Monthly Archives: February 2013

An Oscar-season reminder that Crash is the worst

Mallory Ortberg and Anne Helen Peterson are talking about Crash over at the Awl. In addition to re-capping all the reasons this movie, more than the many, many other mediocre Best Picture winners, deserves our continued condemnation, they make a good case for why we should still care about how bad Crash was. The whole conversation is worth a read, but Peterson concludes with a nod to the utility of popular art with questionable politics:

Because even when people stop renting Crash on Netflix, its legacy is still with us. It’s in The Blind Side, but it’s also very much in The Help. I’m actually surprised there isn’t a single “white people solve racism” film in this year’s Oscar bunch—it’s so incessant, so culturally assertive, so eager to be green-lighted by all manner of white execs who want to show that they’re willing to cast black actors so long as their salvation is rooted in the extravagances of white privilege. Crash hurts my soul—but it’s also an incredible teaching tool. When I’m talking about the mid-2000s in class, twenty years from now, I’ll be able to point to it as a perfect crystallization of all America wishes it was and all it was not. That’s a fucking tragedy, but that doesn’t mean I’m not glad this film exists. Traces matter, however repugnant.

Ortberg is less optimistic:

I think it’s wonderful that you think there will still be human teachers in American universities twenty years from now.

Hooking Americans on processed food

This bleak and fascinating New York Times magazine article on the science of addictive junk food is a must-read. It’s excerpted from Michael Moss’s forthcoming book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Moss describes the incredible efforts of junk-food manufacturers to maximize the addictive qualities of their products–from mouth feel to bliss point. One of the most fascinating things is how quantifiable all that is; companies hire food scientists, sure, but also statisticians and mathematicians to break down the data in remarkable and fine-grained ways and pin-point the exact formula that brings the greatest returns at the lowest price.

All of which is incredibly intriguing, but what I love about this article is that it doesn’t bemoan individual eating habits. There’s no hand-wringing over laziness and lack of willpower. And the last anecdote, which focuses on attempts to get people who already drink a lot of Coke to drink even more, makes crystal clear the relationship between processed food manufacturers and the poor:

In his capacity, Dunn was making frequent trips to Brazil, where the company had recently begun a push to increase consumption of Coke among the many Brazilians living in favelas. The company’s strategy was to repackage Coke into smaller, more affordable 6.7-ounce bottles, just 20 cents each. Coke was not alone in seeing Brazil as a potential boon; Nestlé began deploying battalions of women to travel poor neighborhoods, hawking American-style processed foods door to door. But Coke was Dunn’s concern, and on one trip, as he walked through one of the impoverished areas, he had an epiphany. “A voice in my head says, ‘These people need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.’ I almost threw up.”

Moss demonstrates again and again how junk-food corporations rely on fat, salt and sugar to hook consumers, and convenience to make it difficult for over-worked Americans to choose less-processed options. And while we often use addiction as a metaphor for problems Americans face–workaholics, rageaholics, etc.–Moss makes it clear that in the case of junk food, the language of addiction is not simply a convenient metaphor.

Downton Abbey’s unfulfilled potential

I gave up on Downton Abbey after two episodes this season: it was contrived and ludicrous, and when it wasn’t being silly, it was boring. And that’s coming from someone who has read more contrived and silly nineteenth-century novels than I can count.

But the other problem with Downton, a problem it’s had since the end of the first season, is that all of that fascinating revolutionary potential disappeared completely with the start of WWI. It was a very British sort of development–the Great War brings everyone together in British solidarity. I might even have bought that, if it hadn’t been quite so permanent. All the restlessness and class solidarity that seemed to be emerging downstairs in season one evaporated, never to return.

Over at the New Republic, Lili Loofbourow examines the ways the third season of Downton ran off the rails:

It lacks [Upstairs Downstairs’s] darkness, and if once upon a time Julian Fellowes’s decision to humanize the downstairs help seemed aimed at making viewers question an aristocratic institution, the show is now fully committed to making us root for Downton. Any notion that the estate is not a benevolent employer gainfully supporting hundreds of people—and an overall social good, if badly managed—is only acknowledged in passing. Back in the first season, Gwen the maid’s departure to be a typist seemed to herald broader horizons for the staff in a changing world. Gwen’s life was hard. We saw her getting up in the cold and struggling; life downstairs was unpleasant. That’s no longer the case. We don’t see the servants rising in the dark, or cleaning, or scrubbing. Instead, they’re waiting at table and doing ladies’ hair and eating together and having tea. Even their rooms seem less drab. When it comes to preserving Downton and the social order it represents, the servants and the family are literally on the same cricket team.

I might be able to forgive the politics and the melodrama if only it was fun melodrama. But I reached my limit for moping Bates and Matthew’s inexhaustible inheritance luck. And, though I haven’t seen the finale, I understand that likeable Irish revolutionary and former chauffeur Branson is now on his way to becoming a respectable capitalist. I give up.

More on Chinese SF

Science Fiction Studies has a special issue on Chinese science fiction, with several articles available online. In “‘Great Wall Planet’: Introducting Chinese Science Fiction,” Yan Wu expands on some of the issues raised in this Global Times article:

What makes Chinese sf unique? In the wake of these historical frustrations and reforms, it is becoming possible to identify some of the features that are unique to Chinese science fiction. In my judgment, its most significant characteristic is the frequent exploration of themes of liberation and release from old cultural, political, and institutional systems. Another significant element is to be found in the reactions of Chinese writers to Western science and culture in their pursuit of themes of liberation. This raises a series of key questions: what is science? is science specifically Western or is it a universal human pursuit? how can writers integrate scientific and local cultural traditions into new and vital forms? These are compelling questions for Chinese authors—and for Chinese readers as well. A third key element in Chinese sf is its concern for the future of China and of Chinese culture, which is among the oldest surviving human cultures. Can it be revived in the postmodern scientific age? Finally, we might argue that, whereas Western sf is focused on the opportunities and losses of technoscientific development, Chinese sf, although it examines similar ideas, is more focused on anxieties about cultural decline and the potential for revitalization.

Emotional labor and the future of the service industry

The New Republic has an absolutely fascinating article on the sandwich shop Pret a Manger and the increasing importance of “emotional” or “affective labor.” Convincing customers you care deeply for them may be, it seems, the future of the service industry.

Pret keeps its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi. A “mystery shopper” visits every Pret outlet once a week. If the employee who rings up the sale is appropriately ebullient, then everyone in the shop gets a bonus. If not, nobody does. This system turns peers into enthusiasm cops, further constricting any space for a reserved and private self.


MOOCs and the humanities

Maria Bustillos at the Awl has written a sort of primer on the MOOC debate for those outside of academia. I have to admit to being continually stunned that people–lots of people–seem to think MOOCs are anything other than a money-grabbing gimmick by people trying to get a piece of the ever-shrinking higher ed pie. Bustillos’s piece is worth reading in its entirety, so I won’t quote from it, but I do want to note that the case she lays out, and that the commenters further explore, seems to be resting on a couple of incompletely-examined assumptions.

The first is the equivocation between humanities and STEM instruction, which is to say, an equivocation between content and skills as the primary deliverables of a course. I’m certain there are a lot of good reasons that MOOCs are insufficient for science and math courses–primarily the absence of labs in which to put concepts into practice. But the fact remains that STEM courses, particularly entry-level courses, are in the content business, since students require a certain baseline of knowledge before they can move on.

I can teach wildly different content in my intro-level English class each semester, and students should still leave with the same set of skills. Skills they develop because I respond to their writing several times a week, help them strengthen their arguments over the course of multiple revisions, and engage with them and each other during discussion. We might not need to be sharing the same physical space to do all that, but it’s absolutely essential that my class be the opposite of “massive” so that I can provide the sort of attention necessary for students to make real gains in thinking and writing.

Which leads to the second problematic assumption of the piece–that humanities courses are largely useless because they don’t credential for specific, desirable jobs. The personalized attention my students receive, then, is a luxury having nothing to do with the necessary process of credentialing oneself for the marketplace. And I can see how someone could get to that assumptions, because a MOOC in which a student simply absorbed information about nineteenth-century American literature and culture probably wouldn’t be of much use on the job market. It would be all content, and that’s not content employers are all that eager to have access to.

I’m not going to get into the value of literary study from a content perspective, though there’s certainly an argument to be made. But what I teach are skills. Valuable skills that prepare students for higher-level thinking, difficult writing tasks, and the ability to consider and respond to a variety of positions. The humanities teaches the sort of skills that employers consistently rank high in their list of desirable traits. We in the humanities need to be more forceful about reminding people of that. And that’s why MOOCs are so dangerous for the humanities in particular: they imply that the important part of an education is content, and that the content delivered in the humanities is trivial.

MOOCs may not be going anywhere, but the humanities should not just make the most of what little MOOCs offer us. We should be looking for alternatives that democratize access to education while emphasizing the essential and tangible skills a humanities education provides.