Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Who Are These Professors?

In our corner of the world, my friends are finding out that not all professors have empathy or even a sense of decency.  Most of the profs I interact with have some kind of clue that our students are going through a very difficult time. 
  • They may be sick.
  • They may have family who are sick or have already died from this virus.
  • They may have had to move in order to be safe.
  • They may not have the best technology to do all of this zooming
  • They may be highly stressed out because their senior year is coming to a crash and that the job market anyone can recall.
  • They may be stressed because they have to find food and toilet paper without endangering themselves.
  • They may have children of their own who are now with them 24/7.  
That is just a short list--this is a time of great stress and trauma.  So, the reasonable profs I know are giving extensions the way Oprah gives gifts, are telling students they will do no worse than their pre-COVID grade, or are otherwise cutting students breaks.  Why?  Because it is the right and decent thing to do.

But the profs who do this are being told by their students that other professors are not doing the same.  That other professors are holding their line on "standards" and "rigor."  That some university senates have had long debates about whether to go to pass/fail for all classes or as options while easily agreeing to give junior faculty more time on their tenure clock.  The latter is the right thing to do, but why hold our students to higher standards?  

I have heard of profs who are requiring students to mail their papers in and to make sure they arrive before the deadline--which means that the deadline is now several days earlier.  Plus this forms many to go to a post office to mail a package (probably hard to get stamps.com to set someone up in these difficult times). 

We always joke that having social skills is not necessary to become a professor, that some of our colleagues have little empathy.  This is not a joke right now.  Most of our students are facing the worst time in their lives--we should not be adding to their stress.

What to do about this?  Well, if you are a prof and you hear that a colleague is being a hardass, talk to that person's chair.  If you are a student, you can tell your campus ombudsman, your dean, or a random prof with a blog.  That last one will name and shame on your behalf.  Because we should be taking care of our students at this time, not insisting that they perform like automatons.  FFS.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

With Whom Would You Want to Self-Isolate, Fiction Edition?

Thanks to Binge-Mode (a Ringer podcast that has gone through Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and Harry Potter stuff and is now looking for more stuff to do), we have a fun game to play in our time of endless ... time.  Who would you want to hang with if you could choose three fictional characters?  Of course, besides the lovely, wise, and funny Mrs. Spew.

My answers:
  • Hermione from Harry Potter: as Mallory argued, she is smart, has heaps of magical ability that would be most helpful during a quarantine, is a good book club partner, and more. 
  • Spenser from the Robert B. Parker novels: he is an excellent cook, he is a delightful smartass, an excellent detective, chock full of integrity, and if things get physical, he can slug his way out of trouble (well, that he probably helped cause). 
  • Mork from Ork: he has advanced technology and abilities that would be handy in a crisis, he has a big heart, but mostly I am choosing Mork because he would be endlessly entertaining.  After all, he is Robin Williams.  
Rejected choices:
  • Jedi make too many big mistakes to include.  
  • Leia makes a great deal of sense, of course, as a leader.  But I am pretty sure she would get pretty restless being stuck in one spot for too long.  
  • Jack Reacher is too damned big, making the entire house seem small.  
  • The Dread Pirate Roberts (Wesley version) would be super handy as he is a person of many talents, but I am not sure fencing or naval strategy would be of much help.  
  • Marty McFly?  Oh, I could use a Dolorean right about now, but he seems kind of hyper to be stuck with in self-isolation.  
  • Hawkeye Pierce would be a great companion--he made a 11 series/3 year war seem to fly by, but he would want to treat patients, and so he would not be around much and he would drink everything when he was.  He is good at building a still to make more booze, however.
  • Mary Richards would be great--she could take a nothing date and make it seem worthwhile.  But not sure she brings a skill set that would be handy.  
  • Speaking of Mary's, Mary Poppins would be an excellent choice.  She too has magical capabilities, is very entertaining, would keep things tidy, and is, well, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.  However, her perfect-ness might get old quickly.  Notice, she never hangs around for very long.  She knows quite well her own abilities, so she leaves before she gets too annoying.  Smart lady.  
  • Indiana Jones?  No way.  He would be crawling out the window at first chance as there would not be sufficient adventure in the quarantined house.  
  • Most of the Avengers would not be terribly useful, and they seem to rub each other the wrong way when they hang out. 
What are the three people from fiction that you would want to spend the quarantine with?

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Quarantine, Week 3: Has It Been Three Weeks?


The themes of week three: confusion, outrage, sadness, and community.

 Has it really been three weeks?  Time is going by so fast and so slowly.  How long ago was the Senate's failure to convict Trump?  Early Feb--not that long ago.  What day is it?  Well, it must be Saturday since I am blogging my take on week three.  Even though I often work at home and will spend summers going into the office just once every other week or so, the lack of ultimate frisbee one or two nights a week, going to the office not at all, and so on has caused my daily rhythms to fade into each other.  I am trying to keep weekends distinct--a different breakfast (French toast or something else requiring slighly more work than the usual toasted bagel*), focus more on the house than on academic work, and so on.  But it is easy to get lost time-wise.

The outrage this week went over the top thanks to Jared Fucking Kushner but has been a constant theme.  Disease happens, epidemics happen, but since we have excellent science and many relevant institutions, global pandemics require something else these days--the leading states to be led by those who fail us.  Xi and Trump have done their part to fan the flames rather than douse the fire.  Story after story, positive and negative, remind us that leadership matters.  The latest stories contrast US military leaders that acted quickly to prevent their troops from getting sick to those firing a Captain who was more concerned about the lives of his crew than his career.
What makes this so outrageous--that makes us so outraged--is that this was largely although not entirely avoidable.  It could have been mitigated, it could have been largely if not entirely contained.  There is so much that can be done.  As we see the graphs of different countries and of different states and provinces, we see that governance matters.  Most of Canada's premiers (governors) are doing the right thing, including the bombastic Trump-esque Doug Ford, who I voted against.  Florida and Georgia contrast sharply with Washington and California as, damn it, leadership matters so very much.  As I have been saying, federalism is both boon and bane here.  It is bad in that it makes it hard to coordinate, but it is good when the federal government fails to lead, states have some freedom to do the right stuff.

The American toll is starting to climb and will surpass most other countries (I don't believe the Chinese or Iranian numbers).  I have not lost any relatives or friends, although I just learned one of my friends has had a so-called mild (doesn't sound mild to me) case.  My niece recovered from a relatively mild case. Update: I just learned a second cousin's spouse has died.  Not someone I knew well, but someone members of my immediate family knew.  So, it is getting closer to me and mine. 

In popular culture, the deaths are accumulating.  We lost Adam Schlesinger, who wrote some of most enjoyable music of the past twenty years--for his band, Fountain of Wayne, for the movie Music and Lyrics which my daughter and I enjoyed greatly, for The Thing That You Do, for Josey and the Pussycats, and, especially for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Likewise, I didn't know who Bill Withers was, but I knew his songs.  Damn, what a loss.  It is going to get much worse before it gets better.  April will be the cruelest month this year although May will give it a run. 

How do we get through this?  Well, outrage at the assholes is perfectly fine... but focusing on the helpers as Mr. Rogers advocated is probably the way to go.  That and focusing on the fun and sweet stuff that we can find online.  I keep posting on facebook and twitter the short videos of people doing fun things, like the impressionist who made an Avengers in Quarantine video.  Or the one where a guy sings Corona-themed songs adapted from Disney moviesVulture asked tv screenwriters to write about how their characters would be behaving in the Time of Corona, and it was delightful.  These people are also helpers, perhaps not exactly what Mr. Rogers was referring to, but helping nonetheless.

This is an excellent summary/combo thanks to that wacky Canadian and superhero--Deadpool.
These folks online help to create and foster some community that is desperately needed.  We cannot gather in person, but we can gather online in slacks, on twitter, on whatever social media, via zoom or whatever.  One thing that is helping me get through this is the setting up of teleconferencing with old friends whom I haven't seen in quite a while.  This week, my winter league frisbee captain organized a gathering online to play silly games--trivia, pictionary-esque, etc.  Not as good as ultimate, but any port in a storm.  So, reach out to friends and family, stay connected, build new connections.

Be well, stay away from each other physically but not socially, and wash your hands.




*I have a month's supply of frozen bagels thanks to a visit to Costco that was the "hey, what else do we need for awhile" trip after they were out of toilet paper.  I should have grabbed flour.  Alas.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Jared Fucking Kushner

I haven't been writing as much about the Trump Administration for the past several months.  Mostly because I had said it all before--that Trump lies, that Trump does not understand stuff, that his narcissism makes ordinary narcissists look bad.  But yesterday, something happened that put it over the top: Jared Fucking Kushner spoke.*

*For a less screedish take with more quotes and research, see this amazingly and accurately titled piece at the NYT.

Whenever I think of Jared Fucking Kushner, I first think: why did Ivanka marry him.  I mean, that is the only thing he did well (being a Trump is an awful thing, but it has gotten him greater power and wealth than otherwise).  So, I asked those who follow me a very professional survey question that is not at all gamed:

It is well known that Jared Fucking Kushner only got into Harvard because his father dropped a bunch of money on the university.  Obviously not enough since Jared Fucking Kushner is, by himself, harming the institution's reputation even more than becoming the go-to place for disgraced Trump appointees.  While I perhaps tend to fetishize intelligence, if one claims to be the master of so many issues--the Mideast, opoids (remember that), and so on--it would be great that one could actually understand the issues and processes and dynamics.  So, when Jared Fucking Kushner says that the states shouldn't be asking for the stuff in the federal stockpiles because they are the federal government's stuff, well, damn, he really is not bright enough for the job.

Kushner combines being not bright with an amazing lack of self-awareness.  He does not get it that he isn't bright, that he has no experience, that experience might actually matter.  "Hey, I have read 25 books about the Mideast so I can definitely come up with a plan to end a conflict going on for 75 years."  The arrogance and dimness combine to produce the wrong person in the wrong place at the worst time in modern American history.  Thousands of people are dead, many more will die, and Trump has empowered one of the worst people.

So, last night I dared my twitter followers, forgetting the basic rule of Trump-dom--it can always get worse.


Damn, my followers rose to the challenge most impressively.  And, yes, most depressingly since it means, yes, it can get worse.  Let me run through some of the candidates listed and consider whether they would be worse than Jared Fucking Kushner.
  • Donald Trump himself.  Well, this is a non-starter since Trump is in charge and thought it best that Jared Fucking Kushner run this thing, so not really a change.
  • Ivanka.  I loathe her, of course, but I am pretty sure she wouldn't muss herself by getting deeply involved and "disrupting" things.  She would just take credit for all of the good things happening and use her contacts at the NYT and other outlets to provide anonymous "inside info" into the government to make herself look good and throw others under the bus.
  • Melania.  Like Ivanka, I would expect her to let the rest of the government operate without getting into the weeds.  She'd plagiarize someone to come up with a banal slogan to get people to behave like "The Only Thing You Have to Fear is Being Scared" or "Think Not Of What the Country Should Do For You, Just Think A Bit About More Spacing" or "Make America Good Again."
  • Don Trump Jr. or Eric.  Hmmm, these douchebros might be worse than Jared Fucking Kushner. They might seek to monetize any effort.  Oh wait, Jared Fucking Kushner probably did that already.  I think mostly this would be a sideways move.  These guys are all the same--born in wealth, never had to be accountable for anything, had no major successes, but through luck got placed into positions of responsibility and power.
  • I don't like reality tv shows which means I didn't understand the reference to Carol Baskin.  I will have to watch the series and get back you on that. 
  • Steve Bannon.  Hmm, interesting suggestion.  Could this current Corona fight be anymore racist?  Well perhaps, since the government is now changing its policies on immigration to let in folks from elsewhere who have medical backgrounds.  Of course, this itself is an immoral policy--let's drain the brains from the rest of the world when they need as much as we do.  Anyhow, would Bannon fuck up the distribution of supplies any more than Kushner?  I am not sure.  But he has a way of charming elite media institutions, so the Trump Administration might be getting someone better coverage of this shitshow, and that would be bad.  So, fair point.
  • Ron Johnson. Meh.  He is not bright, but I don't see him being quite as involved in the micro-details.  
  • Seb Gorka.  Again, a pompous loudmouth who would talk more than do anything.  I don't think he would affect policy much.
  • Devin Nunes.  My guess is he would get fragged by someone in the first week.  
  • Jerry Falwell Jr.  Yeah, he would be worse.  Don't know why anyone listens to him, but he would have enough influence that would keep people from doing the right stuff that even more people might get killed.  More mass meetings, more transmission of the disease, less help for those states known to have so many sinners--NY, California, etc.  
  • Steve Miller.  Um, isn't he already kind of responsible, having written some of Trump's worst speeches on this and given that the bad immigration policies have already driven out doctors and nurses from rural America?  But, yes, he would be worse.
  • Oh, one more: Scaramucci.  He would not actually hold the job--he would just get named and then get fired.  
So, maybe there could be someone worse.  One of the truly impressive talents that Trump has had is to be able to scrape the barrel and get someone worse.  We thought Jeff Sessions was bad, and Bob Barr is worse.  We thought Tillerson was the worst Secretary of State, but Pompeo is worse.  Could Trump find someone worse than Jared Fucking Kushner?  Not only is it possible, but it is inevitable.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Going with the Trends: Unpopular Opinions

One thing people are doing to pass the time on facebook is to list the things they don't like but other people do.  Seems like a bloggable topic, so here we go:

UNPOPULAR OPINIONS. 10 things I dislike that most people like:
  1. Raw tomatoes--never liked them in salad, on burgers, or anywhere else.  Tomato sauce is something else entirely.
  2. Updating because I forgot my fave--I hate Montreal bagels.  They are hard, they have seeds on them (poppy or sesame) and taste burnt.  Yuck.  
  3. Tomato juice.  After my bachelor party, I got pictures of the event to help me understand what had happened, given that I didn't remember much of the night.  Nothing criminal, thankfully.  But apparently, they had me drink blood mary's.  Nope, yuck, never.  But I guess I was game after much beer and tequila.  Ok, I did break one law--don't mix your drinks.  And I paid for it.
  4. Cilantro.  I am not allergic to it, just don't like the taste.
  5. Berries.  I just never want to eat berries.  I like berry-flavored candy, but I don't like the bits of fruit themselves.
  6. Foreign films.  I am a bad intellectual as I don't like to read subtitles while watching a movie.  There are exceptions, of course.  I will see Parasite when it is available.  Shin Godzilla was most enjoyable as it was really more about dysfunctional Japanese policy-making than Godzilla.
  7. Reality tv shows.  I did watch a season or two of Survivor since I had serious FOMO as it was being discussed by my friends.
  8. Hockey.  Ok, I don't hate it, but I don't like it either.  And I live in Canada.  
  9. Skating.  I have bad ankles, never learned to be competent.  Skiing is one thing, skating is something else.  Again, makes me a bad Canadian. Surprised that they let me become a citizen.
  10. Exercise.  I like playing sports, but I don't like any form of exercise that is exercise for the sake of exercise--jogging, lifting weights, etc.  That is why I bike--it allows me to see different stuff and do something that is fun and does not feel like exercise.  How am I exercising through the pandemic?  So far, mostly using the treadmill while watching Clone Wars.  
  11. Impressionism.  Give me either Flemish landscapes or funky modern art.  I have never liked the impressionist stuff.  Blech. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Starting to Do Research in the time of Corona

Last night, I taught another session of our Dissertation Proposal Workshop class, and the topic was the methodology section of one's proposal.  That is, how am I going to research this question and how do I justify the choices I made?  This is after going through the other pieces--the question, the proposed answer, what other folks have said about this or have said about other stuff that you want to bring to this project, the theory, and the hypotheses.  How does one test the hypotheses was the question du jour (or nuit). 

While we discussed all kinds of stuff, the issue of how to do research while self-isolating naturally came up.  In some ways, these PhD students have a slight edge over those who were in the class last year or the year before.  Those other students had plans that they may not be able to execute--they can't do fieldwork for several months, they can't travel some place to interview people, they can't visit an archive, etc. I really feel bad for those students, and, of course, all. 

My students can adjust their methods before they start their research so that they can make progress without leaving their home.  The question then becomes how to do that?  So, here are my first thoughts on this and am looking for suggestions with the caveat, of course, that the question and the theory determine the method, so there may not be much one can do....
  1. Quantitative work can, of course, proceed if one has a computer at home with the necessary software.  This might be a good time to do what I will avoid--find online courses on how to use R and start figuring that out.  
    1. Likewise, if one was intending to surveys, one might find a better (although perhaps tainted) response rate since everyone is home.  Of course, that depends on where one is doing a survey.
    2. There are other methods for doing research that don't involve travel or people, such as agent-based modeling.  Learning online how to do this stuff might be a good use of time if one can't do the travel/archival stuff.  
  2. Get your secondary research done as much as possible from home so that when things open up, one can then be ready to do the fieldwork quickly, keeping in mind that travel may open and close and open and close with waves of the epidemic until vaccination is close to universal.  Be ready to do the research travel in bursts when the windows are open. 
  3. Arrange interviews to be done by phone or via skype/zoom/facetime/whatever.  I prefer to interview in person and not just for the tourism benefits.  One can read the non-verbal cues, one can find interview subjects along the way that one would not find otherwise (the Chilean staffer helping us by grabbing legislators as they leave the chamber comes to mind), and so on.  This obviously can be problematic for all kinds of reasons:
    1. The interview subjects may not accessible via technology.
    2. The material is stuff that should not be discussed over technology that can be intercepted--research ethics boards may have something to say about this.  
    3. The interview subjects may be worried about who else is listening.  They will certainly not feel as comfortable.
  4. If one is doing a qualitative dissertation, focus now perhaps on the mini-cases.  In my work, I have tended to do larger case studies that tend to require travel and mini-cases to show that the stuff applies beyond the few major cases.  I use secondary research--reading the stuff that is out there--for the mini-cases.  So, I'd suggest working on those while one is cooped up.
  5. If possible, choose at least one of your cases to be local--so that one can do the fieldwork more easily.  This obviously works best if one lives in a national capital.
  6. Find a flexible, empathetic supervisor.
What else?


Monday, March 30, 2020

Teaching in the Age of Corona

I have no background in teaching online.  The good news is that Carleton's technology is actually pretty good even if it has a silly name--BigBlueButton.  It is part of the courseware (CuLearn) that we have, a tool that has always existed, but we are now using much more these days. 

I am lucky in that my MA course has student presentations the last three weeks (plus Canadian semesters end earlier) so I only had to do one seminar that was "synchronous"--live with everyone attending via teleconference.  It went reasonably well.  I lecture better than I run discussions so the dropoff from in person to online was not that severe.  The students had done the reading and were ready to talk about it.  I was able to get most folks involved even if some voices tend to dominate the discussion.  For the rest of the term, students will be posting narrated powerpoint slides that will be their presentations.  Not as good as live and in person, but I am aware that it is hard for students to be all online at the same time--some have kids, some have to share their computer with family/roommates, etc. 

Which gets to the main approach I have right now:
It is unfair and somewhat ridiculous to expect students to perform normally.  I know I am not performing normally even though I have no kids at home and I don't have to share my laptop with Mrs. Spew.  But if I am more distracted than usual, then I can't expect the students to be as focused.  This was a key point that Catherine Sanger discussed on the Duck of Minerva Podcast.  Give it a listen--lots of good suggestions for adopting quickly to online as she teaches in Singapore and is a few months ahead of the rest of us. 

I also agreed with someone who tweeted that they will not be grading as usual.  That they will give students at least the grade they had earned thus far.  That if they do better than their pre-quarantine average, their grade will go up, but if they do worse, the pre-q grade will be their grade.  I told my students the same with two caveats: plagiarism will still be penalized and students must hand in the work ... eventually.  I am willing to give extensions--all they have to do is ask (see above figure).

My PhD class will mostly continue on as normal.  It has five students, with one student presenting their dissertation proposal each session.  It meets in the evening, as it always did.  It is not as hard to get five people plus me to chat in a virtual classroom.  The BigBlueButton has a builtin feature to post slides so you can see the slides and the presenter at the same time.  It is very easy to use, so it has worked thus far and I have figured out how to have others control the slides--the learning curve is not too bad.

What I am most concerned about, besides the physical and mental well-being of my current students, is how I am going to teach in the fall.  Will we be online?  If so, how to teach IR Theory to 90 students?  I do have some ideas, but lecturing for two hours at a time is not one of them. 

Anyhow, the one thing I have figured out is this: perfection is the enemy of good enough.  As one of my students wrote so well, we ought not to put too much pressure on ourselves.

Good luck to all y'all in this difficult time.