Monday, December 31, 2012

Last-Minute Curmie Contenders: Abusive Teacher Edition

One last pair of last-minute Curmie contenders, this time the Abusive Teacher Edition.

Applicant #1 is John Rosi of Kopachuk (WA) Middle School. For one 15-minute period last February, in a class allegedly devoted to reading and math preparation, students abused a classmate. They dragged him around the room. The carried him by his arms and legs. They peeled off his socks and stuffed them in his mouth, then wrote on his feet. They buried him under chairs and under pillows. (One moment is captured at right.)

Where was the “teacher,” Rosi, during this? Joining in. Yes, joining in as a smaller boy was bullied by the entire class. He sat on the boy, saying he was feeling “gassy.” He poked the kid in the stomach. The whole thing was recorded on cell phones, Rosi knew it and… get this… mugged for the cameras.

Rosi, of course, isn’t really a teacher at all. He’s a wrestling coach, and a moron. In one of the most disingenuous apologies since Pierre Corneille (shout-out to veterans of my theatre history class), he proclaims that he “[knows] the difference between inflicting pain and innocent horseplay,” and that he viewed the incident as a “chance for the kids to take a break from the daily grind.”

He’s either lying, or his shoe size exceeds his IQ by a factor of two. The physical pain experienced by the boy is the least of his worries, as anyone with the slightest understanding of adolescence can attest. And that a teacher would not merely condone but actually participate in this brutality ought to get his sorry ass fired.

It wasn’t, of course. He was suspended for 10 days and re-assigned. This is a guy whose base salary is more than mine (I’m a full professor at an accredited university, with a PhD and over 20 years of full-time teaching experience), and that doesn’t count the $10K coaching add-on. You’d think he might have the sense God gave a louse. Nope. But his false piety paid off (he’s a coach, after all). In a school run by a competent principal, in a district administered by a superintendent who actually cared about his students, Rosi would not only have been fired before he could blink, he’d have been lucky to escape without jail time. Not with the likes of Acting Superintendent Chuck Cuzzetta: it wasn’t a complete abrogation of every tenet of professional ethics; it was “inappropriate classroom management,” and Rosi’s punishment was “pretty significant.” Not in my book.

How do you top that? Well, maybe with this year’s variation on the theme of last year’s Curmie Award Winner. Remember the teacher who stuffed a special needs kid into the equivalent of a gym bag? Well, Lillian Gomez (left) of Sunrise Elementary School in Kissimmee, Florida, apparently asked herself, “how about soaking crayons and Play-Doh in hot sauce and force-feeding the concoction to autistic students? Yeah, that will teach those brats not to put things in their mouths.”

The good news here is that the school district, the Osceola County system, seems to have acted appropriately. They got rid of her. And she appealed… to a judge… who recommended that she not be fired. Really. Apparently, however, that was a recommendation rather than an order, and… write this down because it doesn’t happen very often… the school board stood up on its hind legs and said “no.”

Jay Wheeler of the school board said, “We decided to put child safety first, and not put somebody back in the classroom that intended to do harm to children.” This might seem obvious to most people, but this is somebody on a school board, so it’s actually something of an event that Wheeler and his comrades decided to do the right thing instead of the easy thing.

The fact that Gomez is no longer in the classroom—no thanks to an idiot judge who cares more about intent (whether she intended to punish students) than volition (she absolutely intended to hurt students, whatever the specific motivation for her actions)—is a good thing, but it doesn’t change her suitability for a Curmie… it’s just that the district doesn’t get to share in her ignominy.

So there you have it: the final two candidates for the coveted Curmie. It is, alas, a long list, and there were plenty of stories I missed. I hope to have the nominees decided and the poll up tomorrow. Happy New Year, everyone!

Last-Minute Curmie Contenders: Stupid Decisions Edition

We’re still scurrying towards the finish line to get a few more Curmie contenders into the mix. This iteration is the Stupid Decisions Edition. There are almost too many candidates to be able to narrow the field much, but here’s a quintet of my favorite whoppers. It’s a pretty broad category, so I’ve suggested a few subheads.

The clear winner in the Not Even Legislatures Are as Stupid as State School Boards Division goes to the great state of Florida, whose state Board of Education decided in November to establish different standards for different students, based on race. Yes, on race. Not on a combination of variables—economic status, parental education level, etc. Nope: race. Actually, other taxonomies are considered, but separately: the result is the same as if other categories weren't considered at all.

That this is one of the most colossally heinous ideas of the millennium is self-evident. It perpetuates the myth of African-American and Hispanic inferiority, undermines the accomplishments of schools, teachers, and students of all demographic profiles, and further excuses inequities in funding and other real-world means of leveling the proverbial playing field. Rather than adopt a strategy to raise achievement levels for all constituencies, the state board institutionalized different standards as a recognition of reality and as a means of continuing a waiver from some parts of the NCLB act.

Here’s the relevant part of the new policy:
The board passed a revised strategic plan that says that by 2018, it wants 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of white students, 81 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of black students to be reading at or above grade level. For math, the goals are 92 percent of Asian kids to be proficient, whites at 86 percent, Hispanics at 80 percent and blacks at 74 percent.
Yes, you see, Asians are smart, and blacks are stupid, so of course we can’t expect them to achieve at the same level. This mind-meltingly inane policy manages to be condescending and balkanizing at the same time. It treats students as numbers rather than as individuals, ignores those of mixed race (like, say, the guy in White House, for example), plays to the most destructive fantasies of both the loony left and the loony right, and generally succeeds in being the single most inane state school board decision in years… and I say this as an educator in Texas, where an SBOE ruling that was merely counter-productive and inept would be hailed as progress.

The Big Brother Arrogance Subdivision was captured by the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio. Not content with the inherent invasion of privacy of “smart” student IDs that track students’ locations at all times, these idiots have upped the ante: students who refused to bow down to the Orwellian gods
cannot access common areas like the cafeteria or library, and cannot purchase tickets to extracurricular activities. WND reports that the district has threatened to suspend, fine or involuntarily transfer students who fail to comply and officials have noted that “there will be consequences for refusal to wear an ID card as we begin to move forward with full implementation.”
Oh, and they can’t vote for Homecoming King and Queen, either.

The rationale for this hugely intrusive program is, of course, money. The powers that be are, to put it kindly, whores. They’ll do anything for money—in this case funding that is based on attendance—including implementing an inane program the has no chance of success (if I’m going to go truant, I’m not going to take my stupid badge with me), and which, since all students are subject to this monstrosity of a rule, punishes the good students in a vain attempt to control the activities of the bad ones.

It is none of the school’s damned business where students are when they aren’t in class, and if you want to have them in class at the appointed hour, try giving them an education worth having. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, associated with implementing this policy should be fired on the spot. Now.

The Outrageous Punishment of the Innocent category is claimed by Highland Middle School in Anderson, IN. An unidentified teacher had synched her iPhone to her school-issued iPad. Apparently she wasn’t thinking, and a topless photograph of her popped up when a quartet of 13-year-old boys were playing a game on the iPad. Needless to say, they looked.

The result? Why, the boys were suspended and threatened with expulsion, of course. Even the Assistant Superintendent, an intellectually deficient creature named Beth Clark, grants that the image appeared quite by accident. The teacher, whose actions were reckless but not (apparently) volitional, was punished in some unspecified way, but kept her job. That probably makes sense: if, as appears to be the case, she inadvertently mishandled technology, she learned a lesson and won’t make that mistake again. If it was intentional, it will happen again, and the walls had better come tumbling down. The students, who did literally nothing wrong—and no one suggests otherwise—became pariahs. Uh, no.

This is yet another case of a school administration being either too craven or too dim-witted (or both) to be smarter than the rulebook. Discretion, people. Seriously.

The Nanny State Run Amok Division was captured easily by the lunatics running the asylum in the Grand Island (NE) Public Schools. Three-year-old Hunter Spanjer is deaf. His name, in S.E.E. (Signing Exact English, the sign language he uses), is based, not unreasonably, on the notion of hunting: hunting/Hunter… get it? That means a gesture that sort of resembles a weapon. Sort of. Decide for yourself. That’s Hunter in all his threatening glory at right.

But that apparently violates—wait for it—the “weapons in schools” policy that forbids “any instrument that looks like a weapon.” Seriously, how can these people feed themselves? First off, a hand is not an “instrument.” We’re done, already. Secondly, it’s his name, and the only way he has of identifying himself. Thirdly… did I mention that he’s three?

School mouthpiece Jack Sheard intoned that “We are working with the parents to come to the best solution we can for the child.” Hey, I’ve got an idea, Jack. How about you try not being a fucking moron? Would you give that a whirl? It’s a stupid policy to begin with, but you can’t really blame the document for this one. Someone… some adult with pretensions of competence… decided that a three-year-old signing his name was a violation of a weapons policy. The mind boggles.

Be it noted: the school reversed its policy (while pretending otherwise, of course) after being humiliated locally and, thanks to bloggers, internationally. That hardly matters. That anyone, anyone, would even for an instant consider young Hunter to be anything like a threat is too ridiculous for words.

Finally, there’s the Censorious Asshat category (thanks to our friends at Popehat for the appellation), won this go-‘round by Principal Christopher Kloesz of Loveland High School near Cincinnati. He fired Sonja Hansen, the theatre director/choreographer of the school’s recent production of the stage musical version of Legally Blonde, which, by the way, got standing ovations every night, for violating one of those intentionally vague “code of conduct” tenets.

According to Hansen,
Kloesz… cited “bootie-bounce dance moves” and the use of the word “skank” in the script. Loveland, along with most schools across the U.S., has a strict no-alcohol policy, and Hansen was cited for a scene in the musical that includes a champagne party involving a group of buttoned-up Harvard University students. She pointed out that it was not staged as a rowdy college party….

Hansen said she was shocked by the administration’s negative reaction to Legally Blonde after the school produced the full version of Grease in recent years, as well as Beauty and the Beast last spring “with a huge tavern scene and beer mugs.” Students also used real cigarettes as props during a scene in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. “I didn't hear any complaints,” Hansen recalled, noting that the Loveland High production of Grease, which includes drinking, smoking, sexuality and teen pregnancy in its script, had higher ticket sales than Legally Blonde. “I never saw anyone leave. We had no one ask for refunds,” she said of Legally Blonde’s run.
At first glance, this is just a case of a principal who is arrogant, prudish, cowardly, stupid, and inconsistent. That in itself would be enough for legitimate Curmie consideration… but it’s worse than that.

The school administration had signed off on the show when the contract with Music Theatre International was signed months ago. The word “skank” is right there in the script. So is the drinking scene (and perhaps someone ought to explain the concept of aesthetic distance to the dim-witted Mr. Kloesz). I’m willing to bet the choreography was less risqué than what happened at the Homecoming dance. Rehearsals had been going on for months, and were open. In other words, Kloesz (who was new to the position this fall) didn’t honor commitments made in the school’s name, and, in addition to being… well, a censorious asshat, is also too fucking lazy to do his job (assuming censorial powers to be a legitimate part of the job at all) and read the script, attend a rehearsal, or otherwise abort the project before people spent literally thousands of hours of work on it. Better yet, tell Hansen you don’t want X, Y or Z next time: don’t fire her for doing her job, just because you didn’t do yours.

Superintendent Dr. John Marschhausen seems to be not quite as stupid as Kloesz (that’s pretty stiff competition, after all), but even more craven. He issued an apology to Hansen even as he was signing off on her dismissal. Stand up to the guy who works for you, you pusillanimous putz!

I’ll give the last word to the creators of the play—composer Lawrence O’Keefe, lyricist Nell Benjamin, and book writer Heather Hach. Here’s a statement they sent to Playbill:
We have no idea what the superintendent's statement means. We are surprised and disappointed that an educator who put on a show about a woman succeeding through education was fired for it. Any show that tries to be smart and funny may offend some people, but Mrs. Hansen and her students looked beyond that and saw the positive message of tolerance and female empowerment at the heart of the show. We only wish the school administration had done the same. We applaud the parents and students who supported Mrs. Hansen.
Yeah, what they said.

So, there you have it… the Stupid Decisions Edition. I may try to squeeze out one more compendium before the end of 2012… but it might not happen.

By the way, I’m indebted to Jack Marshall for bringing the last three of these stories to my attention. You can read his commentary here, here, and here, respectively.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Last-Minute Curmie Contenders: Anti-Obama Edition

We’ve had our share of overzealous educators interjecting their political opinions into the classroom and other school-specific activity. In March, I wrote about Michael Denman, who seemed to think that requiring his students to do what amounted to opposition research for the Obama campaign (without a concomitant project about the Obama campaign) was a good idea. In May, it was Tanya Dixon-Neely who rambled semi-coherently about how you can get arrested for criticizing the President and similar nonsense. In June, it was Tom Stack, who disinvited a commencement-related speaker after determining him to be (gasp) conservative. And Lynette Gaymon added screaming at a student for wearing a Romney/Ryan shirt to the mix.

Needless to say, not all the perpetrators of this sort of unprofessionalism are liberals or Obamaphiles. And so, as we scramble to fit in a couple more Curmie contenders, we offer the other side of the political equation: a pair of idiots on the other side of the political divide.

First up is Linda White, a science teacher at Clinton Jr. High in Mississippi, who argued that President Obama shouldn’t be re-elected because he’s a Muslim, unlike “good Christian” Mitt Romney. OK, this is remarkably stupid from a number of perspectives.

First, why is any teacher arguing for anyone’s election or non-election? Second, why is a science teacher talking about the election at all to people who can’t vote? Third, it’s a matter of bigotry, not politics, to argue for or against a candidate because of his religion. Fourth, any rational and objective observer would argue that Mr. Obama is more of a traditional Christian than Mr. Romney, who, as a Mormon, would not be considered a Christian at all by most mainstream denominations (except, of course, by those more interested in electing Republicans than in worshipping God).

It’s bad enough that a teacher would introduce politics into the classroom. To spew demonstrably false information as the basis for a political rant, however, has got to set a new standard for unprofessional behavior. Yes, I know the same could be said for Dixon-Neely. I’m just trying to decide whether it’s worse if the inaccuracies are worse if they’re related to the teacher’s alleged expertise (Dixon-Neely) or about a subject the teacher shouldn’t be talking about to begin with (White).

After the election, it was the turn of a Delcambre (LA) Elementary School teacher, subsequently identified as Mandy LeBlanc. According to multiple students, LeBlanc showed up at school the day after the election dressed in black, mourning the “death of America” after Obama’s re-election. And America is the “new China.” And Michelle Obama’s nutrition program will have kids looking like “toothpicks” in a matter of months. And… so on.

I suppose it’s a good thing that the crap LeBlanc was spewing was at least a matter of opinion—stupid opinion, but at least opinion. Of course, there’s also a racial element to this whole business. There is only one black teacher in the entire school system, and there are allegations that a couple of (black) parents who complained about LeBlanc’s antics were fired from their janitorial jobs in the school system as a result of their protests.

I have no idea whether these charges of racism have merit. It’s pretty clear that the school is protecting LeBlanc, and that she’s unfit to be in the classroom. Beyond that… who knows?

I should mention here that there are other criticisms by teachers of Obama and/or the election which really do fall under the heading of free speech. Yes, threats of violence are inherently unacceptable, and over-the-top political rants are ill-advised, but that line is hard to draw. If I say I’m glad Obama was re-elected, is that OK? What about if I say I’m glad the amoral plutocrat didn’t get the gig? What if I call Romney a lying weasel fit only for fertilizer? The answer, to me, is that anything I say outside of the classroom, even if public, ought to be protected except in the case of threats, sedition, etc. I don’t lose my constitutional rights just become I’m employed as a teacher at a state university.

And, by extension, those public school teachers whose politics are different from mine ought to have the same protections. That would include Sharon Aceta, the Rock Hill, SC teacher who was briefly suspended for violating the school’s social media policy. Her Facebook post, on her personal page: “Congrats Obama. As one of my students sang down the hallway, ‘We get to keep our fooood stamps’...which I pay for because they can’t budget their money...and really, neither can you.” So freaking what? Yes, it’s a dumb comment, and likely (but not necessarily) a lie in that I bet she didn’t actually overhear a student, but it’s protected speech and the school system’s argument that “Sometimes you just can't speak out publicly about what you'd personally like to say, about anything” is frankly, more than a little creepy.

The same line of reasoning applies to unnamed Columbus, OH teacher who posted the following to his personal Facebook page: “Congrats to those dependent on government, homosexuals, potheads, JAY-Z fans, non Christians, non taxpayers, illegals, communists, Muslims, planned murder clinics, enemies of America, Satan You WON!” Wow. I mean, that’s some pretty choice stuff. Is this someone I want teaching my kids (if I had them)? Probably not. But a single heat-of-the-moment Facebook political rant isn’t enough to prove that he’s anything more sinister than someone with whom I’m not likely to see eye to eye politically, and the district was right not to over-react.

I should also mention that Facebook posts and tweets about students are a different matter. Depending on context, they could be simply letting off steam (I do this not infrequently). But naming names or calling students stupid (as opposed to having done something stupid, which intelligent people do all the time) does cross the line.

So… there’s the anti-Obama Curmie crowd: two teachers for in-class antics, a school system of overstepping its own authority, and one dumb comment that rightfully drew an investigation but no punishment that we know of.

Last-Minute Curmie Contenders: Dress Code Edition

It’s the end of the year and Curmie is behind on his writing, so this is the mad flurry to try to get potential Curmie Award nominees eligible by writing about them in 2012. This post is the dress code edition (there have already been a couple of good examples of dress code stupidity this year: turns out I barely scratched the surface); it includes a range of stories from throughout the year. I do apologize, however, that a couple of the following will be based on a single news source. I’m normally more conscientious, but I want to get all this written up. I’ll be sure to check other sources if any of these stories lead to an actual Curmie nomination.

Let me start by mentioning in passing a case that isn’t Curmie-eligible because, as far as I can determine, no educator has done anything wrong. This is the Rebecca Julius case at Concordia College in Minnesota. Ms. Julius wore a “sin is sin” shirt in response to the straight-gay alliance group’s “love is love” t-shirt. She has a right to do so. She created a firestorm for herself. That’s OK, too.

Free speech doesn’t mean other people aren’t allowed to respond to the stimulus you provide; it means you can’t be punished by official authorities (the state, in other words). Other than provoking precisely the response she wanted, Ms. Julius seems to have suffered no ill effects. I find nothing to suggest she was forbidden from wearing the shirt. Moreover, as a private, church-affiliated school, Concordia would have had the legal (not to say ethical) right to forbid the shirt, making all the 1st Amendment-based howling from predictable quarters, to use one of my mother’s favorite phrases, so much balloon juice. I do want to come back to this case later, but I make no promises that I’ll do so.

I’m also skipping the story about Maverick Couch, the gay Cincinnati-area high school student who won his court case for the right to wear a “Jesus Is Not a Homophobe” t-shirt because the events actually took place in 2011, although the case was decided this year. And I’m skipping a couple other cases where the clothing in question really could be considered offensive or disruptive or whatever, even though I might not personally agree with that assessment. Trust me, there’s still plenty to talk about.

We start, then, early in 2012 with a story I missed when it first occurred: the decision by Pottstown (PA) Middle School Principal Gail Cooper to ban Ugg boots from her school. No, this was not the fashion police. This is one of those situations in which some fairly dim-witted authority figure seeks to solve Problem X by outlawing something that has no reason to be outlawed. It’s this kind of thinking that means you now have to jump through hoops to buy Sudafed, because someone might use those pills as ingredients for their meth operation. (Be it noted: it’s also the reasoning that suggests that criminalizing all gun possession or ownership is an appropriate solution to the problem of gun violence.)

The problem is two-fold. First: it’s a dumb rule on its face. This is Pennsylvania in the winter. It snows there. I just saw snow in Pennsylvania at Christmas. I am confident that this was not an aberration. “Outdoor, open-top boots” are kinda de rigeur at least a few days a years. And, of course, there’s nothing problematic about the boots themselves: it’s their capacity to hide a cell phone that’s really at the center of this kerfuffle.

Secondly, the rule is both gendered and ineffectual: boys don’t wear Uggs. The suggestion that the new rule is no different from requiring students to remove coats and hats is, of course, silly. Boots must be removed and replaced. That means a change of footwear stays in the locker, or must be schlepped from home every day. And since the rule is gendered, the idea—asserted on a Facebook post—that girls who really want to violate the cell phone ban can do so by hiding the offending objects in their bras (or pockets, or…) seems plausible. BTW, did anyone else just have a flashback to that scene at the end of “Diamonds Are Forever” in which Tiffany Case tries unsuccessfully to hide something roughly the size of a cell phone in her bikini? Of course, if there are a lot of middle-schoolers in Pottstown who look like Jill St. John in her prime, Curmie is rather jealous that he wasn’t twelve at a different time and place.

If you want to ban cell phones, do it. And make the punishment sufficient that the problem gets solved. Done. Banning Ugg boots is both stupid (leading to cynicism about rules in general) and no-doubt ineffective (leading to contempt for the system): not exactly what we ought to be teaching our adolescents.

In Meridian, CT, there are different horrors: skinny jeans, leggings, and women’s cut t-shirts. Yes, apparel that is “form fitting” is verboten. Also, “undergarments and private body areas must not be evident or visible through clothing.” There are also the usual admonitions about skirt length, yadda yadda yadda. Part of this makes sense. But, as usual, the people writing the policy (it passed, of course, in the then-imminent school board vote mentioned in the linked article) are either illiterate (certainly a possibility, given some of the grammatical nightmares therein contained) or prudish or just flat-out stupid.

As written, the policy would ban any indication that a student is wearing undergarments… a bra-line, for example. Of course, it’s also prohibited to suggest that such undergarments aren’t being worn. The whole idea is both silly and doomed to failure, completely apart from the legitimate concerns expressed by teachers’ union rep Geoff Kenyon that the new rules would create an “us vs. them mentality” and “[channel] too much valuable time, energy and resources into a futile pursuit.” Sigh.

A few months later, in Oklahoma City, a kindergartener was forced to turn his t-shirt inside out because it violated the school’s dress code. Was it political? Was there profane or obscene language? Did it advocate violence? Well… no. It was a generic University of Michigan shirt. Oh, that explains it. Because… well… OK, I give up.

Ah, but you see, at Wilson Elementary School, there’s a policy that gear from professional teams (even the Oklahoma City Thunder) and universities is forbidden. There’s an exception for Oklahoma universities… sources disagree about whether all OK universities (Oklahoma City University, for example) are exempted or whether it’s just OU and OSU that get a waiver. Anyway, it’s a profoundly stupid rule, created “[in] cooperation with the Oklahoma City Police Department Gang Task Force… after concerns that nationwide gangs used popular sports clothing to represent individual gangs.”

This is the same kind of circuitous thinking that gives us bans on Ugg boots, with the further twist that gangs presumably wouldn’t want to associate themselves with a couple of major universities, but would with others. Because, you know, I gotta admit: when I see a five-year-old in a Michigan shirt, I don’t think “that’s cute; probably one of his parents went there.” Nope. I jump straight to “gang member.” Really, I mean just check out the thuggishness on display in the photo at left.

Two points. First, gang task forces exist for one purpose only: to make it look like gang task forces serve a legitimate function. If they actually solved the problem, their alleged expertise would not only be unnecessary (i.e., the status quo), but would be perceived as the waste of resources it truly is, which of course is a situation that must never be allowed to occur.

Second, it doesn’t matter that the district is now re-examining the policy, or that the little boy was adopted by the Michigan athletic department. It was an unspeakably cretinous rule from the get-go, and the fact that it was enforced even once, on a five-year-old is all the evidence we need to make this a legitimate Curmie contender.

Elsewhere, twelve-year-old Danielle O’Neal is a felon waiting to happen, at least according to the Pamlico County Schools in North Carolina. She… oh, the horror… had her shirt untucked and (wait for it) visible under her sweater. In public, no less. Not only that, but this criminal mastermind is a repeat offender. Only last year, she forgot to wear a belt. I know, I know, the next step is mass murder… or, even worse, mismatched socks.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. Rules are rules. But even ridiculous rules (no belt? really?) can be enforced intelligently. Instead, somebody made a stupid announcement that there’d be no more warnings, and there’s nothing in the code to distinguish between serious and minor violations. This is why, Principal Lisa Jackson, someone created the concept of discretion. Nope. This is serious. The girl needs to serve an in-school suspension and have the episode be recorded in her permanent record. After all, “my job is to make sure students follow our school's Code of Conduct, which includes the dress code adopted by the Board of Education.” Bullshit. You job, you freaking idiot, is to be smarter than the rule book. Tell the damned kid to tuck in her shirt. Boom. We’re done.

And please, please, Superintendent Wanda Dawson, spare me from claptrap about how enforcing a dress code has improved success rates… or provide some evidence for that assertion. Either way would be fine. It is plausible that eliminating gang paraphernalia and other forms of legitimately inappropriate attire might have a positive effect. But I await with bated breath the study that demonstrates that an untucked shirt on a 7th grade girl sends educational accomplishment into a death spiral.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, at Celina High School this political season (the story I read was datelined on Hallowe’en), crudely drawn t-shirts announcing “I support” with the rainbow logo were deemed “political” or “disruptive” or some other sort of Really Bad Thing that the idiots in the school administration decided was sufficient cause to ban those shorts but not, apparently, shirts proclaiming the President of the United States to be a socialist.

You, Gentle Reader, will have already perceived that there’s a backstory here. Earlier, on “twins day,” two female students had worn t-shirts labeled “Lesbian 1” and “Lesbian 2.” Naturally, the administration was Shocked and Appalled that two young women would Call Attention to Themselves in such a despicable manner, especially on a day pretty much reserved for… uh… calling attention to yourself. It wasn’t that they were lesbians. Oh, no, surely that had nothing to do with it. We’re not homophobic assholes; we just pretend to be when we’re at work. Not only that, but “[screaming] at” students is the appropriate means to deal with the situation.

It’s interesting that the administration’s point person on this is the Superintendent, Jesse Steiner, who was reportedly “unable to confirm” if there’s a rule in the handbook against “political” clothing. It’s reasonable if there is, but, of course, there isn’t. How do I know? Because the superintendent can’t open up the damned handbook and point to it. End of discussion.

The “disruption” idea is, to be sure, the kind of squishy phrase inserted by Steiner and like-minded autocrats in schools across the country. Translated into English, it means “there’s nothing illegal, unethical, or immoral about what you’re doing, but we don’t like it and we’re going to forbid it because we can.”

Drew Dennis, a litigation coordinator with ACLU Ohio, aptly describes the “disruption” argument a “heckler’s veto.” Moreover, there’s a pro-life student group that wears t-shirts featuring a picture of a fetus. Which shirt calls more attention to itself? And which one has been fine all along, whereas the other causes such uproar that the educational mission cannot be accomplished? You, oh perspicacious reader, already know the answer.

Also from this fall’s political season—a little earlier than the Ohio case, in fact—comes the saga of Samantha Pawlucy, who committed the apparent crime of wearing a Mitt Romney t-shirt to her geometry class at Charles Carroll High School in Philadelphia. Although her attire hadn’t as much as raised an eyebrow earlier in the day, she claims she was berated by math teacher Lynette Gaymon, who likened her “Republican shirt” to “a KKK shirt” (Gaymon is black, by the way), arguing that “this is a democratic school.”

Gaymon claims she was joking, and it’s possible although unlikely that she was. Certainly Pawlucy comes off as an opportunist with a lawsuit against the school, and her claim that she didn’t know if her parents are Republicans is either disingenuous or evidence that the girl is an idiot. Still, if Gaymon weren’t the real miscreant here, I suspect we’d be hearing from someone other than her that the episode was all in jest.

It will no doubt come as an enormous surprise to you, Gentle Reader, but Curmie’s own teaching style occasionally incorporates the ironic or even sardonic. There have been occasions in the last 33+ years in which something said as a joke was interpreted literally: and that’s by college students, not high school sophomores. But with Pawlucy’s claim that Gaymon was “screaming,” the opportunity certainly exists for someone else who was there to say, “erm, no, she wasn’t,” or to claim that any rational being would have interpreted the remarks as in jest. The fact that such an eventuality has apparently not occurred can be taken as significant.

Despite the conflicting claims, then, and despite the fact that I don’t especially trust either Pawlucy or her father, I’ve got to suspect that her version of events is closer to the truth. And if it is, then Gaymon’s actions are well beyond the Pale, and worthy of Curmie consideration.

More Curmie wannabees forthcoming...

Friday, December 21, 2012

I'm an Educator, and I'm OK

It’s almost time to vote for the Curmie Awards, and my fatigue or sloth or whatever else has kept me from writing will soon keep some worthy candidates out of the running if I don’t get to work. (One of the completely arbitrary and capricious rules is that I must have written about the story during the calendar year.) So here’s what we’ll do. I’ll try to write about as many stories over the next few days as holiday travel and internet connections allow… then the voting will actually take place in the new year, seeing that all signs now point to there being one after we seem to have survived yet another imminent apocalypse.

Before I launch into those nominations, however, and given the recent events in Connecticut, I feel compelled to make one thing absolutely clear. Readers who know me personally don’t need to be told this, but whereas I have no way of knowing who actually reads this blog, I do know that over half the people who “like” the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page aren’t my personal friends. That means there are, one presumes, at least a few dozen of you who may not know this: I am an educator, and I am proud of my profession and of the overwhelming majority of the people in it.

The teachers and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary were and are heroes, not because they did what no other teachers would have done, but because they did precisely what every teacher worthy of the name would have done: out-think evil-doers, sacrifice themselves for the sake of their young charges, and prove once again the power of love. Even the jabbering minions of the NRA can’t deny the simple fact that this was a game-changer: not simply has the gun lobby been put on the defensive in a way that all those other mass shootings never did (it’s up to us, Gentle Reader, to maintain that advantage), but the demonization of the teaching profession was just summarily de-railed. Bam.

I have always said there are two kinds of teachers: those who will walk through the fires of hell for their students, and those who won’t. There’s really no in-between. If you’ve got what it takes, whether you’re teaching kindergarteners or grad students, you’ll find solutions. If you don’t, you’ll find excuses: excuses for your own failings, excuses for those of your students.

Our job is often to say “no.” It is often to incur anger or resentment. It is often to be ignored in the classroom and ridiculed in the hallways. It is to tell the truth—politely, encouragingly, but unequivocally: that paper, that presentation, that performance… it wasn’t very good. I know you thought it deserved an A. But it’s a C+. You can do better.

A few years ago, one of my students had done good but not excellent work in one of my classes, and she got the B she deserved on a couple tests in a row. She said, probably truthfully, that she’d never had to work so hard without getting an A. I said nothing non-committal and went on about my day. The next test, she aced. Apparently—I don’t recall this, but she says it’s true—I wrote a note next to the encircled “A” in her blue book: “I knew you could do it.” She remembers those words now, two degrees later. Set their bar high, and expect them to clear it. Set your own bar higher, and forgive yourself when you fail to reach you goal. (N.B., there’s a difference between forgiveness and acceptance.)

Our job as educators is not to be the equivalent of the favorite aunt or uncle who loads the kids up with candy and then passes them back to the parents to deal with the effects of over-stimulation. No, we’re more parent-like… the term in loco parentis has passed out of favor; the legitimacy of the need for a parental substitute—even at the university level, let alone in elementary schools—is absolutely as real as it ever was. One of my students a few years ago wondered aloud how many people like him—post-adolescent men and women—I had “fathered” (his term). The answer is probably dozens. That’s not because I’m out of the ordinary. It’s because I’m not.

So when I ridicule the incompetent, the corrupt, the bone-headed, and the pompous in my own profession, it’s not because of some inchoate self-loathing. On the contrary. There are cowards and charlatans in every endeavor. And it’s a big country, with lots of worthy recipients of an award for most embarrassing the profession. The interwebs hum along, and nary a transgression in Spider Breath, Montana or Pigeon Puke, Mississippi stays out of the public eye for long. But the reason for the Curmie is that education, like every other profession, needs to be more self-policing.

The idiots who stuff special needs kids into gym bags as punishment, who pander to the wealthy, who abridge free speech in the name of some ill-defined notion of “comfort” or enforce idiotic dress codes: these are not the face of my profession I want shown to the public. They are the minority, but they must not be allowed to prosper when so much is at risk.

But for right now, let us talk instead of the folks at Sandy Hook. They did what teachers do. Rachel D’Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Ann Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto: these women took a bullet—literally—for their kids. Show me a lawyer or a stockbroker who’ll do that for a client. Go ahead. I dare you.

The most important thing to remember, however, is this: these educators didn’t become heroes in death. They’d become heroes years before… in their lives.




Friday, November 23, 2012

Is This Any Way to Run a Democracy?

There has been much in the news worthy of commentary in the far-too-long since I’ve written here: a number of worthy Curmie nominees, some political specifics (the Benghazi kerfuffle, the Hamas/Israel showdown, etc.). But most of all, there’s the election earlier this month. I’ll try to get to some of those other topics over the next few days or weeks, but I know where I have to start.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time analyzing the results themselves, which could be described as a rather predictable but thorough ass-whipping by the party that has lost its soul over the party that has lost its mind… or, rather, over the party that has lost its mind as well as its soul. The Democrats put forward some pretty sketchy candidates of their own, but neither party has nominated a presidential candidate so completely mendacious and two-faced as Mitt Romney in at least my lifetime… still, who was the alternative?

Newt Gingrich, who is at best a caricature of the smart and savvy (utterly unethical, but smart and savvy) Speaker he once was? Rick Santorum, whose only saving grace is that he might actually believe some of the nonsense he spews? Ron Paul, who has a handful of good and interesting ideas but is from another planet on too many issues to be taken seriously as a contender? One-time leader Herman Cain, who was slightly less qualified to President than someone chosen random from the phone book? Certifiably certifiable Michele Bachmann? Or one-time “sure thing” Rick Perry, who proved to be too incompetent even for Republicans in any state where he doesn’t have a political machine beholden to him?

The good news is that the likes of Romney and Allen West and Todd Akin lost. Indeed, there was a pretty good house-cleaning. And marriage equality won in four out of four states in which it was on the ballot, either positively (specifically legalizing) or negatively (refusing to pass a constitutional amendment against it). But Bachmann squeaked out a re-election and idiots like Tom Coburn and Louis Gohmert coasted to victory. And a fresh new crop of morons, headed by Texas’s own Ted Cruz, will be descending on Washington, DC and on state capitols over the next few weeks.

What I really want to consider, however, is not who won, but what it means. Specifically, do the Democrats have a “mandate”? Short answer: sort of.

Certainly November 6 was a better day to be a Democrat than a Republican. But President Obama’s re-election was hardly a landslide. Yes, a difference of over 100 electoral votes is pretty impressive. Candidate Romney took precisely one, one state (North Carolina) that anyone considered anything like a tossup two months before the election. He took one other state (Indiana) that Obama won in 2008. That’s it. And when the conservative pundits emerged from their fact-averse bunkers to assure the Fox News-watching sheeple that “their” candidate (whom they actually hated nearly as much as they did… you know… the black guy) would win by a “landslide” (here, here, and here, for example), they meant something precisely on the order of the 100+ EV victory Obama actually achieved.

Still, Mr. Obama barely eked out a popular vote majority. Votes are still being counted in some jurisdictions, but it looks like the President will get a little less than 51% of the popular vote to Mr. Romney’s 47.5% or so, with the remaining votes divided among Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, et al.. Yes, that’s about a 4 million vote difference, but it falls well short of my definition of “landslide,” which would involve a 10-point difference. Obama’s victory margin was roughly a third of that.

Moreover, Obama lost ground in a host of states: he won by less or lost by more in 46 states and DC relative to his performance against John McCain four years ago. And whereas McCain was less than an ideal candidate and chose a certifiable idiot as a running mate, he was still more experienced, more intelligent, more principled, more charismatic, more populist, and in general less of a plutocratic jackass than Romney. That doesn’t exactly add up to a full-throated endorsement of President Obama.

What really did break for the Democrats was the legislature. Yes, the Republicans maintained control of the House. With a couple of races still up in the air, it looks like a comfortable 235-200 GOP advantage, give or take a vote or two. Trouble is, Democrats actually got more votes: about a half a million more votes, to be a little more precise. Why the disparity between the number of votes and the number of those elected? In a word, gerrymandering.

This isn’t (just) a screed against evil Republicans. The excellent analysis by Adam Serwer, Jaeah Lee, and Zaineb Mohammed at Mother Jones shows that Democrats aren’t above a little… erm… massaging themselves, as evidenced by Maryland and Illinois. But there’s relatively speaking more manipulation by Republican governors and state legislators than by their Democratic counterparts: a function of opportunity rather than relative perfidiousness, no doubt. The seven states highlighted in the Mother Jones piece that were gerrymandered by Republicans all voted for Obama at least once; six voted for him twice. Yet all have majority Republican House representation. Pennsylvanians, for example, cast about 60,000 more votes for Democratic candidates than for Republicans. Their Congressional delegation? 13 Republicans and 5 Democrats. Coincidence? Justice? Honest representation? I think not. Slimebag politicians more interested in their party than in their constituents? Oh, yeah.

In the Senate, the Democrats really cleaned up. Without equivocating about the two “independents” who caucus with the Democrats, the Democrats defended 23 seats compared to only 10 for the GOP. And the Dems actually gained seats. They replaced the squirrelly Joe Lieberman with “real Democrat” Chris Murphy, regained Ted Kennedy’s seat with populist favorite Elizabeth Warren, and—thanks to the GOP’s nomination of the moronic Richard Mourdock—flipped Dick Lugar’s seat in Indiana. Honest-to-God independent Angus King replaced retiring Republican Olympia Snowe. The only bad news for Democrats was Bob Kerrey’s inability to hold Ben Nelson’s seat in Nebraska… but Nelson’s was never a reliable vote, anyway.

Where does all this leave us? With a President who claims a mandate despite getting less than 51% of the vote against a terrible candidate. With a Speaker who claims a mandate despite losing the popular vote. With a clear statement only with respect to the Senate, but with that body saddled by inane filibuster rules and personal privilege nonsense that allows a single obstructionist to derail, well, virtually anything.

With an arcane and anti-democratic Electoral College system that skews proportional representation: there are about 677,000 Californians per electoral vote, vs. 209,000 Vermonters per electoral vote. Yes, that’s more than a 3:1 ratio. Worse, there is no incentive for Barack Obama to care in the slightest about my vote because I live in Texas, or for Mitt Romney to care about the votes of my high school friends who still live in New York. Worse still, the resulting over-emphasis on places like Ohio and Florida leads not merely to an inundation of political advertising in those states, but to a level of pandering to special interests that ought to be unacceptable even in our all-too-venal political system: would we even be talking about crap like “clean coal technology” if it weren’t for the fact that a few thousand votes in southern Ohio might actually tip a national election even if the rest of the country decides otherwise by literally millions of votes.

Finally, fraud has a greater chance of mattering. Flipping 100,000 votes wouldn’t have made any difference in the popular vote in any election since 1960. Flipping the right 100,000 votes—in Florida in 2000 or Ohio in 2004—would have changed outcomes. Thus, the claims of the Anonymous (?) folks that they prevented Karl Rove and his nasty little minions from stealing Ohio for Romney are… well, they’re a lot of things, including a little more plausible. True Believers like Thom Hartmannare are convinced that’s why Rove was so smarmily confident on Fox News on election night: that he thought (incorrectly) that the fix was in. (Of course, Hartmann is convinced the 2004 election was stolen, too.) At best, the Electoral College helps to erode the confidence of the public that election results are accurate. At worst, we get a President and a Congress whom most of us voted against.

What’s to be done?

When They Make Me Tsar ©:
We do away with the Electoral College, or at least circumvent it.
We eliminate the arcane rules of the Senate, especially but not exclusively the filibuster.
We pull re-districting from partisan control.
We overturn the legalized anonymity part (at least) of the Citizens United decision.

Can all this happen? It must. Because the status quo is well short of a democracy.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Guest post: "Step back from the edge, GOP"

Curmie hasn't written anything here in a long while. It’s certainly not that there haven't been things to write about: quite the contrary, in fact. But it does take a fair amount of time to write a post I’m happy with: a couple of hours, at least... and I’m deep into a production of The Madwoman of Chaillot. When that opens, next Tuesday, I'll start trying to catch up on unfinished business.

In the meantime, here’s a guest post by Bobby Schroeder. Bobby and I have never met, but he’s a friend of a friend, and an active participant on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page. He’s an especially valued commenter, precisely because he’s probably disagreed with me more often than anyone else since the page went up. He serves as a reminder that not all conservatives are, well, whatever stereotypes progressives have of them. He is both intelligent and well-informed, and the fact that his conclusions are often not the same as mine--or as those of the majority of my readers--is exactly why his voice needs to be heard here.

Anyway, here’s Bobby’s take on Election night...

I’m one of those young conservatives people like to talk about. So, obviously, Tuesday night wasn’t one of the best nights of my life. However, it was an important night. For it was the night that it became crystal clear that the GOP has got to change its ways if it ever wants to sniff the White House again.

Now, young people sometimes get a reputation for being brash, or not wanting to respect our elders, or other foolishness. So I mean no disrespect to the conservatives who have come before me. But this has to be said.

If we want to return to power, there are two things that have to happen. Now. Today.

The first thing we must do is… tell the social conservatives to step aside. They are flat-out ruining the GOP. Honestly, social conservative is an oxymoron. Conservatives stand for small government, less regulation, and personal freedom. Social conservatives stand for the opposite. They want government to tell us who we can marry, what kind of “relations” we can have with our partners, what women can do with their bodies, etc. They want to set the social norms of the nation, by government edict. Their views are antiquated, and they are not shared by a majority of conservatives, much less a majority of Americans. However, these people have been allowed to rise to positions of power, and show much influence. This has got to stop.

The second thing we must do is… reach out to Hispanics. There is no reason whatsoever for this group to vote Democrat north of 70 percent. Having spent a good amount of time in Texas, I can tell you that these people are the single hardest working ethnic group I have ever seen. By far. They don’t want government handouts. They don’t want free stuff. They want to work hard and provide for their families. They come from a place that doesn’t give them that opportunity. On the other hand… having lived in Texas… there are some immigrants that don’t believe in the rule of law. These are a small, small percentage of immigrants, but they give the whole group a really bad name.

For reasons that are unfortunate, too many in the GOP have decided to treat all immigrants as if they are terrible criminals. Now, I am NOT FOR blanket amnesty. Many of these people ARE here illegally. But let’s be real. We can’t deport them all, nor should we. Our nation is broke, we need these people to pay taxes. They deserve an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, just like the rest of us. We need to allow a path for those, who only have committed the crime of improper paperwork, to be able to come clean, and perhaps pay some sort of a penalty (might I suggest community service hours). For those who have not come here yet, we need to dramatically make it easier for them to legally come to our country. And for the few who really are bad criminals, we need to use our full resources to get them out of here, and make sure our border is secure enough to ensure they don’t come back.

Now, certainly, there are other things the GOP should do to move away from being the “old white man party” (reaching out to African-Americans and helping them improve their communities through improved educational and job opportunities would be one thing). But if we allow this minority of our party, who is anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-black, anti-Hispanic, anti-abortion, pro-assault weapons for everyone, etc to dominate our party politics, we might as well give the Democrat party a permanent key to the White House.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

FLOHPA, Romney, and the Imminent Dusk



Conventional wisdom has it that whichever Presidential candidate wins two out of three of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania is really likely to win the election. In fact, the last candidate to win the Presidency without winning FLOHPA was named John F. Kennedy.

This is not good news for Mitt Romney. The numbers will vary a little from day to day, but as I write this, Nate Silver is predicting all three states for President Obama, with likelihoods of 97% in Pennsylvania, 83% in Ohio, and 68% in Florida. Those aren’t close. If Obama wins every state where Silver gives him an 80% chance, he wins. If he wins every state Silver says he’s got better than a 2/3 chance, he gets 329 electoral votes. He’s closer to winning North Carolina (39%) than to losing Florida (68%), his weakest current win.

But the news gets worse for the challenger: there are remarkably few undecided voters. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible for Governor Romney to make a comeback, but he needs help. Even a series of excellent debate performances is unlikely to be enough. Obama needs to do something stupid, either in the debates or in his job, per se. And Romney needs to avoid the foot-in-mouth performances of recent weeks. Good luck with that, Mitt.

Here’s the thing: Huffington Post’s analysis of a host of polling data gives Obama over 50% in Pennsylvania. That means that a fair number of people who have already made up their minds will have to actually change their minds if Romney is to win the state. In Ohio, it’s currently 49-43; Florida is 49-45. That means that if no one currently intending to vote for the incumbent actually switches sides, Pennsylvania is off the table, and Romney would need to win 88% of the undecideds to take Ohio, and 83% to win Florida. The chances of that happening: well, certainly extant, but not great. The Quinnipiac/New York Times/CBS News poll (shown above): well, it’s all over but the shouting.

Of course, it is possible to lose two out of three of the trio of battleground states with the most electoral votes and still pull out the election. If President Obama were to win only those states HuffPo describes as “Strong Obama,” he’d win Pennsylvania and Ohio and lose the election, with 265 electoral votes. By HuffPo’s calculus, there are seven states that will decide the election: if Obama wins New Hampshire, he’s guaranteed at least a tie; if he wins any of the others—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia—with or without New Hampshire, he wins a second term. Of these, Obama currently leads in all but North Carolina… actually, he leads there, too, but by a miniscule margin well within the margin of error. Obama is currently running at 49% in five of the swing states, 48% in one, and 47% in the other. Romney has a 47, five 45s, and a 44.

Talking Points Memo tells an equally if not more grim story for the challenger, with Obama currently at 49.9% in Pennsylvania and 49.8% in the other two FLOHPA states. Romney needs over 99% of undecideds in the Keystone State, 97% in Ohio, and 96% of Floridians. That’s a Herculean task for a candidate who isn’t exactly playing the game flawlessly.

True, there’s the Rasmussen poll, the most right-leaning survey that anyone takes even a little seriously. But even that gives Obama 237 “safe” electoral votes to 181 for Romney, with 15 votes leaning towards Romney and 105 toss-ups. 76 of the 105 show Obama with a lead. In other words, if the Rasmussen poll were precisely accurate (and it has traditionally over-estimated Republicans), Obama would cruise to a comfortable 313-225 victory.

It’s no wonder the Romney team is clinging to fictions about polling samples and such. According to this silliness, Romney in fact has a comfortable lead. Look, Rasmussen (!) has it 313-225 for Obama, albeit with some of that margin a little uncertain. The Fox News (!) poll has Obama/Biden with a 5-point lead nationally. I can’t find a state-by-state analysis from them, but their overall polling fits right in with everyone else’s, all of which show Obama with a small-to-moderate, not insurmountable, lead. The NBC/Wall Street Journal (!) poll gives the President a five-point lead among registered voters and a six-point lead among likely voters. Everyone… well, virtually everyone, agrees.

If you need a dentist or a plumber or a mechanic, you go to a professional. We can argue about which one is best, but when every single one of them tells you that you need a root canal or a new toilet or a carburetor, I really don’t care what your friend Bob down the street says, especially if he’s a restaurant manager or a football coach or an insurance salesman. Things could change in this election; they have in the past. John Kerry made a late run, for example, although it turned out to be not quite enough. But to say that Romney is currently ahead by 6-10 points is lunacy. Period.

This whole affair does fit remarkably well with recent trends in Republican thinking, however. They don’t trust economists about the economy, scientists about science, teachers about teaching. And whereas the Pentagon has certainly earned our distrust over the years, there are those Congressional buffoons (cough… cough… Paul Ryan… cough) who accuse the military brass of lying when they say they need less money down the road. So it’s no wonder they don’t trust professional pollsters, either. Many things that used to be true have been turned on their head in the last half-generation of politics; foremost among them: Republican recognition of the notion that experts know whereof they speak. But global climate change really exists, teaching to the test doesn’t really educate our children, and waterboarding really is a war crime… and it doesn’t matter what the preachers and the political hacks have to say about it.

Still, it’s a minority of the GOP that gives this particular silliness any credibility. Even the chronically if not acutely moronic Erick Erickson gets this one right. Sure, he’s skeptical that his guy is as far behind as the polls say he is, and it’s easier to rally the troops for a close race than for one in which your candidate is getting crushed. But his commentary leaves no doubt that whereas he may be guilty of a little wishful thinking, he’s not in the tin-foil hat brigade on this one:
I do not believe the polls are all wrong. I do not believe there is some intentional, orchestrated campaign to suppress the GOP vote by showing Mitt Romney losing. I actually believe that Mitt Romney trails Barack Obama. I think Republicans putting their hopes in the polls all being wrong is foolish.
I do understand Republicans’ frustration. After all, Obama ought to be eminently beatable, and the GOP chose the most electable of their bevy of second-teamers… well, not counting Jon Huntsman, who is actually a grown-up, but who, predictably, was gone by February. Of course, we’ve been here before, in the other direction. George W. Bush’s first term was even worse than Obama’s, but the Dems chose the “electable” John Kerry, a stinking rich Massachusetts pol who, unlike his primary opposition, didn’t have much in the way of core values. And they lost. Perhaps, Gentle Reader, you might notice something interesting about that description.

We’re left with two major points. 1). This race has shifted, largely because of Mitt Romney’s ineptness, from being about the incumbent’s record to being about what an utter disaster the challenger is. That’s good news for Mr. Obama. 2). It isn’t over. That’s good news—the only good news—for Mr. Romney. I unabashedly steal the closing reference from a piece by Jason Linkins and Elyse Siegel on the Huffington Post: for the Romney campaign, to quote Bob Dylan, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

Friday, September 28, 2012

Mitt Romney and the 47% Comments

I got a few hundred words written about the two Presidential candidates’ responses to the situation at the American Consulate in Benghazi earlier this month (well, that incident in particular among several). On the one hand, we had the Obama administration’s absurd claim that the crisis was created, or at least catalyzed, by a hack movie-maker whose amateurish effort had been on-line for months. On the other hand was the incompetent and narcissistic posturing of Candidate Romney, whose allegations, even had they been true (which, of course, they weren’t: this is Mitt Romney we’re talking about, after all) would have been ill-timed, ill-considered, un-presidential, and dangerous.

Before I had a chance to finish, however, came The Leak. You know the one: about how Romney can’t win the support of 47% of the population because they don’t pay taxes. A friend posted a status on his Facebook page: “So...after Mitt's Libya debacle last week, and the now-famous ‘secret tape’ release on Monday...is anybody else wondering what David Axelrod's gonna do with his third wish?” Yeah, pretty much. The scary thing is that this revelation had virtually no effect on Romney’s prospects: the bottom line is that independent voters (by which I include myself, along with other members of either party who are honestly willing to consider a candidate from across the aisle) 1). have largely already made up their minds, and 2). are voting for either Not Obama or Not Romney.

Stated otherwise, the fact that Nate Silver still gives Governor Romney a reasonable chance of winning in November (albeit that chance dropped from better than 1 in 5 to less than 1 in 6 in the couple of days it took me to write this piece) is attributable almost in its entirety to President Obama rather than to the GOP nominee himself. Obama’s positive/negative ratings throughout the campaign season—dating back to last November—have been largely even or negative… until recently, when those of us with cynical dispositions might be thinking not so much about his performance per se as how he compares to the other guy who wants the job.

Somewhat predictably, the President’s lowest ratings (42/50) occurred in December, when the posse of Republican candidates were all making headlines with their own spin on why the country was circling the bowl. The bad news for the Romney campaign—other than the fact that their candidate is Mitt Romney—is that Obama now has not merely an overall positive rating (50/44), but that for two consecutive weeks he’s hit the 50% plateau, where he hadn’t been for a very long time. Yes, the timing corresponds to that of the Democratic convention, so there’s probably a bump from that: his favorables went up 6 and his unfavorables down 3 during convention week. By contrast, Obama took a two-point favorability dip during the GOP convention—but there was no increase in his unfavorability rating, and Romney gained virtually no ground as a result.

What all this means is that Romney’s only hope is to keep the attention on Obama. I’m not sure I agree with Peggy Noonan that this is a year in which “Republicans couldn’t lose” (but are losing), but I think there’s no question that there is (or at least was) a greater opening for a GOP challenger now than there was 12 years ago, when George W. Bush was nonetheless elected. (And to my friends on the left who think Bush and his minions “stole” that election: it shouldn’t have been close enough to steal. Shut up and move on.)

Obama has had some successes that we can all agree on: the fact that Osama bin Laden and Muammar Qaddafi aren’t around anymore is a good thing. We can argue about how much credit should go to Obama, and about the downsides of those successes (further strained relationships with Pakistan, for example) but those are certainly victories that happened on his watch. The American automobile industry is in better shape now than in many years. Still, whereas many of us are glad DADT is a thing of the past, Obama’s leadership on the issue made him as many enemies as friends. Same for the Affordable Care Act, and for, in fact, the majority of what I and others might think of as accomplishments.

Moreover, the left is unsatisfied. I’m no Socialist (although I confess that I am somewhat disappointed that I have yet to be called one by an idiot right-winger), but the fact that a single-payer health system was never on the table even as a bargaining chip boggles my mind. Guantánamo is still open; DOMA is still the law of the land; Obama’s Iraq and Afghanistan policies are virtually indistinguishable from Bush’s.

More fundamentally, whereas Romney is surely disingenuous in many of his attacks on Obama’s policies—he’s hardly the first candidate to run against an incumbent with that strategy—there are some things that aren’t so good right now, and about which we can all agree. The unemployment rate, especially for minorities, and the deficit are unacceptably high. Yeah, yeah, I know: the GOP-led House won’t pass any jobs bills, and they are petulantly refusing to do what any rational person would do and raise taxes. They claim their Infallible Leader is Ronald Reagan, but it’s really Grover Norquist. I get all that, and I agree with the overwhelming majority of it. But the sign on Truman’s desk didn’t read “The buck stops with the Speaker of the House.”

Luckily for the Obama campaign, Romney is nothing if not hubristic. All he had to do following the events in Benghazi, for example, was to do precisely what he did after the shootings in Aurora: express condolences and look serious. “Much as I disagree with President Obama on many issues, I trust that all Americans blahdeblahblahblah…” Then, wait a few hours and do an interview where you’ll surely be asked about the situation. Respond by starting with sympathy and then allow as how the situation might possibly be avoided, and that you hope the rumors you’re hearing turn out to be false. Nope. He had to get out there with a statement that was rightfully interpreted as an attempt to score political points off a tragedy. Way too soon, and way too inaccurate. By the way, is anyone else a little bemused by those who grudgingly admit the “apology” was issued well before the attack, but whine that it was not taken down soon enough afterwards… after all, it’s not like those folks had anything else on their minds but updating their fucking website, right?

But, revenons à nos moutons. The Leak. Let’s stipulate two things: 1). the tape was attained through inappropriate means, and 2). what candidates—all candidates—say to supporters would probably shock and appall most of us. But this isn’t a law court. There is no evidence that the tape was edited, nor have I seen any claims from the Romney camp that it was. In other words, whereas making and distributing the tape was unethical by those who did so, using it as a means of learning more about candidate Romney by the rest of us is thoroughly reasonable.

So here’s the transcript of that now-(in)famous section:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Sigh. I mean, really, where to begin?
With the fact that people who pay no federal income tax still pay taxes: state and local taxes, including the notoriously regressive sales tax, property taxes (directly or indirectly: if you don’t own your home, your rent pays for the landlord’s taxes); the also regressive payroll tax (I’d say “don’t get me started on this one,” but it’s too late); various excise taxes; etc.?

With the recognition that the 47% in question is comprised substantially of active duty service personnel, students working to pay their way through school, the elderly? With the intriguing statistic that 96% of Americans (including, say, Paul Ryan) have received direct government assistance? (That’s not counting things like roads and schools and police: things from which all of us benefit.)

With the fact that the states with the highest percentage of folks not paying federal income tax are overwhelmingly red? Of the 14 states with the highest rates of non-payers, Romney will win 11, including the top 3, even in the event of an Obama blowout.

With the blithe and condescending portrayal of half the population as self-described victims unwilling or unable to take responsibility for their lives?

Or is it with the face-melting chutzpah that suggests that Romney will somehow win over 94% of the remaining 53% in order to win? Those are Josef Stalin numbers.
The claims in Romney’s speech are, in short, substantively preposterous and politically inept: not merely because, as Meghan McCain (among others) points out, you’ve got to assume that there’s a camera-toting mole somewhere in your operation, but more importantly because you’re begging for money to help you win and essentially conceding defeat at the same time. It almost makes it worse that there’s a legitimate observation under all the camel dung of Romney’s rhetoric: too many people don’t pay federal income tax, because our wealth is so unevenly distributed that nearly half the population doesn’t make enough money to have to do so.

The fact that Romney is making political arguments I disagree with will shock you, Gentle Reader, precisely as much as my suggestion that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. But that he would be this utterly incompetent as a candidate is really mind-boggling. Because here’s the deal: either Romney actually believes the drivel he’s spewing (possible, but unlikely), or he thinks his audience doesn’t know any better (really insulting to a carefully selected hoity-toity crowd), or there’s a nudge-nudge-wink-wink schtik happening here, with the candidate and his (imminent) donors engaging in a rather disturbing coded intercourse (a term I choose quite consciously) replete with disingenuous claims which are actively twisted into a particularly nasty truthiness. I’m not sure which of these scenaria is the most disturbing.

Mitt Romney is an arrogant buffoon, a self-entitled jerk, and a pathological liar. And even after all that has become obvious to anyone paying even a modicum of attention, he’s still got about a 1 in 6 chance of becoming the leader of the free world. Not the biggest endorsement of Mr. Obama, is it?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Breast-Feeding Brouhaha

Among the pieces I want to write over the next couple of weeks are several nominations for the 2012 Curmie Award for educator most embarrassing to the profession. But one thing I’ve noticed is that relatively few nominees are people like me, i.e. college faculty. There are teachers, but they tend to work at the elementary or secondary level; there are people who work at universities, but they tend to be administrators. Whether this phenomenon is a function of college faculty actually being less profoundly stupid than others in the education field, or of less media coverage of their transgressions, or of my own biases, I cannot state with confidence.

What I can say is that we now have a nominee who is indeed a faculty member: Adrienne Pine (right), an assistant professor of anthropology at American University. She is now at the center of a minor kerfuffle after breastfeeding her daughter in front of her Sex, Gender and Culture class… no, not as a subject for discussion, but rather as a matter of course, or at least of exigency. Contacted by a writer for the student newspaper, she first responded to an e-mail inquiry, then got snotty in a face-to-face interview. She first asked the school paper not to publish the article. The editor offered her anonymity, at least, saying the editorial board hadn’t yet decided whether to proceed with publication. She asked him to “hide [her] name”… and then proceeded to identify herself in an article on the Counterpunch website.

Her piece was subsequently described by a supporter as “pedantic and needlessly defensive,” with “garbled and unconvincing arguments about why she breast-feeds.” I’d be a little more blunt. Her often incoherent screed is even more pompous than it is illogical, and that’s a pretty high threshold. She can trot out commentary about “a slippery slope of biological determinism” or “gendered essentialism” or similar jargon-laden gibberish, but she seems incapable of either saying “no comment” or understanding the way any journalistic operation works. She’s all about liberal principles, but don’t dare call her “Ms.” instead of “Dr.”: that’s a gendered derogation, apparently, even coming from another woman. I’m not exactly sure what it means, then, when my students call me “Mr.” (For those who don’t know me personally, I’m a professor with a PhD.)

I found about about this incident from Lela Davidson’s piece on the Today Moms page on the NBC News site. Knowing I wasn’t going to have time to write up my commentary immediately, I forwarded the link to Jack Marshall of Ethics Alarms, suspecting (with reason, as it turns out) that 1). he’d be interested, 2). he’d get to it before I would, and 3). his take would be very similar to mine.

I yield to both these writers on a number of matters. Here’s Davidson on one of the central considerations:
This is not about breast-feeding. It’s a matter of professionalism. And, yes, sometimes we all have to make very difficult choices between our families and our jobs. The truth is Pine’s daughter could have waited until after class to eat. Had she not been ill, she would have been in childcare during class, presumably either being bottle-fed or not eating.
Oh, yeah. But I’d suggest that this story both is and is not about breast-feeding. The real transgression was bringing a sick child to class at all. The daughter is too sick to go to day-care, but it’s OK to drag her into class, where her presence is at best a distraction, and where she is likely to infect students? (Note: Pine herself said she “caught and improved upon [her] baby’s cold.” Translation: the girl was contagious.) And don’t give me the “no other choice” nonsense. Of course there were other choices. If the TA can’t handle syllabus-distribution day, get another TA. There are friends and colleagues who can look after the kid for less than an hour. Or hire a student to keep her out of trouble: after all, a student had to alert Pine that the girl had a paper clip in her mouth, meaning that the attempt to parent and teach simultaneously wasn’t exactly going so well. Were I of a snarky disposition (perish the thought!), I might note that years of intensive study have shown exactly what processes lead to the whole baby-having thing, and that doing so is a choice.

In virtually any other profession, this situation would simply not happen. Imagine an ill infant trotted along by a Walmart cashier, a bank teller, a defense attorney… a high school teacher, for that matter. Babies do not belong in the workplace, period. I should note that it is fine to have the child in your office when you’re preparing the next day’s lecture or whatever, but in the actual public performance of your professional duties, I expect you to devote yourself to the task at hand: teach or be a mom, but you can’t do both at once. I’d also note that if you’re really afraid that missing the first day of class because of a sick child will imperil your tenure chances, you need to find a new employer ASAP: you’re either looking for an excuse for your imminent failure, or you’re going to be a lot better off working for people who aren’t schmucks.

But I do think that the breast-feeding angle does matter, too. If Dr. Pine is really so cloistered that it is inconceivable to her that someone in the class would be made uncomfortable by her “giving her baby her boob,” to use Andrea Marcotte’s expression, or that someone on a college newspaper would think the incident worthy of a short blurb on the feature page, then maybe some of those stereotypes about ivory-tower academics aren’t so silly, after all. It sure as hell would raise an eyebrow or two on my campus, whether it should or not. If you want to argue that breast-feeding in public, or even on the job, ought to be unremarkable, go right ahead. But if you don’t understand that there’s a difference between reality and utopia, I really do pity your students.

And the self-righteous riff on how other cultures aren’t subject to the same Puritanical self-repression as Americans doesn’t change the fact that the chances of encountering someone who thinks that breast-feeding your kid while you’re supposed to be teaching is a bit outré are pretty damned close to 100%, even in a “feminist anthropology” course at one of the nation’s artsy-fartsiest universities. But Dr. Pine aspires to professional victimhood: everything that goes the slightest bit wrong in her world is attributable to “anti-woman implications” or some such twaddle. She crows in her ultimately hubristic article about how she was rude to the (female) student reporter, whom she identifies by name, whose questions she derides as “biased and sophomoric,” and who is accused of “passing the buck” about whether the article will be published to the editor whose job it is to make those decisions. Forgive me if my irony meter just lurched past “extreme.” Way to stand in solidarity, there, Professor.

Really, this should and could have been a non-issue. But Dr. Pine, and no one else, chose to make it otherwise. What could have been a blip, easily defused by a simple recognition that not everyone thinks the same way Pine does and a pro forma apology for unspecified distractions of the first day, metastasized into a public internet harangue that manages to be simultaneously vicious and paranoid, and ought, in a just universe, to be the last nail in her tenure coffin.

One thing that student artists share with journalists (and with athletes) is that their work, unlike that of, say, anthropologists, is public. Or, rather, it is when the work is done. If you come to opening night of my upcoming production and immediately take to the Net to criticize my female lead, I’ll do nothing to stop you. But if you do so based on a rehearsal, I’ll rip you a new one before you can say “Countess Aurelia.” That student reporter is, after all, a student reporter. The article apparently still isn’t published—and at this point, why should it be? But you’re going to eviscerate her for what she might have been thinking about saying?

Bringing your sick kid to class is unprofessional; breast-feeding her during class aggravates the situation. But getting sufficiently exorcised about an unpublished article that you’d publicly defame the student whose perfectly reasonable questions rendered you “shocked and annoyed”: that’s way over the line. We can be grateful for the breast-feeding incident, at least. It, or at least its aftermath, revealed Dr. Pine’s true colors.

And earned her a Curmie nomination.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Pre-approving Freedom of Speech

The brouhaha coming out of Prague, OK recently gives me a chance to talk about a case in Fullerton, CA that I’ve wanted to write about since last spring, but that had never seemed to make it to the top of the stack. I’ll get to what they have in common—other than idiot administrators—in a moment.

Let’s start with the earlier case. At Fullerton High School, there’s an annual “Mr. Fullerton” event, a sort of variation on the theme of beauty pageant: it’s unclear to me how much is serious and how much is parody. Anyway, one of the elements of the contest is a question-and-answer session. There seems to be no exact transcript of what contestant Kearian Giertz (left) said, but his after-the-fact description seems to be universally accepted as catching the gist:
I said, ‘Hopefully, in ten years’ time, I’ll be winning Emmys, Oscars and Tonys’—just, you know, the typical answer—and, then I added, ‘But, more importantly, I’d really, really like to sit on the couch with the person that I love and say I’m married to them. And my case, that is a male. And, I hope that, in ten years’ time, gay marriage would be legal.
Cue the idiot Assistant Principal. (As usual, Gentle Reader, Curmie apologizes for the redundancy.) Onto the stage trots one Joe Abell, ordering Giertz’s microphone turned off (“Cut him! Cut him! Cut him!”), ushering him backstage, and disqualifying him from the festivities for “going off script.”

Considerable brouhaha ensued, with student protests, public and private apologies by Abell, statements by school board members, the whole nine yards. The official (i.e., Cover Our Ass) statement from the district (I can’t find the original, complete text) said that whereas Abell’s actions were prompted by “what the Assistant Principal believed to be a statement that was off script and not pre-approved,” “the student’s statement… regarding… future plans and hopes did not violate any school rules,” and “[the] District believes that the matter should have been handled privately….” Abell was briefly suspended, then returned to his job. He will be re-assigned to classroom teaching in another school for next year: a move he had apparently already requested long before this incident.

Shift to Oklahoma. There, in the tiny town of Prague, high school valedictorian Kaitlin Nootbaar (right) was denied her diploma because she used the word “hell” in her valedictory speech. Yes, really. Ms. Nootbaar, like many teens, has changed her mind not infrequently about her long-term goals. According to her father,
”Her quote was, ‘When she first started school she wanted to be a nurse, then a veterinarian and now that she was getting closer to graduation, people would ask her, what do you want to do and she said how the hell do I know? I’ve changed my mind so many times.’”

He said in the written script she gave to the school she wrote “heck,” but in the moment she said “hell” instead.

Nootbaar said the audience laughed, she finished her speech to warm applause and didn’t know there was a problem.

That was until she went to pick up the real certificate this week [in mid-August].

“We went to the office and asked for the diploma and the principal said, ‘Your diploma is right here but you’re not getting it. Close the door; we have a problem,’” Nootbaar said.

He said the principal told Kaitlin she would have to write an apology letter before he would release the diploma.
She has (quite reasonably) refused to do so. As with the California case, there has been great hoopla, with even a little more spice in the mix: an appearance on the “Today” show, accusations from Papa Nootbaar that Principal David Smith “constantly picked on” Kaitlin throughout her senior year, and the inability of Smith or Superintendent Rick Martin to comprehend the fact that they’re embarrassing themselves and their district with their fit of censorious petulance.

It’s pretty clear in all this that no one is exactly without fault. The substitution of “hell” for the approved “heck” seems to have been deliberate, even if not planned from the beginning. David Nootbaar’s “stand your ground” rhetoric is at least one step past the line into libertarian arrogance. But the school’s conniption over a word that, used once, doesn’t even change a movie rating from G to PG, is positively absurd. Sure, “hell” is a stronger expletive than “heck,” but not by much. Songs like “Highway to Hell,” “Hell’s Bells,” and “Hell Is for Children” blare across public airways. Not so coincidentally, “heaven” songs often contain the word hell: “If you want to get to heaven, you’ve got to raise a little hell”; “If there’s a rock and roll heaven, you know they’ve got a hell of a band.” Plug “‘how the hell’ lyrics” into a Google search and you’ll get 154,000,000 hits.

The word most often linked with “hell” on the scale of potentially offensive language is part of one of the most famous movie quotations ever, from a G-rated movie… or did someone change that line to “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a darn” when I wasn’t paying attention?

More to the point, withholding a student’s diploma for such an offense, even if it were premeditated from the very beginning, is simultaneously overkill and a particularly good example of administrative impotence. It’s the former because the transgression, if it even qualifies as such, merits at most a private reprimand. It’s the latter because Ms. Nootbaar is by now already attending classes at Southwest Oklahoma University, and it’s only a matter of time before that piece of paper from her high school—if and when she gets it—will be shoved into a drawer or a box… or perhaps discarded altogether. One suspects that she’ll earn at least a BA or BS, and quite likely an advanced degree, as well. And nothing Prague High School attempts to do about that will matter in the slightest.

No, they chose to piss into the wind for no apparent purpose other than asserting one last time that they’re in charge. As virtually anyone who knows me personally will attest, one of my personal mantras is, “If you have to tell me, it ain’t so.” If you’re directing a play and you have to tell your cast that you’re in charge, you’re not. If you’re teaching a class and you have to tell your students that you’re in charge, you’re not. If you’re a high school principal and you’ve got to tell your recent graduates (and Ms. Nootbaar is, apparently, an alumna, even if she doesn’t have a piece of paper that says so) that you’re in charge, you’re not.

Both these stories feature over-reactions by school administrators: not just making mountains out of molehills, but constructing the entire Himalayan range out of an adolescent mole’s first attempt. But what I find fascinating is the “sticking to the script” trope. Notice that the students in question had to submit their commentary to school officials prior to being allowed to speak in public. Yes, I know that’s both legal and prudent. It’s also creepy… in two ways.

First, let’s look at the utterly dishonest pragmatics of the whole charade. This entire rationale is a scam. I spent a good share of the last week in auditions for a play I’m directing. I know some of the monologues students presented, and I can say with certainty that there were some paraphrases up there. At callbacks, by definition limited to those most likely to be cast, actors with scripts in their hands didn’t get everything word for word correct. And that’s actually OK. Sure, I want everything to be word perfect when we open. But I’ve been around the block a couple of times in my career: I know—don’t just suspect, but know—that someone will drop a line or say something at least as different from the text as “hell” is from “heck.”

I know for a fact that I both paraphrased and added a line when I gave a scholarly paper at a conference last month, despite the fact that I had the written text in my hands. And that made the paper more effective rather than less so, despite the fact that I’d spent a considerable amount of time crafting the presentation to say exactly what I wanted it to. Because I was making eye contact with my audience rather than burying my face in my text, I could sense where clarification was needed, when two examples instead of the three I’d scripted would suffice, and so on. There are two, and only two, differences between what I did and what Mr. Giertz and Ms. Nootbaar did: my variations from the script went unnoticed because no one else had seen the text (and because the audience was comprised largely of people who’d done precisely the same thing with their presentations earlier in the conference), and, well, I’m older.

In other words, using “going off script” as an excuse to punish someone is disingenuous simply because it happens all the time: it’s the equivalent of firing someone because they use the office computer to check Facebook during their lunch break. “The rules are clear. You can’t use the office computer except for official business.” Except that everyone does it, and singling someone out for doing so is always a stand-in for something else. One suspects that had Nootbaar changed inserted her current interest in marine biology into her speech, or had Giertz recently entered into a relationship with a girl and burbled that he hopes to marry her someday, there would have been no repercussions, despite the obvious deviations from scripted remarks.

More troubling, however, is the implicit assumption that it’s any of the school’s business to censor students. If you don’t trust your valedictorian not to say something offensive, don’t have her speak. It’s not a requirement—there was no such speech at either my high school or college graduation ceremonies. (Or at least I don’t remember them… that was a while ago.) As noted above, I understand the rationale. But I also reject it. If you’ve done your job as a school, you’ve instilled at least a modicum of responsibility in your students: tell the valedictorian or the participants in a light-hearted contest they need to stay on track and the chances are pretty good that they’ll do so.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t occasionally wish some student had done something else. But the ones who earned the right to speak deserve the right to do so without administrative interference. Conversely, those who seek naughtiness for its own sake will say what they want when they want, whether they’ve submitted a script or not. Trusting students to do what they’re supposed to do isn’t easy. It is, however, a risk worth taking, and ultimately the right thing to do. But that would require abstract thought and faith in someone other than themselves: the two things the average high school administrator lacks.