This election, choose your own adventure—or Trump will choose Westworld for you

You can have Trump’s Old West fun times or Clinton’s new frontier. Spoiler alert: One ends badly for most of us.

I’ve become an avid watcher of the new HBO series Westworld. The show takes place in a “Wild West” theme park that sprawls across miles of what appears to be the American southwest. Wealthy guests visit the park to live out their fantasies — from sex to bounty hunting to murder — with the “hosts,” cyborgs who have largely moved beyond the uncanny valley and seem genuinely human.

Westworld’s viewers become acquainted not only with the hosts and guests, but also with the people who run the park — the programmers, roboticists, scriptwriters, management, and one of its founders. The park’s staff craft intricate, interwoven story loops through which the hosts run; the rancher’s daughter, for example, visits town each morning, interacts with guests and hosts, and returns each night to almost inevitably fall prey, with her family, to homicidal rapists. The prostitutes in the saloon charm guests until they die in an armed robbery.

Guests insert themselves into these stories, as literal black- or white-hat characters, saving hosts’ lives or taking them. As the guests sleep each night, the park staff repair the hosts and wipe their memory before setting them back on their narrative loops.

Every once in a while, however, through a glitch (or feature?) in her programming, hosts flash back to previous trauma. Sometimes these memories manifest as nightmares, but increasingly the hosts’ flashbacks happen during the day. Occasionally an external stimulus causes the hosts to short-circuit; in one case, a rancher finds, half-buried in the dirt, a photo of a woman on the street of a modern city. He cannot comprehend this woman.

Throughout Westworld, we see men gaslighting women: the park’s programmers ensure the cyborg women question their own memories, and men on the staff try to persuade two human women that their perspectives — including things they have observed — are not valid. According to these men, the explanatory narratives the women employees have crafted for themselves as they seek to understand the park and its hosts lack the proper perspective.

Read the rest of this post at Medium.

When the brain skips a beat

I have much to say about this article on being a “slow professor,” but first I want to explain my absence from this blog for four and a half months.

I haven’t been well. You wouldn’t know my secret if you saw me on the street or on campus. However, if you talked to me, you might note I sometimes grasp for words and names that should come easily. I’ve also been sleeping poorly, thrashing so badly that poor Fang has to leave the room. I’m wheezing enough that my doctor is ready to prescribe two more asthma medications (on top of the two I already take) once my other symptoms settle. Depression also curled its tendrils around the edges of my life during the winter months.

I tackled the depression directly. I joined an amazingly raw and yet optimistic online fitness group of Grinnell alumni. I took to walking 10,000-12,000 steps each day, doing cardio videos, and even running occasionally. I lost ten pounds and kept them off.

Photo, from the head up, of the blogger, sweaty and smiling. She is wearing a red and white shirt.

Grinnellians don’t mess around. Does your online fitness cult have custom t-shirts?

When these tactics weren’t keeping the darkness at bay, I went to the doctor to ask her what to do. She added a second antidepressant. So far, so good.

And yet the brain fog, which started in the late fall, persisted. I thought I could chalk it up to depression, seasonal affective disorder, and having too much on my plate at work—or maybe it was just another symptom in my premature perimenopausal mélange.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t writing at all. I wrote for work—reports and e-mails galore, an exhaustively updated and (very) long encyclopedia article, and a ton of text for my online course. I reached out to an old friend and enjoyed a long and productive e-mail exchange. I went on a writing retreat a couple weekends ago with several English professors and linguists, and while they helped me find words over hors d’oeuvres, I managed to rethink a long-suffering article.

Such tasks took up most of my brainpower and intellectual energy. I didn’t have anything left over for the evenings and weekends when I used to write extracurricularly.

So I went back to the doctor to ask what might be messing with my brain and my sleep. The nurse took my blood pressure—150/90—and asked if it was typically that high. I explained it had been creeping up, but I couldn’t remember seeing such high readings. A few minutes later, the doctor came in with a worried look on her face, listened to my heart and lungs, said simply, “It’s time,” then sent a prescription to the pharmacy and told me to monitor my blood pressure.

A photo of a blood pressure monitor and the book "Heart Disease for Dummies"

My cholesterol is high, too. I can, at least in part, blame my genes for both of those. (Thanks, Mom!)

It ends up high blood pressure can damage the brain in both the short and long term. As reported in Psychology Today:

It’s becoming increasingly clear that high blood pressure, or hypertension, is at the root of much cognitive decline that has previously been attributed to aging. The more that scientists scrutinize brain function, and especially memory, the more they conclude that we have the ability to keep our memory and spirit strong well into old age. But it depends on how well we nourish our brain throughout life.

While I’ve been remiss in my blogging and have never been much for journaling, I’m creating a new kind of archive:

Image of handwritten blood-pressure readings, all of them high, in a journal

Will my brain fog clear, or is the damage done? Time will tell.

Let me be absolutely clear: as an academic, this sucks. My ability to think critically and creatively, in the moment and in the long term, is everything.

Remembering Joan Van Blom

Bad things, I’ve been reminded by several people lately, come in threes. The threats, the heart attack scare. And now a death in the family.

On Friday, physical education and women’s sports lost a huge champion—in every sense of the word—in the passing of my aunt, Joan Van Blom. Joan’s life and career illustrate why it’s wise to invest in women’s sports; she took full advantage of the opportunities available to her under Title IX, blazing a path through doors that weren’t previously open to women in rowing, including the Olympics. As a teacher, coach, athlete, and PE curriculum coordinator, she inspired at least two generations of athletes (and others!) of all genders.

From an album on Joan's Facebook page. Her caption: "just after the finish of the 1976 Olympic finals race in Montreal, July 24, 1976, smiling at the realization that I'd won silver and almost gold. Photo by John Van Blom who was alongside the course, riding in the back of a stationwagon. John still had his own Olympic finals race within days, stroking the US quad, in the first time men raced the quad in the Olympics. (1976 was John's 3rd of 4 Olympic teams (1968, 1972, 1976, 1980) all as a sculler. His 5th Olympic team  would be coaching our women's US quad to silver in 1984. — at Montreal, Canada - 1976 Olympics and other locations."

From an album on Joan’s Facebook page. Her caption: “just after the finish of the 1976 Olympic finals race in Montreal, July 24, 1976, smiling at the realization that I’d won silver and almost gold. Photo by John Van Blom who was alongside the course, riding in the back of a stationwagon. John still had his own Olympic finals race within days, stroking the US quad, in the first time men raced the quad in the Olympics. (1976 was John’s 3rd of 4 Olympic teams (1968, 1972, 1976, 1980) all as a sculler. His 5th Olympic team would be coaching our women’s US quad to silver in 1984. — at Montreal, Canada – 1976 Olympics and other locations.”

We all thought Joan would live forever, but she spent the past two years living with glioblastoma multiforme—and did so, at least as far as I saw, with verve and elegance. She kept rowing for as long as she could–and, being Joan, continued to take home the gold.

Despite all of her accomplishments and my great admiration for her, I’ll miss her laughter the most. Any dinner with Joan and her sisters, however informal, was always a party.

Jean Strauss has been crafting a documentary about Joan. Here’s a taste:

Joan Lind – America’s Sculler from Jean A. S. Strauss on Vimeo.

And here’s Joan’s own perspective:

An Island With Joan from Jean A. S. Strauss on Vimeo.

Some obituaries:

“In Memory of Joan Lind Van Blom” by US Rowing— including an especially thoughtful tribute by the women’s double at the World Championships on the day of Joan’s death

“Two-Time Olympic Medalist Joan Lind Van Blom Passes” at Row2k

From the Cal State Long Beach student rowing team: “Remembering Joan Lind Van Blom”

And, from the front page of the daily Long Beach paper, “Long Beach’s Joan Van Blom, rowing legend, dies of brain cancer at 62”

Pain and suffering

I’m not prone to anxiety, but the social media threats from the gun extremists have kept me awake in the middle of the night since I received them. Last Wednesday night, I woke up every hour with increasing chest pain. I assumed it was a combination of my asthma and the bad air—though the air has actually been improving as the wildfires move elsewhere. My inhaler didn’t do anything for the pain, so I decided to go to the ER in hopes of getting a stronger inhaler or some kind of breathing treatment.

Unfortunately, the symptoms and kind of chest pain I described made the doctor think I might have had a heart attack. He immediately ruled out pneumonia (chest x-ray) and moved on to blood tests (for cardiac enzymes) and an EKG. Because the EKG showed “nonspecific abnormalities,” he kept me several hours for observation, hooking me up to machines to monitor my heart rate and blood pressure, and inserting an intravenous cannula so the techs could take blood easily.

redlight

The next EKG came back with a different nonspecific abnormality, but the cardiac enzyme tests were within a normal range. He consulted with a cardiologist. The doctor let me go after a breathing treatment, handing me an inhaler and prescribing medicines for my heart and lungs. He told me I needed to see my own doctor that day.

I followed up with my own doctor, who suggested that, while my asthma could be better controlled during the wildfires—she said her clinic had been seeing many new patients with breathing issues—the real issue was anxiety. She sent me on my way with a prescription for a serious anxiety medication.

I have never in my life experienced anxiety on this level. I can’t sleep well. I’m distracted at work. I’m looking over my shoulder everywhere I go. The ER costs are going, I imagine, to be substantial.

Still, I’ve had tremendous support, and I’ll seek out even more going forward.

Thank you to everyone for your kindness in the face of this ugliness.

(Redacted)

(Trigger warning: This post contains references to sexual assault, as well as epithets related to the female anatomy.)

So. . . It’s been an interesting summer. Alas, I cannot tell you about most of it because last week I was singled out by an, ahem, Second Amendment enthusiasts’ group, which posted on its Facebook page (with my photo) that I am Michael Bloomberg’s minion because I am a lead volunteer for [Redacted Organization Trying to Reduce Gun Violence By and Against Children] and thus Enemy #1 of [Second Amendment Group That Shall Not Be Named Because I Don’t Want to Give it Attention Here]. A member of [Redacted Second Amendment Group] found my name on a press release on the national [Redacted Organization]’s website.

Of course, the very first comment on the post looked like this:

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 7.55.41 PM

 

Sexual assault promoter’s name intentionally not redacted. Please do not engage with anyone related to this incident.

The group’s moderator responded with a “watch your language–there are children watching!”-type comment, but didn’t remove the offensive comment. Neither would Facebook, as even though I and many others reported it, it apparently doesn’t violate Facebook’s Community Standards.

Anyhoo, because the post focused on my status as a Boise State professor and because that wasn’t the only troubling comment (just my favorite!), I called the campus police, who transferred me to a very nice municipal police officer in a patrol car, who immediately offered to start driving by the house. He walked me through how to file a report and said that if necessary, the police would work with social media analytics experts, the Counter-Terrorism Task Force, and the FBI. He called back after I filed the report to emphasize all the resources at my disposal. At some point—it’s a blur now—the officer and/or campus security offered me a special parking space near my office, escorts wherever I went, officers patrolling my building, and even someone posted outside my door. The police officer also called the next day, when he came back on shift, to check on me. Law enforcement took these threats very seriously.

And hey, I learned a few things:

  • You never know which of your colleagues has received death threats and thus has the cell and desk phone numbers for a local FBI agent.
  • If Facebook doesn’t remove an offensive comment, sometimes an ally can leave a comment that prompts the moderator to remove the original comment within minutes:

"The fact that you left that up demonstrates perfectly the unhinged nature of your organization. Thanks. This will be shared with the legislators you seek to persuade."

 

Be an ally, folks. I <3 James.

Readers, here’s what you should know: I’m fine. I’m safe. I have an amazing community of people from all over the political spectrum looking out for me. Friends offered alternate housing. The police and campus security were amazing, and I have not yet exhausted my security options. One gun-loving, [Redacted]-degree black belt offered to bring her AR and stand guard in front of my house all night. [Redacted] sent a posse my way, in the form of new Facebook friends, to read through my own reporting of the incident on Facebook and consider how best to approach the situation, and he suggested some legal routes I might take, depending on how things develop.

I attended a [Session of Redacted Spiritual Group], reintroduced myself to its community, and they, like good adherents of [Redacted Theology], offered me tea and clucked over me in a most [Redactedly] way.

So, what about the rest of the summer? Here’s some other news I can’t fully report because there have been threats to me:

  • [Redacted] is getting ready to advance to [Redacted Level in Redacted Sport]. We are very proud of [Redacted].
  • The [Redacted Home Security Measures] are working as expected.
  • I’m not teaching this semester, but I’m loving [Redacted Other Things I Do When I’m Not Teaching]–especially the [Redacted People with Whom I Often Work].
  • I’m planning an online course for the spring. It’s a ton of work, but kind of fun.
  • Although I wasn’t planning it, I accomplished [Redacted Thing on Bucket List that I Did Not Realize Was on My Bucket List Until I Did It]. Ends up that, with the threats, [Redacted Thing] was fortuitous. I really wish I could gush about [Redacted Thing’s Details], but now I can’t.
  • [Redacted Large Male Person with Whom I Live] is feeling [Redacted] about the gun kerfuffle, which [Redacted].
  • I went with [Redacted] to visit [Redacted] in [Redacted], and I had the opportunity to chat briefly with [Redacted Relative] shortly before she went on hospice. [Redacted] has lived much longer than expected, and has enjoyed tremendous support from her community at [Redacted]. Her decline came amazingly quickly, and it was hard talking to her because of [Redacted] and [Redacted]. Still, because [Redacted] lives next door to [Redacted], it’s been very hard on [Redacted], who is in the unenviable position of [Redacted]. I wrote a poem—the first in a long while—related to [Redacted], but I can’t share it here because [Redacted].

It’s going to be an interesting academic year. I’ll share as much of it as I can, but I must heed the words on this family crest:

Family crest depicting a white woman holding an anchor in one hand and the decapitated head of a white man in the other

Honestly, we’ve never been gun people.

Forty

Tomorrow I turn 40. Forty!

I know many of my readers have already reached or long surpassed that milestone.

However, 40 feels fantastic and momentous to me because I didn’t know if I would make it this far. Those decades of depression sometimes made it seem, moment to moment and in the aggregate, as if 40 was impossible.

What keeps me going? An overdeveloped sense of responsibility to colleagues and a desire not to disappoint family and friends. I get out of bed on even the worst mornings because a stronger voice than the depression tells me I must.

On rare occasions I get to experience real joy. I had a reminder this past weekend that I can still feel the warm glow of happiness and delight.

Fang managed to throw a surprise party without me getting even a whiff of it beforehand. Not only did he craft a small but perfect guest list—he persuaded one of my best friends from high school, someone I hadn’t seen for years, to fly in with his wife for the occasion. And the friend who hosted it pulled off, as usual, a Pinterest-worthy event. And thanks to the boy, even the flavors of the ice cream cake were spot on.

All through the evening, people from different walks of my life commented on what an amazing circle of friends I have.

And it’s true.

I feel blessed. Truly, truly blessed.

Thanks to everyone who showed up to mark the occasion, and to those who were there in spirit.

Here’s to the next 40.

(photos by Fang)

“Idaho Citizens”

15535882211_7a91024dde_zImage by Thomas Hawk, and used under a Creative Commons license

 

When I listen to testimony before Idaho’s state legislative committees, I invariably hear—mostly from conservative speakers, but not exclusively—multiple people mention how many years they have been “citizens of Idaho.”

I thought this was an interesting slip of the tongue. After all, those testifying were residents of Idaho and likely citizens of the United States. I don’t recall ever hearing anyone call herself a “California citizen” or a “citizen of Iowa” (or Virginia or D.C.) when I lived in those places.

Still, I wasn’t sure whether to be amused (was the use of “citizen” ignorant or accidental?) or infuriated (was it intentional?).

And then I came across these passages in the Idaho state GOP platform:

“We believe that Idaho Citizens should not and or shall not be taxed for federally mandated health care.”

“The Idaho Republican Party recognizes that the future of this great state lies with our faith and reliance on God our Creator, in our strong efforts to uphold family values, and in the quality of education provided for its citizens.”

“The benefits of hydroelectric power should be retained for the citizens of Idaho.”

“We encourage all Idaho citizens, and their religious, civic, and community organizations, to be actively engaged in this effort.”

Argh.

This explains why the state GOP has made sure we’ll soon need passports to leave the state on an airplane—or, really, to fly anywhere in the U.S.

This state really is another country.

Little boxes

There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

(Would it be heavy-handed to quote the next verse?)

I haven’t blogged for a while because the new job (director of instructional design and educational assessment), which I’ve been doing on top of being a history professor, has used up all my brain space. The position encompasses even more than I thought it would. (Anyone here ever been responsible for an online testing center before, or merged two testing centers into one? Me neither.) Toss in a mandate for electronic accessibility, a need to represent students’ achievement of university learning outcomes both quantitatively and qualitatively to accreditors, a small staff of bright people who are already pulled in too many directions, software the university adopted that may or may not work as advertised (but which I’m responsible for making sure gets used as it was marketed), an expectation we’ll find a way to lower course resource costs for students, a relationship to be (re)built with the campus’s rapidly expanding online learning unit, and much more. . . and I barely have time to think about anything else.

I really do enjoy the work because I get to think about big-picture things and have interesting conversations with all kinds of people, but it seems every day some issue emerges that causes me some cognitive dissonance or, at the very least, pedagogical discomfort.

Right now I’m stuck on the imperative to be “entrepreneurial” within the context of the university.

I’m torn. On the one hand, I’m all for finding new and interesting sources of funding—by which I mean grants and community partnerships—for scholarly and creative work that might otherwise be impossible. On the other hand, there’s a renewed attention to the bottom line that makes the humanist in me deeply uncomfortable. (I feel compelled to preemptively mention the History department is profitable; it brings in more money to the university than it costs, especially now that we are—to borrow terminology from those darling Silicon Valley start-ups—leaner and therefore more agile unit.)

But, it ends up, there’s profitable and then there’s profitable. In the new cult of entrepreneurialism, the History department’s metrics make our entire endeavor—our research, courses, and public service—appear, in the eyes of some administrators, barely sustainable. When the provost came to talk to the History department, he recommended we spawn some “self-supporting” degrees or programs that would help to fund our bread-and-butter bachelor’s degree programs.

So, what is a self-supporting program? In my local context, a self-supporting program does not receive any funds appropriated from the state. (This is important because state appropriations to Idaho’s universities fell when the recession began, and have yet to return to 2008 levels. In addition, the state board of education provides Boise State only 2/3 the amount per student as it does the University of Idaho.) In return for not costing the university much, each self-supporting program (I’m told) gets to keep upwards of 90 percent of its revenue, out of which it pays faculty salaries and all its other costs.

There is a tremendous incentive in self-supporting programs, then, to reduce costs incurred by the department and to have students bear as many of these costs as possible.

As any academic knows, one way to reduce costs to the department is to hire very few tenure-line faculty and to farm out teaching to lecturers or, better yet, adjuncts. And there is a widespread belief—which I’m guessing is a myth—that online programs save the university money because they don’t place a burden on the university’s physical plant. In this paradigm, the most economical courses are those offered online and taught by adjuncts. (Of course, it’s not really economical, as there’s a huge support infrastructure in place—from servers and the people who maintain them, to expensive enterprise software and the people who maintain it, to instructional designers, help desk staff, admissions recruiters, the registrar, and all kinds of other units that don’t get reimbursed in any meaningful way by these self-supporting programs.)

But who has time to ensure all those online adjuncts are adhering to best practices in instructional design? A university can moderate such concerns by having “subject-matter experts”—who may or may not be tenure-line faculty—provide the content for each course. Then, in concert with specialists in instructional design, the subject-matter expert develops a course, populating, for example, discussion boards with prompts and exams with questions and answers. This course is then cloned within the university’s learning management system (e.g., Blackboard) and handed off to adjuncts whose teaching experience and subject matter expertise fall all over the spectrum. For purposes of quality control and discipline-specific accreditation (for example, in engineering or the health sciences), the adjuncts typically lack opportunities to make their course their own. The course becomes, for all intents and purposes, a less-than-open xMOOC with better-staffed sections.

On my least cynical, most optimistic days, I can see how this process might work for, say, Boise State’s nursing program, which offers a bachelor’s degree completion program for RNs, for a relatively cookie-cutter MBA program, or for any number of programs that offer continuing education to professionals in fields that require formal accreditations beyond degrees.

It’s going to be a screaming failure in the humanities, however. In some cases, the one thing humanities adjuncts have going for them is a sense of autonomy in designing their courses and agency in teaching them. This paradigm takes away that autonomy, in the name of cost-cutting and quality control. If you think humanities adjuncts are agitated now, wait until universities ask them to teach courses out of a box.

In addition, the humanities typically don’t scale well. Done well, the humanities require significant time for research, reflection, discernment, and revision. When he met with the History department, our provost recommended, for example, we bring in 30 new grad students each year and graduate 11 of them. (As I understand it, we typically bring in 10 students in a good year, and offer support to fewer than half those students. Eleven students is a lot. Because history student projects necessitate many, many drafts and we require a high standard of student work, I had three grad students file to graduate this spring, but only one did.) We have 14 tenure-line faculty in the department, and most of them don’t serve on more than two graduate students’ committees at any one time, but if we’re to keep our graduate programs, our tenure-line faculty are expected to ramp those numbers up considerably while teaching a 3/3 load, plus doing enough research to keep us off a 4/4 load.

Yes, there are examples of individual instructors teaching humanities concepts well online for a large audience of enrolled or open students—I’m thinking in particular of DS 106 in its various permutations—but in every case I can think of, their success relies on connectivism rather than content delivery, and they teach outside of a traditional LMS. The scale derives from an instructor’s generosity with his or her time, and from students’ willingness to expand their personal learning networks, rather than from a widgetizing of course production.

In a climate that favors entrepreneurialism and self-supporting programs, the problem is that the humanities—and increasingly so, when we teach them well—are about building community, about collaboration and connection—not about sharing content in a way that can be measured by exams. The learning management platforms on which universities offer online courses are optimized for sharing content and quizzing students on their knowledge of that content, not for genuine connection and community-building.

But back to the provost’s recommendation that the History department develop some self-supporting programs: what kind of student is going to pay premium rates for a humanities degree? Humanities degrees do indeed provide a significant financial return on their investment by mid-career but our students don’t usually understand that, focused as they are on getting that first post-baccalaureate job. In the cold calculus of universities with dwindling state support, the humanities may slip from being the bread-and-butter liberal arts courses at the heart of a quality undergraduate education, becoming instead a luxury for those who can afford higher tuition for History courses one administration here dubbed “boutique.”

Meanwhile, of course, employers are asking for students who can think critically and creatively, synthesize complex information from multiple sources, and write well. I can’t wait to see how universities get remote nursing or business adjuncts to teach those skills online.

Mass firing in the History department at Boise State

This past week, the History department chair sent out an e-mail with the subject line “Grim News.” In the e-mail, she detailed extensive cuts to the History department’s funding, apparently emerging from the Provost’s office. Among the cuts are:

  • The Public History faculty line I recently vacated
  • 2/3 of the funds we use to support graduate assistants
  • Two lecturerships
  • A visiting lecturership
  • All adjunct funding

I’ll have something more substantive to say about this soon, but right now I’m grief-stricken.

In the meantime, you can read this Idaho Statesman article to get a sense of the university’s party line. As you might imagine, though, “declining enrollment” is not the whole story.

I’ll leave you with these tidbits, calculated by one of our endangered lecturers, who used to work in college finance and administration:

The department offered 49 full-semester 3-credit courses with 1,385 students total in Spring 2015. Of these:

  • 17 classes with 556 students were taught by tenure/tenure-track faculty (41%)
  • 15 classes with 449 students were taught by 3.5 lecturers (33%)
  • 14 classes with 340 students were taught by 8 adjuncts (24%)
  • 3 classes with 40 students were taught by full-time faculty not housed entirely in the history department (2%)

The lecturer estimates the department’s instructional expenses constitute less than 45% of the revenue it brings in through teaching alone, and that there’s no way the now diminished tenure-line faculty can accommodate all of the students currently being taught by lecturers and adjuncts. Even trying to accommodate them will mean History faculty won’t have time to do research during the academic year. Currently we have two NEH fellows, an NSF fellow, a Fulbright scholar, and the editor of a top journal—as well as everyone else’s research agendas—so our department isn’t exactly shirking its research responsibilities. Many of us have also service commitments that already are untenable.

Two quick updates, perhaps burying the lede

Just a couple of things:

  • I’ve been in the new job a month. I’m loving it. It’s a great blend of intellectual work, collaboration, and practical application of all kinds of things I’m thinking about. (Bonus: We’re no longer living hand-to-mouth. I can pay bills without breaking into a cold sweat. That’s a good feeling.)
  • Received tenure and promotion in the History department.