Road warriors

November 13, 2012 at 10:11 am | In cities, education, just_so | Comments Off on Road warriors

The other day I saw a car with New Hampshire license plates and a school sticker from a nearby private school parked in my neighborhood. I surmised that the driver, an attractive early-40s woman who was fiddling with her phone, was in all likelihood the parent of a student at the well-regarded school. The school is about five minutes from my house, but the closest New Hampshire town is about 30 miles away.

Gotta say, that lady really gave me pause.

Warning: boring personal stuff ahead – go to below the map to skip…

[Also, see Addendum at bottom of post]

In 2002, my family and I moved away from the same neighborhood and city on Boston’s North Shore to which we then returned in 2012. We had begun homeschooling in 2000, and by 2002 we opted to live in Victoria, Canada (the capital city of British Columbia). One of the great benefits of moving to Victoria was that it got us out of the car.

Before we moved I used to spend a lot of time driving my kids around: to school, to extra-curricular classes, to other people’s houses. It was a lifestyle that continued even after we started homeschooling. It seemed that any place anyone wanted to go to required a car (not least because, aside from the commuter rail into Boston, public transportation isn’t exactly a great alternative around here).

After our move to Victoria in 2002, all that stopped. The children instead walked, biked, or bused to most of the places they needed (or wanted) to go, whether it was the Victoria Conservatory of Music (VCM), the YMCA, the library, or, later, a year of high school or university.

Downtown was just a few blocks from our house in one direction, and in the other lay densely populated residential neighborhoods. We could walk to three full service grocery stores, a couple of bakeries, a spring-through-fall farmers market, movie theaters, live theaters, the opera, the art gallery, parks and beaches, shops, restaurants and coffee shops in “villagenodes, Chinatown, Old Town, and more. If the walk was too far, there was a bus, and if that was too limiting, there were bikes. And of course there was also the car, and we used it. But not excessively.

I am dead serious when I say that getting out of the car was the best thing we did for our kids. Seeing the road warrior with the New Hampshire plates and a kid in a North Shore school hammered home just how different our ten years in Victoria were, compared to the nonchalant embrace of pavement that’s so common here.

If I pick South Hampton NH as the closest point across the state line, the daily trek to that private school in Beverly Massachusetts is ~33 miles. The drive will take between 45 minutes to an hour, if conditions are favorable. The parent may or may not be heading to points further south, adding to her journey. At any rate, the road-warrior-in-training kid has almost two hours of vehicle time per day, five days a week.

Hard to comprehend.

Equally difficult to fathom from a more urban perspective is the no doubt low-density, probably homogenous, possibly wooded-but-suburban enclave this youngster is growing up in. When my kids walked downtown to the VCM, they encountered the homeless shelter next door, and, sadly, the junkies shooting up outside the music building. And along most of the downtown streets, they often ran a gauntlet of panhandlers. This wasn’t a good thing, but it gave them a perspective on life choices – and life disasters. They developed a feel for how to engage (or not) with street life, and how to feel safe (and not paranoid). You sure didn’t want to engage the tweaking meth-head falling down on the sidewalk, but it was ok to respond to the panhandler’s sometimes sarcastic passive-aggressive/ sometimes genuine “have a nice day” with “you, too, man,” …even when you didn’t give him or her any money.

It’s not the case that my kids only saw junkies and beggars on Victoria’s streets (although the downtown seemed to have more than its fair share): my point is that they saw many people who were not like them, who were different. Admittedly, Victoria (which is an expensive place to live) is predominantly white, and if not white, then Asian. Minorities really are a minority. But even within that mostly white population, there’s diversity – in age, income, outlook and lifestyle.

If, on the other hand, you live a good chunk of each day in your car, you’re perforce isolated from other human beings. The car creates a bubble and barrier around you, cuts you off from experiencing the humanity that’s past your windshield. That’s why drivers can be so rude: it’s like being online – you do things you wouldn’t dream of doing to someone close up, face-to-face.

If on top of that your home is a house in an area without sidewalks, where you must drive to buy basic necessities, your contact to “different” people is even more limited. And until you’re able to drive yourself, your dependence on mom or dad for any sort of mobility is cast in bronze – or whatever extruded material car makers use these days.

I’ve often wondered why parents drive their kids to school – there are so many reasons. Now I wonder why someone would drive their kid +/- 33 miles to school. And maybe I can guess why: because at this particular school, the student will find all the lovely qualities missing in other areas of her life:  a sense of belonging to something larger, a well-curated feint at diversity, community outreach (soup kitchens, etc.).

This school will produce a well-rounded graduate with all the right extra-curricular achievements – like community service in diverse social settings, so crucial to the college application. Why those good things aren’t baked into our built environments, however, is a conundrum. Something is backward here.

Addendum, Nov.14:

Just a thought, but you know how we’ve been hearing that sitting down for large chunks of our daily 24 hours is shaving years off our lives? And you know how recent reports say that life expectancy is actually declining for (some) Americans (i.e., young people today will live shorter, rather than longer, lives than their parents)? Maybe all that sitting around in cars – starting at very young ages – is a contributing factor to bad health in more ways than we ever suspected.

Richard Florida on “The Long Road to Recovery”

September 20, 2011 at 9:18 pm | In education | Comments Off on Richard Florida on “The Long Road to Recovery”

Great article by Richard Florida in the new “Cities” edition of The Atlantic magazine: The Long Road to Recovery – go read it now.

Not mincing words, Florida warns that this recovery could easily take a generation – up to 25 years, in other words – to kick in.

Scary prospects.

But what really caught my eye, battle-scarred as I am from, literally (as a homeschooling parent), routing around industrial-age education, was this paragraph:

…crises inspire substantial upgrades in our education or human capital system. The economic crisis of the 1870s and 1880s coincided with the rise of mass public education. The Great Depression and its aftermath saw a vast expansion of primary and secondary schooling, while the GI Bill made higher education more accessible than it had ever been in the post-World War II years. Talent is our most precious economic resource and we can’t afford to squander it. It will require substantial investment—bigger than those of two previous crises combined—and new approaches to retool our educational system. But it must be done. We need schools that foster innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship across the population, not just develop rote skills. (link)

I’m an academic, a researcher. And I’m a former sculptor / artist (not to mention, therefore, a slut for beauty, which I believe trumps everything).

I’m also not a stranger to making trouble.

And yet I’m loathe to describe myself as an educator – and maybe that’s a problem, because maybe I need to make people listen to my experiences with k-12 education (and beyond). Maybe I should put myself out there as an educator, because I’ve sure as heck spent a lot of time educating other people, …not to mention educating myself.

Self-education is the key thing. (Key thing, as in keystone.) Self-education of our children is not going to happen with a bureaucracy that’s intent on “teaching” it, though. Nor is it going to happen with a system that’s modeled on industrial-age methodologies.

When we were homeschooling, from 2000 to 2008 (the year that my youngest child decided, at age 14, to “do” grade 12 at Oak Bay High School, from which she graduated at 15 to enter UBC on a National Entrance Scholarship: she’s currently, age 17, finishing an 8-month co-op teaching ESL in Weifang, China, after already accruing many hours of volunteering as a math tutor in Vancouver’s Downtown Lower East Side middle schools), we sometimes heard other (usually fearful) people ask the “What about socialization?” question. …As if being homeschooled meant that you were being kept under a bell jar, in a cage, in a lab, in sterile circumstances.

Say what?

That way of thinking about the alleged value of socialization in schools is just so screwed-up I don’t know where to begin to dismantle it.

Let’s just start with this: are you an adult? Yes? Well, then: how would you feel if you were told that henceforth, for the next twelve to thirteen years, you would only be allowed to “socialize” with people your exact same age for five to seven hours each day?

How would you feel if you could, seriously, only interact with your “peers,” if peers meant (more or less exact) age-mates?

But that’s the ridiculous – not to mention toxic – situation we’ve set up with our industrial-age model of education. That model says, “Oh, you’re five? That means you interact with other 5-year-olds.” Insert whatever age, and off you go to the races. To the deep end. The Kool-Aid. The toxic dunk.

This model is deeply fucked. There’s no other way to put it. It’s insulting to the child/learner. It’s insulting to the people who are supposed to teach them. It’s insulting to society, which could be so much more.

Seriously. You’re twelve. So you get to screw around with other 12-year-olds for …oh, six hours each and every frickin’ day.

How’s that working for you, you poor kid?

This is where you get the toxic soup. Today I saw a tweet by a friend, Raul Pacheco-Vega (hummingbird604), who was moved to tears by the news that 14-year-0ld Jamey Rodermeyer, who made one of the ‘It Gets Better’ videos, committed suicide due to bullying at school.

And to think that “normal” parents ask innovators like us homeschoolers about “socialization”… Seriously?

Self-education. It has to start somewhere. It’s not going to start in the kind of toxic legacy peer culture we’ve created out of industrial-style education.

I could go on (but fear the wrath of hipsters everywhere whose laconic “drtl” would cut me to the quick), but just consider how much easier it is to sway a population that’s not used to self-education or critical thinking, a captive audience that’s totally immersed in so-called “peer culture,” toward idiotic pseudo-science and general political quackery.

Current educational practice, modeled on industrial-age/ Taylorist methodology, is like the lottery: win some (rarely), lose some (often). Not the most reliable way to get any economy up and running these days.

Education K-12 and status anxiety

June 13, 2011 at 9:59 pm | In education | 2 Comments

There have been many calls over the years for an education “reboot,” but two early-June articles this year in prominent East Coast national newspapers (one Canadian, the other American) illustrate how difficult any kind of reboot will be. It’s sort of like trying to stop genital mutilation (ok, I can just feel the firestorm exploding over my head, but…): as long as the mothers and grandmothers are in cahoots with this crap, good luck trying to stop it.

Exhibit A, from June 2: Want your kid in prep school? Students reveal how to score a coveted spot (from Canada’s Toronto-based Globe & Mail). Read this and wilt (or throw up). The parents – all of them – are driving this pony show:

In an era of intense competition for private school admission, many parents have already done their homework and know the merits of various schools. What they’re really looking for is the inside scoop on how to ace the SSAT and win a coveted spot. Enter the admissions prodigies.

“In general, parents are very anxious about the SSAT. They want to know any behind-the-scenes information,” says Agatha Stawicki, the publisher of an annual guide to Canadian private schools called Our Kids Go To School and a sister site,

Today, Adam [Lam] delivers. In both one-on-one chats and in a short speech to the crowd, he says that before the SSAT, he’d never taken a three-hour test. He did 11 practice tests, revisiting his mistakes and learning the material. After making the first cut-off, he signed up for a second round of tutoring to ace further tests and interviews, saying he wanted to be “battle-ready.”

(This business about taking the standardized tests reminds me, by the way, of an excellent Quora topic, Is Amy Chua right when she explains “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” in an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal? Just go and read the top-rated Jan.8 2011 answer by anonymous, which includes a fascinating update on how Chua is marketing her book in China – where it’s branded as an “American” success strategy… The killer in this comment is, of course, the description of the sister’s suicide: Asian children, especially girls, have a very high suicide rate, sadly. One wonders why – or does one?)

Re. the child mentioned in the Globe and Mail article, above: he may be “battle-ready,” but the question is, what exactly is this battle?

Well, perhaps it’s just a question of beating out the other guy to make it into the Ivy Leagues?

And then what?

I have a total of six nephews and nieces (three each, actually) whose fathers are Japanese: oldest sister with one son and two daughters; sixth oldest with son and two daughers. All of us (in our family, that is) used to marvel, laugh, and – being relatively uneducated ourselves – slightly bow to the drill-and-kill method that intermittently ruled the lives of those children, particularly my oldest sister’s kids. Piano lessons? Check. Violin lessons? Check. Math tutors? Check. Homework tutors? Check. Ensuring they got into the “right” preschool so they could get into the “right” grammar school? Check. From the right grammar school to the right middle and high school? Check. To the right university (that is, #-1 rated University of Tokyo for the most Japanese of the two Japanese boys)? Check. It is a truly ridiculous system. Several of them escaped, as children, to the US (or, if periodically returned to Japan by their father’s work schedule, to international schools), several didn’t and made the whole K-12 journey in that lockstep method.

This educating-the-children business became a little less abstract when I had children of my own, and – living in Greater Boston – I could begin to see “Japan” writ large in their lives. I actually knew people whose friends registered with the “right” preschool when they found themselves pregnant, so that their little offspring could “get in.” From there, it was clearly imperative that the child would have to get into the right grammar school, from whence s/he would enter the right middle and high school. The goal? Getting into one of the Ivy Leagues or into one of New England’s well-known small, but elite and terribly expensive, colleges like Bowdoin or Colby.

It was the parents, their fears, and the culture they endorsed that drove the system.

Exhibit B, from June 7: Push for A’s at Private Schools Is Keeping Costly Tutors Busy (from The New York Times), which describes the doings of a private-school tutor, Siddarth Iyer, and sheds light on the revolting world of East Coast private schools:

“He’s been prepping my son all week,” said the mother of one [student], a senior at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, speaking on the condition that she not be named because Riverdale discourages both tutoring and talking to reporters.

“Prepping” — in this case for an oral exam in Riverdale’s notorious Integrated Liberal Studies, an interdisciplinary class laden with primary sources instead of standard textbooks — did not start the week before the exams, the mother pointed out. She said she had paid Mr. Iyer’s company $750 to $1,500 each week this school year for 100-minute sessions on Liberal Studies, a total of about $35,000 — just shy of Riverdale’s $38,800 tuition.

Last year, she said, her tutoring bills hit six figures, including year-round SAT preparation from Advantage Testing at $425 per 50 minutes; Spanish and math help from current and former private school teachers at $150 an hour; and sessions with Mr. Iyer for Riverdale’s equally notorious interdisciplinary course Constructing America, at $375 per 50 minutes.

I know these parents will never stoop to reading John Taylor Gatto and just pull their kids out of this nonsense (we did, although – WARNING – it’s not a simple panacea). But you have to wonder how tightly wound this spring is going to get, at a social and at an individual level.

…Of course we’ve already bred plenty of psychopaths to head up banking and investment firms, so maybe the whole private school and SAT/ test-prep racket is just another way of ensuring that there continues to be a steady supply of more. Because, if you don’t end up suiciding yourself and you instead play the game, where are you on this game board, anyway?

If ever there was a status quo worth smashing, …well, standardized tests and their ability to cement a rotten system seem a worthy target.


Follow up on Education and Homeschooling

September 14, 2010 at 10:37 pm | In education | 3 Comments

This is my third post this week on education – first, there was Waiting for Superman’s inconvenient truths about education on Sept. 8, followed by some more impressions on Sept. 10, Friday odds and ends. Today’s post is a message I sent to a friend of my husband’s, who wanted some more information about homeschooling. Can you suggest any good books to read?, she asked.

Here’s what I wrote:

First off, there’s a ton of stuff on the web, obviously, and where you start your search is pretty much determined by what your kids’ needs are. So, in our case, it was the need for more intellectual stimulation and getting away from a one-size-fits-all model, which meant that we ended up often on Hoagies’ (a website for gifted kids and education). (Note: we started homeschooling in 2000; now, ten years later, I’m sure there are other portal sites of use – it’s a question of doing the research and finding what you need.)

Next thing you’ll discover is that there’s definitely a spectrum – from unschooling to classical schooling. I really prefer many of the unschooling aspects (child-led education), but sometimes you do find that some of the old classical tricks are invaluable.

For a very interesting critical take on factory schooling (one that basically advocates unschooling/ radical child-centered learning etc.), check out John Taylor Gatto – you can visit his website or see his very excellent must-read book, Dumbing Us Down (check Amazon, or on his site).

For the classical take, check out Jessie Wise and Susan Wise-Bauer’s The Well-Trained Mind, written by a mother-daughter team who believe in timetables and schedules. I couldn’t get into their very rigid structure, nor do I subscribe to their endorsement of Dorothy Sayer’s take on education (very year-age oriented: if 7 years old, then X, if 10 years old, then Y – frankly, one of the main problems with gifted kids, and probably with kids, period, is asynchronicity. No one runs all their cylinders on this lockstep timetable – so you gotta teach to when the moment is right, whether that’s at age 7 or 17).

Between Wise/Wise-Bauer and Gatto (at the two ends of the spectrum) there’s a slew of material inbetween.

For truly fantastic practical help – actually, this is a book any parent should consider – check out The Homeschooler’s Guide to Portfolios and Transcripts, by Loretta Heuer. Pure gold, so valuable, a great resource. This book is also available on Amazon, and as I said, I recommend it to anyone who wants to create compelling portfolios for their child’s academic, extra-curricular, and community achievements. (See also this website.)

It’s very important to find support within your community if you plan to homeschool – you don’t want to isolate kids, and more and more communities are offering great opportunities for learners so that the world becomes their classroom.

Re. socialization: you’ll hear a lot about how important it is to send kids to school to socialize them. In my opinion, that’s hogwash (or at least, an un-reflective default thinking position on socialization is hogwash). Imagine if someone said to you,

“N., for the next 12 to 13 years, you will interact only with people your exact same age during the work week. That’s 6 to 7 hours daily, 5 days a week. Maybe we’ll throw an older person in there, but your peer group will be those who are exactly your age. No mingling with older or younger people, though, during ‘work’ hours!”

Imagine how that would “socialize” you! You’d turn into a psycho. Well, that’s exactly what our schools are turning a lot of kids into – add the toxic peer pressure, and it’s no wonder we’ve got problems.

Anyway, hope this is useful. Just remember, homeschooling isn’t for everyone – but neither is the factory school…!

/end text

Friday odds and ends

September 10, 2010 at 10:32 pm | In education, just_so | Comments Off on Friday odds and ends

I’m still mulling over my Wednesday blog post on the state of education, provoked in part by the comments others have left on Fred‘s and Joanne‘s blog posts about Waiting for Superman (see also the article by John Heilemann). I left two more comments on Fred’s post – which now has 331 comments. Every time someone posts a new one, I get an email notification …and more to think about. Unreal.

I also watched Sugata Mitra’s 2010 TED Talk video on Child-Driven Education. Lots to think about there. When we were still in the throes of home-schooling (albeit with Ministry support through BC Distance Education School), I appreciated the various group activities offered to the kids, but always longed for autonomous learning centers – sort of like YMCAs or community centers  or libraries – where kids could come together and learn. Sort of like university for the pre-university/college set. Mitra’s child-driven learning conveys some of that.

At any rate, there’s no single “silver bullet” for solving problems with education …maybe because it’s not “just” about “education”/ because everything is about education.

Edit/update: as I wrote my post, another response fluttered into my email box – a response to a comment I made to someone on The writer says that my comment shows I’m “someone who a) doesn’t have children or b) is affluent or c) both.” Well, lol and all that… And I guess some people don’t read!  The writer adds, “I don’t take part in social experiments.” That’s too bad. I don’t know that there’s anything but experiments when it comes to social.


This week has been interesting. I’ve started getting up early – and I keep thinking of how it killed Descartes. I’m not sure I can keep it up.

I want to live! 😉

In other news:

Just days apart, I saw two bumper stickers that seemed to be talking to one another.

The first said, “Trees cause rain.”

The second said, “Trees are the solution.”

I wondered if that meant that rain is a solution? (Well, of course it is…)

Waiting for Superman’s inconvenient truths about education

September 8, 2010 at 10:22 pm | In education | 2 Comments

Two of my favorite bloggers – Fred Wilson and Gotham Gal (aka Joanne Wilson) – already posted today about Davis Guggenheim‘s latest documentary, Waiting for Superman, and, since the film addresses a topic – namely, education – that I was knee-deep in for the longest time, I posted a couple of comments on their sites. (Joanne’s site here; comments on Fred’s site are taking forever to load – presumably because the topic stirred so much interest, comments went through the roof; mine are here and here.) (Davis, incidentally, is, among other things, famous for directing and producing An Inconvenient Truth.)

The Waiting for Superman website includes a compelling trailer – watch it now. (The movie will be released on 9/24 in “select cities” – not sure if it’ll make it to Canada simultaneously.)

Most of all, while you wait for the movie, go read John Heilemann’s article, Schools: The Disaster Movie, in New York Magazine.

“Here’s what I’m scared of: that the movie will be misperceived as a pro-charter, anti-union piece,” he says. “The movie isn’t anti-union; it’s pro-kids. And to be pro-kids, I have to be tough on all of the adults, starting with myself. And the movie’s not pro-charter. It’s just that lotteries happen at a lot of charter schools, and the lottery is the central metaphor in the movie. It’s like, you could have the American Dream—if you win the lottery. The lottery is a metaphor for what we do to our kids.” [emphasis added] (more)

It’s about education, but it’s also about so much more.

It’s about social contracts, and whether or not upward mobility is still an option, and whether or not a healthy middle class still serves as the incubator of fruitful change and innovation.

“The whole point of charters is that you can close the ones that fail,” he says. “I’m all for it! You close them and constantly innovate, and things get better.”

Canada’s mention of innovation gets me thinking about a recent front-page article in the New York Times that reported on the mediocre or dismal performance of many charter schools. To critics, this is proof that the charter movement is a washout, when the data actually demonstrate no such thing—for as any student of technology will tell you, innovation is built on failure. (more)

Bang on. Without failure, no change – and no progress. The trouble, of course, is that no one wants to have their kid in the failing venture …so they stick with the old “tried and true” failures…

Of special interest to me was the description of the political animal that is Randi Weingarten. We’ve seen her type before, in less forceful incarnations she has even shown herself locally. Read the section that precedes the following quote (which explains the mechanics of her political tango), and then think about the politicians you have known… Then ask yourself if you really want these people in charge of educating your young (or running your city)…

What explains Weingarten’s apparent schizophrenia is the balancing act she is forced to pull off by a membership split between moderates and militants. (Asked by Politico, Proust-questionnaire style, to name her favorite body part, she said, “Legs—because I have to walk a tightrope most of the time.”) In her stint at the UFT in New York, she honed a signature style whereby her substantive compromises were coupled with rhetorical ferocity. Now, on a grander stage, she is doing the same thing again, attacking reformers and “Superman,” and even distancing herself from her own achievements, to maintain her authority with her people while at the same time giving herself space to move in the direction of reform. [emphasis added] (more)

Another thing I appreciate about this article – given the relentless Obama-bashing that’s coming from the left and the right – is how it shows that Obama has made progress on education and has put his ass on the line for reform. That’s commendable – given the example of more political creatures (like Weingarten), Obama’s rectitude and integrity are refreshing:

For decades, Democrats at the national level had been a wholly owned subsidiary of the unions. But Obama was booed on the campaign trail for supporting merit pay, and secured his party’s nomination without the support of the AFT, which sided with Hillary Clinton. His [Obama’s] choice of Duncan, who’d run the Chicago public schools with a penchant for consensus between reformers and the unions, to lead the Department of Education was seen as a signal that Obama would seek to chart a middle course.

Yet over the nineteen months of his term, Obama has done nothing of the kind. Rather, he has unfurled an education agenda that has delighted reformers, upset the unions, and in the process delivered more on his promise of transcending partisan divisions in the service of pragmatism than he has on any other issue. (more)

On another front: parents – and adults, generally. I’ve said this before, but a lot of the blame for all the social crap we’re looking at today is the fault of parents (and that means my generation) and other adults:

Fingers will be pointed, and they should be—directly at the adults who have perpetuated the grotesqueries that consign generation after generation of America’s children to failure. (more)

Parents who expect schools to work miracles have a lot to answer for, ditto teachers and admins who are protecting their benefits. The adults, and they are legion, have indeed “perpetuated grotesqueries,” and it makes you wonder what the kids were really learning all along.

The Book of Firsts: A great “firsts” book for history buffs

July 26, 2010 at 10:23 pm | In education, resources | 2 Comments

The next time someone says to you, “I’d like to study history, but I don’t know where to start,” tell them to pick up a copy of The Book of Firsts: 150 World-Changing People and Events from Caesar Augustus to the Internet. Written mostly by Peter D’Epiro, with numerous contributions by eight other scholars, The Book of Firsts covers the last twenty centuries. On average, the authors address seven to eight “firsts” in each century for a total of 150 entries. Each entry’s title is posed as a question, which the entry then answers and discusses in lively detail.

Lively: that’s the key word – anyone who wants to “study history” runs at some point into the “history is dead (not lively)” problem. For the beginner, the study of history can present significant threshold resistance – until, that is, the would-be history student at last discovers the special field that fires his or her imagination, which allows research – learning about a topic for the love of it – to become possible. Until then, the road to study is littered with corpses (text books) cluttering up the outer, shallower edges of possible topics: very difficult to step across indeed.

Not so the Book of Firsts, which regales by going very short but fairly deep, chronological only by century but not by a strict time-line or geographic boundary. It thereby entertains the reader while letting her get an idea of where-o-where, across a very broad spectrum of time, she might want, really, to “study history.” Once a topic actually piques her interest, The Book of Firsts gives readers a handy bibliography matched to the questions raised in each of the centuries. In other words, now that you know where to start, you can …well, start!

The prod that sends the student into deeper exploration might be morbid – a detail about one depraved emperor’s murder of his wife (he locked her in the steam bath): has cruelty always ruled the day? – or philosophical (reading a snippet of Li Po’s missive to the “Idlers of the Bamboo Valley”: “When the hunter sets traps only for rabbits, / Tigers and dragons are left uncaught” …true, that) – or political (why the statement “Fuck the Draft” on a t-shirt worn in a courtroom in 1971 became a test-case for the 1791 First Amendment to the US Constitution).

The Book of Firsts starts in the First Century with the entry, “Who was the first Roman emperor?” and moves from there across the globe. But it also ranges into specific subject areas – language, music, science, technology. It ends in the Twentieth Century with the question, “What was the first internet?” Inbetween those two questions, there is definitely an answer for anyone who has ever wondered where to start his or her study of history.

I enjoyed the writing of all the entries (most of which were written by D’Epiro), and I especially liked Nancy Walsh’s essays. And of course I loved Tom Matrullo‘s contributions (which have an astonishing range, from the tenth through the twentieth centuries, with specific stops in the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, and nineteenth centuries inbetween – wow!).  Tom made sure I got a copy of The Book of Firsts, and I  thank him for it. No small feat to cover 20 centuries and make it look nearly effortless!

Serendipitous visual learning: forests and trees

July 21, 2010 at 11:03 pm | In education, nature, resources | Comments Off on Serendipitous visual learning: forests and trees

Amazing things crop up on the internet, sometimes found serendipitously – with nary a memory of how they were stumbled in the first place.

For example, I came across a useful page from British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests and Range, specifically the Forest Practices Branch: check out the Visual Landscape Design – Interactive Multimedia Training Access Page, where (if you give them your name, real or not) you will gain access to 22 online mini-lessons on visual design. It’s an excellent tutorial on how to design forest harvesting practices that leave the landscape looking good, rather than bad.

IOW, it’s about how to cut trees without making the landscape look like a cat’s breakfast. And while some tree-preservationists might blanch at the suggestion of making clear-cuts look pretty, it’s a heck of a better strategy than leaving them ugly. (That said, I’m not endorsing destructive clear-cutting, and I want to see old-growth forests protected absolutely, but this government-produced tutorial is gold – and its lessons are transferable to many design questions.)

Here’s what you get on the Visual Landscape Design – Interactive Multimedia Training Access Page. The following lessons (each just a couple of minutes long) make up the “interactive multimedia” section:

Section 1 Introduction
1.01 Landscape Design and Why it is important

Section 2 Design Concepts and Principles
2.01 Basic Elements
2.02 Variable Elements
2.03 Organizing Principles
2.04 Spatial Cues
2.05 Challenge Questions

Section 3 Landscape Character Analysis
3.01 Landform Analysis
3.01b Marvinas Bay Landform Analysis
3.02 Feature Analysis
3.02b Midway Feature Analysis

Section 4 Design Applications
4.01 Design of Harvest Units
4.01b Nootka Island Harvest Unit
4.02 Design of Edges
4.03 Silvicultural Systems
4.04 Complete Pattern of Shapes
4.05 Challenge Questions
4.06 Design of Foreground Areas
4.07 Special Design Considerations
4.08a Visual Rehabilitation Harvesting
4.08b Visual Rehabilitation Reclamation
4.09 Challenge Questions

Section 5 Integrated Visual Design
5.01 Integrated Visual Design
Closing Remarks

In addition, the page lets you access a PDF library for downloading; it includes the following titles:

Visual Landscape Design Training Manual (170 pages)
Bear Lake Integrated Visual Design Plan (42 pages)
Economic Benefits of Managing Forestry and Tourism at Nimmo Bay (A Public Perception Study and Economic Analysis) (67 pages)
Visually Effective Greenup in British Columbia (A Public Perception Study) (61 pages)
Clearcutting and Visual Quality (A Public Perception Study) (37 pages)
Visual Impacts of Partial Cutting (Summary Report) (62 pages)
Predicting the Visual Impacts of Retention Cutting (3 pages)

Some of the documents are dated (mid- to late-90s). Since I haven’t read them, I can’t guarantee that they’re untainted by industry bull and/or greenwash, but I appreciate that the docs are available: they provide insight into how Forestry is being handled in BC. As for the design tutorial: it’s definitely worth studying – I’m viewing the 3rd Section now, and what it has to teach looks very transferable.

Tenure “what-if”

July 8, 2010 at 10:31 pm | In education, social_critique | Comments Off on Tenure “what-if”

Of course the question of tenure has crossed my mind repeatedly. Having nuked my academic career by becoming a home-schooling parent instead of a professor, I relinquished claims to respectability long ago – ten years ago. But even that long ago, the question of tenure seemed an obvious problem to me, even if it wasn’t, at the time, getting much attention (I could never figure out why it wasn’t getting attention: it seemed like such a canary in the whiskey bar – a fat bird singing: anyone could hear it!).

I had friends who, like me, were highly qualified, but were scrambling to cobble together teaching gigs at various underpaying colleges in the region – one extremely qualified woman was driving hundreds of miles weekly to teach at a couple of cheap (pay-wise) and far-flung colleges in Boston and another in faraway Fitchburg. I could count on two fingers of one hand the number of friends who got tenure-track jobs. The year I received my PhD (1991), the Mellon Foundation published some flapdoodle trend paper about how we were going to be the golden generation who would step into the positions opened up by the cohort of upcoming retirees. Well, the upcomers didn’t retire, and the universities didn’t re-hire. At least not on the tenure track. The universities hired adjunct teachers instead – the excuse at the time was that the recession of the late 80s had finally caught up with academe.

I’m not sure what the excuse was in the intervening years, when the economy bubbled into hyper-drive. God knows many colleges were positively giddy about their bulging endowments. Yet the trend to adjunct teaching continued, and tenure kept shrinking.

Is this a question also of “brand” schools gutting themselves from the inside out?

If that’s the case, then parents – shelling out huge sums of money – are paying for a chimera.

See Tenure, RIP (Chronicle of Higher Education):

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