CATEGORY: Journalism

The daily newspaper editorial: Make it weekly, please

Daily editorials, striving to not piss off anyone, have achieved ‘terminal neutrality’

Who — or what — killed the great American editorial? Wasn’t there a time when great newspaper editorials regularly thundered and whispered, sighed and screamed, were outraged or outraged others?

Paul Greenberg, the editorial-page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and a 1969 Pulitzer Prize winner, poses these questions on the website of the Association of Opinion Journalists.

Greenberg calls the forces that murdered the American newspaper editorial “as impersonal and characterless as many of the editorials themselves.” Among them are the goal of not pissing off anyone; “the stultifying editorial conference,” designed to drain life out of editorial positions; and hewing to “the party line or socio-economic fashion.” These forces produced, says Greenberg, “terminal neutrality.”

Although these forces had the daily newspaper editorial on its deathbed by the mid-1980s, Greenberg doesn’t reveal that I — yes, me! (gasp!) — pulled the plug on its life support. Yep, I pounded a few nails into the coffin of the daily newspaper editorial all by myself. Continue reading

CATEGORY: Education

Getting a PhD was the best decision I ever made. And the worst.

American businesses are anti-intellectual. American universities are anti-relevance. The gods help the overeducated schmuck stuck in the middle.

Hi. I’m Sam, and I’m a PhD.

Hi Sam!

CATEGORY: EducationFor those of you who don’t know me, I have a doctorate. Communication, University of Colorado, 1999. Some days it’s the thing I have done in life that I’m most proud of. Other days I think it’s the worst mistake I ever made in my life. There are days where I think both things more or less at the same time.

A couple of recent articles address my frustration and ambivalence. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Chris Bachelder’s Bear v. Shark: the culture of trivial spectacle…

Our culture of spectacle is awful, terrible, no-good, very bad – how’s that for a newsflash…?

Bear v. Shark by Chris Bachelder (image courtesy Goodreads)

 Chris Bachelder’s Bear v. Shark is one of those books that does what one of my teachers used to admonish his students to do: it articulates the obvious. In many cases that is a good thing, not a bad one, and this book is one of those cases. 

The subject of Bear v. Shark is the devolution of American culture, and Bachelder does a decent job of articulating the horror that is our descent into trivialized celebration of the meaningless with his overriding meme – a sensationalized “battle of the ages” between a bear (type never denoted) and a shark (type never denoted). Part of the charm of wading through Bachelder’s book is his constant evasion of answering this question: What kind of bear is going to fight what kind of shark – and why should I care? That he gets us to wonder about this instead of immediately responding “What a load of crap this is” says good things about his talent as a writer. But it doesn’t help this book, published in 2001, from feeling dated. Continue reading

CATEGORY: Education

Patti Adler wins reinstatement at University of Colorado, takes opportunity to stomp the balls off school administrators

Adler calls out her attackers. But winning a battle isn’t the same as winning the war.

I noted last month the latest in the University of Colorado administration’s ongoing campaign to completely destroy the school’s reputation, as it sought to fire Dr. Patti Adler for daring to teach deviance in her class on, well, deviance. There’s good news. The professional idiocrats who run the place backed down. Last week, Dr. Adler published a statement in the Boulder Daily Camera, and if you were expecting a display of mealy-mouthed diplomacy, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

In short, Dr. Adler stomped the hell out of the administration. She begins by setting a clear tone. Continue reading


WordsDay: Smithson’s gift to America, i.e., the know nothings: knowledge…

Do something smart in America and we’ll never put you on a piece of money…

The Stranger and the Statesman by Nina Burleigh (image courtesy Goodreads)

 The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America’s Greatest Museum is likely to cause many a thoughtful American  to spend some time wondering what in the hell America has ever been about, besides money and politics. This concise and highly readable book about the founding of the Smithsonian Institution takes on a puzzling and remarkable little piece of American history: why did the illegitimate son of an English duke who never married and whose career was spent as a “gentleman scientist” exploring obscure mineralogical questions, decide to donate his entire fortune (some $50 million in current money) to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men.”

The truth is, he didn’t, exactly. Smithson’s bequest came to America because of “a series of unfortunate events” that included the unexpected and premature death of his sole heir, a nephew who was the illegitimate son of his brother, another illegitimate son of that same English duke and both James Smithson’s and his brother Henry Dickinson’s mother, one of the duke’s mistresses. Continue reading

Solving America’s education problem in one easy step

It just hit me.

Teachers are underpaid, undersupported and unrespected. As a result, our educational system is in the tank. If there were a simple way of increasing everybody’s respect for teachers and boosting their pay to a level commensurate with their value, American education would very quickly be number one in the world again.

The solution: Continue reading

By Rev. Dickie "Drive-By" Dixon Posted in Education
CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

Art by consent of the audience, kinda sorta…

Et tu, Big Data? Then fall, Muses…

Shakespeare, Shakespeare, and Shakespeare, LTD (image courtesy Wikipedia)

Laura Miller’s recent piece at Salon on how new reader “services” (I use the term loosely since it’s pretty frickin’ obvious that readers are the ones who will end up being used, as Miller’s article demonstrates) such as Oyster and Scrib’d  can be used to gather data on reader habits and preferences so that this information can be sold to “writers” (another term I may possibly be using loosely since Miller’s piece suggests the “new direction” will be “art” created by artist/audience interactions – you know, through beta tests and focus groups) so that they can tailor their works to “the marketplace” (a term now being applied to the relationship between artist and audience that means just what you think it means) is just as depressing as you’d want it to be – if you’re an old fogy like me and like your art “artistic.” Continue reading

CATEGORY: Education

The Patti Adler controversy: goddammit, University of Colorado, will you PLEASE stop embarrassing me?

CU shoots itself in the dick again, devaluing its reputation and my degree even more.

Oh, good. The University of Colorado is in the news again. There is, of course, disagreement over what exactly the school is and is not doing and what Professor Adler did and did not do. Since I wasn’t there, I can’t say for certain.

Here’s what I do know. CU has been a constant source of embarrassment over the past several years and this grad is getting about sick and tired of it. Do I believe the university? Not so much. See, it’s spent a long time cultivating a credibility problem. Continue reading

North Carolina prosecutor charges academic kingpin in UNC football scandal

Hopefully this will be an example to all those corrupt professors responsible for NCAA football cheating.

Our friend Otherwise called this one to my attention.

Former UNC professor charged

HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. — A former professor at the center of an academic scandal involving athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been charged with a felony, accused of receiving $12,000 in payment for a lecture course in which he held no classes. Continue reading


The Kennedy assassination: from Camelot to Clusterfuck

Yes, I know precisely where I was when someone murdered John Fitzgerald Kennedy. No, I do not want to hear where the hell you were. Nor do I want to read or watch any “retrospectives” on his assassination. Nor do I want to read or watch orations on what might have been had the shot or shots missed. I’m only concerned with what the hell actually happened in and to America since Kennedy died.

A half century has passed since my infatuation with Camelot. Fifty years have passed since the naïveté of my youth promised me wars will end, peace will reign, and society will be equitable. Even after the brutality of Daley’s thugs disrupted the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Camelot sang as my siren. Even after gunfire from the National Guard killed four students at Kent State, I still believed in what the precisely cultivated mass mediations of JFK presented to me while he lived. Even after Nixon and his protect-me politics of Watergate, I had faith in process, politics, and people — even some politicians.
Continue reading


John F. Kennedy is still dead: that much we know…

JFK and my-my-my generation…

John F. Kennedy in the Dallas motorcade moments before his assassination (image courtesy Wikimedia)

I’ll start by quoting myself – a typically Boomer act of self-absorbed self-reference. First, from an email discussion among S&R writers about whether or not we should write about the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination:

JFK is the story of the Boomers – so many advantages, so much potential, so little realized. That we ended as we did may be a psychological reaction to seeing a guy seemingly about to do big things get his brains blown out. And never, ever getting an explanation that didn’t have logic holes, political meddling, and scary implications about the lie we want most fervently to believe about life – that we can know anything for sure. Continue reading

Let’s stop “making the complex simple”

For years my career has revolved around solving communication problems. One of my specific charges has been to “make the complex simple.” I’ve played along because many of the companies I’ve dealt with (not all, but a majority) think this way. When they do, boat rocking and cage rattling is rarely a winning strategy for advancement.

But the truth is that I’m not interested in making the complex simple. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

WordsDay: Modernism, postmodernism, storytelling, and the struggle between writers and readers

Should writers care about readers?

Rudyard Kipling, old fashioned storyteller (image courtesy Wikimedia)

This starts with a conversation I had in graduate school. I was trying to decide which author I would focus on for my master’s thesis. I knew it wouldn’t be a poet (I adore poetry and have a large number of poets whose work I admire and love to read and discuss, but I’m a prose writer myself and I felt I’d be more simpatico working with someone who did what I do), and I knew I wanted to choose someone who hadn’t been, in the words of my adviser, “done to death.” This was the early 1980′s and my school’s English department was actively discouraging students from writing any more theses on Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, Vonnegut, Brautigan, Kerouac, Ginsberg or any Beats – and you couldn’t even whisper that you wanted to write about a Romantic. We Boomers had worn out professors’ patience writing – and writing – and writing about these same authors. Continue reading


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: a Halloween book review…

It’s Shelley – and  ideas – that scare us…

Since I’ve been skylarking, having left the original 2013 reading list in the dust long ago (except for the Christmas selections) and now having left the extended reading list behind, too, it seemed like a good idea, given that Halloween was approaching, to choose a book that fit the holiday. So I pulled my copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from the book shelf. Couldn’t go wrong with the antecedent of all mad scientist stories as a choice for the spooky holiday, right?

As is the case with some other books on this list (Twain’s Innocents Abroad, the Austen novels Mansfield Park and Emma), I have read Frankenstein before – at least twice that I remember – and I think more times. I read the novel while in undergraduate school just because I wanted to and then read it in graduate school as part of a course on the Romantics. I believe I even taught it once in a freshman intro to lit sort of class – pretty sure I did, in fact. So there’s another time….

So I came to this reading with rather a healthy fund of knowledge about both the book and about its critical interpretations. To paraphrase my beloved Twain, however, I didn’t let my education get in the way of my learning this reading. So, on to the book… Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The old gods laugh, part 2: classic literature vs. public interest…

The age of Matthew Arnold is dead: “elitism” vs. popular culture…

Educator, Poet, and Big Time, Professional Literary Critic Matthew Arnold (photo courtesy Wikimedia)

In Part 1 of this discussion of contemporary reading habits, I sought to find some rationale for the domination of “fiction bestseller lists” (flawed as measurement of anything though those lists might be) by works that are, in one form or another, escapism. I discussed the decline of  what the old “high culture/low culture” model called “literary experience” – the introduction, chiefly via the education system, of works/authors that could arguably be called classic to both those in elite private institutions and to those of us better classified as the hoi polloi through our public schools.

The genesis of this entire essay, as I mentioned earlier, was my anecdotal experience as a regular visitor (both as author and reader) to the popular social media site, Goodreads. The democratization of culture that the power of the Internet, and especially its most powerful weapon, social media, has been in some ways liberating, in some ways unfortunate. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

WordsDay: The old gods laugh, Part 1: what we don’t know CAN hurt us….

This is a picture of a dog reading – Cujo, likely, perhaps The Call of the Wild. One might wish it were Travels with Charlie, but let’s be reasonable…

This started mainly as an idle exercise. Each time I go to Goodreads, I am apprised of someone’s latest book which is, I am assured, a triumph of – well, some sort. Many of the books are #’s 3-4-5 in a “series” of books about – this or that currently popular genre. If you are a reader, or play at being one as many seem to do, you know the drill by now: the most successful books are those which appeal to current reading interests. In the second decade of the 21st century, that means one should write something in at least one of the following veins: science fiction (or one of its variations like cyberpunk or steam punk); paranormal thrillers – or romances (zombies and vampires have been quite successful, and wizards have made billions); or apocalyptic/dystopian adventures/romances/thrillers. Preferably any/all of these should be aimed at a “young adult” audience – though the range of that age group seems to be a matter of concern both to those who would censor any thing that doesn’t meet their narrow minded world views as well as to some writers who, silly creatures they are, think adults should read adult books on adult topics – you know, stories that might not end with “something magical” happening.

Harrumph, said the cranky old professor/author…. Continue reading


More 19th century young adult lit: the value of education…

Cover, Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge (courtesy, Good reads)

At the same time that my wife Lea Booth picked up the copy of Nan which I reviewed earlier, I stumbled upon a copy of a book that had special memories for me.  I first read Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates during the summer after my high school graduation. Though it had long sat on the bookshelf in my room, I’d ignored it throughout a childhood spent voraciously reading in favor of stuff like those those highly fictionalized hagiographic biographies such as Ben Franklin: Boy Printer by the prolific and long-lived Augusta Stevenson; series such as those featuring the Bobbsey Twins (about which I will write someday having experienced the books in their original versions rather than in some of Bobbs-Merrill’s later updated forms), the Hardy Boys, and Tom Swift, Jr.; and, of course, classics such as Huckleberry Finn and Tom SawyerTreasure Island and Kidnapped20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Even Fenimore Cooper was not beyond my ambition – prodded by a literary grandmother, I got through The DeerslayerThe Pathfinder, and The Last of the Mohicans. Don’t ask me how. Youth is a powerful thing – and less judgmental about matters such as writing style.

So Hans Brinker languished until my 18th summer.

I remember picking up Hans Brinker a couple of times at around 11 or 12 but not being able to get started with it.  The previously mentioned books, baseball, and most importantly, an  obsession with playing the guitar and trying to become a Beatle had become too important to me.

The summer of my 18th year was a hot and miserable one for more than meteorological reasons.  My graduation from high school was, because of my refusal to consider a delayed appointment to West Point my father had arranged through a politician friend (hello, 1970 and Vietnam on the news in my den every evening), and my father’s near apoplectic fury at me over that decision, a  dreary prelude to forced enrollment at the local community college – a prospect I dreaded. A couple of lost summer jobs were punctuated by the worst blow of all – being booted from my band, the most popular band in my hometown. Goodbye Beatles, goodbye college of my choice, goodbye childhood. Hello adult world – you suck. Continue reading


WordsDay: Young Adult lit in the 19th century – how to be good…

Cover, Nan by Lucy C. Lillie (courtesy, Goodreads)

Attempting to explain young adult (called in earlier incarnations “youth”) literature is consuming work even for scholars. So when my wife Lea stumbled across a Harper & Brothers youth book, Nan by a rather mysterious author named Lucy C. Lillie, a first edition from the 1880′s, I approached it with both caution and curiosity. And, of course, I added it to my extended 2013 reading list.

Books for youth from the period after the Civil War through the beginning of WWI, follow a practice that scholars refer to as “acculturation.” These books are full of “wise saws and modern instances,” as The Bard would say. and are designed to teach moral lessons (learn one’s Bible lessons and obey the law whether parental or governmental) and inculcate the “proper” social values: one should work hard and hope for success; one should, if one enjoys success (through what Defoe might call “seizing the main chance” for boys and marrying or inheriting that main chance for girls) share that success with those less fortunate; and most especially, one should observe the niceties at all times and mind one’s manners.

The hard to find out about Lucy C. Lillie‘s Nan is just such a set of lessons.

The story is a straightforward one: Nan is the orphaned daughter (the proliferation of orphans in youth literature of this era must certainly have contributed to children’s neurotic concern for the well-being of parents, one suspects) of a wealthy family’s estranged son who, at the book’s beginning is living in “slatternly” conditions with a relative of her mother. Her whereabouts are discovered by a wealthy (and, naturally, childless) aunt who sends an emissary (a genteel but less wealthy – and somewhat envious – older cousin Priscilla) to fetch her from her humble surroundings and lay her in the lap of luxury (within the constraints of Victorian taste, of course).  She meets more cousins, including an even more envious younger sister of the aforementioned envious Priscilla who eventually causes her trouble and sorrow,  unveils her own kind heart (Nan is one whose prime interest in life is “doing for the less fortunate” – a character trait we are told that more than compensates for her lack of “brilliance” in studies and “accomplishments”), and, after misfortune, ends up heiress to a large fortune.

This may seem oversimplification, but books such as Nan, one realizes, are not so much about “what happens” as they are about “how what happens to a person makes them become good or bad.” For Nan Rolf this means learning that being loyal to a cousin who has both done wrong and done her wrong could cost her happiness (and a bunch of money).

That cousin mentioned above, Laura, Priscilla’s younger sister, literally suffers via illness for wronging our heroine by stealing and then begging Nan not to expose her deed (knowing that Nan will then be blamed) – her health only improves once she confesses her wrongdoing and begins a suitable penance. Nan suffers exile for her misguided promise not to tell what she knows (in a sort of riff against the schoolyard code) and then reclamation once her character flaw is shown to be only mistaken loyalty and not theft.

Once Nan is restored to her Aunt (and her inheritance) she helps Laura to forgive herself by generously forgiving her, reassuring young readers that, as Julian of Norwich reminds us, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

At the end of the novel, Nan’s cousin Priscilla tells her, “…Nan, dear, I think it is going to be your path in life to help other people’s sorrows.” Nan responds, “If I can be good enough – and wise enough.”

Here endeth the lesson.  No vampires, wizards, or post-apocalyptic nightmare scenarios are necessary for readers to learn that growing up is tough and that doing the right thing is harder than it might seem.

That might be terribly old fashioned – but it’s also pretty useful stuff for anyone to know at any age in any time period.

CATEGORY: Education

Should teachers be paid more? No.

Recently, I made same comment to my fellow Scrogues and got some, ummm, disagreement.

They then trotted out arguments about it being teachers that are entrusted with our most precious resource, our children, that the value they provide is incalculable, that it was kindly Miss McCutcheon in second grade that germinated my love of poetry with her passionate reading of Dr. Seuss. To quote Jimi Hendrix, “Blah blah, woof woof.”

The value argument is absurd on its face. First of all, relatively few professions are remunerated on value—perhaps professional athletes, some entertainers, commission-based salesmen, and arguably CEO’s whose pay package is tied to stock options. The reason is that to pay someone based on value creation, it’s first necessary that it be possible to calculate value. Sorry, but that’s how it works.

Calculating the value of instruction to hundreds of children that will pay off at some undetermined point in the future is simply impossible. It would require an ability to estimate what value each child will provide to society over his or her lifetime, what that value would have been without the contribution of each particular teacher absent the effects of parents, friends, and other teachers, and the ability to discount that back to the present. Even were it possible, I suspect most teachers would be wary about signing up for that pay program, because they wouldn’t want to see their annual bonus docked because Little Johnny will grow up to be meth dealer in twelve years.

Come on, folks, everybody thinks they’re paid under their true value, from CEO’s that make fifty mil a year (really, I know a couple) to garbage collectors.

Now that we’ve dismissed that silly value argument and made poor Miss McCutcheon cry, let’s talk about how most jobs are really remunerated, supply and demand. Teachers don’t like it that they are paid according to the laws of economics. Welcome to the club. People love economics when it comes out in their favor, and hate it when it doesn’t. The same folks who go to WalMart are the ones who see their jobs being outsourced. Wall Street tycoons who piously talk about the free market are the first to grovel and beg for government hand-outs when things go south.  People don’t like economics because the market is ruthlessly rational. It may not be fair, but it’s rational.

It’s a bit like global warming. It doesn’t matter if you believe in it or not, it’s still getting warmer. It doesn’t matter if you believe in supply and demand or not, that’s still the way most of the world, including labor markets, works.  Even centrally planned economies are subject to the laws of supply and demand—that’s why gray markets exist.

Now labor markets aren’t completely pure for a variety of reasons—unions, restrictions on immigration, Hay systems, licensing boards, racism, etc, etc.  but for all intents and purposes we can think of the job market facing an average person entering the job market as being subject to the laws of economics, specifically supply and demand.

The way that works is this.  The demand for how many of each profession is determined by the economy. For example, in the U.S., we have jobs for 8,374,910 educators, trainers and librarians. We have jobs for 641,020 lawyers, 3,456,000 computer scientists, and 61,140 tax preparers. These are the number of current people in those jobs at current wages. (The math gets very complicated very fast, and this simplified version is close enough.)

The wages for each profession is determined by how much the economy needs to pay to get  a supply of 641,020 qualified people to be lawyers. For example, 641,020 people are able and willing to be lawyers. For $130,880, they will undergo the years of training necessary, face the uncertainty of the profession, and do boring work.

People are willing to work as social workers for $44,200 per year and as teachers for $51,120. People will be sales reps for $68,580 and computer programmers for $80,200. If nobody is willing to be a social worker and the economy needs more, it will raise the wages until it gets the number it needs. If it needs fewer, it will lower the wages until some leave the profession and go do other jobs.

So why don’t teachers get paid more? Simply put, because 8,374,910 people, exactly what the economy needs, are willing to do it for $51,120 each. Could we as a society decide to pay them $60,000 each? Of  course we could, but why would we? It’s a bit like if a washing machine repairman fixed your dryer for $200, but because dry clothes are important to you, you insisted on giving him or her $500. And the same for the grocer, doctor, hair dresser, etc. Would any rational person do that? Of course not. Remember, at the end of the day, teacher salaries don’t come from some magical pot of money in the sky, but from people’s taxes, and most people don’t want to pay any more than they have to.

The real question is why so many people are willing to be teachers for $51,120. I admit, I don’t get it. I tried a little college teaching and hated it. Yes, it has low barriers to entry, the hours are good,  it has a certain shabby chic status and job security, but it’s tedious, you spend your time around unhappy peers who bitch all the time, and you don’t make any money.  I went into business, which had no job security, but paid well and was interesting. Still some people find teaching a desirable job, 8,374,910 to be exact, and as long as they do and are willing to do it for $51,120, then that’s what they’ll get paid.

They’re not alone. As a rule, jobs that people want to do (teacher, writer, pastry chef, antiques store owner, diving instructor) always pay less than jobs people don’t want to do (tax preparer, salesperson, etc.) It’s not necessary that teachers like their work (although I think they do. Two of the people who weighed in have told me they love teaching.) It means that as long as they like it better than their alternatives, they will be willing to work for less to do it.

When I made this point, my fellow Scrogues stopped hurling insults and picked up stones.  One comment was especially interesting. A teacher explained why she taught instead of other professions. She said

I REALLY hated the 2 months I worked in higher ed tech sales after the company I worked for shut the training department I led.  Cold-calling made me feel unclean.  I was lucky they didn’t cut my salary for those 2 months from what I had been making as head of training to commission only.

Exactly. That’s exactly my point. And as long as people like to teach, or at least like it more than they like selling, sales reps will always make $68,580 and teachers will always make $51,120.

Don’t get pissed at me. Go throw eggs at the home of an economics professor.

P.S. What could dedicated, competent, passionate teachers do to raise their wages? It’s simple really. De-unionize and embrace standardized testing. That would create a market between various school systems for the best teachers, and while average wages might stay the same, you’d see wages shoot up for the best. Indeed, top suburban school systems already pay more than their rural and inner city counterparts, but it’s still within a relatively narrow band. If teachers could prove their abilities, e.g., with their students test scores before and after they got them, then they’d get paid. But I haven’t heard any teachers arguing for this.

Next post: Message to Adjuncts: Administrators aren’t the enemy, tenured professors are.