I bumped into an amusing post on an inactive blog. In five quick, tongue-in-cheek points, Evan Lenz explains what grading teaches you:
2. An abdication of responsibility
Grading encourages you to abdicate all responsibility for evaluating your own learning. That’s somebody else’s job. Other people know better about not only what you should be learning but how well you are learning it. This is their game, and it’s your job to play it. Why you would want to learn something, what you would apply it to, what meaning or importance it has for you, what enjoyment you get from it—these are completely irrelevant to your grade. So why even pay attention to these considerations? They are a waste of time. They’re not going to help you pass that next test.
It’s often been said that the moral outrage around video games is the result of a generational gap: most people born before, say, 1970, are unfamiliar with video games, and as a result, they’re afraid of them. This speaks to the negative impressions involved in the debate, and seems to make sense. But the fact that so many people fail to see the immense value, the huge potential for good, in video games, is another matter. I think this part is due to widespread confusion between medium and content. Continue reading See the good in video games: just like in books→
For the BA degree in linguistics, me and my classmates are required to choose some courses from outside of the core linguistics curriculum. This is, in theory, a good thing – it gives undergraduate students a chance to see what’s going on in other departments, and particularly gets us acquainted with some fields related to our own. However, these semi-electives are simply the introductory modules that students in other programs take in their first semesters; this can cause a lot of frustration.
Over the past days, I spent several frustrating hours doing homework in such a course. I remember seeing what must have been the same frustration in students from outside of linguistics in the introductory courses I’ve taken and the one in which I tutored. I think this frustration is an indirect result of the Bologna Process, which creates a basis on which courses from different departments, universities, and countries, across Europe, are evaluated for accreditation. The problem, I think, is that it’s very hard to evaluate a course and the effort that goes into it outside of context. Continue reading Semi-electives: a university paradox→
Bjarne argues that while we don’t need a planned economy, we do need an economy that takes people into account and acts fairly and morally. I tend to agree, but I am not sure how this is supposed to look. I would argue that global fair trade must come along with a strong domestic safety net, or not at all, and that financial exploitation is only one aspect of a bigger problem.
Unintended consequences of fair trade
What were to happen if every developed country in the world simultaneously passed good labor laws that applied not only to workers in the country, but also to workers employed directly or indirectly by companies in that country? In other words, what if the first world would suddenly apply the same standards when it came to those it employs in the third world as it does to those employed domestically?
Like any change in a complex system, this would have all kinds of different consequences, some of them unintended. For one, this would, with 100% certainty, mean that almost all goods and services sold in the first world would become a lot more expensive to produce, and somewhat more expensive to consume. This would hurt the middle and lower class hard: they would no longer be able to afford to consume nearly as much as before, at least in the short term. In the long term, this would give companies in the first world less of a reason to employ people in the third world, meaning more people in the first world would have jobs. This would, in turn, also mean that the first world would produce more goods and services, increasing exports. So I imagine it might actually balance out eventually. (I’m trying to think like an economist here – tell me if it’s working.)
A conclusion is simply where you stopped thinking
So in the short term, making world trade fair would harm everyone in the first world but the rich – massively. This is, of course, a bad thing. Should this be our conclusion then, that fair trade is a luxury and forcing it upon society would punish “our own” poor? No, of course not, that would be near-sighted. Rather, I think fair trade is a good argument for social solidarity and a strong safety net in the first world.
After all, there is an enormous amount of wealth in the first world. The existence of poverty is not a force of nature but an aspect of our economic system. With tools as simple as progressive taxation and a basic income guarantee, we could tweak our system to protect all individuals in society from the chaos of post-industrial life. And if we can make sure that even a large, across-the-board spike in the price of goods would not harm anybody too much, we can afford to trade fairly with the developing world.
In other words, global solidarity and domestic solidarity are interconnected. Only enforcing fair trade would harm the first-world poor in the short run. Only guaranteeing economic security in the first world would come at the continued cost of the third-world poor. In fact, presenting the two as separate could be seen as a subtle factor in why neither is terribly popular – if you really care about the basic rights and conditions of all people, why should you want to improve conditions for the poor at home but not elsewhere, or vice versa? But if we consider the two to be one package, one thing, inseparable, suddenly the parts all make sense.
Schooling the world for the wrong jobs – colonialism is alive, and kicking the third world in the face
But fair trade is not enough for the third world, either. The western corporate colonization runs much deeper than that.
This summer, at IDEC@EUDEC in England, I had the opportunity to watch a very difficult film, Schooling the World. What I learned is that what we know as conventional schooling in the west is being forced upon communities in the developing world which have no need for this form of education, nor for the content taught in it – essentially the same content as taught in the first world. Young people there are being trained for western jobs and academic careers where there are none, in communities which have their own way of life, requiring neither. The young people subsequently have no real choice but to move to big cities, where there is at least some chance of finding a job they are qualified for – but there there are still not enough modern jobs for everyone. Imagine being a young adult faced with the choice between poverty in the big city, where you have a chance of finding a job you are somewhat prepared for, and moving back to the countryside, where you might not even speak the language (as many schools forbid native languages and enforce the use of English and/or the state language) and would have to learn traditional crafts from scratch in order to be useful.1
Bringing “modern”, “high-quality” education to the developing world – often motivated by the best of intentions – is destroying cultures and forcing young people to either work for first-world companies or actually move to the first world. And if this is not stopped, universal fair trade could be a disaster for the third world as well, at least until developing economies are able to offer the jobs domestically that “modern” education requires for its graduates.
Exploitation of low or non-existant standards in the developing world is in the end only one facet of what western colonialism has become in the “post-colonial” era. Although the colonies are gone and the developed world’s mindset has shifted, it has not changed completely. In our arrogance, we help the developing world mainly in ways that help us more, and there are many, many fronts to fight on for a more just world, with freedom for all. The past is never gone, no matter how much we wish it so, and we have to be curious, brave, and determined if we are to find and root out its poisonous remnants wherever they may be.
It’s worth noting that radical democratic schools would not have the same effect, as their content is whatever the people present bring in – not a curriculum designed by someone from the city. [↩]
This is not a post about the IDEC@EUDEC conference, nor about my likely-dead iPhone.
Yesterday, after about 23 hours in a bus, we arrived in Leipzig, back from the terrific IDEC@EUDEC conference in England. We both still had (and have) a bit of a head cold or flu, which was going around at the conference and hit me a few days before the end, so we were altogether extremely exhausted upon arrival. We decided to spend the day in bed, watching movies and shows and napping occasionally, holding out until nightfall for the real sleep.
When we finally did go to sleep, Sabine was feeling nauseous, and so she put a bucket with a little water next to the bed in case it was needed. We slept like two large stones.
When we woke up some time before noon today, I noticed a tall lamp was lying horizontally on the floor. Soon after, however, Sabine held up my iPhone by its charging cable, dripping with water from the bucket. It had just spent some unknown number of hours in the water.
The iPhone is now drying (in a box of rice), now and for another day and a half, before I risk trying to turn it on. But it’s not likely to recover. I’m relieved the combination of power cable and water bucket didn’t do any further damage, really.
I’m sad that my dear iPhone is (probably) dead. I use it a lot, I haven’t had it for all that long (just over a year), and most of all, I can’t really afford to replace it right now. I recently bought a very good new laptop, one I expect to use for a few years, but which depleted my bank account and then some.
I’m living beyond my means, on bank credit, and that’s what this post is really about.
Don’t get me wrong. My debt is tiny, so small it should be insignificant. But it’s not, because I live on a very low income, and small sums seem pretty big when you live on a low income. And the reason I live on such a low income is that, due to my studies and activism, I haven’t found time to make money. My main source of income is the federal German student support program – which is a pretty good deal, considering it’s only around a dozen hours of painful bureaucracy a year, for which I receive just enough money to live at a reasonable standard of living.
For the past few months, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the big role money plays in, basically, everything that goes on in the world. I don’t have any big conclusion to share on the global issues, but on the personal level, it has already become clear to me that I will have to find a way to seriously increase my income if I want to live a fulfilling and active life. That’s not to say that I like or favor the monetary systems of the world as they are today. I rather don’t. But as long as the world is organized the way it is organized, and as long as I insist on living in a city, using the latest technology, and trying to change things in the world of people, money is going to be vital.
This isn’t all that bad, because there are always things I enjoy doing (even if I only enjoy them a little) which I can get money for. I just stepped down from EUDEC Council to focus on my studies and finish my degree, and that’s what I’m going to do from now until the end of February, but after that, I see a whole world of possibilities spread out in front of me.
The most obvious option is to work for EUDEC. As I’ve mentioned, EUDEC is working on hiring a paid coordinator, to make sure things work smoothly without relying too heavily on volunteers. I’m probably going to apply for that position, and if it works out, it would be a real dream job (and a good deal for EUDEC, I think).
Another obvious option is translation. I’ve done translations occasionally, I know several translators, and I know that if ever I need to just find any work I can find, translation will always be possible. The downside, as all translators know, is that the stream of work can be less than steady, leaving you without an income for months at a time, sometimes.
One other thing I’ve already done occasionally and would enjoy doing more of is public speaking. I was thinking of doing a speaking tour in March or April 2012, just after I finish my studies, trying to cram in as many talks as I can in three to five weeks. It would give me a financial boost, a chance to work intensively on my speaking skills, and an opportunity to get to know new people and new places.
What do you think? Is a speaking tour a good idea? Any reason it might be more trouble than it’s worth? Do you know of someone who might want to invite me to speak around that time?
Me and Sabine have both been itching to travel, and so we’ve been kicking around ideas for where we want to go after we finish our degrees. This morning we came up with a really exciting idea: a world tour of learning.
Basically, each station on our way around the world would be a place where we want to learn something. We were already discussing getting a driver’s license in Massachusetts, USA (because I have family there and it’s much easier than it is here or in Israel), and we have also been thinking of spending some time in Israel in which I could learn Arabic and Sabine could learn Hebrew. We might also, for example, go to learn how to cook a proper curry somewhere in India, learn to tango in Argentina… Who knows what else we might come up with.
Of course, we’ll also have to work somehow at most stations on the way, to fund the next leg of the trip… But every job would be a learning opportunity.
We’re thinking of what we can make out of this idea… It might also be something we want to blog about and publicize, to attract attention to all the non-traditional ways a person can learn in today’s world. It’ll be a while before we can start (we each have at least a year left for our degree) but I imagine I’ll be posting more as our plans develop.
It is sad to see, in our age-graded society, that many if not most children and adolescents have few opportunities to get to know and to interact regularly with children who are much younger than themselves. If we want young people to grow up to be compassionate and caring, we need to allow them to exercise those capacities; and to do that we need to break down the barriers we have erected to keep young people of different ages apart. We are designed by nature to learn to be compassionate by observing and caring for littler ones while we ourselves are growing up.
This is a bit of a followup on my previous post. After ranting about the degree requirements, I realized I had entirely neglected one of the worst things about how this semester is structured: I hardly see my classmates anymore. In previous semesters, thanks to the abundance of linguistics courses, we all saw one another regularly, developed cliques and friendships, and always had people to talk to about school and about linguistics.
Unfortunately, none of my classmates are taking the same classes that I am, so I also end up sitting in classes where I know nobody, feeling disoriented and isolated like in the first weeks of my first semester. We’re all still more-or-less in touch… But everyone’s very busy, and although I still regularly see some of my classmates, it’s not nearly as often as it used to be.
I think this might be more than just a bit of a discomfort for us third-years. It seems like a deeper design flaw in the program. It just so happens I saw a TED talk last night where Steven Johnson talks about where good ideas come from. A big point is that they tend to come from informal interaction in which different people’s thoughts meet and mix. Thinking back on the most excited ideas me and my friends have come upon during our studies, most of them truly seem to have come up either at bars or in living rooms. And this semester? We’re not all working on the same things anymore and we don’t see each other all that often. Studying isn’t only less fun this way, it’s also less creative and produces less interesting thoughts and insights.
I also saw another TED talk last night which seems vaguely relevant to all this, and I felt was very worth watching: Dr. Brené Brown on Connection. (Hat tip to Don Berg.) It’s a curious talk in that Dr. Brown starts by talking about how “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist” and ends with advice that could have almost come from a New Age mystic. But coming from a serious researcher who has been examining the issue for years, it makes quite a different impression.
I can only recommend watching it. I’ll leave you with that for the time being.
Lately I’ve been having a very hard time accepting the structure of the university program I am in. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I certainly have not been happy with the requirements this semester.
Over the four semesters I completed so far, I mostly took courses in linguistics. They were not all exactly my cup of tea (only about half of them) and I don’t have to repeat what I think about being tested at the end of every semester, but for the most part I was happy to jump through the hoops, knowing it was progressing my understanding of the discipline and domain of research that I had chosen. My fascination with linguistics and language grew over time as I learned more, understood more, and appreciated new ways of approaching the subject matter. I could accept the expectation that all of us learn a little of all of it, even the approaches we are not interested in pursuing.
However, the way this BA program is designed is a little strange. After the 4th semester, there are no linguistics courses anymore. For the last year of our studies — the year in which we are expected to write our BA thesis in linguistics, mind you — the plan is to take courses from the three different lists of more-or-less elective courses. In total, the program requires 180 ECTS credits throughout the six semesters of study, corresponding to the unrealistic total of 900 hours of class and self-study time per semester. (Hardly anyone at the university, student or instructor, takes this requirement seriously. It seems like something the Bologna process dictates and the universities do their best to fulfill, mostly on paper.)
90 credits — half of the program — are to be obtained in linguistics courses, including 10 credits for the thesis. The other half is composed of:
30 credits: courses you get by lottery (from your first few choices) from other departments, university-wide, usually limited to introductory offerings
30 credits worth of courses from an “obligatory electives” list, which lets you choose from exactly 70 credits worth of courses from other departments — introductory computer science (20), inter-cultural communication for Russian (10), philosophy of language (10), the languages of Africa (10), the system and history of German (10), or basic Hausa (10)
30 credits worth of “key qualifications” courses, being a strange mixed bag of courses offered by different parts of the university on a basis which is not quite interdisciplinary as much as it is simply unrelated to any of the disciplines of those who might take the courses. Luckily, 10 of these credits have to be taken in a language course and the other 20 can be semi-officially replaced by language courses.
I have a feeling this is a case of good intentions gone amiss. There is apparently a social norm of going straight from highschool into university if you were in the academic “gymnasium” highschool system — which you are selected for at the age of 10. As a result, most beginning students have no clue what they’re getting into. So it’s probably doing many students a favor to force them to get a taste of other disciplines before giving them a degree, and indeed the majority changes to another program, or quits, by the second year of studies. But perhaps it’s just cruel, seeing as those of us without wealthy parents have two semesters of grace in which to switch majors, after which financial aid is no longer available.
But I digress. The point is that the structure of this program — not the content — is crushing my interest and desire to complete it. I can’t emphasize enough how this is not a matter of content. I feel like those 80 credits worth of linguistics courses both gave me an excellent, broad understanding of the discipline (and sub-disciplines) of linguistics, as well as giving me a chance to develop real interest in research.
The problem is that the structure of the program makes it entirely impractical to continue pursuing that interest. It’s not just that I have to take some other courses. It’s that a student like me, who is engaged in extra-curricular activity and dependent on financial support, can’t realistically do much besides the required work.
Right now I feel trapped. I am working as a tutor in the introduction to linguistics, and as a research assistant in a language documentation project. I decided to take these jobs both in order to stay involved in linguistics and to work towards more financial independence. I’m very glad I made that choice, and I think it is entirely in line with what engaged and serious students are supposed to do (faculty seems to agree entirely). Yet with all of the time and effort my work requires, I’m struggling to keep up with the computer science coursework, and just desperate to devote more time to reading linguistics literature and perhaps work on some research of my own. (With theoretical grammar as my primary interest, research is thankfully something I can do without any special equipment.)
It makes me furious that in order to receive my BA in linguistics, I am expected to now more or less put my interest in linguistics aside and focus on hoop-jumping.
As some of you may know, as of last Thursday I’m taking time off from my work on EUDEC Council, until the end of 2010. This makes some much-needed room in my schedule for dealing with these requirements. Hopefully it will also give me more time to blog.
I do not expect to make a habit of personal, emotional posts like this one, lacking a clear and general point. It’s just something I had to write about today. At any rate, comments are open and I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on all of this.
A few years ago my husband and I attended a lecture by linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann, presenting a provocative theory: the Hebrew we speak today is closer to the European languages of the early Zionists than it is to classical Hebrew, even though most of its vocabulary is Hebrew; therefore, Zuckermann proposed, it would be more accurate to call it “Israeli” than “Hebrew,” letting go of the romantic notion that Israelis today speak the language of the Bible. Our conversation about this idea went on for days after we came home, sweeping up the whole family; later, Michael even wrote a term paper about it.
So it was only natural that when I saw the translators’ association to which I belong had scheduled another lecture about the genealogy of Modern Hebrew, I asked if anybody would like to go with me. Perry said he would and we both looked forward to a pleasant evening in Tel Aviv. I dutifully registered in advance. Next to Perry’s name I added: “14 years old.”
On the hour-plus drive we discussed the upcoming lecture. The speaker was a researcher who was studying the structures of spoken Hebrew and was going to present us with her findings as to whether they had more in common with European languages or with Hebrew, and whether, indeed, this language was Hebrew. Perry was already inclined to believe it was not, because he cannot understand the Bible without an intense explanation or translation: he welcomed the new translation of the Bible into Modern Hebrew and has begun reading it.
At the registration desk a colleague of mine searched for my name on the list, crossed it out and started writing me an invoice. I noticed the total she had entered, and started to protest, “what about him?” – but thought the better of it mid-sentence and shut my mouth; if minors got free admission, who was I to argue?
During the lecture we tried not to disturb anyone with our excited whispering and exchanges of meaningful looks of agreement, surprise or exasperation over certain points in the presentation or behaviors by members of the audience: one woman stormed out not ten minutes into the lecture, shouting at the speaker: “Shame on you!” for doubting the unbroken chain between ancient and modern Hebrew. Another translator prefaced a question about the effectiveness of correcting linguistic “mistakes,” by saying: “If my 15-year-old son had his way, he would spend his whole life lazing in front of the computer and television,” which elicited a room full of nods and sighs of agreement. Perry and I rolled our eyes at each other and clenched our teeth, as if to say: “Just look how people talk about children.”
On our way out of the room for the break, one of my friends turned to Perry, and asked in a kind but patronizing tone: “So, did you fall asleep?” More awake than ever, Perry replied with a startled: “Huh?”
Suddenly I started seeing a pattern: my friend was assuming Perry wasn’t there of his own will but was forced to suffer in boredom while he waited for his mother. As if a child couldn’t possibly come to a lecture out of interest, just like we did. Could that be why they hadn’t charged him admission? Just by looking at him and noting he is of school age, did everyone take it for granted I made him come because I didn’t have a babysitter? Did the organizers let him in for free as a favor to me, allowing me to use an extra seat because they thought I had nowhere else to park him?
It reminded me of the story about the guy who comes to a movie theater box office carrying a crocodile under his arm, and says: “Two, please.” The teller says: “Sir, don’t you think you should take that crocodile to the zoo?” “Thanks,” he answers, “but we already went this morning.”
Sitting down in the lounge with our refreshments, we analyzed the evening. We agreed that people were so upset by their preconceptions’ being challenged that they hardly let the lecturer speak, interrupting her with questions and comments from the beginning.
The next day I sent an e-mail to a colleague whom I had seen at the lecture, with some information she had asked for. On a personal note, I added: “My son really enjoyed the lecture and would like to come to future events.” To which she replied: “That is SO funny! What an adorable geek!” I answered: “What is funny is that everybody thinks he came with me because I didn’t have a babysitter. He really came because he was interested.” She replied, by way of apology: “My son’s a geek too.”
But Perry does not consider himself a “geek,” nor is he considered one by others. The idea, I gathered, is that it is unusual, and what’s more, uncool, for a teenager to pursue intellectual interests, especially at an “adult level.” The geek label implies that such a child is probably uninterested in sports, music and girls, socially awkward and unpopular, living the lonely life of the misunderstood, his best friend being his computer.
Perry knows what a geek is; he just played one in a teen musical about geeks and jocks, the American high school stereotypes. But such categories have never meant much to him. From the first grade Perry has been attending Sudbury Jerusalem, where students are not divided by age and mix freely with each other and with the staff. They are free to pursue whatever interests they have at a given time with whatever means available: play, books, the Internet, but primarily conversation with other children or adults.
Maybe it is because of this upbringing that Perry has never internalized a hierarchy of subjects of interest and activities, rating them as childish/adult, work/play, serious/frivolous, cool/geeky. He has always flowed with his interests, at times devoting intense attention to one thing and then moving on to another. In the early years of school he was very interested in climbing on door frames and walls and leaping from high perches; we nicknamed him Spiderman. He went through an Ancient Egypt period and still likes to go to the museum and decipher hieroglyphics. He spends a lot of time playing the piano. He has a rock band with some school friends. In the last couple of years he has become politically aware and sometimes comes to demonstrations with me.
Perry is still a child and we treat him like one: we support and protect him, attempt to know where he is at all times and keep him safe. But the status of child should not be a barrier that keeps him out of the adult world insofar as the environment in question poses no danger to him. He is just as mentally capable as any adult of hearing a lecture about the Hebrew language, and a lot more open-minded than some language professionals.
Sometimes we are startled to be reminded we live in a world where adults have such a skewed view of children: if they spend a lot of time on their computers, like us, they are presumably brain-dead. If they show signs of interest in their culture, they are freaks. I suppose the ideal, non-threatening child, in this view, would be penned up in his classroom with other members of his ilk, dutifully performing age-approved tasks dictated by adults – but not too enthusiastically.
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