Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Pay's the Thing, of nothing

I want to speak with you a bit about culture. I often shy away from discussions of culture because I pretty much have none. I affect a cultured demeanor when it suits me, but mostly I'm just a slob with a job. I guess you could say I appreciate aspects of low culture, but I do like some items higher up on a culture ladder. Thing is, I mostly just like being left alone so any culture runs the risk of getting on my nerves.

But I teach English and part of teaching English is the acceptance that people need some sort of culture. There is such a thing as cultural literacy but that doesn't quite capture everything because it stops at expecting my students to be familiar with their world as it is. Knowing culture means appreciating the world as it was, as it could be and as it is, but on a deeper level. So I strive for that. Part of bringing culture to the still growing teen aged mind is exposing them to pieces of great literature, so I try to do that. One piece that I have used in the past is a wonderful play by Eugene Ionesco, entitled "Rhinoceros." It is silly, it is difficult, it challenges and troubles while it amuses. I find that reading it sometimes misses an aspect of the story, the visual, especially in the directorial choices surrounding the (non)presentation of the titular beasts. However, I lack the ability to act the whole thing out for the class every year. So I rely on performances readily available to the public.

There are, on Youtube, a couple of versions of the play, lovingly performed by some college or local acting groups. They aren't bad per se, but the sound is inconsistent, the staging is clunky and the acting is often overdone. So, OK, they are bad (IMHO, baby, IMHO...chill). There is a film version which I often show. It stars Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, so you'd think that it would be a home run. I mean, I LOVE Gene Wilder (in a totally platonic way, mind you) and I use another of his films (The Frisco Kid) with another class of mine. And Zero Mostel? Hilarious! But the film is from the early 70's so the scenery shows it, the music is horrid and Karen Black is, well, not my favorite part of the movie. I try to resist showing this version because it becomes so surreal towards the end that even Ionesco would view it and say, "what the hell was that? Did I even write that?" So I troll the interwebz looking for another version.

Yesterday, while comparing opening scenes for my class, I saw a link to a version of Rhinoceros starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The video shown was an interview with Mr. Cumberbatch in which he discussed his character, Berenger. In the middle, the image shifted to 5 seconds from the version in which he performed. It was good -- really good. I thought to myself that if I had access to that, I could retire Messers Wilder and Mostel and let Mr. Cumberbatch carry the rhinocer-torch. So I looked online. I found no links to it. I found reviews but no visual content. I was stumped. Finally, I stumbled on a listing for a museum/library in London which had a video from 2007 starring Mr. C. Success! I almost shouted. Until I kept reading. Apparently the version they have must be viewed on their premises.

That struck me as weird. Remember, this is about disseminating high culture. Wouldn't they want more people to share in this experience? Wouldn't it be desirable to have a larger audience aware of this and able to celebrate something of brilliance instead of hiding it away ON VIDEOCASSETTE? So I emailed them. I mentioned that I teach the play. I pointed out that I wanted it for educational purposes. I made the case that flying 22 teenagers to London might prove impractical. And then I waited. The website cautioned me that responses take up to 10 days. Museum life must be very busy.

About an hour later (which, because of the time difference means that they sent it before I made the request), I got a response. Huzzah. It was very nice and proper and explained that the archives are for research done on site. In other words, they said "no." Strange. They want to keep this to themselves. Well, actually, in their words,

Regrettably, the recordings in our Video Archive are not available online or for purchase. We have a strict agreement with the British entertainments unions and are only allowed to make recordings if those recordings are viewed on V&A premises.

​We are sorry not be of more help.

And yes, they typo is theirs, not mine. Look carefully at what they said -- they "make recordings" but they assure the artists who get recorded that NO ONE can see the performance outside of that building. That limits audience, not what would think an artist would want. Note that they also say that they don't even sell the recording. So no payment can go to anyone. They have it but I can't see it or pay for the chance to see it. Think about that. I want to throw money at them for this but apparently, my cash isn't green enough for them. Or blue. I don't know what color money is in London.

I went to the librarian at school, Mrs. Geller. She's wonderful. She can look up anything and find most anything. I sent her the link because I thought there might be honor among libraries and maybe there was some sort of loan program. There isn't. She couldn't find anything. Now our collective honor was at stake so I decided to take matters to the next level. I figured if anyone had a copy, it would be the star of the production so I decided to contact Benedict Cumberbatch. Swing for the fences, that's what I always say (which is awkward when the question is "do you want fries with that?"). I did my research and found the name of the agency which represents him (you generally are represented either by an agent or a lawyer. I am without representation. There is a political joke in there if you want to go look for it and report back to me) and decided to contact him through them. I eschews the expected course of emailing his specific department and figured I should go through the "front Desk" as that is where all real power resides.

So I emailed them and explained my situation and the relative dearth of culture experienced by my neanderthal students. I pointed out that flying the class to England to watch a videotape might not be feasible. All my co-workers laughed at me, insisting that I would never hear anything about this and telling me that I was tilting at English windmills. I persevered because nothing ventured, nothing gained. Or lost, like dignity, but whatever. A few hours later, I received a response. It read, "Sadly we don’t have a copy of this performance nor access to it. I believe that it would have only been taped for archival purposes and not for distribution I’m afraid." It appears to be case that Mr. Cumberbatch and his people (I have no people. I want people) simply have no copy of this recording. I told the author, a wonderful person by the name of Nicholas Gall (I asked for his permission to mention him by name and he graciously granted the permission. In return, I believe that the masses who read this should send him all sorts of good stuff. Hi Nick) that I would probably then have to find a way to get all of my students archived so that they could be stored near the videocassette. The joke crossed the ocean and earned a virtual giggle so I'm feeling pretty good on that front.

My next alternative was to find the only English person in my workplace and present her with the following request: could she please ask her parents to make an appointment time, go to the museum wearing Google Glasses or carrying a video camera, and watch the performance so it could be recorded. Interestingly she said that she thought that her parents might not want to be involved in this. Something about criminal charges and such. The details are fuzzy; I stopped listening after "No." I then figured that my best bet is to hire a computer hacker who could break into the computer system and get access to the recording. It works on TV so it must be true, right? Except for one thing -- the recording was on a cassette, not uploaded as a digital file, as far as I could tell. So I widened my net and decided to hire a crack team of mercenaries who could break in, replace the tape with a fake, and spirit the performance away. I would watch it and then mail it back anonymously. It would be wrong to make an unauthorized copy so I wouldn't, but I would tell the thieves that I would need their services next year, same time.

Eventually, I gave up that plan when I realized that I don't know how to hire a crack team of mercenaries.

I decided to give it the old college try once more (England has many old colleges). I went down the list of actors affiliated with the performance and saw a name I recognized -- Zawe Ashton. It just so happens that I show another class of mine a performance of Othello and she is in that and is great. But do I track down her agency and go the same route? NO! I decided to go a different route and I found her Twitter account.

I hate Twitter. I have had 2 different accounts and I stopped using both of them. I have lost my passwords and I don't mind because I hate Twitter. That would prove to be a problem. So I found the school tech guy and had to explain to him why I wanted to co-opt the school Twitter account to send an unsolicited tweet to Zawe Ashton asking if she had in her possession a videotape from 2007. Once he stopped laughing at me, he agreed. I typed up the tweet and sent it via email to him. Yes, I emailed the a tweet. He reworded a bit and sent it out.

At this point, I have started showing my class the 1974 version but I await good news at every moment.

And if you are reading this, Mr. Cumberbatch, you might want to reassure the good people at the V&A that you are ok with a larger, paying audience. And give Nick a raise.

Friday, February 13, 2015

It is time for The Talk

Another milestone is about to be reached so I steel myself for it by hiding behind a computer keyboard. That gets boring, so I move to the other side, in front of the keyboard and start typing. I find it easier to unload myself to the vast emptiness that is the internet than to try to maintain the attention span of a child who was raised by "2 Second Frenzy." So here is the talk (and since the Bard said it better than I could, I'll rely on him to help out).

My elder has a friend in town. A friend I knew about before today and whose picture I have seen. This is (as far as I know) her first "real" boyfriend. I put "real" in quotes because what it means is "I really don't want to know about the romantic life of my child and this is the first boy whose name I have heard." So, real boy (no strings). She has visited him, spent time with him, and now, he's in town and I run a really good chance of meeting him. Hurrah. I am full of mixed emotions -- how am I supposed to feel? Should I feel like I am being edged out? That I, the closest approximation of a male in her life, am being replaced? Should I have a kind of hurt, a loneliness seeing her wish to spend time with someone else? Maybe. Maybe on some level I feel a little left out, but not as much as I have seen others hurt. I have known that this was coming and even if this boy is not "the one" I know that he will then be the first in a line of males who will take my place. Desdemona said it best and I understand what she meant in I, iii:

I do perceive here a divided duty.
To you I am bound for life and education.
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you. You are the lord of duty.
I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband.
And so much duty as my mother showed
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.

[copyright Shakespeare and stuff]

I know that I am just the caretaker, the one borrowing my child's heart until the rightful owner is born, raised, and courts her properly to snatch it away. That's OK. I stole a girl from her dad and I am deeply indebted to Mr. C for allowing me the privilege...this is the way of the world. But as she is moving to that new stage, I feel like I want to share with her some thoughts (profound or otherwise) to let her know that I'm still her dad.

Kid: (yes, I often DO call her kid...h/t Arlo Guthrie)

I look at you and I see a 6 year old. I see a small, sleeping child. A small sleeping child who is really difficult to get up in the morning. A small child who can take 15 minutes to tie her shoes but who can be out the door in 10 seconds when the motivation is right. I see my big girl getting bigger - that strange mix of fearless world traveler and scared mouse who hates going to the basement alone. As I teach you to drive I see the opportunity to help you become aware of the world on a whole new level as I provide the wings through which you will inevitably fly away. I see a complex person who can be as lazy as lazy can be (without expending any effort to be lazy) and who can turn on the jets and get huge amounts done. But I still see a sleeping child who has crawled into my bed and is hogging my covers and kicking me in the face.

I am looking forward to meeting your friend. You have decided that he is someone special to you and that makes me happy. I hope you have high standards and that he meets and exceeds them. Demand greatness from others and show greatness to them, that's what I wish I always said! I want you to be happy. Every day, all the time. I want you to have someone you can laugh with, and cry to, and who makes your heart skip a beat. When I look at your mother, I still get nervous. After all these years, I still want her to be glad she chose me. I want you to find someone who inspires that feeling in you. When you are sad, it crushes me and it always will, so if you find someone who can help you out of sadness, day or night, then I celebrate that. But don't settle for someone who doesn't make you laugh and think.

I want you to be safe [he said, diplomatically]. Safety is multi-faceted. I want you to be careful in all decisions you make. You have, thus far, made many good decisions, and a couple of bad ones (which I don't intend to let you forget). You have been getting better at making good ones, but the temptation to do something stupid, or worse, rationalize stupidity until it appears as reasonable will become more pronounced and insidious and persuasive every day. [Laertes said something to this effect when lecturing Ophelia, "Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister, And keep you in the rear of your safety lies in fear: Youth to itself rebels, though none else near."] I will always want to be the one you call when you need help, but I fear the call and hope you never need that kind of help. The world will become less and less forgiving as you grow. Surround yourself with people who respect you, your ideas, your priorities and your wishes. Find people who support and protect you, and whom you want to respect and protect. Polonius's speech jumps to mind (you might recognize this from the SparkNotes you read while avoiding the play):

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade.

Choose friends wisely and with discretion, and intimate friends even more carefully. Make choices that reflect who you are and who you want to be, not what someone else wants you to be. To that end,

I want you to remember who you are. You are, as every teacher and principal has no doubt told you, an ambassador. You represent (among others) your family, your city, your country and your religion. You are how others will view your heritage and your pride and practice, your commitment to a cause and to the preservation of a way of life will leave a lasting impression on your world. You are bigger than you know and make an impact on the world at every moment. Make it meaningful and understand how infused with power every step you take is. No pressure here, but I hope you choose to live a life in accordance with an ancient set of rules which are struggling to evolve and yet stay true to an historical heritage. I hope you become part of that struggle, helping a people move forward while holding fast to the past.

I hope you find your place. I want you to find a geography which suits you personally, professionally and emotionally. I want to support your decisions, be they to live in the capital and work for some agency, or move to a farm and raise bunnies, or move abroad and show your pride in your ancient homeland. I want you to make the decision after a lot of long, hard thought: a decision which completes you and which you can live with, because you are the one who will have to. I hope you find your place in a community of like-minded people; I don't want you to find a group who are "ok" but whom you have to inspire, lead, or mold. I want you to share the burden of inspiring others with those others. Take your turn by doing something magical, but be around people who show you how to improve yourself as well. Don't try to be the angel in a group of devils because you think they will look up to you. Hamlet, again

the power of beauty will sooner
transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the
force of honesty can translate beauty into his

Bottom line, the bad drags the good down before the good pulls the bad up. As your mother and I have said, we generally don't worry about what you will do -- we worry about the rest of the world and what it does. And sometimes, what you do.

I want you to be successful, but I can't measure that for you. I want you to create a vision of success which is informed by your heart and your head and which leads you to people, places and experiences that are as unique as you are.

I want to meet this boy, look him in the eye and tell him, "for now, and maybe for longer, someone I care about thinks you are OK. So I share that opinion. Don't ruin it." I won't stand there with a shotgun (or the modern day equivalent, a larger shotgun). I won't try to scare him or embarrass you, though, in time, I will do the former if I fear he hurt you and the latter because that's a separate obligation which I take seriously. I will respect your ideas and decisions up to a point as I hope you will respect mine. I will loosen the leash as I let you wander farther and farther away, while I hope never to give you enough rope to hang yourself. I will mix metaphors with impunity. I will trust you some today, a bit more tomorrow, and let's not get too far ahead of ourselves and worry about next week just yet.

I will love you, sometimes like you, and worry about you constantly. I'm your dad. I hope you find a guy who makes your heart sing, but remember, I'm the guy who wrote the words to the song and etched them there.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Do You Have a Sense of Humor

Hello and thank you for taking my online quiz, "Do you have a sense of Humor," number 17 in my series of online self assessments. By now, you should have taken such quizzes as "Do I know where both my legs are?" and "Am I on the internet" so you should consider yourself a power user. Congrats!

Note, this assessment is different from my self-check work entitled "Am I funny?" If you recall, that assessment went as follows:

Step one: check name
Step Two: Compare name with "Dan Rosen"
Step Three: Check result -- if your name is Dan Rosen then, "Yes" you are funny. If not, then no. You aren't funny.

If you received the answer of "No" but are still unsure as to whether you are funny, then there was also step Three-A:
Step Three A: Ask Dan Rosen if you are funny.

Note that step Three-A requires the additional correspondence fee of $3.95 per request, plus applicable state and local taxes and shipping and handling fees. And the answer is probably still "No."

This assessment is designed to test whether you have the kind of sense of humor which allows you to appreciate what those of us with a sense of humor call "jokes" and see if they are what we call, "funny." Please read directions and move through the steps at a comfortable pace.

Step 1: Find a piece of stand-up comedy which you think is funny.
Step 2: Replace a noun in the line (not a pronoun) with the words "battery acid."
Step 3: Repeat the line.

Results: If you still laugh at the revised version, you do not have a sense of humor and you are possibly a psychopath or a non-English speaker, or both (to be sure, please take our popular self-assessment #6, "Am I a Psychopath or a non-English speaker, or both?")

Example: I will take Steven Wright's classic line (used without any discernable permission, but until I hear otherwise...) "I poured spot remover on my dog and now he's gone."
I will replace "spot remover" with "battery acid." I am left with, "I poured battery acid on my dog and now he's gone." I do not find that funny. Ergo, I have a sense of humor.
Note, if you attempted to replace the other noun in the joke and have "I poured spot remover on my battery acid and now he's gone" then you have successfully completed self-assessment #14, "Am I an idiot?" Please send me $45.

If you replaced the pronoun then you are illiterate. I said "not a pronoun."

The supplement to this assessment allows you to see the type of sense of humor you have. Assessment 17-x.

Step one: Click on "Ask me what I think of you."
Step two: When you hear the answer "you are a jerk" gauge your reaction.
Condition One: If you are angry, you have no sense of humor
Condition Two: If you are not angry, you might have a sense of humor, you jerk.

If you wish to ask me for clarification, click on "Are you serious?"

Assess your feelings based on the answer "No, I am kidding."

If you smile, you have a well-formed sense of humor. If you think "Well, that still wasn't very nice." Then you have a poor sense of humor.

Thank you for your participation and I hope you have a better understanding of your own potential sense of humor.

My next assessment will be released next week, entitled, "Is that a dagger I see before me?"

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Dear Baby Girl,

Hi. Nice to meet you. My name is Dan and I'll be your great-uncle this lifetime. That was the first line I used when Maddie was born (though I substituted "father") and she turned out pretty awesome so there you go.

Anyway, I don't know your name and you aren't telling me what it is, mostly because you are 4 days old but partially because you might not know it either. I will capitalize on your inability to talk and take your silence for rapt attention and interest in my words of wisdom. I'd like to tell you about this world as it is and as it used to be so that you can say "I remember when..." even if you don't, just because your bestest uncle is feeding you bits of info about the olden days.

We used to have this thing called a "map." We still use the word, but back in the day, it was printed on paper and you had to fold it all crazy-like. Let me take a step back. Back in the old days, we had this stuff called paper. It was awesome, trust me. You could write on it (writing is like printing with a printer only with your actual hand and something called a pen or pencil and the printer can't actually make a thing, it just transferred "ink" onto "paper") or you could fold it into the shape of an airplane and throw it at someone's head, or you could get a nasty cut. That last part you should not be nostalgic about.

In earlier times, we used to send information to each other by putting it in a paper conveyance and paying to have someone walk it, or drive it to another person or place after you licked a little piece of paper and stuck it on the conveyance. Pretty old-school, right? Oh, "old school" is an old way of saying "old." I'm not sure why we added "school" in there. This process of sending stuff was called "mailing" it and the stuff was called "mail." I know, like 'email' but without the "e." Actually, the "e" used to stand for "electronic" and was added on to the word "mail" relatively recently.

When I was a boy, sometimes I was actually alone. We didn't carry phones and tablets and devices or have whatever it is you will have when you are a teenager (some sort of neural implant, if television has been telling me the truth). We had to sit around with nothing to do except look at the world. I recommend that. Your great aunt Naomi used to do that a lot. She did it because she is a student of her world. I did it because I had no friends. Friends were actual humans you interacted with in "RL" (that's slang for "real life"). We did have television but (and this will be shocking) there were times when there was nothing on or at least nothing remotely interesting, and we were limited by the schedule of when things were put on to watch -- we couldn't choose to watch them whenever we wanted. Crazy, right?

In school (a few years away, but still...) we often had to memorize facts and learn little things that now you can call up on one of the ubiquitous devices. We had to use our brains to store information. Definitely keep up that tradition. And when I say school, I mean a building we had to go to to meet with human teachers and pay attention at certain times and for certain times. Maybe that's why we say "old school." You can ask your online robot-teacher when you get the chance. Cars? They didn't drive themselves. You had to read a book, take a test, then learn to drive a car and take another test. And it was still scary.

Bottom line is you are going to be growing up in a magical time and you won't be able to appreciate how wonderful it is because it will simply be all you know. The same way that I can't fully appreciate indoor plumbing without reading a book by Laura Ingalls Wilder (recommended and available on a digital platform near you), you can't really understand how fortunate you are, not having to practice cursive handwriting.

Also, practice peace. We haven't really got that down pat just yet and I hope you and your friends (be they virtual or actual) are more successful in celebrating each other and accepting each other for who you are than we have been. Try new things and remember the old things, except Barney. Don't remember Barney. Cherish history and rush blindly into the future. Learn from failure and teach others how to avoid the mistakes you made so that their failures are new and different. Work hard. There is nothing worth doing that isn't worth working at and trying really hard to perfect. There is nothing you care about that isn't worth your time and there is nothing worth your time which you can't succeed at.

Grow up slowly. Enjoy being little so you can look forward to being big because once you get big, you are going to miss being little. Soak it all in. Every moment is a teachable moment and a chance to learn something. Stop looking down at your device (or, to translate into future-speak) take off the immersive VR glasses and be a part of your actual world. Be a link in lots of different chains. Love people. They love you and the more joy and love you bring into the world, the more you get back. Appreciate who you are and who the people around you are trying to lead you to become. I know your parents. They have noble goals. Your grandparents, treat like the wackadoodles they are, and your great grandparents, like royalty. You come from really good stock on both sides so don't waste a bit of the potential you have.

And appreciate indoor plumbing. Trust me.

Let's have a chat when you learn to talk and I learn to listen. I'm fascinating.


Your greatest uncle, Dan

Monday, January 19, 2015

Vacated Brains

Ah, vacation. That blessed time when everyone else goes away and leaves me the hell alone. I can sit and star at piles of essays and wonder "why haven't those graded themselves yet" then I can open the refrigerator and consider eating food, performing the calculus necessary to compute the self-loathing which will follow a binge. Then, back to the pile of papers and the shock when I discover that they are not yet graded.

I love vacation.

Also on vacation, I have the chance to catch up on all the shows my kids watch and which should be disgusting me more often. Sadly, I don't always have time to mock their taste in TV because of the pressures of the school year. But on vacation, I can hover over them and ask "whatcha watching?" over and over and then, no matter the response, spit back, "that's stupid." Because it is. To call shows today a "vast wasteland" is to insult the word "vast." And I don't confine my derision for TV/cable -- the ones produced for online venues or other streaming services are no better. I do watch TV but because I watch the shows I watch, they are therefore good. What the children watch is garbage. The only exceptions are if I happen to watch the same thing but that rarely happens (the exceptions exist on the Food Network).

Today's crap du jour was a show called something like "Child Genius." It was about children who are touted as geniuses. Hence the name. Their genius at age 10 is determined by their ability to memorize random bits of information and do math in their heads. Can they change a tire? Can they discuss a sonnet? No. But if you ever need someone to memorize a deck of cards, look one of them up. They're brilliant like that. As I was trying not to watch this show (it was on in the next room and I was working very hard at not grading a stack of 10th grade essays) I couldn't help but hear and get angry. This show was not so much about how "smart" these prodigies are. Granted, they have the odd brain cells to rub together in those years before they are beaten down by the harsh reality of a life which doesn't care that they took college classes before puberty. Surely these children are prepping their poses for the "Calendar of Mal-adjusted Kids who have No Friends" in order to pay their way through therapy. But the show was more about their parents -- those hyper-driven projecting narcissists who push their children on to a stage and who deprive their kids of love if the child, God forbid, forgets the "femoral artery."

Now, before I go any further, please, understand, I am not railing against this practice because I am incapable. I am pretty darned sharp and could hold my own against any random group of 10 year-olds, especially when the questions revolve around music from the 60's or how many shirts I own (hint, the answer is "a bunch"). I have known the thrill of the presentation. I was involved in a spelling bee in third grade. I won, and earned myself the book "101 Pickle Jokes." It was the sequel to "101 Hamburger Jokes" but lacked some of the punch of the original. I also am not angry because my own children have, in some way, disappointed me. My kids are plenty smart and they have a smarts that allows them to hold intelligent conversations, make sharp jokes, and wheedle another 20 bucks out of me. I just never saw the need to trot them out in front of strangers to brag about how unbelievable they are now and how desolate and depressed they will be in about 10 years. So, back to the show.

I wanted to believe that this show was a cut above the others. I wanted to think that because this show focused on the intellectual pursuits, it was redemptive, pulling the popular taste up the culture ladder. But it isn't about the brain. It is about the spectacle, and in that way, it is no better than the Dance Moms shows, the Toddlers in Tiaras shows and Real Housewives of Somewheresville. In a way, it is worse because it dresses itself up in the sheep's clothing of IQ points. But don't be fooled! The parents are serial abusers, the children are playthings and pawns and the voyeurs should be ashamed. This was the type of show that makes vacation a special bonding time when a father looks at his daughter and says those magic words, "I can't believe you are watching this junk." And she responds with "Based on this show, I guess you aren't the worst father in the world."

Bring back Tom and Jerry. At least that made sense.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A letter home to Mater

Dear Brandeis University,

I guess I owe you an explanation, but in a way, I guess you owe me one as well. So, as tough as this letter is for me to write, I want to clear the air between us so you know what precipitated this break-up. It isn't you and it isn't me. It's you.

You probably have been combing through the applications, trying to find the one marked "Madeline Rosen." You figure, "That's a Brandeis Family! Surely their child will apply to the school." And I wish you were right. We ARE a Brandeis family, and proud of it. In fact, I am sitting right now wearing a Brandeis scarf. A scarf for heaven's sake! A scarf that I have saved for the last 20+ years and which I love wearing not just because it keeps my (ever more sensitive) neck warm, but because it proclaims to the world "I went to Brandeis and that's pretty darned awesome!" And when the Mrs. wears her "Let's shoot for the top" t-shirt, or when I show the kids my Brandeis English department sweatshirt? We smile and embrace great memories of our time on campus. And you know what? Of all the schools which I attended, Brandeis is the one school that I consistently give money to as an alum. That must say something. Two generations, 4 Brandeis students (my parents, and the wife and I, all hail to the white and the blue) and yet you aren't going to find an application for my elder child.

Maybe it isn't because you have changed -- maybe I just didn't see what you were back then and my parents were willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the world has changed around us. I don't know, but let me detail my thought process so you can understand my thinking.

First off, you, while a fine school, have made political decisions which highlight your openness and at the same time, call in to question your mission to be a safe haven for Jews and Zionists. Yes, I know, it is important to foster open debate and freedom of thought because if we stifle it for any group, we run the risk of endorsing censorship for the Jewish voice. But the fact is, my child, an ardent Zionist, should not be wandering through a campus which allows voices of hate to carry the day. It is, to my mind, simple. Maybe I am holding Brandeis up to a separate standard, and that isn't fair, but I do it. When I attended, there were all sorts of voices of dissension but there was an underlying sense that to be pro-Israel would never go out of style. The news I have read and the anecdotes retold to me by my own students who have gone through campus tell me otherwise. Sure, you say, there is tension, but that tension exists on many campuses. Yes, it does. And yes, wherever Maddie goes, she will have to confront hatred and bigotry. And if all else was equal, Brandeis, with a relatively small anti-Zionist contingent might still be a viable option for her. But all else isn't equal.

Next, you are a fine school, but one which costs a huge amount. My parents, God bless them, were able to afford to send their children to expensive schools. I am simply not in that boat. I do fine; don't get me wrong. I know that compared to the mass of the American population, I am blessed and in the top levels. But when it comes to schools, sinking 250k plus into 4 years just isn't in the financial cards. I don't want Maddie leaving school saddled with huge debts (and don't want those debts for myself) and, because the Mrs. and I are squarely comfortable, we just don't qualify for any solid financial aid. Sure, FAFSA might throw a few thousand bucks at us and I'm neither rejecting nor taking that money for granted. But the fact is, a yearly tuition bill over 50 thousand (plus all the other costs) is not defrayed much by $4,800 in grant money. But again, could we make it work if everything else was equal? Maybe. We'd scrimp and save and cut corners and find a way. But all else isn't equal.

I left Brandeis with a degree in English and American Literature. The wife left with a double BA in English and in History. We are children of the liberal arts and we are proud of it. A liberal arts education creates a rounded person -- someone who knows just enough about many things to either create a well-informed world view, or be an asset on a Trivia Night team. We, I'd like to think, are both. We both were prepared for graduate school and have found careers which leverage our multi-faceted education. But the fact is, it took me 4 years after graduation to find myself and during that time, I was lucky enough to have parents who could continue to carry me (again, God bless them). My liberal arts degree trained me to think critically and communicate effectively, but not actually DO anything. And the world has changed. No longer can a student leave having tasted of the intellectual delights of a broad range of fields and then start to find direction. While some families might still be able to set up a financial plan which can weather a longer road towards "life" and "career" we cannot. We want Maddie to try different things and end up happy in a field which suits her passions, but we need to get her on that path a touch earlier. And Brandeis, while you have many classes and tracks which I still would love to try out, the fact is, for her areas of interest, she would be floating between departments for four years, never being able to focus and start herself towards anything real. She could create her own major but how would that look to prospective employers. At other schools, she could go into a well regarded program, one nationally ranked, one with established connections into industry.

So with a heavy heart, I have to tell you that you should not expect that she, a student whose temperament, family history and intellectual curiosity would otherwise make her a poster child for Brandeis, will be applying to walk your storied halls. I have another child --- one with a different skill set, but one with the same parents, with the same underlying concerns and with the same financial limitations. Maybe in the next few years, I will win the lottery, the price of education will drop precipitously due to competition from online degree programs, or you will realize how cool it would be to have a third generation student at your school so you will come a-calling and throwing money. Maybe, you will rediscover your mission and take a stand against injustice and evil, and realize that one does not have to have a mind so open that one's heart falls out. But probably not.

So while I might still send in some money each year, it won't be as much as I have. While I may eventually come up for a reunion, it will be to relive the past, not celebrate the future. And while I wear this scarf, I will not be able to hand it down to a next generation of Brandeis student in the family. We can still be friends.

If you want to talk, feel free to contact me. To thee, alma mater, we'll always be true.

Dan ('91)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Look it up

I wrestle often with the question of technology in the classroom. Part of me wants to remove it completely -- no watches, books or shoes ("machinery and equipment developed from the application of scientific knowledge") and have a good, old fashioned Socratic chat with the students, inviting them to think in response to challenges about what they think they know and/or believe. At other times I wish that I could plug each student into the internet and take for granted that basic background information has been assimilated and integrated into the world view so I can move onto the good stuff.

I think that some of this tension derives from the experiences of my teacher mentor, Charlie Moore.

Charlie Moore worked with an honors class back in the late eighties and it wasn't an easy class. You had a geek who was into math, a preppie guy who was hyperintelligent and good looking. There was a prodigy, and angry black woman, the artsy ditz, an immigrant and a motorcycle dude who was ashamed of his own intelligence and didn't want to be confined with the rest. Class periods were about 5 minutes long and there didn't seem to be any real curriculum but week in, week out, Mr. Moore tried to impress upon his students that facts were only a starting point and a real interaction with thought happened when students challenged themselves and each other and saw how the dry facts relate to their world.

Also in the class was a student named Dennis Blunden. Dennis was somewhat overweight and was a computer genius. In 1987 the idea of a computer genius resonated with me because I aspired to be a computer genius. Here is a picture of him, sitting at an Apple, way beack then.

Didn't I mention that this was a TV show? Maybe I should have mentioned that.

This was a TV show. A prescient TV show.

Dennis didn't just have some PC sitting in front of him (ironic that that picture has him at an Apple product), but one that had all the information one would need to second guess a teacher. He had sort-of internet like connection to an encyclopedic range of information. Now back then, I had a computer too. It was also connected, via a 300 baud modem to other bulletin boards. Eventually, I moved to 1200 and then 2400 so the dial up systems I accessed could present ways to hack public phones at what seemed like light speed. I didn't have an encyclopedia or access to one on my computer - when I finally started using Gopher servers, I could still only get information piecemeal, nothing like what Dennis could produce in 1987.

I mention this because I have classes full of modern-day Dennises, and this constant influx of information (assuming they aren't shopping or playing a game...Dennis never seemed to be shopping or playing a game) is a double edged sword. Anything I say is subject to fact checking by a raft of teenagers who can decide my worth as a teacher based on whether or not Wikipedia happens to agree with my understanding of a piece of literature. Now, sure, this keeps me honest (whereas my professional integrity would do nothing of the sort) but it also distracts students from thinking about ideas because they are looking to find chinks in my intellectual armor. Often this does encourage students to pursue independent lines of investigation but sometimes, that is to the detriment of their being exposed to the ideas I am discussing at that given moment in class.

Yesterday, while covering a question of logical, literary and stylistic import in our analysis of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a student went into his virtual world and came back with, "Douglas Adams was asked why he did that and he said 'because I wanted was a joke'." He assumed, and the class followed suit with the assumption, that this not only answered my driving question, but undermined the validity of my holding the conversation and exploring a variety of options. Technology stifled thought. In fact, I was able to reframe the topic and show them how there was still literary value in both the question and the process and that Adams actually supported my position. Fortunately, I can still out-think a bunch of high school students so I saved that class but the threat is there constantly. The presence of excessive factual resources allows students to subcontract their memories, sure, and that might be a good thing, but it also puts too much value on those external thought processes.

SO I am torn. Having a Dennis in the class can be very useful. When a student asks what a word means, I can point to a dictionary or tell the student to look it up. When I can't remember a fact, or make a cultural reference, I can be sure that some kid will plug the gap in either my memory or find the song, show, book or other media piece which will highlight my point. And I can even imagine a class built solely on that skill, finding and making bizarre connections, as popular and useful preparing students for an online interactive future. But when the finding of things steps on the valuing of the self as a source of knowledge and innovation, or when it suborns a subversive approach to the classroom, encouraging students to devalue what the teacher is trying to accomplish by empowering them to focus on the minutae of what is said instead of the ideas presented, it corrodes the vitality and utility of the classroom. Dennis would never have done that to Charlie. Dennis realized that Charlie had more to contribute and had an expertise in thinking and appreciating the whole world and he realized that THAT was what he was supposed to be learning about.