Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Problem with "Studying" the Humanities

So, my students are getting ready for the AP Lang & Comp exam, and that reminded me of a piece of commentary on the problem with "studying literature." Certainly, Shakespeare and Dickens and Fitzgerald  and Steinbeck and Updike and Delillo and others did not create masterpieces of literature and great narratives so teenagers and college students would be "forced" to read them and answer mind-numbing questions of analysis. Yet, that's what the study of literature can actually do to the great works. It's a complaint of my students that I can certainly understand, and it can give me pause when I think about what I ask students to do. Lee Seigel asks a similar question is his piece "Who Ruined the Humanities" in the Saturday review section of the Wall Street Journal.  

Here's a sample of the kind absurdity in the study of humanities that he challenges:

Question: "Compare Homer's prolepsis to Shakespeare's ghosts and to Dante's premonitions, then contrast these with Ibsen's reversals, Chekhov's irresolution, and Kafka's absurdity in light of omniscient narrators in Jane Austen, narrative delay in Henry James, and free indirect speech in James Joyce." [time limit: one hour]


Sunday, April 26, 2015

13 Reasons to read Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Thirty Reasons Why, the New York Times bestseller and young adult novel by Jay Asher, uniquely addresses the issue of teen suicide through a suspenseful story of a young man who receives a mysterious set of tapes following the death of a classmate. Clay Jensen listens to the tapes to discover the voice of Hannah Baker, a girl he knew from school who had passed away. Hannah begins to narrate the story of her downward spiral into a state of depression and ultimately suicide. However, there is a twist. Hannah is exposing the story and the thirteen people who in some way "played a role" in her demise. This revelation shocks Clay - and of course the reader - and propels the action of the novel. Thirteen Reasons Why is an infinitely readable young adult novel that takes on the issue of suicide in a meaningful way.

Thirteen Reasons Why has resonated with both teen and adult readers because:

  1. The issue of teen suicide - and the social pressures that can often instigate it - is as prominent as ever, and one of the best ways to treat the issue is to initiate difficult conversations about the topic.
  2. Jay Asher writes with a readable and believable teen voice that engages the issue of teen angst and the confusion that both leads to and follows the suicide of a young person.
  3. The book is being made into a movie starring Selena Gomez
  4. The novel is written in a unique format with basically two narrators - the actual one and the girl on the tape whose story is being told.
  5. The suspenseful nature of the story - notably the reasons for Hannah's action, the gradual revealing of people and their roles, and Clay's unease over "his role - drive the story forward in a way that's difficult to put down.
  6. It doesn't descend (too much) into cliches about teen life - or teen voices
  7. There are layers of meaning and events that culminate in Hannah's death - a structure that lends understanding to the hardest thing to understand.
  8. It's not a flawless novel, and there is plenty to criticize as you discuss the novel.
  9. It doesn't trivialize its subject as far too many books and movies can.
  10. It's a heck of an achievement for a first novel.
  11. It's thoughtful without being preachy or pretentious
  12. I kind of wish I'd written it - and you probably will, too.
  13. Many of your students have read or are reading it, and you should, too.

And for a couple of other well written young adult novels that deal impressively with tough situations and do so in a voice and style that can even engage adults, you will definitely want to read:

The Fault in Our Stars - John Green

The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky

It's Kind of a Funny Thing - Ned Vizinni

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Affluenza in the English Classroom

"Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it."
Teachers of AP Lang & Comp certainly recognize this tidbit of wisdom from King Lear which appeared as an argumentative prompt years ago. The disparity between "wealth and justice" is a topic ripe for criticism, and it forms the heart of many literary works. It is significant in one of the great American novels, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.  The essence of the theme and conflict is the misguided belief that money can buy anything, even the past. In the novel, Daisy basically gets away with murder because of her wealth, and Fitzgerald reminds us that the Buchanans and wealthy elite are "were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money of their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."
These days, that gap between wealth and justice is getting attention again with the story of Ethan Couch, a teenager who killed four people in a drunk driving accident, yet was inexplicably released from jail time after his high priced attorneys successfully argued the "Affluenza Defense." If there is anyone who "smashed things up," it's Ethan Couch, who was driving drunk at nearly three times the legal limit when he slammed into a group of people who were stopped by the side f the road. After his high priced attorney successfully argued that he needed rehabilitation, rather than jail time, and that he couldn't be held responsible because his privilege had shielded him from any responsibility in life. In essence, Couch's parents spoiled him so terribly that he never learned consequences for his actions and shouldn't be held accountable.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Scholarly Study of John Grisham

As an English teacher, I like to tell my students there are great writers and there are great storytellers. The work of a great writer will generally be considered literature and is worthy of study in the classroom. It's writing that matters, and it has more to it than character, setting, plot, and theme. There is generally a sophistication to the language and structure and layers of depth to the meaning. The work of a great storyteller may be immensely popular, and it will sell widely while engaging its audience. But it may never be worthy of study, it won't stick around for long, and it ultimately doesn't really matter. In this way I tell my students that Dickens and Austen and Fitzgerald and Salinger and Updike and even Franzen are great writers producing literature, while King and Clancy and Crichton and Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer are popular storytellers. In fact, I wrote more extensively years ago about the conundrum of the quality of Stephanie Meyer's writing.

So, what to do with John Grisham?

Clearly, John Grisham is a hugely popular writer of thrillers and crime fiction, and he would be the first to concede he is not a writer of great literature. Writing is a business for him, and he writes engaging stories to make money - and he makes lots of it. Grisham has been known to pull in $25-$30 million a year, and his net worth is approaching a quarter of a billion dollars. However, I once read an essay in a study of popular culture that identified John Grisham is the "Dickens of our time," for the richness of his characters and the portrayal of unique sub-strata of society. That certainly challenges the conventional wisdom of the time. However, there may be something to an elevated status for popular writers like Grisham, and that is the focus of John Grisham: A Critical Companion. The book is one in a series about popular fiction edited by Kathleen Gregory Klein of Southern Connecticut State University. Each book in the series begins with a biographical sketch, and then assembles a series of critical essays about the author and body of work. The Grisham series, written by Mary Beth Pringle of Wright State University just might convince you to re-evaluate the complexity and worthiness of John Grisham's work.

Certainly, if you are an English teacher who assigns research projects, you might want to check out the Critical Companion series from Greenwood Press.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People

I was in the bookstore the other day, and I noticed my tendency to gravitate toward the non-fiction section. That would seem pretty typical for the average man, as most studies indicate men tend to read more  non-fiction, while women are more likely to prefer novels. That's certainly true between my wife and me. And, of course, I try to balance my habits with both genres - currently, I am reading an Elmore Leonard novel Road Dogs (always a pleasure) and Ed Burns' new (sort of) memoir Independent Ed. That said, I just naturally gravitate toward Burns' easygoing story of his film career over the raucous crime drama of Leonard. Go figure.

However, I am a high school English teacher with a Master of Arts degree in English Language and Literature. Teaching literary fiction is a way of life for me. Granted, I now only teach a section of "AP English Language & Comp," which is primarily focused on rhetoric and argumentation. Still, the class maintains a pretty heavy component of lit with works such as favorites like O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Of course, I have also added in some non-fiction with Lewis' Next: the Future Just Happened and Krakauer's Into the Wild.  But does it even matter?

Is fiction superior in any way to the non-fiction works? And is it necessary for us as human beings to read novels? Certainly, all those questions are extremes, and it's really not a question of necessity. However, as the reading public continues to shrink - at least in the sense of accessing grand literary works (ie. the classic novel), I wonder, as Marc O'Connel recently asks in a piece for Salon, "Does Reading Fiction Make You a Better Person?"

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Cappella Groups - "Rock Stars" on the College Circuit

For me, the fascination started with two amazing performing groups: the classic Christmas mash up from "Straight, No Chaser" and the extremely talented a cappella groups at the high school where I work. And, with the amazing success of a movie - and book - called Pitch Perfect, as well as the run of the Fox show Glee, "a cappella" singing is coming into its own in a whole new way. And, as a recent AP story recently explained, "College A Cappella: [it's] Not your Grandfather's Barbershop Quartet."

These days the a cappella groups on college campuses are competing in increasingly popular competitions, and the top groups are achieving the status "of rock stars." With incredible singing talent, intricate mash-ups of popular songs from the likes of Beyonce, and complicated choreography, the kids singing a cappella are winning over ever larger audiences. And, this development in the arts is very exciting.

The Super Bowl of a cappella competitions was expected to draw about 3,000 people to New York to see eight groups this weekend, a far cry from the paltry crowd of 200 that watched the national finals more than a decade ago. "Now the larger world is seeing that it's awesome," said Amanda Newman, executive director of Varsity Vocals, the event's organizer. "Everyone's just over the moon. It wasn't a secret that we wanted to keep." This isn't your grandfather's barbershop quartet. Covering pop songs like Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" and Hozier's "Take Me to Church," the groups earn the adulation of cheering fans through their complex harmonies and choreography. "People used to think of vocal music as boring choir stuff," said Isaac Hecker, a member of Amazin' Blue at the University of Michigan. "Once you figured out that you can do crazy beat-boxing, awesome bass lines (and) throw everything together, you just have really cool music." This weekend's contest is the 19th International Championship of Collegiate A cappella, or ICCA. In its early years, Newman said, only 35 groups competed in the rounds leading up to the finals. This year, about 320 groups in the U.S. and Britain vied for a spot.

While high school and college are, obviously, for academics and career training, and athletics are a huge multi-billion dollar business, it's the arts that really connect with us on a deep emotional level. For that reason, I love seeing the attention showered on these talented performers.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Say This, Not That - How to Talk to People

In a cult classic from the early 90s, Pump Up the Volume, Christian Slater's character explains to his friend that, despite his voice on the radio, "I can't talk to you." Communication is tough, and it's one of the standards in English instruction that is often underserved in the classroom. Occasionally, I play the game Catch Phrase with students in an activity I call "Communication Skills." I also focus on language choices for the students in all their writing, asking them to combine sentences and think about the concept of le mot juste- the right word.

Communicating comes more naturally for some than others, but it is a skill that can be taught, learned, and refined. These are the thoughts from numerous authors of books around the idea of "Say This, Not That." One of the more interesting and well written approaches comes from California therapist Carl Alasko. Alasko offers great advice when you "have something to say" but don't want to trigger an argument. Many of us can use advice on how to be more tactful. And, we would certainly be more productive in delicate discussions if we were mindful of these few bits of advice:

  • Have a plan
  • Bite your tongue
  • Avoid the unanswerable
  • Don't blame, abuse, or punish
  • Fend off fights

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Gravity CEO Cuts His Pay to Offer $70K Minimum Wage

And, sometimes you get a cool story like this one.

Dan Price, the CEO of Gravity Payments, announced to his 100-person staff that he will establish a new minimum wage of $70,000 per year. Price is funding the huge across-the-board raises for his employees by cutting his own salary from nearly $1 million to $70K, and he will contribute a greater share of the company's profits. Price established the 70K threshold by acknowledging the research on happiness that indicates money "can buy happiness" up to about $70K/year.

Price's move is a significant extrapolation of the actions by other forward thinking, altruistic CEOs of the past few years such as Costco head Craig Jelinek who establishes a ceiling for his earnings that can't exceed an unreasonable multiple of his lowest paid worker. The actions of men like Jelinek and Price counter the ostentatious and disturbing trend of extravagance where income equality has exploded because of the absurd growth among the wealthiest.

Perhaps this move can alter the discussion of the income gap as simply a problem of achievement gaps in schools. These days, the primary motivator of national standards and new standardized testing is the belief that income equality will decrease if more kids go to college. The reality is our societal gaps are more about wages than about education. And, if businesses paid better for skilled work, we'd probably all be happier.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Not Equity or Achievement Gap - Let's Close the Inspiration Gap

Why don't kids succeed at school? Well, a primary reason is because they are disengaged from what they are learning, and they don't like the system, content, structure, goals, etc. Too often they are simply not motivated by or interested in what the education system tells them they "need to know." And, this is particularly problematic lately in a system that is focused on a singular definition of "readiness for college and career," which seems primarily focused on a basic level of competency in algebra II. This "common" approach for all kids is the outcome of a one-size-fits-all system grounded in the belief that if we simply produce more kids ready for bachelor degrees that we will solve the problems of socioeconomic inequity.

A more equitable system that would probably be more effective at meeting kids needs and producing engaged and skilled students who are prepared for the jobs they want and the lives they desire would instead focus on engaging and motivating kids to develop skills in areas that interest them. And, some innovative educators are addressing that issue of "inspiration," notably Andrew Mangino.

Four years ago, Mangino founded The Future Project with the aim of transforming students and schools by looking beyond the familiar measures of success. Instead of focusing only on school performance, graduation rates, college matriculation and job placement, Mangino wanted to get to what he saw as the root of the problem. Students don't have enough motivation, he says, and they lack belief in their own futures.
It’s not that the typical metrics aren’t important, Mangino says. But he strongly believes there's a lot more to success than grades and test scores. It's a conviction he developed while walking the hallways of Woodrow Wilson High School, speaking face-to-face with a young man whose potential couldn’t be fully rendered by numbers alone. The Future Project places mentors in schools -- usually people in their 20s and 30s -- to get students talking and thinking about how to achieve their dreams, big and small, short-term and long-term. The program's mentors refer to themselves as "Dream Directors," a title meant to signal that The Future Project’s ambitions begin in the school building but don't end there.
Moving away from a system of Carnegie units based on basic skills and preparation for "college degrees," and instead focusing on engaging kids in learning and personal growth, is the kind of education reform that can really make a difference.

Kurt Vonnegut & "The Art of the Term Paper"

It would be the English student's dream and nightmare: writing a term paper for Kurt Vonnegut. That's the challenge faced by Suzanne McConnell and other students who studied with Vonnegut at the Iowa Writer's Workshop in his "Form of Fiction" class. McConnell apparently saved one of her assignment sheets from the class - I mean, who wouldn't? - and it's not surprising the piece is a work of art unto itself. This approach to school - where the assignment is more than an assignment - is captured in a new collection of the writer's letters: Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield. The actual assignment is featured in this week.

As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. “This above all ...” Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique. Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows. Since there are eighty of you, and since I do not wish to go blind or kill somebody, about twenty pages from each of you should do neatly. Do not bubble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know.

What a joy it would be to be assigned work in such a manner.  And, as a teacher, I occasionally see the assigning as a craft in itself - though not with this type of poetry.  Then again, I'm still learning and growing as a teacher, and this approach seems like a wonderful gift of a new professional goal. Of course, Rodney Dangerfield theorized that Kurt Vonnegut may not know a thing about writing ... or about himself.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Humorous Headlines

Over the years, late night hosts like David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Jimmy Kimmel have made light of silly or absurd signs and newspaper headlines.  Often, these mistakes in use of language have great lessons on syntax, punctuation, and word choice for students.  Occasionally, I will pull out a list of these humorous headlines as a fun class activity to begin or end the day.  Some of my favorites are:

Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers

Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case

Iraqi Head Seeks Arms

Teachers Strike Idle Kids

Clinton Wins on Budget, But More Lies Ahead

Miners Refuse to Work After Death

Stolen Painting Found By Tree

2 Sisters Reunited After 18 Years in Checkout Line

Killer Sentenced to Die for 2nd Time in 10 Years

Kids Make Nutritious Snacks

Arson Suspect Held in Fire

Hospitals Sued by Seven Foot Doctors

Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Poetry Matters - Teach Kids to "Slam" and Find Their Voice

It was wonderful evening dedicated to the power of language last night at the 5th Annual Cherry Creek School District Poetry Slam. As sponsor of the Youth Advisory Board, I teamed with several fabulous people to bring a slam to my school. The event was emceed by the Poet Laureate of Aurora, Colorado, Jovan Mays. He was joined by two other exceptional slam poets, Ayinde Russell and Ken Arkind who played the distinguished slam role as "Voice of God." And, a most excellent mood was set by the cool beats mixed by DJ Simone Says. Twenty-one young people from around the district bared their souls and the magic of their language with a great crowd, and we honored an evening of language empowerment. I am so impressed with these kids, and I am proud and honored to be able to provide a forum for them.

Poetry is an aspect of English class that generates fairly strong responses. People either love it or they hate it, and that goes for teachers as well as the students. Despite the reservations and angst, however, poetry is important and meaningful in the English classroom. Generally, students receive an overdose of poetry during middle school, and not that much in high school. However, they need the challenge of deciphering complex material more than ever as they head toward college. So, a poetry unit or the linking of poems to other units is not only good idea, but a necessity. Engaging the kids with some entertaining free verse, and even Slam Poetry, is an effective approach. To that end, as I discuss free verse, spoken word, and poetry slams with my kids, I love to introduce them to the wonderful linguistic magic of Taylor Mali:

After you've watch this, you will really want to check out his other videos for The Impotence of Proofreading and What Teachers Make. Taylor Mali, a former English teacher, also has a fabulous website with plenty of resources for use in the English classroom.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Mark Twain Hated Jane Austen

"Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig [Jane Austen] up and beat her over the head with her own shin bone."

That scathing criticism of one of English literature's most beloved novels came from perhaps the sharpest wit in all of American literature, Mark Twain. And I can't help but think of the quote every time I hand the book to a seventeen-year-old male in my AP Lang & Comp class.

Of course, Mark Twain is not the only person who had nothing but contempt for Jane Austen.  Despite the incredible staying power of Jane Austen and her six novels, she can be a target for criticism of all the sappy romanticism that annoys the realists of the world. And, that's not helped by the cottage industry of Jane Austen derivatives that has risen up in the past decade or so.

This homage to Romanticism's staying power can certainly alienate all the men who are dragged to the latest romantic-comedy "chick flick," or the adolescent males who are subjected to stories of courtship and dancing in their honors English classes. However, there is a lot of value in the satire and social criticism that Austen offered, which is something Twain should have been able to appreciate.

What do you think?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Ideal English Major

Several years ago, I read an insightful tome on the teaching of English and the humanities called Why Read by University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson.  The book posed an interesting question for students in his literature survey classes - "What do you dislike about school, and what flaws in your intellect and character does this reveal in you?" With that provocative challenge to a student's disdain for academic work, Edmundson offers commentary on why we study.

This week Edmundson offers some valuable insight in The Chronicle on the pursuit of an English degree, even in a world where everyone from parents to college advisors to politicians urge students to pursue career and income-producing majors such as accounting and engineering.  In his words:

Soon college students all over America will be trundling to their advisers' offices to choose a major. In this moment of financial insecurity, students are naturally drawn to economics, business, and the hard sciences. But students ought to resist the temptation of those purportedly money-ensuring options and even of history and philosophy, marvelous though they may be. All students—and I mean all—ought to think seriously about majoring in English. Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

What to Make of Jonathan Livingston Seagull?

Anyone who has grasped with the metaphysical in the contemporary age is familiar with a little book from Richard Bach known as Jonathon Livingston Seagull. The small, simply fairy tale of less than 10,000 words was first published in 1970, and became an instant hit with its message of aspiring to greatness and believing in the power of believing. The book is a classic in the spiritual, self-help world. Books like JLS or any of its variations from The Celestine Prophecy to the Course in Miracles to The Tao of Pooh all derive from the basic premise of Norman Vincent Peale in his book from an earlier era, The Power of Positive Thinking.   JLS has flown into our consciousness again with the recent publication of a "Part IV."  Of course, not everyone loves Bach or his philosophy or his silly little tales. In fact, some people criticize books like JLS as the origin and inspiration behind the oversimplification of American thought in the last twenty years. Heather Havrilesky cites the story of "no ordinary bird" as the reason behind the decline of American society. Like all pieces of art, the story of Jonathon is not for everyone, but it does have value in the story it tells and the feelings it evokes. While it is certainly not the answer to our prayers, it also isn't the cause of the alleged "decline" of America, or of American thought. It's a story with a message that might give people a bit of an escape, or a shred of hope, a hint of optimism, or ....

Monday, April 6, 2015

Authority to Speak about "Testing"

I recently received an email criticizing me for being "a shill for the teachers" because of my recent criticism of PARCC testing. And, that sort of surprised me. For those who criticize me for my views on testing, I suspect there is much they don't know about me and my feelings on the broad issue of "standardized testing." For twenty-three years I have been an educator both in the United States and abroad, in both public and private schools, and at levels ranging from middle school and developmental English to AP English at the high school level. In addition I have two advanced degrees and have been writing about education for six years. Thus, I feel I am as well informed as any to speak about education. It's worth noting that many, if not most, proponents of testing and test-based reform have little or no experience in the classroom.

As an AP English teacher who preps students for that exam as well as ACT/SAT, I can hardly be considered one who opposes testing, accountability, or teaching to a test. However, I am a well informed and discerning critic of education and assessment, and my views are more complex than being for or against testing. I am suspcious of and critical toward the naive belief that standardized testing is the way to determine good/bad schools, good/bad teachers, and successful/failing students. Being critical of the PARCC assessment, the practice of yearly testing, the narrow focus on math/science, the problematic nature of "reading" tests, and the conclusions that testing will "fix schools" or that all (or even most) schools need to be fixed does not mean that I oppose "our kids getting a proper education." On the contrary, I have committed my life to it. And while I teach high level classes, I also lead school efforts on equity and closing the achievement gap, areas where we've made signficant progress.

Additionally, I disagree with and challenge statements by my critics about testing as a key to helping "our kids compete on the world stage." I can't imagine what they are using to base that assertion. But I know of no data linking test scores and global competiveness - and I know of much that refutes that. As far as my views, here are a few links that expand upon my thoughts here:

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter, The American Adam, and the "Re-birth" of Mark Twain

It's Easter, which is the Christian celebration of Christ's resurrection, which is also an adaption of the standard spring fertility celebrations of countless pagan cultures that worshiped the miracle of spring. That concept of re-birth has been sacrosanct for many cultures, but the idea of re-birth and re-invention has always been a foundational part of the American consciousness. America was built on the idea of rebirth and renewal and reinvention coming out of the corruption and decay that had taken over Old World Europe. This renewal idea is grounded in all American literature, and R.W. Lewis called it "The American Adam." It was articulated by Huck Finn's plans to "light out for the territory" and it was symbolized by Gatsby's "green light."

Growing up on the banks of the Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois, the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn always held a special fascination for me. Yet, I never really discovered the book on its deeper levels until I read it for a survey course in American Literature during my sophomore year of college. That, of course, makes sense because it is anything but a children's book. It is, truly, the place "where all American literature begins." Thus, when I was finishing up my MA in English and considering thesis topics, I was intrigued by Lewis' ideas of the American Adam, and I strongly considered it and Twain for my research.  During graduate school, I had encountered the book again in a course on Twain and the "Rise of Realism." My focus would have been the "American Adam" concept and the book's ideas about our never ending search for renewal and redemption. Alas, like many scholars, I accepted the conclusion that "pretty much everything has been said" about the novel, and nothing new could be offered. So, I turned my attention to a contemporary Canadian novelist, Douglas Coupland, and produced a reasonably respectable bit of criticism.

Now, with the arrival of spring and the publication of two new works on Twain, my attention has been brought back to Huck and the concept of the American Adam. For one, it appears a scholar has found something to add to the discussion about Twain's most endearing - and complicated - character, Huck. Butler professor Andrew Levy recently published to positive reviews a fresh look at Huck Finn's America, by focusing on the role of minstrel shows and violence in childhood that so informed Mark Twain's view of American society, and subsequently the role of race relations. That is certainly new and fresh and exciting. And, to add to that, a new biography of Twain has surfaced that has the potential to ignite some renewed interest in America's Bard. Scholar Roy Morris, Jr. has published American Vandal: Mark Twain Abroad, an analysis of Twain's early work Innocents Abroad. Thus, Mark Twain lives again, and the American Adam concept continues to thrive as the story of America's unique relationship with spring, rebirth, and renewal.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Big City Chefs Take on "Fast Food"

In Morgan Spurlock's game-changing documentary film Super-size Me, one of his physicians opined, "You know, there's no reason fast food has to be so disgusting."


It's with that insight that "two prominent LA chefs have founded ... a new approach to fast food that provides nutritious and delicious fare in some of LA's poorest neighborhoods." Profiled in this week's WSJ Magazine by Howie Kahn, The Real Fast-Food Revolution, chefs Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi have taken the insight of Spurlock's doctor to heart, and with the launch of Loco'l they are providing a better burger using whole grains and quality products.

Patterson wanted to expand his idea in the form of a fast-food restaurant. It would link the Cooking Project to social enterprise, creating jobs in the Tenderloin. And it would give the fast-food chains that inundate inner-city diets with a steady stream of chemicals and high-fructose corn syrup a run for their money. “We’d bring in a natural, cooked-with-integrity alternative,” says Patterson. “We’d have chefs feed these neighborhoods, not corporations.” In Choi, he recognized the desire to help the same demographic. So a few weeks later, he flew to Los Angeles, where Choi co-owns four popular restaurants, plus the fleet of Kogi Korean taco trucks that put him on the map. They began hatching a plan for Loco’l, their chef-driven fast-food restaurant, over a bowl of Korean noodles. “There was no money behind us yet, no investors,” says Choi, “but we don’t put business in front of ideas. We slurped a hot pot, talked about changing the game, and there was no question from there—we were doing this.” 

The chefs chose the 2014 MAD Symposium last August to announce their plan publicly. Choi took the stage to speak, introducing Patterson—“DP,” he said, invoking their bond by way of nickname—eight minutes later. They both stood behind a long, age-worn butcher’s block flanked by trees, the 45-year-old Choi wearing a baseball cap with a crisp brim, and Patterson, 46, donning the festival’s T-shirt. “We’re going to tackle the fast-food industry,” proclaimed Choi. The Loco’l logo—a graffiti-inspired skateboarding hamburger wearing a beanie—popped up on a screen behind him. “We’re going to build a concept that has the heart and the ideology and the science of a chef, but it’ll have the relevance of McDonald’s or Burger King. We’re going to go toe-to-toe to see how we can challenge the status quo of fast food.”

This sort of innovative and inspired leadership by true chefs deserves all the praise it's getting and more. Rather than cheering the bottom line profits and trivial wage hikes by the business community, we should be promoting more people like Patterson and Choi. Other visionaries include Chipotle founder Steve Ells and, of course, the Naked Chef Jamie Oliver. In a nation that has schizophrenic food views that range from "Zagat Guides to Dollar Menus," we can use more people who stand up for quality.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Stephen Lurie Schools All Us Whole Foods Foodies

I like to think that quality food matters a great deal to me. I'm a foodie in many ways, preferring to eat once at a place like "Fruition" than four or five times at a place like Applebees. If I could shop exclusively at Whole Foods and the Cherry Creek Morning Market, I would. And I am baffled by people that have the money to eat well, and still think dollar menus are a great deal. I will openly admit to being a food snob, and my wife is a certified natural foods chef, as well as a former pastry chef who makes a European buttercream that can pass muster at places like Bittersweet Bakery where she trained. Yet, despite my supposed commitment to "whole foods," I realize that there is much I fail to acknowledge about the food labor movement. If we are truly committed to higher quality in our food supply, then that commitment must extend to the workers who supply the food. As Stephen Lurie points out in an excellent piece of research for Vox, if we care about where our food comes from, we "Should Care About Who Grew and Picked It."

Despite their positive connotations, none of those certifications — not even fair trade — tells a consumer anything about how a company or restaurant treats the humans involved in the US: its workers. In fact, there isn't currently a standalone certification out there that verifies good labor practices. Even as environmental, animal, and economic movements have started to compete for shelf space with conventional food, there is no widely available option for consumers who wish to shop and eat labor-friendly. The realities of the food industry — from producers to servers — make this a perplexing and pressing deficiency. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nine out of the 10 lowest-paying occupations in America are in the food and restaurant industry. The highest earner of those, the occupation category that includes food- and beverage-serving workers, averages $9.63 an hour, or about $20,000 per year if, against all odds, it is full-time work. That means each of those occupations earns below the poverty line for a family of four, and well below a real living wage. These wages aren't paid out to a handful of young Americans — they're paid to more than 10 million fast-food and food-and-beverage industry workers and to many of the million-plus agriculture and food-processing workers.

There is a better way to think about food and support our food supply:

The Benefit of the Humanities Degree

The Common Core and PARCC testing and PISA or TIMSS have begun, little by little, to steal away or divert attention from the magic of the liberal arts education. Despite warnings from as far back as Charles Dickens' Hard Times, America has begun to myopically focus on a utilitarian foundation for secondary and education. Educating for job skills has replaced educating for the cultivation of the human spirit. And that has put the study of arts and the humanities at risk.

In fact, some in our government believe that student loans should only be available to STEM-majors, and those English and philosophy students can pay for the luxury of studying the humanities. Yet, for as long as I've been teaching - in fact, for as long as I've been around - I've known countless successful business leaders and community icons who began with a humanities degree. And that is the heart of Caroline Gregoire's list of "Irrefutable Evidence of the Value of Humanities Degrees." While I might have expected it from the likes of Jon Stewart or Conan O'Brien, who knew that businessman and multi-millionaire investor Mitt Romney began his adult life with a bachelor's degree in English?

We can follow that up with Rebecca Schuman's latest piece for Slate where she talks about people "Hating on the Humanities."

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Does Dystopian YA Lit Stereotype Kids?

Cliques. Are they real, or simply a creation of YA writers and Hollywood directors? It's not surprising to find people sorted into groups in most genres of teen entertainment. In fact, Grace, Ed Rooney's secretary from Ferris Bueller laid it out for us in one classic line:

So, why is it that writers and filmmakers always seek to fit characters into the standard groups that are supposed to make up high school? Is society that cliche? Or are the cliches actually valid, which is why they seem so common. Katy Waldman of Slate Magazine suspects there are significant forces at work in a world where "Everybody Knows Where They Belong." From the Sorting Hat of JK Rowling to Suzanne Collins' Reaping, much of the entertainment for young people is grounded in categorizing people. The latest work Divergent from Catherine Roth is only the latest to follow the archetypal story form.

The studies of societal divisions, especially in regards to high school cliques, are endless. But the question is: are they valid, and what can or should we do about it?