars were the exception, not the norm, mostly invisible in the course of our normal comings and goings? What if people weren't allowed to park their cars on town or city streets?  What if pedestrian zones were the norm?
A pedestrian zone in Turkey
Walking would be a different experience if your view of streets and buildings weren't obstructed by parked and moving vehicles of various sizes.  Biking would be transformed if you didn't have to assume you were invisible to drivers of cars and trucks.
Bicycle parking in Cambridge
Our towns and cities would look and feel and sound and smell totally different.

Just imagine it for a minute.

11 February 2013

Drug Testing and Guns

You might have to submit to a drug test if you ...

Start a new job
Apply for welfare
Play professional sports
Need financial aid to pay for college

But if you want to buy a gun, no drug test, if you're in a state with no background checks.  Also...

Convicted of violent crime? no problem.
Convicted of rape? no problem.
Convicted of selling heroin to minors? no problem
Have an order of protection against you? no problem

Gun laws won't keep guns out of the hands of law-abiding people.  Kind of like car laws don't keep people from driving.

But car laws do help limit speeding, drunk driving, and other dangers associated with car ownership.  Nationwide gun laws will not keep hunters and other recreational gun users from their pursuits.  But they will help to reduce dangers associated with guns.

08 February 2013

How Many Deaths Will It Take?

A spontaneous urban memorial sprang up outside the convenience store where Raphael Ward was shot last month.  His friends left balls, a bat, stuffed toys, candles, flowers -- the toys of a young person not far out of childhood.  People wrote messages of grief and solidarity on the wall in sharpie, as high as people could reach, around the corner to another wall.

The wall was painted over some time yesterday.  We've cleaned "RIP Sadonte" (his nickname) off our car.  Most of the things left in his memory have been removed.  All that remains is a box, set up on its side to shield a dozen tall memorial candles from the sleet.

The incident leaves me with an ache in my heart and a chill in my bones.

I ache for Raphael's friends and family, and most of all, for his mother.  I ache for the families of the Sandy Hook children and for the family of Hadiya Pendleton. I hear that as of February 1, 1280 more people have died from gunshots in the US since the Sandy Hook shootings -- that's six weeks -- and I ache some more, and my heart starts to go numb.

I fear for my own son, who lives in a world in which a dispute among teenagers can so easily escalate into deadly confrontation instead of ending in a fistfight.

We must have an end to this plague on our nation.

06 February 2013

Back on the Bike

Two weeks ago, I attempted to take the train to work, but after sitting on it for half an hour with no information available to the train crew about when we might leave the station, I got off, biked back home, got my car, and drove to work.  Arriving four hours after I'd first left the house to walk The Offspring to school.

Continued cold weather (it freezes the switches), and then high winds... I drove every day for two weeks.  I didn't think too much about the privilege involved with that, until last weekend when I was out on my bike and caught up with a bike messenger and realized he'd been out in every kind of weather.

I'll admit, the first couple of days of driving I enjoyed sitting in my own private, warm, mobile cocoon, with a soundtrack of my choice and a cupholder.  But it got old fast.

This morning it was a comparatively balmy 32 degrees, and sunny, and the East River bike path had a dusting of snow that gave a little extra sparkle to the morning light, and I thoroughly enjoyed my ride once again.


At the start of the year, I decided to try not to get all worked up about people who drove or walked or biked into my path, but just let it go. 

I pretty quickly realized that that meant I also wasn't going to post on Facebook about the frustrations, because polishing the incidents in my mind, rolling them around and trying to extract little 15-word nuggets that would be at once pithy and humorous and profound, doesn't help much with letting go.

I've been enjoying my rides much more since then.  I notice, sometimes, how cool it can be that gazillions of people manage to navigate this fair city in cooperation, rolling up against one another like so many river-bottom stones, polishing one another just a tritch and then continuing on their way.

05 February 2013

Green Garbage

Throwing away huge quantities of paper may not seem like much of a green moment, even if they're going into a recycling bin.  But read on...

I changed offices last summer.  In the process, I got rid of a fair number of books.  Duplicates and old editions of teaching texts went off to Better World Books, where they'll be resold or donated.

But then I moved all the files from my desk drawers and file cabinets to the furniture in the new office, leaving them pretty close to full.

I have notes from courses I took in graduate school, from studying for doctoral exams, from courses I've taught going all the way back to when I first came to this university ... in 1998.  I've typed up a lot of those notes, and revised a lot of the materials, but I still have folders full of hand-written notes and photocopies of handouts.  Semester, after semester, after semester.  Plus hand-written notes and photocopies of articles related to papers I've given at conferences and subsequently (eventually) published.

And so I'm facing a choice made across the nation in all kinds of contexts: downsize or upsize. 

The average size of a home in the US ballooned from 1400 to 2700 square feet between 1970 and 2009.  Meanwhile, the average household size decreased by half a person.* So what accounts for the near doubling in the size of all those houses?


We own more clothing, more electronics, more furniture, more kitchen appliances... more of pretty much everything than people in our parents' generation. And we build ever bigger houses to store all of that stuff.  We probably store more files, too.

Quick calculation: what percentage of the items in your home have you actually used in the past 12 months?  (Challenge: take a walk through your house, including basement, attic, garage, and really pay attention.)

So I have a choice: I can buy a bunch of file boxes and file those excess papers and store them someplace, or I can go through the files and get rid of the papers that I don't need any more.  Duplicates of exercises that I've since revised; hand-written class notes I'll never refer to again; rosters, attendance records, printouts of articles; photocopies handed down from my predecessor.

So I've been going through a folder or two a week and getting rid of almost everything.  One file drawer is almost empty.  By the end of the term, I may no longer need a filing cabinet.

Meanwhile, I'm also going through computer files and deleting old versions of assignments, syllabi, handouts, and materials for use on line.  It turns out that data storage, though it feels free because it's paperless, in fact uses a huge amount of energy.

If we keep stuff under control, we'll never be tempted to move to a bigger space just to store more stuff.  As often happens with these kinds of choices, the environmental impact is mirrored in a positive impact on the wallet.


* Isn't statistics fun?

03 February 2013

Background Check

Open a bank account
Get a credit card
Rent an apartment
Buy a home
Buy a car, rent a car, lease a car
Get a job
Get a welfare check
Get admitted to college

For all of these things, you need to submit documentation and submit to a background check.

Don't want a background check?  You can get a library card... and in many states, any gun you want.

Close The Door! A Public-Service Rant

Apparently, many New Yorkers are unaware of the fact that if they hold the door open, cold air will blow in and warm air will blow out.

Actually, it's worse than that.  See, heat rises.  So the warm air inside the door rushes with gale force out and up into the sky, to be replaced at floor level by the heavier cold air, which in turn pushes what's left of the warm inside air up ... and out the door.

So when you (whoever you are) stand there holding the door wiiiiiiide open, waiting for your entire posse, or perhaps family, still ten feet away, to approach, going in or out, you're letting the warm indoor air out and replacing it with frigid air from outside.

And, in all likelihood, freezing a security guard or a doorman or the employees of a building, and perhaps also its patrons and/or inhabitants.

And a thermostat is triggered, and somewhere in the subterranean depths a furnace turns itself back on and burns a couple gallons of oil to heat the frigid air you just let in.

So for the love of God, or the environment, or even just your fellow human being ... please, please, shut that door.


01 February 2013

What Professors Do: Committee Work

I was talking to The Offspring this morning about some aspect of what it is we do as professors and it got me thinking about the fact that a lot of it is pretty opaque to people outside the profession.  So here is one salvo in what may or may not become a series.

I'll start with committees.  People in a variety of professions groan about having to go to committee meetings, and professors are no exception.  But faculty governance is crucial to a well-run institution of higher education:  It should be the faculty who make decisions about changes to the curriculum, but also to a wide variety of other issues.

One of the major issues in higher education in the past two decades has to do with what role new technologies should have in teaching, and I've served on a handful of different committees investigating various aspects of this question.

If it's to function well, a committee needs a clear mandate, which may come from a department chair or a school dean or from a different faculty committee, and an effective chair who can delegate research and analysis tasks to the committee members and then write a clear report with specific implement-able recommendations, all within a relatively short time frame.

A couple of years ago I chaired a committee that dealt in part with a question about class size for hybrid and on-line courses.  Hybrid courses combine on-line assignments with traditional, face-to-face teaching, usually via course management software that allows students to interact from computers or tablets at various times during the week or the semester.

Some of the questions we thought about: What's the optimal size for a graduate seminar in the humanities?  How does that change if the seminar is taught on-line?  What if it's a hybrid?  We looked at the practices of institutions similar to our own and we searched out research evaluating faculty work-load and student engagement at various class sizes.

It turns out there's been a decent amount of research on on-line classes. (The magic number: 16.1.  Good luck finding that one-tenth of a student.)  We had trouble finding work on hybrid classes, so the next step was to seek out colleagues in various disciplines who were teaching on line and ask them about their experiences.

Some might think it's easier to teach a hybrid class than a traditional one, because you don't have to get dressed up and show up in the classroom.  Instructors know that writing up a lecture can take a lot more time than delivering it in person, and managing an on-line community is time-consuming.  But we needed to document this in order to make a convincing case to set policy.

Other committees might look at what courses students should take, or review syllabi to make sure courses in a given category are comparable (e.g. in the amounts of reading and writing assigned, or in the amount of student collaboration required), or ask what should be done about grade inflation....

It's pretty much endless.  But I think that's the way it should be.

Be My Fair-Trade Valetine

If you're thinking of chocolate for V-Day, please think Fair Trade.

Last fall, Hershey finally made the commitment to stop buying cocoa beans from farms that use children, some of them slaves, to harvest the beans.  As of 2020.  Hershey was the last of the major manufacturers to agree to eliminate child labor.

That's seven more years of children being sold into slavery to pick cocoa beans by impoverished parents.  Eight, at the time they made the announcement.  Does it really take eight years to change the supply chain?

Fair Trade chocolate, on the other hand, guarantees a living wage for the farmers.  So they can send their kids to school rather than sending or selling them off to work in the fields.  Organic chocolate gets a premium price from the bottom of the supply chain, and allows even better financial conditions for the growers.

If you have a good health food store in your neighborhood, look for the Fair Trade label on the bar; bonus, buy chocolate that's both organic and fair trade.  Here's some more information about good fair trade chocolate.

It's a luxury.  We don't need chocolate.  We really have no excuse to buy the cheap stuff, knowing the labor practices it enables.

(Also: it's true, if you live in the Northeast US, you can't get local chocolate or coffee.  Something else to mull over.)