Thursday, November 18, 2004

Chilean Divorce, Finally
Today, divorce was finally made legal in Chile. The law was first proposed 10 years ago, and only just made it through the senate. The first thing this made me think of was my host mother, and how happy I hope she is. If you read the BBC article, you'll note that it says before a divorce will be granted, a mutually consenting couple will have a year-long separation period, and if the couple is not mutual in seeking the divorce, the separation/waiting period will be three years. While I'm sure this seems excessive to many people, I think most of the people in Chile who have been wanting a divorce for many more years than that will think it's quite reasonable in the grand scheme of things. My host mother, for instance, had been separated from her husband for at least 5 years at the time I met her. Her husband lived in an entirely different city, hours away, and only saw his sons ocassionally on holidays. They lived entirely separate lives. She had a boyfriend who also had three children and was also separated long-term from his legal wife. Neither of them considered it at all strange that they would be dating each other while still married to other people, because they didn't have any choice. When my parents came to visit, one of the interesting cross-lingual conversations we had was about how if my host mother and her boyfriend ever wanted to get married for real, they'd have to move to another country, get divorces only legitimate in that country, and then remarry, and it still wouldn't have been legal in Chile. I wonder if they're going to get married now.

The NPR report on it was also interesting, particularly in its exploration of the deeper reason that the Church is so upset about the whole thing. One woman interviewed mentions that the Church's argument that this will hurt women and children because it will encourage men to abandon their families is totally out of touch with reality, because, as seen above, the lack of legal divorce in Chile has not prevented married couples from breaking up anyway. In fact, legalizing divorce will now make alimony and child-support enforceable, which would be a huge improvement.

All in all, I think this is an excellent thing for Chile, and I am very glad to see that the law finally, finally, finally got passed. I rather wish I hadn't fallen out of contact with my host family. I wish them all the best.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Great TV Debate
I have now been well and truly without TV for nearly 5 months now, since I went to China. Almost immediately after I returned from my 5-week sojourn abroad, I moved into an apartment that is more or less underground, and thus gets neither cell phone nor regular TV reception. If I want to watch actual television programming, I will have to get cable. Of course, if I was going to watch anything on TV, it'd probably be on cable anyway, but in spite of that extra incentive, I find myself consistently not doing anything about actually getting a cable connection.

After my post-election futility post, my uncle Bruce emailed me his own rant about the current erosion of our civilization into a mass of mindless, thoughtless, consumer sheep. He blames a large part of this on the ubiquity of TV in our lives now. Allow me to selectively quote his email:
To use this [passivity] properly, we need to work people as much as possible. Sixty hour weeks minimum. Wear them out. Exhaust them. Send them home. By the time they eat (processed food of course, or better yet, fast food, because they're too tired to cook) it's too late and they are too tired to do much besides flop down in front of the tube for a couple of hours before bed. Then we show them shows about people who are really stupid so they can feel better about their own stupidity. At least they are smarter than those sitcom dads, or those idiots on reality TV shows. And lots of commercials that tell them that if they'll only buy our product, they'll feel better and be one up on the Joneses next door.

What do you end up with here? People that only work, eat, and consume. They don't have time to read - how many people read books anymore? They don't have time to visit with their neighbors - how many even know who their neighbors are?


So don't get mad. Don't get despondent. Get organized, and quit dealing with regressives. Quit buying their goods and services... Support your independent merchant - never shop at a chain. Hang out with progressives and people who can think. Put down regressives - always challenge their statements. But most of all - kill your TV, and don't allow anyone to sucker you into watching theirs. Instead read a book, or talk to them. Give books to people that have TVs and badger them into reading.
So now I sit in my apartment and look at my bookshelves full of books, books, and more books, some of which I haven't had time to read yet, and I don't really feel like I need a TV. I haven't really missed it. Honestly, I found that once I left the country for an extended period and was forcefully separated from any regular show-watching, when I came back, they all seemed pretty stupid. There's so little challenge to it, unlike trying to watch in a foreign language, so what's the point? It's been years since I've actually just sat down and watched a show anyway. It was always just something else going on while I was cross-stitching, or blogging, or making lesson materials.

The thing is, though, that in some ways it made me feel more connected with people. It created some false sense of cultural community with people who watched the same shows. I mean, sure, they were mostly nerdy shows like Jeopardy or The West Wing, but it gave me something normal to talk about, which sometimes seems passing rare in my life.

Another point, which I consider more valid and debate-worthy, is that since I wasn't sitting passively in front of sitcoms and reality shows, I did find TV stimulating sometimes. One of my best lesson units last semester came from seeing a commercial for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial website. Because I honestly do think that my students can improve their English by watching TV, I feel kind of like a hypocrite having no possible way to watch it myself. If I'm teaching Speaking & Listening next semester, this may become a larger problem.

Teaching resources aside, though, I really don't see how I'd have time to watch TV. I barely have enough time as it is, and whatever free time I manage to find, I pretty much spend reading, because if I don't I truly fear I will go insane. No matter how much Lee would appreciate being able to watch football or basketball (in my opinion the 2 most boring mainstream sports known to US television) when he's here, I'm finding it very hard to justify the $30 or whatever it would be per month to watch the ocassional show.

Anyone else want to weigh in the debate?

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Come Work for Uncle
I, or rather, Lee had an amusing cultural encounter this weekend. I finally took Lee to the only Chinese restaurant I know in E. Lansing which I also know for sure is owned and run by Chinese people. The husband, who works the counter, almost immediately asked Lee if he was Chinese, and did he speak Cantonese or Mandarin, whereupon he immediately switched out of English. He was apparently so pleased to be able to speak Chinese with a customer that he gave us free drinks, and when our meal was ready to go, (apparently) told Lee if he was going to be in E. Lansing often, he should come back and "help out Uncle." While Lee did conclude that the food is still basically Americanized Chinese food, he was both amused and full at the end of the evening.

So once again, we find evidence that knowledge of a foreign language is profitable. You can't turn down free drinks.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Mind Candy Question Marks
I have been indulging in several days of the equivalent of a spa treatment for my brain. By that, you may infer that I have read two fun books in two days, and read nothing for work or school. At times, it helps to be reminded that I can still start and finish a book in a day.

Tonight, about 5 minutes ago, I finished Stone Cold by Robert B. Parker. Mr. Parker is a very experienced and prolific author of long standing. Most of the time, for a mind-candy mystery writer, I think he does a decent job. But I have a question.

What, just what, does Robert Parker, or his copy editor, have against the innocent question mark? It is a very helpful punctuation mark. It is, in fact, one of the more basic ones. And yet, for more than half of the questions taking place in conversations amongst the characters in Stone Cold, the question mark is quite astonishingly and disturbingly absent. It has the effect of making all of said characters seem like androids who never quite got the hang of intonation, or perhaps just bad ESL students.

Needless to say, I was annoyed. I do not like it when annoying little personal writing tics interfere with my reading. Ideally, in fiction, the writing should be so smooth I never even notice it's there. Alas, this time, it was not so, Mr. Parker, it was not so. Remember, punctuation is our friend.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Stress Tally
For those trying to keep track, here are my current reasons for not having a very cheerful or interesting blog of late. I promise to try to change.
  1. teaching a motivational black hole at MSU

  2. working two teaching jobs at two separate institutions, yet on many of the same days

  3. Semantics research paper due before Thanksgiving

  4. Research Methods research project due at the end of the semester; not yet started even collecting data, let alone analyzing it or writing a paper about it

  5. Michigan weather

  6. my apartment is entirely too cold now that winter is coming, and I can't seem to fix it

  7. every time I finish one thing, there is something else I need to do right away

  8. I'm tired of being tired

  9. past relationships take a long time to stop being painful

  10. no vacations in fall semester except 2 days at Thanksgiving

Pulling Teeth
To be honest, the election was not the only thing making me cry last week. It was just the last thing, the proverbial straw. This semester is, in general, rather stressful. Many factors contribute to this, not the least of which by any means is my ELC class.

I started off the semester quite chipper. I had ideas for teaching reading and writing, I was organized, I had plans, I had more advanced students who would be ripe for learning new stuff! Yay! And yet, slowly, over the course of the semester, those students have drained all of my energy, enthusiasm, and desire to do anything remotely creative in the classroom. They don't seem to be progressing, as a group they don't respond to anything I do, and in general, they just don't try anymore. Of the 14 students on my roll, only 9-10 of them show up to class on any given day. 3 of them have well and truly dropped out of the class, though not officially, as that would be in violation of their visas. One guy came only to the first week, but oh well, there's always someone like that. One guy quit when he missed the mid-term, saying instead that he'd rather take the TOEFL "to pass the class," despite the fact that doing so is not an option. The third guy told us earlier in the semester that he would be going home at Thanksgiving and not coming back, so could he take his final 3 weeks early? Apparently, two weeks ago he realized that since he was going to fail his classes anyway, he might as well not come at all. The rest of them come, but only a core group of about 5 can be relied upon to be on time and consistently in class, while the rest of them float around the edges of attendence and punctuality. One student this week has come in 3/4 of the way through class 2 days in a row. The class is two hours long. It's not like missing an hour and a half isn't noticeable.

The thing is, this is not unique to my class. In fact, my class is actually better taken as a whole than the other level 3 class. Level 4 is in a similar position. Program-wide, regardless of level, we have a 50% failure rate at the moment. It's ridiculous, especially because almost none of the failing students are failing for any other reason than laziness and poor attendence.

I understand that many of the students in our program are here on semester-abroad programs. I understand that many of these students are looking more for an "American experience" than they are to really become excellent English speakers/users. But I really have to ask, why go on an academic semester abroad if you don't intend to learn anything? Why not try to fulfil both social and academic goals? It's not like the ELC classes are hard. They're only in class 4 hrs/day, 4 days/week. Okay, maybe these classes aren't going to have any effect on their real college transcript. It is perhaps an overly idealistic hope that such students actually really want to learn.

The odd thing is, though, that the students with the biggest motivation problems are not the semester-abroad students, but the provisionally admitted MSU students. These are students who have applied and been accepted to an academic program at MSU, but do not have sufficient English skills to begin regular academic work. By university policy, they have 1 academic year to make enough progress to get out of the Intensive English Program (all English classes, all the time.) If they do not make enough progress, they are no longer admitted to MSU and must apply again later. These are the students that, by rights, should be hell-bent on learning as much English as possible. And yet, invariably, they are the ones who decide English classes aren't worth their time or effort. These classes will directly affect their futures, and they don't care. I don't understand it.

Facing such incredible apathy 4 mornings a week, I was starting to think it was my fault. However, I now also teach at LCC, and the difference could not be greater. There, I teach low-level grammar directly out of the textbook with no original activities, and the students are happy to see me. I'm not kidding. They were even enthusiastic and cheerful about taking a quiz last week. Those students are happy to be in English classes, they understand why they are there and why their placement is what it is, and they have goals they are progressing towards. If I can just figure out what the difference is, I would happily try to change my MSU students.

As it stands now, I'm just ready for this semester to be over, and I'm praying that I don't have to teach level 3 again next semester, so I don't get my failed students.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Feelings of Futility
I have now been old enough to vote in two presidential elections. Both times, I voted in a swing state. Both times, each state went to the candidate I voted for. Both times, in the end, it didn't matter. And this makes me tired.

I am tired of feeling like, no matter what I do, my voice will not be heard. I am tired of feeling like, somehow, all of the things I have been taught to cherish and value above all else, the things I have been taught to believe are right, are not valued in the least by more than half the country I have been taught to love. I am tired of being shown that the prejudice and bigotry I have so optimistically thought were being left behind in this world are actually alive, well, and what people want more of in the future. I am tired of being told I live in a delusion, when all it has ever seemed to me was clear and obvious truth.

Yesterday, as I drove to work, a man on NPR told me that the biggest difference between the polls done on election day and those done leading up to that day was that suddenly, everyone polled seemed to be saying that their highest priority in the voting booth had been "moral values," rather than any of the other numerous real issues people had been listing before, such as foreign policy, the economy, or the environment. Where did this come from? How can this be? How can people actually truly think that their own perceptions of the "moral values" of a candidate constitute a vote-deciding factor?

Also yesterday, my uncle Ray forwarded me a Wall Street Journal article about how Japanese schools are trending back toward rote memorization and lectures in the classroom, as backlash against the late 1990s policy of yutori kyoiku, or "loose education," which had introduced more of an emphasis on analytical skills and critical thinking. The idea was that this new analytical focus would make students more competitive in the international market, and, in essence, more like American students. As standardized test scores have dropped, though, and the economy in Japan has failed to improve, the old system is coming back into play.

And little wonder! I mean, really, who values critical thinking anymore? Not people in the US! Oh, no. We want good standardized scores from everyone, teachers and students alike. We want no evidence that students can manipulate or retain data beyond the all-important test date. And we certainly don't want a populace of voters who might actually vote for someone who appeals to their intellect, their logic, and their critical thinking skills, rather than their baser instincts, fears, and phobias.

Today on Salon, the pundits and reporters began to weigh in with their post-election opinions. The tag line of one article was as follows: "This country isn't secular or rational. And if the Dems want to win, they can't be either." To both halves of that statement, I ask the same question: Why? Why is it that in a country whose most basic tenet is the separation of church and state, we can be neither secular nor rational? The very definition of government in this country is supposed to be secular. Perhaps it is just me, but I would also hope that people would very much prefer that their leaders be rational. Do these people not understand that the presidency is a job? Would these people hire someone to work for them based solely on their apparent (and note that it is only apparent) moral fiber, rather than on the competency the person has shown in the past? The President is not merely a figurehead of our nation; he and his administration have concrete impacts on the foundation of the country. The President is not a religious leader; he does not need to be a pure and shining paragon of saintly virtue, to lord his moral superiority over the other leaders of the world's nations. What he needs to be is a competent organizer, negotiator, and administrator. As far as I can see, personal morals rarely have anything to do with such abilities.

However, more than half the country seems to believe differently than I do. They want a president who does not make them question their fears, but instead encourages them to fear more. They want a president who confirms the belief that diversity of opinion and thought is bad. They want a president who will try to restrict the choices available to people, because people can't be trusted to make the right decisions about their own personal moral judgments. (Personally, I think if you’re so scared other people aren't going to make the same decisions you would that this fear makes you want to try to restrict freedoms to take away the possibilities of such choices, you might want to consider why those other people might make a different choice. Such as, maybe you're the one who's wrong.)

Another person wrote in to Salon today, a Kerry volunteer writing on the idea that the Democrats need to somehow reach out more to the "heartland" (read: midwest and south) of the US. She said:
To me, the heartland of this country is anywhere that people work their asses off to make their lives better for their families. They stay true to their better angels no matter how miserable things get or how much easier it would be to succumb to hate and irrational fear. They read, and listen, and look for the truth and stay informed about what's really going on, no matter how grim the news. They don't live in Fox News cocoons, they don't blast Rush Limbaugh from their pickups, and they don't vote blindly for the guys whose prejudices most neatly line up with their own. Their concerns are genuine, their values are consistent, their principles are rock-solid, and their hearts are true.
I am grateful to this person, and to my family, my friends, and the communities I grew up in, because they help me dispel the fear that somehow I have been living completely alone in my own delusion of rational thought and critical thinking.

When I lived in Japan, I defended the US to my friends from other countries. I was proud of the tenets I had been taught were the foundation of my country. I was proud of the seeming overall set of ideals that had grown from that foundation, the ideals by which I had been raised. But as I said yesterday, I used to be proud to be American. Now I think I am only proud of myself, my upbringing, my family, and my friends. I have no respect for my country anymore, at least not if it is determined to be a place where fear and prejudice reign, where the appearance of piety and morals outweigh competence and rational thinking, and where plurality of thought seems to be on the way out.

I, too, now live in fear. I fear for the next four years. I fear to watch the freedoms I value so highly systematically taken away. I fear to watch our nation turn the world against us. I fear to watch people in our country become more and more unhealthy while having less and less access to competent healthcare. I fear to watch our public schools deteriorate to the point that I would never put my children in them to be educated. I fear to watch the system of checks and balances that holds our government together turned into a mockery of itself. I fear for the changes that will be made as irrevocable as possible before anyone else can try to fix them, and moreover I fear that by the time someone does try to fix them, they will have become so entrenched as to seem commonplace. I fear for the future of my country, my life, and my world. I live in fear.

I cried myself to sleep last night. I do not know if I will again tonight or not. The nightmare is over. The new nightmare begins.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Another Angry, Tired Voter
I was going to post a rather long, angry, but well-reasoned rant. As it turns out, though, I'm just far too tired. I have an exam tomorrow which I haven't studied for, a class to prepare out of whole cloth, and a huge amount of apathy toward real life to overcome. In the end, it boils down to these words, which I actually did manage to write earlier today, when I had a little more energy.


I used to be proud to be American. Now I think I am only proud of myself, my upbringing, my family, and my friends. I have no respect for my country anymore. I will continue to live here because it is advantageous, not because I have any love for the place. A mercenary attitude is aiding me in finding compromise with so many decisions in my life right now.


I have more to say, but I just can't right now.

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