Saturday, January 28, 2012

Is it the university's fault if you don't go to class?

There’s lots of political news, of course, plus several stories from the world of education that merit comment. Given Curmie’s schedule right now, it’s unlikely he’ll even make a dent in the backlog. But here’s a start.

We begin Operation Catch-up with the saga of Balayla Ahmad, a black, Muslim woman who was studying at the University of Bridgeport, hoping to become a chiropractor. Now she’s suing the university, who, she says, ignored her allegations of sexual harassment against a fellow student but called in the FBI when he, in retribution, began spreading rumors alleging she was a terrorist.

Ahmad alleges that the other student “made repeated sexual advances at her, often hurling obscenities such as ‘I want to eat you like I am eating this sub [sandwich]’ or yelling ‘I'm going to cuff you’ while holding a pair of handcuffs.” According to the lawsuit, Ahmad talked to more than one teacher about her situation, one of whom urged her not to go to the dean, as he would speak to the harasser. Eventually, Ahmad—against advice—went to the university president, who apparently wasn’t much help.

Then campus security showed up on her doorstep with allegations of terrorism, threatening her with bringing in the FBI (as, apparently, they did). Ahmad’s attorney says “The sexual harassment investigation never occurred. Instead it became about her.” The FBI found no substantiation for the charges against Ms. Ahmad, but somewhere along the way, she was removed as a student. The university is declining comment—and we’ve heard nothing but Ahmad’s side of the story… this may or may not be a relevant concern.

Assuming what she says is both true and all there is to know, it’s pretty damning for the university. There are three problems: the lack of action on the sexual harassment allegation, the apparently swift action on what turned out to be unfounded reports of terrorism, and the failure to perceive what in retrospect (at least) would seem to be a pretty obvious link between the charges.

Let’s take these one step at a time. The news reports don’t make it clear whether the harasser ultimately stopped as a result of university action; they suggest only that Ms. Ahmad didn’t think they would. A teacher reportedly told Ms. Ahmad that the university normally doesn’t immediately suspend students for the level of sexual harassment she alleges; the dean subsequently told her that his “hands were tied.” The teacher was almost certainly both telling the truth and describing a reasonable policy. The dean, probably not so much.

I’ve dealt with two cases of student-on-student harassment in my career. Both happened to have occurred when I was a graduate student teaching Beginning Acting. One involved two theatre majors and stemmed from the out-of-class rehearsal conduct of the male partner in a two-character scene. The female student brought the case to me. I talked with her for nearly two hours, then took the case to the department chair, complete with a lengthy written report. I don’t know exactly what happened after that in procedural terms, but I do know that the female student agreed to complete the scene with the young man provided there was always another person present at their rehearsals and that she’d never be partnered with him again.

I know, too, that the department chair read the riot act to the male student, who seems to have been more unaware of the inappropriateness of his actions than really being a jackass. He was, I think, not allowed to participate in the next round of departmental auditions, although he subsequently became an active member of the department, as far as I know without further incidents. I received both a personal and a written apology; so did the female student. And that was that.

The other case involved two non-majors, and dealt with in-class activity. The man in question always managed to position himself close to the woman on days when we were talking about concepts rather than rehearsing scenes or doing exercises. He’d then mumble or whisper sexually explicit suggestions to her while covering his face with his baseball cap or when I was looking elsewhere. I suspected that something was going on, but it wasn’t until the young woman talked to me after class that I knew exactly what.

I consulted the chair again about what to do, and he said, and I believe this is a direct quote, “Send him to me. You don’t get paid enough to deal with this shit.” (Good boss!) He asked me when my class met, cleared his calendar for the beginning of the next class period, and told me to send the male student to him as soon as he arrived, without telling him why. I did. I don’t know what was said in that room, but I do know two things: 1). the big tough football player returned to class 20 or 30 minutes later having obviously been crying, and 2). there was never a problem again.

It is unreasonable for Ms. Ahmad or her lawyer to think the university should have expelled the alleged harasser without due process, especially since (as my own experience indicates) there are often less drastic but nonetheless effective means of solving the problem. Plus, of course, as this case itself demonstrates, allegations aren’t always true—there is no objective reason to believe that a specific claim of sexual harassment is any more credible than a specific charge of terrorist sympathies.

All that said, the “my hands are tied” defense is more often than not the go-to position of the lazy, the diffident, and the dishonest. It may be true that the dean was not in position to impose a punishment on the alleged harasser, but that would only be true if a judicial board or some similar agency had reviewed the case and dismissed the charges. (They might have been incorrect to do so, but such a decision might well have been founded on an innocent-until-proven-guilty rationale rather than on a firm belief in the male student’s innocence.) Even if the dean had no authority to exact a penalty, he could certainly use the power of his office—as my former boss used the power of his—to make it very clear that any further complaints against the alleged harasser would be taken very seriously indeed. But—apparently, at least—he punted, instead.

Campus security types always like to pretend they’re more important than they are. If every college and university fired every campus cop who is more interested in strutting than in serving, the unemployment lines in college towns would be out the door. Ahmad argues, according to the Huffington Post, that “college officials recklessly disseminated false accusations by the harasser that they had good reason to believe were unreliable and threatened her with arrest by the FBI.” That’s a serious charge, especially if a). it really was college officials disseminating the accusations, and b). they did so even if they suspected the reports were of dubious provenance.

But imagine what would have happened if the alleged harasser’s claims had been legitimate: if security hadn’t investigated, if the FBI hadn’t been called in… and if there had been an attack of some kind. Yes, it is a threat to say you’re going to call in the FBI. But even a die-hard civil libertarian like me doesn’t read that as inherently creating an environment in which it is impossible to do one’s work.

It’s important to note that Bridgeport apparently didn’t suspend Ms. Ahmad for either her allegations against a fellow student or for his against her. Here’s the ABC report: “Ahmad was dismissed from the school in June 2009 after, she says in the complaint, she was unable to attend class because of the alleged persistent harassment as well as perceived threats of federal prosecution.” Translation: she flunked out.

Forgive me, but I just have a little trouble believing that the harassment was so severe and unchecked, and the (perceived) threat of prosecution so portentous that it was impossible for a 35-year-old woman to go to class. (And if they were, dropping as opposed to failing classes would seem to be an appropriate course of action.) Not that students have ever before blamed their truancy on someone else, of course…

There’s enough on the surface here that the Bridgeport administration might be worth a Curmie nomination. But until we find out a little more information, this one is on hold.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Wicca, Salem, and Glenda the Not Witch

The ACLU is not without its flaws, but I’m glad they’re around. Case in point: a lawsuit filed by that organization and its Eastern Missouri office against the Salem (MO) Public Library. [Various sources: The Riverfront Times, The Raw Story, Deseret News, the ACLU’s own site.]

It seems that a woman named Anaka Hunter, a Salem resident, was looking for more information about the Native American part of her heritage, specifically with respect to spirituality. So she went to the library, but found all the appropriate websites blocked by filtering software. She asked why, as one might reasonably do under the circumstances.

Library director Glenda Wofford then unblocked a page or two, but kept most blocked because sites devoted to Native American spirituality, Wicca, astrology and paganism are classified (by her) as related to the “occult” and to “criminal skills.” Yes, really. To say this is utterly stupid is merely to state the facts. And yes, we do have a case about witches (of a sort) in a town called Salem, featuring someone named Glenda. [Yes, I know the Good Witch in “The Wizard of Oz” was Glinda, not Glenda: go with me, here.] That doesn’t make Ms. Wofford’s idiocy any more palatable, but it does make the story more fun.

But, as Aimee Levitt writes:
When Hunter protested that she felt it was unfair to classify Native American spirituality along as “occult” or “criminal skills,” Wofford told her that she had an “obligation” to call the “proper authorities” to report anyone who requested access to blocked sites if she thought they were going to misuse the information. Hunter interpreted this to mean Wofford was going to call the police and stopped trying to do her research at the Salem Public Library.
Yikes. An appeal to the library board was unsuccessful at best: “‘They listened to her, but they made no changes,’ reports Tony Rothert, one of the ACLU lawyers who filed the lawsuit on Hunter's behalf.” The lawsuit per se quotes a board member as saying “If that’s all, we have business to discuss.”

There are a host of problems here. First is the filtering software itself, or rather the application of it. There are laws at both the national and state levels requiring that certain kinds of websites be inaccessible from computers in libraries: this inevitably leads to the need to over-ride the software so that patrons doing research on, say, child pornography can have access to information about legal cases and arrest records without being blocked. It is understandable that there are judgment calls here. This, however, doesn’t come close to being one.

There is nothing about any of the topics listed above that remotely qualifies as “criminal skills.” “Occult” may or may not be an appropriate designation, but that’s really an irrelevant consideration, since the occult, whether the Bible-thumpers believe it or not, is a legitimate subject of inquiry. Or are we to ignore the works of Christopher Marlowe, Charles Baudelaire, Guillaume Apollinaire, Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins, W.B. Yeats, Heinrich von Kleist, Arthur Conan Doyle, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King… and a few hundred others, merely from the realm of literature?

Significantly, someone had to program that software to block, for example, the Wikipedia entry on Wicca, the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, and but not, significantly, a page entitled “Astrology and Horoscopes: The Bible and Christian View.” In Mr. Rothert’s words,
It violates the establishment clause [in the First Amendment]. You can learn what the Catholic Church thinks of paganism, but if you want the pagan view of paganism, it's blocked. It gives preferential treatment to some religions. Any example of a minority religion discussed in a positive way has been blocked.
In my words, to say that there’s a double standard here, a false distinction that reflects all too clearly the arrogance, intransigence and myopia of the library board, is merely to state fact.

But Wofford compounds the apparent bigotry by claiming that it wasn’t she, but the software (apparently endowed with supernatural powers… which patrons at the Salem library couldn’t look up) which prevented Ms. Hunter from accessing the sites of her choice. It was programmed, presumably at her direction. Moreover, she could bypass the software if she chose, as evidenced by the fact that… wait for it… she did, although nowhere near to the extent needed. In other words, Ms. Wofford is not merely a bigoted idiot, she’s a lying bigoted idiot.

True, Ms. Hunter needn’t have been so secretive about the sites she wanted to visit, but then again, Rosa Parks could have just moved to the back of the bus, too. The argument that “legitimate use” ought somehow be limited to school projects and the like is laughable on its face. Ms. Wofford’s responsibility isn’t to decide whether a patron’s desire to visit a site is legitimate; it’s to decide if it’s legal, and if it won’t interfere with the smooth operation of the facility (the way a perfectly legal pornsite would be a distraction, for example).

Beyond that, it’s not her call. Whether this remarkably inept decision-making is based on pseudo-Christian tunnel vision or on a more generic form of stupidity is difficult to determine. But whether this makes the town of Salem look like a different Salem in a different century: that’s self-evident.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Another Story about Education in Georgia. It Ain't Pretty.

So, Jack Marshall, whose Ethics Alarms blog is linked frequently here, read my piece on the idiot teacher(s) in Georgia who thought that references to slavery, beatings, and baskets of cotton would be appropriate to include in math homework for 3rd graders. And his response:
If your child is taught by a moron—and technical definitions aside, that is not an unfair or uncivil description of a teacher who thinks it’s reasonable to give the question, “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?” to a third-grader, your child’s likelihood of growing up moronic is vastly increased.

And yet, as Richard Dreyfus’s character says to Quint the shark-hunter as they compare scars in “Jaws,” “I got that beat.” In fact, Rick, I got that beat in Georgia.
Trouble is, he’s probably right (although there’s a good chance that both will be Curmie nominees and you’ll get to decide).

Thirteen-year-old Jack Persyn is a student at Lanier Middle School in Sugar Hill, GA. He was at Chess Club before classes started a couple of days ago (obviously, he’s a threat to society—you know those Chess Club types) when he noticed that there was a 1 ½” jackknife in a bag his aunt had given him for Christmas; she’d bought it at a yard sale. So, knowing that there was school rule against having a “weapon” (a knife that size is a weapon?), Jack took it to a teacher. For his honesty, he was rewarded with a four-day in-school suspension.

School officials acknowledged that his possession of the knife on school property was an accident. The official disciplinary report says that he “immediately self-reported.” They punished him anyway. That makes them morons. They claim they don’t have a zero-tolerance policy. That makes them lying morons.

OK. Like most people who have travelled at all extensively, I have inadvertently taken something I shouldn’t have through airport security. No, not something really dumb like a loaded gun (I’m not a football coach or a Tea Party leader, after all). But I remember looking through a pocket in my carry-on bag while waiting for a connecting flight in the St. Louis airport a few years ago and finding… wait for it… a 2 ½” knife. I quickly realized that this was the knife I hadn’t been able to find for several weeks. And that meant I’d taken it through airport security not once but three times, including twice when I’d been singled out for a special search by the hopeless incompetents known as the TSA.

But I digress. The point is that I’m not as honorable as Jack Persyn: I didn’t run scurrying to the authorities to turn myself in. I just threw the knife back in the bag, vowed to remember to take it out when I got home, and went back to reading my book. That’s because I’m old enough and cynical enough to suspect that the powers-that-be would cause me more hassle than the situation merited. Besides, I didn’t want to have that knife confiscated: it was a Christmas present from my (now) brother-in-law before I married his sister. (We’re now four months away from our 30th anniversary.)

Young Mr. Persyn, however, is a better and/or more naïve person than I. He could easily have done precisely what I did. He could have tossed the knife back in his bag and made a mental note to take it out when he got home. But he did the right thing. No good deed goes unpunished.

I’m not sure who the school’s talking head in the TV spot link might be: system spokesperson Jore Quintana, perhaps? Whoever he is, he was tasked with defending the indefensible. A reporter asks, “Isn’t that telling them that you’re doing the right thing by reporting it, but you’re still going to be punished?” His self-righteous response: “That is telling other students that we are trying to keep their school safe, and that we’re trying to keep them safe at school.”

I’m going to say this once: No. It. Freaking. Isn’t.

What this absurd enforcement of an absurd zero-tolerance policy (call it what you will, that’s precisely what it is, and it’s fully as reprehensible as all the others—more so, probably, because of the craven denial of reality), students learn the following:
• if you make a mistake, whatever you do, don’t admit it. We didn’t admit ours, and we punished a 13-year-old for admitting his.
• exercise of discretion or thought is expressly forbidden.
• when you’ve made a really stupid decision, make sure that no one knows it was you. Send a minion out to take the heat.
• if you have a “weapon,” make sure it stays concealed.
• never trust a person in authority to do the right thing, just because you did.
Forgive me for not applauding the fact that the status quo, unlike the previous policy, allows for discretion. Discretion only matters when it’s applied.

Handcuffing Students: Un peu outré?

This isn’t eligible for the Curmie because the key events took place last year, but boy-oh-boy would it have been a contender.

Last June, the Southern Poverty Law Center brought suit against the Jackson (MS) Public School District, alleging that an Capital City Alternative School routinely handcuffs students to railings as punishment for minor infractions. Jody Owens, the head of the SPLC’s Mississippi office, argued that:
At the highest level of the district, Jackson Public Schools officials have failed to protect students from a prison-like environment where children are subject to regular shackling and chained to poles and railings as a consequence for minor, non-criminal violations of school rules. Not only does this handcuffing policy violate the U.S. Constitution but it demonstrates a diseased school culture and a broken model of school discipline that focuses on criminalizing students at the expense of educating them.
Assuming the allegations to be true, Mr. Owens seems to have hit the proverbial nail squarely on the head.

Here are some of the specifics:
• A 15-year-old female student was handcuffed to a railing for several hours after she was accused of greeting her friend too loudly in the school hallway.

• A 16-year-old student with an emotional disability was shackled to a railing for an entire school day because the student did not wear a belt. The student was even forced to eat lunch while handcuffed.

• One student spent an entire school day handcuffed and shackled to a railing because he wore shoes that school officials deemed to be the wrong color.
Um… wow. My initial reaction is that these charges couldn’t possibly be true. But there are two problems with this view. First off, the SPLC is sometimes given to flights of interpretative fancy, but they generally get their facts right. Secondly, the school actually confirms the allegations, at least in general terms.

Yes, says school principal Marie Harris, the practice of handcuffing students to a railing began in 2006, when a student tried to run from the school towards Interstate 220. She argues the practice is done in good faith, for student safety.

OK, let’s be clear. Students are at this school instead of a regular elementary or high school because they have been “suspended/expelled from the Jackson Public Schools for 10 days or longer. The program also serves as a learning alternative for students who had difficulty adjusting to the regular classroom setting or who were discipline problems in the classroom or school itself.” True, Jackson Public Schools expel students at twice the national average. Even so, it’s reasonable to suggest that every kid at the school presents a set of challenges which require some tough decision-making by administrators and teachers alike.

It is, therefore, easy to believe that handcuffing a self-destructive student to a railing might seem a reasonable short-term alternative. But the examples alleged by the SPLC go far beyond interim fixes, and even further beyond student safety issues. Shackling a student for wearing the wrong color shoes? Are you kidding me?

The reason the case is in the news now is that the SPLC has demanded on discovery the pertinent documents relating to the practice. School officials claim such documents exist, but have yet to turn over any of them, and are resisting doing so.

What is especially disturbing here is the school’s belligerence. They claim that “Jackson Public Schools cooperates in the discovery process, and has asked the court to prevent the Southern Poverty Law Center from engaging in harassing discovery tactics, all in an effort to embarrass and misrepresent the integrity of the school district.” I understand that nobody likes to get sued, and they’re likely to get a little prickly about it. Fine.

But the suit demands no monetary damages. All the SPLC wants to do is to have the school stop “[creating] a prison-like environment.” (Yes, I understand that a decision against the school might serve as an impetus for subsequent suits by specific students’ parents.) The lawsuit exists only because the school apparently refused to change its policies without one.

What the school needs to do is one of three things: a). offer reasonable evidence that the allegations are false, or at least deny that shackling and handcuffing has occurred frequently, for extended periods of time, or as punishment for trivial infractions, b). justify the practice [good luck with this one], or c). just stop it. Instead, administrators and lawyers have chosen to be confrontational and uncooperative, accusing the SPLC of trying to embarrass them. And they do have a point, there. They’re doing very well at embarrassing themselves without any assistance.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

When I think of 3rd grade math, the first three words that come to mind are "slaves," "beatings," and "cotton..."

Maybe I shouldn’t have introduced the Curmie Award, because now everybody seems to want one. I was about 80% done with another essay—about a situation that would have been Curmie-worthy had I seen the story last year, when the most significant events occurred—when I read this story about homework given to 3rd graders at Beaver Ridge Elementary School in Norcross, GA.

Here’s a math question: “Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?” Here’s another: “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?” And other: “Frederick had 6 baskets full of cotton. If each basket held 5 pounds, how many pounds did he have all together?”

OK, really? Slaves? Beatings? Cotton? WTF? Who wrote these questions, David Duke?

Parents, not surprisingly, are more than a little irked. Christopher Braxton is one such father: “It kind of blew me away. Do you see what I see? Do you really see what I see? He's not answering this question.” Another father, Terrance Barnett, makes the obvious-to-anyone-with-an-IQ-above-room-temperature point that “Something like this shouldn't be imbedded into a kid of the third, fourth, fifth, any grade. I'm having to explain to my 8-year-old why slavery or slaves or beatings are in a math problem. That hurts.”

School spokesperson Sloan Roach had the unenviable task of justifying such idiocy. She did the best she could: “In this one, the teachers were trying to do a cross-curricular activity.” Uh huh… “We understand that there are concerns about these questions and we agree that these questions were not appropriate.” No kidding?

According to Kerry Kavanaugh of WSB-TV, the principal’s (or vice principal’s) response was to collect the assignments and shred them, then to “work with the teachers to develop more appropriate questions, and [school officials] say they’ll do a better job of reviewing them before they go home with students.”

Well, shredding those papers is the right call. But look around. Budget cuts across the country have led to layoffs of hundreds of thousands of teachers, some of them, I’m willing to bet, good ones. If you’ve got some (the news reports all use the plural, “teachers”) so transcendently stupid as to believe there’s any excuse for these questions, “working with them” isn’t the answer. Fire their asses, hire someone with a brain, and then let those people teach.

The solution isn’t to monitor homework assignments. It’s to hire faculty whose homework assignments you don’t have to police. “Working with” a teacher is appropriate if s/he does over-reacts to a stimulus in the classroom and crosses the line a little. Or if s/he develops a reputation, deserved or not, for favoritism. Or if s/he assigns homework that’s either too difficult or insufficiently challenging. But there is no cure for stupid.

It’s probably true that there isn’t a legal rationale for breaking these teachers’ contracts right now, but the integrity of the school really is at stake if there isn’t a clear signal that such assignments are a quantum step or two beyond “inappropriate.” The trouble is, someone thought these questions were OK for 8-year-olds. That same person is going to be making other decisions that require sensitivity, tact, and common sense. Oh, happy day.

Or, perhaps, there could be new homework questions: If a teacher makes $36,000 a year on a 9-month contract, how much money does the school district save if they fire her after four months? If a school principal makes $100,000 a year and doesn’t have the brains or the courage to eliminate idiots on the faculty, how much money will the school district waste on this jackass over five years? If a school has 200 3rd graders, and the parents of 5% of those students sue the school for a million dollars apiece, how much money does the district stand to lose if there’s no settlement?

Enquiring minds want to know.

Artistic License and Singing the Showpieces

I know, I know. Iowa caucuses. New Hampshire primaries. Gotta write something about the current GOP horserace. Actually, I don’t. I might later, but not now. Today’s topic: songs. Specifically, what can and cannot legitimately (i.e., ethically, as opposed to legally) be done to them? Stated otherwise: what is “artistic license”?

Two recent cases raise this topic. The first one to come to my attention, although not the first in terms of when it actually happened, was Cee Lo Green’s rendition of John Lennon’s signature song, “Imagine,” in the waning minutes of 2011. Green, completely unknown to most of the country and known to most of the rest for a single song in which he oh-so-cleverly utters the phrase “Fuck you” a couple dozen times (to be fair, the tune is actually OK), decided he’d improve on what Rolling Stone declared the #3 greatest song of all time, behind only “Satisfaction” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” Yeah, that’s smart.

OK. There are two things awful about this version. One of these things, the fact that it’s crooned with all the integrity and honest emotion generated by the lounge singer at the DewDrop Inn, falls under the heading of “artistic license.” I literally left the room, it was so bad. But the fact that I didn’t like it (i.e., it wasn’t to my taste) doesn’t make it censurable: it means only that I’m less likely to buy any of the man’s recordings in the future. (But how likely was that, anyway?) My departure, however, meant that I therefore missed (live) the far more serious transgression: changing the lyrics, then tweeting a half-hearted pseudo-apology (very well disguised as defensive self-justification), then cravenly taking the thread down.

Lennon’s song, which he himself described as a sort of “Communist Manifesto” posits religion as one of the central causes of the world’s problems. His utopia, then, is one in which there is “nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too.” Green changes that idea to its polar opposite: “… and all religion is true.” Seriously, is it possible to get any further away from Lennon’s intent?

Put it another way. What if an atheist decided to change the words to a well-known Christmas carol? “This, this is Christ the guy, whom shepherds guard while eagles fly.” Catchy, huh? Can you imagine the uproar?

Green, whether aware of having just made a colossal fool of himself in front of a bigger audience than he’ll ever see again without buying a ticket or perhaps, as the Huffington Post suggests, “to preempt criticism,” proceeded to tweet, “Yo I meant no disrespect by changing the lyric guys! I was trying to say a world were u could believe what u wanted that's all.”

This would make you about the stupidest person on the planet, then, wouldn’t it, Cee Lo? You’re in New York, you freaking moron. Anything bad happen in New York in the name of religion about a decade or so ago? Anyone?

The fact that Green is quite possibly too stupid to understand that his form of fuzzy-headed and ontologically impossible inclusiveness runs contrary to the original intent does not excuse his actions. Why? Because surely even third-rate crooners can understand that one of two things must be true if you change the lyrics to a song: either you change its meaning, or you needn’t have bothered.

Green took a lot of heat from both atheists and Lennon fans for his transgressions. Here’s @maleficat: “fuck you, @CeeLoGreen. sing it right or don’t sing it at all.” Others—a lot of others, apparently—articulated similar sentiments. The other tack was to point out that wearing a full-length fur coat and a cornucopia of bling might not exactly comport with the song’s wistful longing for a world with “no possessions.”

Needless to say, Green was being (rightly) pilloried. The best any of his defenders could muster was that a). it’s artistic license [Bullshit.] and b). the response considerably outweighed the offense [Quite possibly true.]. So he did what any pusillanimous flavor-of-the-month pseudo-celebrity would do: he pulled his Twitter thread and sulked.

Tempest in a teapot? Maybe. It was just one line (“no hell below us; above us, only sky” remained untouched), and perhaps his (initial) motives if not his actions were good. But there’s something paradigmatic at work here. In a week in which an Eric Cantor minion can interrupt an interview to make the preposterous claim that Ronald Reagan never raised taxes, we are drawing ever nearer to a “We have always been at war with Eastasia” moment. Anything we can do to pull back from that precipice is a good thing. And we must recognize that what Green did, whether we like his sentiments better than Lennon’s or not, was to radically and completely volitionally change the intent of a piece of literature that happens to be in the form of a song lyric and present it as if it were the original. Parody? Fine. But this falls more into the realm of the counterfeit than the satiric.

That someone other than a politician could be that stupid and/or arrogant is troubling. But then, Green really is dumber than the proverbial sack of hammers. How do we know? He messed with John. And not with some B-side, either: with the song Rolling Stone describes as “an enduring hymn of solace and promise that has carried us through extreme grief, from the shock of Lennon's own death in 1980 to the unspeakable horror of September 11th.” You don’t do that. It’s like criticizing Reagan at a Republican debate. The political reality is that Green might have gotten away with blithely screwing around with the lyrics of an old Guess Who song or something by Genesis or somebody. But you do not mess with John. You. Just. Don’t.

Far easier to parse, except for the troubling spectre of trying to wrap one’s head around what goes on in some people’s minds, is the news from Indiana that an idiot state legislator (there I go with the redundancies again, sorry) has decided that the state has so few problems, especially as relate to education, that the highest priority she can imagine is to force public schools and state universities, plus any private school receiving any state or local scholarship funds (including vouchers) to enforce standards for singing the national anthem at public events.

One Vaneta Becker, a Republican (but you knew that), heard last spring from a constituent who was “upset about a school program in which the words of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ were substituted or parodied in a way the caller found disrespectful. The senator said she herself had heard parody versions of the national anthem on television programs.” (N.B., the latter wouldn’t, of course, be covered by Becker’s bill.)

The bill would force schools and musicians to sign a contract to meet “appropriate standards,” whatever the hell that means. Musicians—amateur or professional—could be fined $25 (a huge hardship for the likes of Roseanne Barr, Jimi Hendrix, or Marvin Gaye) for violating those standards, which would be enforced by a panel of judges including a has-been pop star and a bitchy guy with a foreign accent. OK, I made that last part up. It would be “the State Department of Education, with input from the Commission for Higher Education” who would be Lord High Executioners for such matters.

This bill is, of course, transcendently stupid in just about every way imaginable: apart from probably being unconstitutional, it is unenforceable; it is silly; it requires judgment calls by people utterly unqualified to make them; it steers us all just a little closer to creeping Big Brotherism. Jack Marshall makes these points in a little more depth in an excellent piece on Ethics Alarms; I needn’t repeat them.

But let me talk about two things he doesn’t. First, the real progenitor of this bill may not have been that phone call from a constituent at all. Not when there’s this story from January of last year. Sixteen-year-old Shai Warfield-Cross was told by her school that she needed to perform the anthem “in a traditional way” after someone associated with another school altogether complained that—get this—her performance before a basketball game rendered the tune unrecognizable (it wasn’t) and it was “disrespectful to current and former members of the military” (WTF???).

Principal Jeff Henderson, who’d have been a contender for last year’s Curmie if I’d seen this story earlier, promptly capitulated. Whether the racial overtones read into the situation by Warfield-Cross’s family are legitimate, I can’t say: racism isn’t the only form of stupid. But, completely apart from the inanity of deciding that there’s a “traditional” way to perform the tune of an old drinking song, the suggestion that Warfield-Cross’s performance is anything but mainstream and respectful is itself ludicrous. (For what it’s worth, after the administration’s craven and silly decision went viral, they did apologize: better late than never.)

Secondly, this legislation is proposed by a Republican. This makes sense in terms of the hollow pseudo-patriotism. But this proposal runs directly counter to the presumed ideological center of GOP: small government. Not only does it provide one more way in which the government interferes in the lives of private citizens, it also creates yet another layer of bureaucracy: schools are required to tape every performance and keep the evidence for two years!

Becker sniffed that “I don't think it would be very difficult for schools. You could record it on a lot of cellphones or like a small recording device (or) a CD.” Well, yeah, in terms of technology. But somebody has got to record it and store it, somebody has got to figure out written standards… the list goes on. More to the point, it’s just another stupid, useless requirement that distracts from the real work of educators.

And if you think that filling out silly forms and reports doesn’t ultimately add up to a mountain of triviata, let me introduce you to my wife, the community college financial aid director. (Be it noted, a fair amount of the time-wasting paperwork she’s got to do is the result of silliness by Democrats.)

The more perspicacious readers will notice that I’m allowing more leeway in music than in lyrics. Maybe that’s because I’m a whole lot better writer than a singer (this is where, Gentle Reader, you snort that if this is the way I write, you really don’t want to hear me sing). It has a little more to do with the nature of the two arts: music is written to be performed: that is, it is, by definition, mediated between writer and audience. Literature doesn’t work that way. Yes, song lyrics are intended to be performed, too, but I think they’re in a different category.

Even more importantly, there’s no such thing as the polar opposite of a musical arrangement. There is of an idea expressed verbally. Or at least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

And the Winner Is...

The votes are in, and we have a winner: the no-doubt proud recipient of the prestigious 2011 Curmie Award for Most Embarrassing the Profession of Education is…. (drumroll)… the unnamed teacher at Mercer County (KY) Intermediate School who decided that shoving a 9-year-old autistic boy into a bag intended to store gym balls was an appropriate punishment. Note: it now appears that it was the teacher’s aide, not the teacher per se who put young Chris Baker into the bag. Still, it’s difficult to exempt the teacher from equal if not greater culpability.

All told, some 32 votes were counted. Voters could choose as many candidates as they wanted. I sort of tracked the voting, so I know there was at least one ballot that included votes for six of the eight nominees, and there was at least one “bullet.” The eventual winner was included on exactly half the ballots; all eight nominees received at least two votes.

Thinking about the nominees after announcing them, I came to the realization that the eventual winner was sort of in a category of its own: the only nominee to be a teacher as opposed to some sort of administrator, the only one to deal with the potential for physical harm to a student, the only one in which the victim was a single child as opposed to a group, an adult or an adolescent. It was also the most recent case. One or more of these facts may have contributed to the margin of victory, even if no more than that. In any case, I appreciate and thank all those who voted. I thought this was kind of fun; I hope you enjoyed it, too.

Second-place finisher, and therefore de facto winner of the unofficial Curmie: Higher Education Division award, is David W. Rasmussen, the Dean of the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University, who tried to justify his decision to allow representatives of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation to have veto power over faculty hires in exchange for a substantial grant. His argument that “it seems to me it would have been irresponsible not to do it” proves he is utterly devoid of the ethical sensibility we ought to require of our educational leaders in particular. Our readers agreed, and he attracted nine votes.

Tied for third, with seven votes apiece, were—to steal the phrase from our friends at Popehat—censorious asshats. More to the point, they’re just dumber than dirt: Thomas Fleming of Pennsylvania’s Richland School District decided to shut down a high school production of Kismet because the central characters are Muslims (yes, really).

Lisa Walter of the University of Wisconsin-Stout took down a transcendently innocuous poster of the TV series “Firefly” from a faculty member’s office door, then somehow managed to convince Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen to endorse her arrogant and stupid actions in the face of all reason.

Also in the “dumber than dirt” and “censorious asshat” categories was 6th-place finisher Dwight Probasco of Wasilla High School in Alaska, who refused to let his school’s choir sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” at graduation because it was written by a gay man.

In fifth and seventh places are administrators too biased, cowardly, lazy, or otherwise inept to stay out of the way of faculty who are just doing their jobs. The top brass at the University of Missouri hung two of their faculty out to dry after Andrew Breitbart, perhaps the single least credible person in the country, doctored and distributed a tape he shouldn’t have had access to in the first place.

And Dean Linda Ammons of Widener Law School went after the job of a veteran professor on the pretense that he had constructed a hypothetical scenario of killing his dean… and, because she’s black and female, that makes him racist and sexist, too. Well, she either has the mental capacity of a Cuisinart (without the functionality) or she has an agenda—political or personal. Note: while I continued to track this case, I didn’t write about it further after my initial piece. My blog piece drew some tentative conclusions: it turns out that I was right, but perhaps my reluctance to excoriate Ammons in February the way I would have later in the year accounts for a finish lower than I would have predicted.

Rounding out the group is Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a Trustee of New York University, who, along with his gutless and compliant fellows, initially withheld an honorary degree from Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, because he didn’t support Israel enough. The over-reach and the irrelevance of the rationale netted him a couple of votes, but he wasn’t going to do any real harm to a public figure of Kushner’s status; this may have influenced some readers to vote elsewhere.

So… back to our winner. I confess that this wouldn’t have been my choice for the Curmie, but I said I’d go along with what the readers decided, and I meant it. My initial reluctance was founded on two things: 1). the fact that the story was recent enough that there’s still a possibility of some revelation that would affect our understanding of the story, and 2). the seemingly unpremeditated nature of the act (indeed, it was only the fact that this had occurred before that made me nominate this teacher at all). To some extent, this fiasco could be the result of inadequate training, a spontaneous reaction.

Except… well, no, it couldn’t. It does not require special training to understand that thus confining a young boy—any small child, stricken with autism or not—in this manner is criminal at least in the ethical sense if not the legal one. As reader Kirsten wrote in a comment, “The other stories are appalling on an intellectual level. But the last one is just plain inhumane and could easily have caused physical & mental harm to a child who already has other issues to deal with.” Yes. What she said.

As we look ahead to the rest of 2012, I’m thinking of dividing the Curmie for this year into taxonomies: administrators and teachers in separate categories, universities and primary/secondary schools, likewise. Or not. We’ll see what the year brings. Maybe there won’t be any worthy candidates. Uh huh. That’s likely to happen. The name of the blog is “Sweetness and Light and Everything Right,” after all…

Monday, January 2, 2012

Earthquakes in Ohio: Thank Your Friendly Neighborhood Fracker

There were several earthquakes in northeastern Ohio in the last few days, making a total of eleven in the last few months in one very small area. I have family there, so the news caught my attention. Now, here’s the thing: they weren’t severe—the biggest one was a 4.0, or, as they say in southern California, “Tuesday.” But the folks around Youngstown and Warren don’t know how to deal with that stuff. Blizzards, sure. Earthquakes, not so much. Guess why… because earthquakes don’t happen there. Or at least they didn’t before fracking.

Ever-so-coincidentally, you see, Dan Popili of (the Website of the Warren Tribune Chronicle) reports that The Ohio Geological Survey placed the epicenter of Saturday's earthquake about a tenth of a mile from a fracking site. Even corporate stooge Governor John Kasich and his minions felt the need to institute a moratorium on activity, in particular the disposal of brine water pumped into wells, within a five-mile radius of the temblor site.

Of course, Jim Zehringer, the director of the state Department of Natural Resources, assures us that “The seismic events are not a direct result of fracking.” OK, two things.

First, whereas one might presume that someone making such a claim would have… you know… some credentials. You know, like being a geologist or something. Zehringer is a farmer, former owner of a poultry and fish farm, probably best known for telling a remarkably stupid birther joke. No, Gentle Reader, I don’t expect everyone in such a position to have expertise in all areas under the purview of the agency. But some expertise in some area relevant to the job would be kind of nice.

Rather, and this is hardly a problem specific to the administration of idiot Republicans (although they have more than their share), Zehringer is a politician (a former county commissioner and state representative) who might actually have been qualified for his last gig, as director of the Agriculture Department. He lasted in that job for less than a year. Any way you slice it, I don’t feel a whole lot better at being reassured by the likes of Zehringer. Oh, and everyone seems agreed that there will be more tremors in the near future.

Secondly, and more importantly, there’s that weasel-word, “direct.” No, this particular problem, this time, isn’t (perhaps) “a direct result of fracking.” It’s an indirect and inevitable result of fracking, but that’s a different thing altogether. You see, it wasn’t the hydraulic fracturing process per se that caused the problem, but rather the necessary disposal of the waste materials of that procedure. Fracking itself causes irreparable groundwater contamination, and it has indeed been linked to seismic disturbances… but in this particular case, it doesn’t seem to be directly to blame. I feel so much better now.

Importantly, this is a situation that cannot be handled on a state-by-state basis. The water that was being pumped into a well in Ohio in this case was apparently wastewater from a fracking operation in Pennsylvania. But, as is the case with respect to the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Obama administration demonstrates its characteristic cravenness and hasn’t seen fit to interfere.

There is no rationale for fracking: the environmental downside is not only quantitatively likely and qualitatively disastrous, it’s also permanent. I’m not saying that similar techniques might not someday be sufficiently low-risk to be cost-effective. But we’re not there yet, and pretending otherwise for the sake of a few dollars in the short term is somewhere between myopic and insane.