Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Archive for August, 2007

Textbooks

Posted by Gerald on August 30, 2007

Let me open with today’s moment of educational triumph.  After throwing the Rochefoucauld and Augustine quotes I mentioned in an earlier post at my high school coop students at the end of our session on Alexander of Macedonia, my question about whether Alexander was indeed a pirate writ large got some thoughtful nods and words of assent.  Not bad for the last ten minutes of our last class before the big weekend (due to our block scheduling we do not meet on Fridays.)

Tomorrow I am leaving for a three-day weekend at the beach with some friends.  This is an annual ritual of ours and has been the only sort of vacation I’ve taken for the last decade.  As I head out I have some things floating through my mind in the wake of two encounters.

The first encounter was in writing.  I was reading the round table discussion in my newly arrived copy of the William & Mary Quarterly.  This featured discussion surrounding some thoughts by Jack Greene concerning the application of post-colonial theory and state-formation theory to American history.  I’m too tired to really go into it, but I’ve been mulling the various ideas he presented and those in the other contributions to the discussion.

The second encounter was in person.  A newly assigned book rep was making the rounds today and we had a long talk about texts for our Western Civ, American Survey, World Civ, and History of Africa courses.

I’m left with several disconnected thoughts I am trying to work through and piece together.

First, the legacy of the Annales school and the idea of “total history” has shaped research and journal publishing in history across the specialties.  Still, when I look at any freshman level textbook all I see is the same set of narrative structures with some social history slipped in around the edges.  Admittedly, I am in the hinterlands of academia, but I am still seeing the same disconnect between what the profession does in its journals and what it publishes in textbooks that I first noticed over fifteen years ago.  Am I missing something?

Should the purpose of a freshman history course be to provide a full and detailed picture of the lives of people in the past or should it be to try to create a comprehensible narrative of how the current world has come to be?  To what extent should I emphasize deep structures and the long duree and to what extent do I emphasize contingency and the consequences of human agency?  I do not see these as opposing goals but as the Heisenberg principle applied to social science.  Of course, this isn’t something I just started thinking about today.  I haven’t had a day I wasn’t thinking about it since I started teaching.  I’m not sure there actually is an answer, but I think I’ve got to keep asking the question.

Thinking about contingency reminds me about this cool article I read in The History Teacher about the classroom use of counterfactuals.  I think there is something there, but I haven’t managed to work out the actual mechanics of using this in a classroom where as much as a quarter of my students might have preparatory needs in reading and writing.  Still I do want to – I think it would be fun.

Any thoughts?

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A Stellar “Waterfall”

Posted by Gerald on August 30, 2007

Here is another really cool piece of news in astronomy this week.  Scientists have observed water vapor pouring at supersonic speeds into the accretion disk of a forming star system.

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My Admiration Grows

Posted by Gerald on August 29, 2007

So it turns out that the stories about astronauts flying drunk might have been bogus.

All this does is redouble my already considerable respect for our astronauts.  These men and women climb into aging, poorly designed, space vehicles that keep having pieces fall off and which feature less computing power than the desktop PC I’m writing this post on.

That they don’t seem to be drinking during that is impressive.

I’m assuming they make up for it before and after.

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Bush Says Something I Agree With

Posted by Gerald on August 29, 2007

Our esteemed President is down in the Big Easy marking the anniversary of Katrina.  The unintentional irony just seemed to roll out of him, as you can read in the Washington Post article.

My favorite quote was his assurance that “better days are ahead.”

You bet, Mr. President.  They will be starting for all of us in about 17 months.

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So, Do Republican Politicians Believe in Gravity?

Posted by Gerald on August 29, 2007

A friend of mine just forwarded this link to me.  Turns out Einstein was right again.  He theorized that space-time would be warped by powerful sources of gravity and now observations of neutron stars have backed his theory up.

Yay science!

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Does Anyone See a Pattern?

Posted by Gerald on August 28, 2007

So Lt. Col. Jordan isn’t guilty for what happened at Abu Ghraib because, although he was in command of the interrogation center, he couldn’t control what happened there.  I guess I do not understand the meaning of “in command.”  Too much Star Trek I guess (“I’m responsible for everything done on my ship!”)

But he is guilty of TALKING about what happened there.  THAT is what he did wrong.

Meanwhile Michael Vick has pleaded guilty over the dog-fighting conspiracy charges, but what the NFL is REALLY worried about isn’t the brutal abuse of helpless animals, but that he might have bet on the outcome.  THAT is what he did wrong.

I’m confused.

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No Real Feeling of Closure

Posted by Gerald on August 28, 2007

Alberto Gonzalez has resigned.

I should feel better – but I don’t.

Maybe it was Bush’s “good man dragged through the mud” blather.

Maybe it was the GOP congressmen who have been whining about how the next nominee (Attorney General Michael Chertoff, anybody?) shouldn’t be “subjected” to the “bitter partisanship” that poor little Alberto had to endure.

I don’t think so, though.  I think it is the lack of an apology.  I want an apology.  Not an “I’m sorry this happened” or even an “I’m sorry for betraying everything the country should stand for.”  I want him to perform a public display of self-flagellation (not metaphorical) while processing down Pennsylvania Avenue wearing sackcloth and ashes.  I want this to culminate in ritual seppuku on the steps of the Supreme Court building.

Why?

For making me miss JOHN ASHCROFT as Attorney General.

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I’m Taking This Quote…

Posted by Gerald on August 28, 2007

… into next week’s class discussion about Alexander the Great. 

“The glory of great men should always be measured by the means they have used to acquire it.”

Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Of course you cannot beat Augustine (from City of God):

“An apt and true reply was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride. ‘What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”

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Bad News

Posted by Gerald on August 24, 2007

Last summer a friend of mine had a lump removed from his leg.  It was a soft-tissue sarcoma.  He had survived a childhood bout with cancer and knew this sort of thing developing was a possibility.  He caught it early and they treated it aggressively.  We all thought that he had dodged the bullet.

A couple weeks ago a follow-up exam discovered a spot in his lung.

It is common for the sort of cancer he manifested last year to jump to the lungs and when it does so the prognosis usually isn’t very good.  He is going in for surgery soon.  They are going to removed 20-25% of the affected lobe of his lung.  We are all hoping for the best.

But damn.

None of what follows is rational.  He is as sweet a guy as you would care to meet.  He is the only person I know who has watched as much crappy TV as I have and has enjoyed it as much.  We’ve built a friendship out of both being such avid members of the TV generation.  I don’t want to lose that friendship and I can’t do a single thing about it.  A mutual friend compared this to feeling like Lt. Dan in Forest Gump during the hurricane scene.  Yeah.  I know so many people – I’m related to so many people – who smoked like chimney’s their entire lives and walked away scott-free – and THIS MAN has lung cancer!?!  You have GOT to be fucking kidding me!

I know – life isn’t fair, bad things happen to good people, control is an illusion, all I can do is accept things and try to be supportive.

But this sucks.

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A Moment’s Cool Air

Posted by Gerald on August 21, 2007

I’ve been having a bit of a dry spell with my blogging the last couple of weeks.  A lot of that has been due to the heat.  I generally do not complain about weather, since it so pointless, but this has become really demoralizing.  We have had highs above 96 just about every day for the last couple of weeks.  Today both Raleigh and Charlotte saw temperatures over 100.

Right at the moment though it is in the 70s – in the aftermath of the thunderstorms that tore through here in the afternoon.  Tomorrow we are back in the mid-90s and we won’t be getting down to about 90 until Sunday – maybe.

I remember feeling like this during winters back in Iowa.  There was a point somewhere around late January or February when the cold seemed like a living thing that was sapping my life.  All I wanted was for the temperatures to climb back up into the 20s.  The teens and single digits seemed to be an order of magnitude worse than the 20s.  I’ve felt the same way these last two weeks.  The heat is always there.  These temperatures in the upper 90s and over 100 feel so much worse than the 88 to 90 degree days we usually have this time of year.  I can feel it even when I’m inside.  The same as those deep winters in Iowa seemed to seep into me even if I was indoors.

I can see it in the students too.  That beginning of the semester buzz is completely missing from the campus this time.  Everyone seems listless.  The student activities people had tents with refreshments and speakers blaring music on the quad during the first few days but no one was taking part.  The student center is comparatively empty as are the halls of our building – and our division’s enrollment is UP 26% over last year.  I think people are blowing in for their classes and immediately dashing for home.

But for just a little while tonight it is in the 70s (although incredibly humid).  That tension I’ve felt for two weeks has eased.  I’m going to bed in the hope that I’ll have a better night’s sleep tonight.

Back to the heat in the morning.

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