Monthly Archives: January 2016

What Lasts in Teaching?

A reflection from a young contract teacher

by Phil Lagogiannis, Dawson College

This essay originally appeared in issue 524 of the Owl Hoots, the Dawson Teachers’ Union newsletter, in October 2014. It has since been edited.

As teachers, we constantly engage the question of what it means to teach: it inflects our work even if we have never asked it out loud. Our practice is itself a kind of articulation of the question, even if it only flirts with giving an answer through its method.

What lasts in teaching? I don’t mean to ask, “What do our students take away from us?” but rather, “What about teaching remains present over the semesters, over the years?” As a young teacher I can only outline a possible answer, but maybe you will be willing to share your insight upon hearing mine.

A related question we could first ponder is, “To what extent does our employer encourage us to teach?” I can speak to this question as a teacher of the precarious sort, but I can only speculate about what it might be like to be a permanent teacher working at the same college.

For example, I have recently come off a regular winter semester composed of two night courses. I felt that I was capable of teaching those courses at a level consistent with my own evolving standards. I have only just now begun to teach a summer night course. This course runs for the usual 75 hours, but it does so over seven weeks instead of over a regular semester’s fifteen. The enrolment currently sits at thirty-four students. To an administrator, it would be reasonable to conclude that my summer looks a lot like teaching two regular semester classes at once: a nearly full workload. Officially, this determination would depend on various factors outlined in a calculation protocol which unfortunately does not apply to contract teachers.

Nevertheless, I feel capable of teaching this course at a level consistent with my current standards. Its 10.75 hours per week translate to 38.7 work hours under the Employment Insurance (EI) Act. This is a special provision for contract teachers which recognizes the value of a single teaching hour as 3.6 hours once preparation, grading, and support are factored in. This seems to be altogether fair to me based on my own experience, but there is no parallel college policy. Since money talks, our high hourly rate reflects this de facto if not de jure.

From what I gather, for contract teachers classes are indiscriminately identical regardless of student enrolment. Maximum workloads are also not ideas we should be entertaining lest we compromise our job security. These are the only conclusions I can reach based on the fact that I was offered a second course, running in parallel but during the day. If I were to accept it, I would be taking on an EI-equivalent workload of 99 hours per week. To an administrator, this should look like a breach of at least one common sense principle: there are only 168 hours in a week, and about 70 of them are spent sleeping and eating. Despite this fact, I was encouraged to take on the extra course in order to secure my position in the hiring pool. If I were to oblige, the ensuing time constraints would require me to lower my standards. Permanent teachers are fortunately exempt from having to make this call.

Would it be worthwhile to accept the work? Some might argue that contract teaching is a stepping stone to permanent teaching. This is no longer the case in many departments given the size of the Continuing Education program and the relative dearth of permanent posts compared to the growing number of contract teachers. Others might suggest that the work is challenging but that the financial reward is due compensation. This is false: a permanent teacher would in some cases make over twice as much for teaching the exact same summer course. Their salary will also grow next year while ours will remain unjustly frozen. We have no sick days, no disability insurance, no guarantees of future work, and no available leaves other than parental leaves.

But none of this directly answers the question, “To what extent does our employer encourage us to teach?” Any honest answer must be couched in a certain signification of the word teacher. It might help us to run through two possible meanings of the word: a common one and an older one. This detour will take us back to the question we opened with.

Is a teacher that person who, through persistent remembrance of a set of skills, projects the essential features of her discipline for students to assimilate?

If this is the case, then our employer might even be partly justified in its approach to doling out work. A teacher is a pool of knowledge, a resource not unlike a textbook. Consultation of this resource is a process to which we could prescribe an almost definite structure. That is the meaning of course of study, the duration and scope of which is mapped out in advance. Under this description, we could speak of a teacher’s efficiency and how it is conditioned in part by his experience. We might even conclude that a summer contract teacher with a remarkable capacity for time management who has taught all courses in question before – in my case, I submit to the latter but not to the former – would be able to bring down those 3.6 hours-per-lecture-hour to a more manageable 2.5. Then he is really only working about 69 hours per week, is sleeping and eating about the same amount, and even has some time for his loved ones and for himself during the remaining 30 hours. This is by no means easy, but it is at least conceivable.

There is nothing superficially defective about this signification of teacher and course insofar as it says something true about what we do. But we should also consider that a teacher might not essentially be the foregoing description. Teach comes from the Old English verb taecan, which is etymologically connected to the word token – a sign, a mark. To teach signifies to point out, to show. Learn comes from leornian, which aside from its usual signification of “to study” has the sense of “to find the path.”

Perhaps a teacher is a guide rather than a purveyor of knowledge. She brings her students into the disclosure of a phenomenon by pointing out the way to finding it. She is not a source of persistent remembrance of a skill, but someone for whom the path to disclosure has been trodden many times and with deliberate pre-meditation. Deliberate pre-meditation is therefore her skill. Her sharpened sense of the path and her commitment to treading it is her discipline. Her students follow this path not behind her but alongside her and ahead of her.

To teach is then not to set down the elements of the way as remembered facts, but to remember the way and to bring others into that remembrance. It involves a willful, thoughtfully meditative recollection. This recollection must be pre-meditated anew each time it is taken up. A teacher’s failure results from taking the way for granted, from assuming mastery – exhaustion – of something as inexhaustible as existence. All teachers, whether they teach French, physics, or physical education at bottom engage with existence.

Let me suggest that what lasts in teaching is the way. The students will be different; the metaphors may change; but the way is what we seek to show. Yet it is demanding and often surprising. By forcing us to make of it something so crudely calculable, our employers do not fully encourage us to teach.

If this is true, then the definite structure upon which we rely for the organization of material into a course of study has to be understood as something provisional. A teacher can no longer be seen as an hourly laborer, but must instead be understood as having a task which is far less definite in its requirements from iteration to iteration. A teacher must be supported as a guide, as someone who guards her discipline and shepherds students on the way. A teacher should not need to spend every minute of her downtime eating and sleeping because of the absurd calculations of her friends in administration, and her security should not depend on this impossible proposition.

JUNE 2014

How to Drive a Bus

z6mshMany, many years ago, early in my tech career, before I could afford a car, I took the bus to work every day. This being Kanata (then a separate city from Ottawa) it meant a four-block walk to the bus stop followed, typically, by waiting at least 35 minutes for the bus that came every half hour. (Yes. 35 minutes or more for a twice-hourly bus. Did I mention this was the beginning station for the route?  I didn’t?  Consider it mentioned now.)

The Bus Driver

There was one bus driver who I seemed to be cursed to always get. The bus I needed to catch to get to work on time was his bus. This bus driver hated the public as far as I can tell. If you greeted him as you got on the bus you got ignored stonily on a good day; on a bad day you got a hateful glare that made you wonder if you were going to be next in a bizarre series of ritual murders.

This guy was a real piece of work. He glared at you if you got on the bus. He glared at you if you got off the bus. He turned beet red, looking like he was just this side of an aneurysm if you dared to signal your intent to get off at the next stop. Heaven help you if you delayed him for three seconds at a stop!

That’s what I did once, you see. I showed up late (for the first time since he’d started the route) and came running to the bus stop just as he’d thrown the bus in gear. He literally had to stop for three seconds to open the door, let me on, and carry on moving. This was too much for him.

“Next time come to the bus stop on time!” he scolded me.

My back went up. (This happens frequently in my life and I make no excuses for it. Nor do I apologize for it.) I turned to him and said, in a clear, loud voice, “Listen, asshole. You’ve got a real attitude problem given that without riders you don’t have a job.” I then proceeded to my seat.

To cut a long story short (too late!) he slammed on the brakes and refused to move the bus unless I got off. I refused to get off. The other passengers supported me, however, so his peer pressure thing didn’t work out. (We’d been comparing notes on this guy for several weeks, you see, and nobody liked him one iota.) The passengers filed off the bus, several of them giving me supportive pats on the shoulder while glaring defiantly at the driver. They just waited for the next bus while I waited for what came next.

His error

The rest of what happened (I got driven to work personally by the guy’s supervisor and he was never on that route again) is irrelevant to my point. My point is that this guy had the wrong attitude as a bus driver. He thought—incorrectly—that his job was to drive the bus. It wasn’t. His job was to drive people and the bus was the means to that goal.

By confusing what his job actually was he focused on the wrong things. Delays were interfering with his incorrectly perceived job instead of being, you know, the whole point of his job. I’m sure he thought he could do his job perfectly if it weren’t for all the customers…

And here’s where I get personal

(Well, here’s where it gets personal if you’re a programmer. If you’re not a programmer you may want to skip this section if you have any delusions about what programmers think of you.)

This error is typical of people in the software industry. (That’s software industry. If you’re a researcher the status is obviously different.) Indeed I’d guess that the Chambers Constant (that’s 99.44%) of software developers share this guy’s attitude. “If only the users weren’t so stupid then I could do my job!”

Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this question if you’re a practitioner: when was the last time you used a term like “luser” non-ironically when talking about the people who use your software? (If you’re a non-practitioner, ask an honest practitioner that same question. Watch them squirm.) When was the last time you sat down and listened to a user complaint (say in a bug report) without rolling your eyes at the injustice of having to support such a dunderhead? If you’re like most of the people I’ve worked with or interacted with over the years—and that numbers well into the multiple hundreds scattered across three continents (North America, Europe and Asia)—you’re probably rolling your eyes now because you know what’s coming next and you want to get your defensive eye-rolling and dismissal going before you see the punch line.

What comes next

Because, you see, just like the job of a bus driver isn’t driving a bus, the job of a software developer isn’t developing software. The job of a software developer is solving user problems using software. Those “lusers” who irritate you so?  They’re the entire reason you’re in the fucking industry. If you lose sight of that you’re no better than that asshole bus driver. Indeed, since you’re presumably educated and/or intelligent, you’re likely a worse asshole than that bus driver.

If you can’t cope with this fact do yourself, your co-workers, and your customers a favour and find another job.  Software development just isn’t for you.

—Michael Richter

You Are Your Own Worst Enemy, Mr. Policeman

occupy-pepper-spray3Do cops have enemies? Of course they do. The problem isn’t in cops believing they have enemies. The problem lies with cops believing everybody around them is a potential enemy.

I get it, truly I do. Coming from a community of people who put their lives at risk in service of the nation (military brat, plus military proper) and from a family with four consecutive generations of such service, I actually do understand the sacrifices and realities of such things.

But…

Where I draw the line is giving people who sacrifice for service carte blanche. When one segment of society is given literal powers of life and death over the rest (which both cops and the military have) it is OBVIOUS that these same people must be kept to FAR higher standards than the average citizen (who does not have such powers). It is OBVIOUS that these people with extraordinary powers must be monitored more closely for abuse than those who have no such powers to abuse. And when they fail to do what they’re supposed to do (serve society) it is also OBVIOUS that they must be punished and punished harshly for it.

The current anti-cop attitude of the average citizen is entirely self-inflicted injury. When cops drive around in armored vehicles and dress (and even act) like they’re occupiers in fucking Afghanistan there should be no room for surprise that they become despised rather than loved. When their default attitude when dealing with the citizens they’re supposedly serving is hostility and violence, any loathing that is thrown their way is purely an own goal.

Now another thing I get, I truly get, is that not all cops are this way. Indeed I’d go so far as to say that the majority aren’t this way. But you know what almost all cops *are* like? Clannish to the point of stupidity. “He’s one of us.” “He’s a bastard but he’s OUR bastard.” “Thin blue line.” All the usual bullshit sloganeering that is used to excuse inaction when fellow cops drag the name of the entire profession through the mud.

Perhaps if police officers want respect and even adoration again they could take a few simple steps:

1. Tone down the fucking militaristic bullshit. Don’t bring out the camo gear, the snipers, the clubs, and the shields because someone farted somewhere in a crowd.

2. Stop considering yourself separate from the community. Can the “us vs. them” bullshit attitude. If you don’t feel a part of the community you’re policing, GET THE FUCK OUT OF IT. Go live in the Rockies in a cave and STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM PEOPLE. Because you’re doing nobody, yourself included, any good by ramping up a war, in effect, on your charges.

3. Pay very close attention to the proverb: “One bad apple spoils the barrel.” Notice how it doesn’t say “one bad apple is annoying” or “one bad apple is not representative of all apples” or even “one bad apple is an inevitable byproduct of having apples at all”? That’s because the advice involved is very specific: if, as a farmer, you have a bad apple in a barrel you THROW IT THE FUCK OUT. Do the same, very visibly, very publicly, with your more metaphorical bad apples. Fuck your clannish bullshit and clean out your God-damned barrels. Perhaps then you can re-earn the respect you once had.

—Michael Richter

Jean-Louis Asks The Tribe: Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

Chicken Crossing the Road
Chicken Crossing the Road — Image by © Corbis

GREG LINSTER – “It’s getting safely out of the way of my surfing and skiing.”

JOHN FAITHFUL HAMER – Link to Committing Sociology essay: “In Praise of Chickens Crossing the Street and Never Asking Why”

NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB – “Sophistry! I told the Chicken to fuck off and zapped him.”

WALTER MARSH – “It’s on its way to our Yoga center.”

AARON HASPEL – “We invent more stupid reasons for crossing the street than ever occurred to any chicken.”

DAVID BOXENHORN – Link to new study showing that chickens cross the street more freely in Israel than anywhere else in the world.

MARK ‘GURU’ BAKER – “It’s sprinting . . . to escape all the overweight losers and immigrants hooked on McNuggets.”

ELENI PANAGIOTARAKOU – “Does anyone have any scholarly articles about the treatment of chickens in Attic Greece?”

GRAEME BLAKE – “I coach chickens on how to get to the other side but being paleo, I also devour them when they get there.”

COREY LAW – “It wants to join our happy organic farm.”

PASCAL VENIER – Photo du poulet . . . in Manchester UK.

PIETRO BONAVITA – “Merda! Another migrant heading our way.”

VERGIL DEN – ”It wants to peck at my tree.”

MICHEL DAB – “Whatever the reason, Government should stay out of it.”

ANNA-LIISA AUNIO – “My students are trying to catch it for our rooftop garden.”

STANISLAV YURIN – Link to ‘Follow the Chicken’ search tool.

DANIELLE FARIBAULT – “I read the whole 4 volume history of chickens last night and it didn’t mention anything about that.”

PHILLIP CRENSHAW – Like

JAFFER ALI – “What did you expect. It wants to get away from the murderous drone bombing.”

JED TROTT – “It’s running away from all my kids.”

NICHOLAS TEAGUE – “Don’t care. I’m fasting today.”

VINCE POMAL – “Don’t know but I follow chicuns around all the time to find out.”

LEEÇA ST AUBIN – Posted photo of chicken but the tongue is sticking out.

PAUL WEHAGE – Link to some aria.

BAN KANJ – Arabic comment in latin alphabet with reversed ‘3’’s and new profile pix of Ban with chicken.

AARON ELLIOTT – “I have a great recipe for chicken.”

JEAN-LOUIS: Cartoon of old guy ranting: ‘I’ve been seeing chickens crossing the streets since I was a kid. And nobody had fucking opinions about it before Social Media.”

—Jean-Louis Rheault

The Four Semester Solution

“The most effective way to learn is by devoting oneself to a single subject for months at a time. Its opposite is school.”—Aaron Haspel, Everything (2015)

IMG_3390For years now, my students have been complaining about the number of subjects they’re required to take at the same time. While most university students take four courses a semester, most CÉGEP students take eight classes a semester! One young women—a very strong student who made the Dean’s List last semester—likened our present system to a big buffet, wherein everything looks and smells delicious, but you’re forced to eat so much, at such great speed, that you don’t really enjoy any of it whilst it’s happening, and you feel sick to your stomach when it’s done.

I propose that we split our existing semesters in two—creating four semesters; finish a week later in December; and add two weeks to the academic year: one at the beginning, in August, and one at the end, in May. We’ll need these three extra weeks to make space for the two new exam periods (one in mid-October and another in mid-March), and the new week-long break we’re going to add to the academic year (mid-October).

The first semester of the academic year would begin in mid-August and end in mid-October. It would be followed by a week-long exam period and a week-long break (Fall Break). The second semester would begin in mid-October and end in mid-December. It would be followed by a week-long exam period and a break from late December to mid-January (Winter Break). The third semester would begin in mid-January and end in mid-March. It would be followed by a week-long exam period and a week-long break (Spring Break). The fourth and final semester of the academic year would begin in early April and end in late May. It would be followed by a week-long exam period and the Summer Break.

Our students could, under this new system, take half as many classes per semester and go into far greater depth with them.

—John Faithful Hamer, Twilight of the Idlers (2017)

A Meditation on THE MEDITATIONS

From the vantage of the 21st century, Marcus Aurelius is one of the most appealing characters of Roman antiquity.  Not only a Roman emperor, but a good one, who administered the affairs of state in the public interest and didn’t abuse his authority, but also a thoughtful man, a philosopher, whose private commonplace book, “To Myself”, remains in print today as Meditations, a classic work of Stoic philosophy. Meditations is a true classic, re-discovered periodically by those seeking wisdom in difficult times. It was beloved of figures as diverse as Matthew Arnold (who wrote “So spake the imperial sage, purest of men, Marcus Aurelius”), WEB DuBois, and Bill Clinton. To me, it’s a remarkable book, one that inspires and repels: and not serially, but simultaneously. The passages that seem most noble are, at the same time, the most inhuman.

For Marcus, the good life for human beings is one of dispassion. Perhaps the most widely quoted line from the Meditations is “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing”; this sounds appealing to modern ears. Marcus sounds as if he is suggesting that life is about challenging and facing down difficulties, rather than simply seizing fleeting pleasures, and no doubt Marcus would agree; but that’s not what he’s trying to say in this passage, which is truncated. In the original text, he continues that living well is like wrestling “inasmuch as it, too, demands a firm and watchful stance against any unexpected onset.” That is, the danger that life poses us is disruption of our mental equilibrium. Certainly pain can do this, and vice, but so too can pleasure and virtue. “Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not,” he writes, “but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours. At the same time, however, beware lest delight in them leads you to cherish them so dearly that their loss would destroy your peace of mind.”

This insistence that pleasure and virtues are, in their own way, traps, distinguishes Marcus and the Stoics from other ancient schools of philosophy, like the Peripatetics or the Epicureans. The strongest argument Marcus has against those bodies of thought is that they admit that the good life requires certain external goods and circumstances. For Aristotle, the good life was lived in the city-state, and absent that form of social organization, human life can’t reach its full potential. Epicurus believed something similar, that the pleasant life required a well-governed society that minimized harms, for such was a prerequisite of the pleasant life. Marcus, living in a time when Rome warred against Persians and Germans, insists that the good life has no external needs: the power to live well lies within in everyone. “It is perfectly possible to be godlike, even though unrecognized as such. Always keep that in mind; and also remember that the needs of a happy life are very few. Mastery of dialectics and physics may have eluded you, but that is no reason to despair of achieving freedom, self-respect, unselfishness, and obedience to the will of God.” Such a life will be filled with pains and difficulties, but these are to be accepted, even welcomed. He writes: “So here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to be bitter: not, ‘This is a misfortune’, but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune'”. In a similar vein, life will seduce with pleasures, but these too are snares. He reminds himself that “Where life is possible at all, a right life is possible; life in a palace is possible; therefore even in a palace a right life is possible.”

A human’s greatest fear, Marcus posits, is the fear of death.  Again and again in the Meditations he offers advice for overcoming this fear, which is to keep one’s death in proper perspective. Anticipating Milton, he emphasizes that such fear is a  product of the mind, and can be changed by the mind. “Everything is but what your opinion makes it; and that opinion lies with yourself. Renounce it when you will, and at once you have rounded the foreland and all is calm; a tranquil sea, a tideless haven.” He suggests imagining one’s own funeral, and recognizing how, even among your friends, there will be people relieved to be free of you and the obligations you bring, which should make the fear of leaving them less. In fact, death is to be imagined at every opportunity: “Take it that you have died today, and your life’s story is ended; and henceforth regard what further time you may be given to you as an uncovenanted surplus, and live it out in harmony with Nature.”

There is wisdom here. Even more than Marcus, we 21st-century Canadians are prone to look for happiness as a thing out there, to be acquired through our latest acquisitions, and modern Stoics like Mr. Money Mustache or Juliet Schor remind us that this temptation will always be with us, and hard as it is to overcome it, doing so is imperative for anyone seeking a pleasant life. Marcus’ advice to cultivate patience and perspective about the difficulties and pains of life is also well taken; we’ve all known people who lacked such perspective, and seen how much unnecessary suffering they underwent. Marcus’ description of such a person, in the second person, is apt: to be such a person is to be a “stranger in your own homeland, bewildered by each day’s happenings as though by wonders unlooked for, and ever hanging upon this one or the next.”

But at the same time, Marcus’ insistence that we must detach from joy is too much to ask. The soldier may take pride in fulfilling duty; but there is more to life than duty. A human being is more than a robot, and finding delight in books, in family or friends, in food and stories and sex, seems to me to be also part of the good life. For all of his iron austerity, it seems to me that Marcus felt it too. The most poignant passage in the Mediations is this one, where Marcus seems to shudder at his own limits, and that of his way of life: “O soul of mine, will you never be good and sincere, all one, all open, visible to the beholder more clearly than even your encompassing body of flesh? Will you never taste the sweetness of a loving and affectionate heart? Will you never be filled full and unwanting; craving nothing yearning for no creature or thing to minister to your pleasures, no prolongation of days to enjoy them, no place or country or pleasant clime or sweet human company? When will you be content with your present state, happy in all about you, persuaded that all things are yours, that all comes from the gods, and that all is and shall be well with you, so long as it is their good pleasure and ordained by them for the safety and welfare of that perfect living whole – so good, so just, so beautiful – which gives life to all things, upholding and enfolding them, and at their dissolution gathering them into itself so that yet others of their kind may spring forth? Will you never be fit for such fellowship with gods and men as to have no syllable of complaint against them, and no syllable of reproach from them?”

I admire Marcus; but I do not follow him.

—Andrew Miller

Today’s Freedom Fighter, Tomorrow’s Tyrant?

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”—C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (1971)

President-coin-capitol-004We entertain all sorts of illusions about ourselves when we’re watching a movie like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 2 (2015): that’s part of the fun. Among other things, we tell ourselves that we’d be brave and courageous in similar circumstances, that we’d be the Teflon Hero with a heart of gold who manages, against all odds, to stay human through it all.

But anyone with any knowledge of military history, or some first-hand experience with war, laughs at these presumptions. Because they know that it’s very hard not become a demon when you live in Hell, just as it’s very hard to resist the urge to dehumanize those who systematically dehumanize you. And this is precisely why Gayle Hawthorne’s character is so disturbing. He’s what I have often feared I would become in such a situation. He’s probably what you’d become too.

But President Alma Coin is, for me, even more disturbing. Because if Gayle represents a likely psychological future, Coin represents a likely political future. She’s a depressingly familiar character in the story of our species: namely, the freedom fighter of today who becomes the tyrant of tomorrow.

Look at those in Social Media Land who most loudly proclaim the Gospel of Liberation, and look carefully, friends, for tomorrow’s tyrants will be chosen from among their ranks. There are wolves hiding in that flock, and we need to identify them, so we can see to it that they’re never given any kind of serious power. But how? How do we spot them? Well, as Gayle Hawthorne’s story arc makes clear, it’s not always easy, because brutalized sheep can, at times, become wolves. What’s more, there are now, as there have always been, wolves in sheep’s clothing.

But my guess is that the proverbial “wolf in sheep’s clothing” is actually quite rare. Most wolves are, if you know what to look for, rather easy to spot. It’s kind of funny, truth be told, because they think they’ve got everyone fooled, and yet it’s amazing how many people seem to know what they secretly desire. Be that as it may, if you want to know who’s going to be a tyrant in power, pay attention to who walks and talks like a tyrant out of power. If you want to know how a freedom fighter’s going to rule tomorrow, pay attention to how they deal with people who disagree with them today.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Be Patient

xuy85Nick Robinson: “So your message really to those non-white actors is:  be patient, it’ll come…”

Michael Caine: “Yeah, be patient…of course, of course it’ll come.  I mean, it took me years to get an Oscar.”

—Interview between Nick Robinson from BBC Today and Michael Caine, in response to the boycott of the Oscar’s for the continued lack of diversity in Hollywood and nominations in the awards (2016)

“Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”—Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963)

The True Face of America on the Screen

butch-cassidy-and-the-sundance-kidDuring casting for The Godfather (1972), Francis Ford Coppola got into a huge fight with his producers over who to cast in the central role of Michael Corleone. It was an epic battle that nearly cost Coppola his funding. The producers wanted blonde, blue-eyed Robert Redford to play Michael Corleone, whilst Coppola insisted that this was absurd. Corleone’s character is Sicilian; and, as he put it, “we need to see the true face of Sicily on the screen.” And that meant someone who “looked the part”, someone whose appearance resembles that of the average Sicilian: black hair, olive skin, brown eyes. Eventually Coppola prevailed and cast Al Pacino in the role of Michael Corleone. That role made Pacino’s career what it is today.

The black actors calling for a boycott of the Oscars seem to want the same thing Coppola wanted: namely, a reasonable degree of artistic realism. They’re not saying nominate me because I’m black. They’re saying stop casting Robert Redfords in roles made for Al Pacinos. They’re saying, to paraphrase Coppola, “let’s see the true face of America on the screen.”

At present, we’re not seeing the true face of America on the screen. Quite to the contrary. “And therein,” writes LaTasha Baker, “lies the problem. Emma Stone had a role whose character was written to be Asian. Renée Zellweger’s character in Cold Mountain was a biracial woman in the book on which it was based. And let us not forget how the lovely Rita Moreno and Chita Rivera, actual Puerto Ricans, played subordinate characters to Russian-American Natalie Wood as she played the lead character, a Puerto Rican. The black female character in Gone Girl was completely written out of the screenplay. You cannot tell a group of people that maybe they didn’t get recognized because they weren’t talented enough when they never even got a chance at bat.”

It’s interesting to note that many of the very same people who are highly critical of what LaTasha Baker is saying have no problem with what Coppola said. Apparently art should imitate life if it’s Italian but not if it’s black.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Selling Everything

41XBc2HTu0L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Ah, the sweet simplicity of commerce. I leave my house in the dark, long before dawn, heavy box on my shoulder: making my way to the métro, panting like an exhausted Vieux-Montréal caleche horse, trying not to slip on the ice, drinking in the silence, delighting in the cobalt sky—and my newfound immunity to January’s sting, and Winter’s wrath.

On the métro and on the bus, strangers stare but I don’t really care: can’t remember the last time sitting felt so good. Fifty-pages-of-The-Favourite-Game later, I’m standing in a sunlit classroom, on a country-club-of-a-campus, marveling at the magic of the market: one by one, they come out of the box, transfigured and transformed by trade, into pretty piles of paper.

Heading home this afternoon, under a bright blue sky, I delight in the sweet soreness of my bourgeois body, and feel light, light as a feather. How strangely satisfying it is: selling Everything.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)