Coronavirus spells the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

For a visceral indication of how much the world has changed in the past year, consider this: It has been less than one year since Avengers: Endgame hit theatres. The film, which would eventually end up earning $2.798 billion globally, came out in April 2019. Don’t the Avengers feel like they belong to the past? Don’t they feel completely irrelevant to the present? Who cares about the Marvel Cinematic Universe anymore?

This is an incredibly sudden and peculiar development. Understandably, global lock-down and social distancing measures play a major role. Millions of people need to be able to freely move around to make Marvel profitable. The first film of “Phase 4,” Black Widow, was originally set for release in May 2020, but is now postponed and without a release date because of COVID.

Also notable is the near complete absence of the MCU from social media advertising, at least from my vantage. Ads for the Disney+ streaming service have been ubiquitous on my Twitter feed, but they nearly all focus on Star Wars-related properties or the questionably titled High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. I don’t remember seeing a single ad for the roster of MCU films and series that supposedly live on Disney+.

Given the themes of the last two Avengers movies, it feels like there should be at least a few dark memes about Thanos and the “Snap.” Infinity War and Endgame were about an eco-fascist galactic super-villain’s pursuit of the power to exterminate half the universe’s population to ensure the security of the remainder. It is not a spoiler to say that Thanos was stopped by the Avengers, a team of super-heroes that now numbers somewhere in the high double-digits. Again, from where I stand, no such memes have gone viral, if they exist at all. Perhaps the idea of a cold, survival-driven organism erasing half of all humanity hits too close to home right now.

In a March 28 New York Times piece, the Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith points out that Shakespeare’s work barely makes reference to the plagues that defined his England. She suggests that the plague killed without regard to social, gender, and personal differences; in contrast, or perhaps in response, Shakespeare emphasizes individuality and the differences among people: his tragedies “underscore the significance and distinctiveness of the individual even as they move him inexorably toward his end. [Tragedy] does not defy death; it re-endows it with meaning and specificity.”

The MCU may not be Shakespeare for our times, but it could mark the vacuum into which one might appear. The appetite for apocalyptic stories is unlikely to fade, but ones in which superhuman saviours solve them will become unpalatable. Tony Stark’s talent for instant tech fixes are beyond complete fantasy next to the global respirator shortage and 12-18 month timeline for a vaccine. No amount of scrappy synergy between the Scarlet Witch, Ant-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy can ensure widespread compliance with lock-down protocols. If Captain America exists, he is drunk at the wheel and would have little to say about social distancing even if he weren’t. He’s always been most effective in close-quarters combat. If the Marvel superheroes once embodied hope for the masses, their powers now more than ever look like tools for ensuring the survival of the elite.

The MCU political philosophy has always been one of trickle down justice played out as public spectacle. The Marvel superheroes cannot be effective without a mass audience, both in-world and out. If nobody can go out to see the spectacle, then there can be no justice. Try to imagine Thor on e-mail, let alone Zoom. He becomes a joke. (“Send a raven!”)

The difference between Shakespeare’s plague and COVID-19 is that COVID-19 does not kill without regard for social, gender, and personal differences. By any measure, COVID has already had a staggering human cost. But for now, it remains common knowledge that COVID kills the elderly and infirm at a much higher rate than other groups. And as long as lock-downs and “social distancing” remain the preferred public health weapons against it, COVID will have a disproportionate effect on the poor while the more affluent can afford to get on Netflix and wait out the storm at home. (Read this horrifying Twitter thread about the worsening situation at the prison on New York’s Rikers Island.)

As a health risk, COVID seems to strike hardest within a narrow range. However, (if we define “universal” as the past global audience of Marvel films) COVID is a nearly universal social and psychological contagion. It has entrapped or threatens to entrap a significant proportion of the world’s population at home. The counter-move to this entrapment is the further intensification of digital social connections among these homes. Not only are we seeing homes turned into workspaces, but these homes are then put on display as both a sign of solidarity and of ongoing productivity. Tertiary industries have suddenly become cottage industries.

Post-industrial productivity, biological health, post-liberal morality, digitally-mediated social relations, and myriad forms of “home” spaces are imploding into a form, template, or diagram for “normal” social relations that is likely to persist in partial form post-plague. It is this diagram and not “bare life” in relation to which people will be coerced and incited to mold themselves as subjects.

Tony Stark’s wealth and genius are military-industrial rather than Silicon Valley-startup. Thor is immortal. Captain America is virtuous but in the style of the “Greatest Generation.” The Incredible Hulk is not as persuasive on Skype. This is why so many of these heroes feel a bit archaic already, and it’s why people will be looking elsewhere for escape.

If any of the Marvel Cinematic superheroes continues to flourish, I think it will be Spider-Man. Movie executives seem totally unwilling to leave Spider-Man alone. But in addition, I think he fits the new diagram. Yes, he has super-strength etc., but he is a normal geek kid with fairly normal kid aspirations and interests. In his most recent incarnations, Spider-man would be completely comfortable on Youtube or TikTok, and it’s likely that he’s headed towards a decent college and an unpaid internship. He also has a stable and happy home and is local. He is of New York. The others could be from anywhere—it wouldn’t affect their stories at all.

With the exception of Spider-man all of the Marvel superheroes are homeless. And if you’re homeless, where are you going to self-isolate?

Zoom is difficult to distinguish from spyware

Michael Tsai’s blog collects some tweets and posts highlighting major privacy issues with Zoom.

ZOOM monitors the activity on your computer and collects data on the programs running and captures which window you have focus on.

If you manage the calls, you can monitor what programs users on the call are running as well.

The host of a Zoom call has the capacity to monitor the activities of attendees while screen-sharing.

What the company and its privacy policy don’t make clear is that the iOS version of the Zoom app is sending some analytics data to Facebook, even if Zoom users don’t have a Facebook account, according to a Motherboard analysis of the app.

With the COVID-driven worldwide push at many universities to move to Zoom-based online classes, we should keep in mind what we are asking students to open their personal computers to as a condition of getting an education.

Update (2020-03-28): AppleInsider reports that the newest version of Zoom for iOS no longer sends information to Facebook.

Recommendations on how to communicate during an emergency as the leader of a university community

During this pandemic, I’ve received countless e-mails from my university’s leadership. From the privileged position of an academic pleb with no leadership responsibilities, here are some polite recommendations on how to communicate as the leader of a university community.

1. You cannot be both the voice that manages the response to the emergency, and the voice that reassures and stabilizes the community. You must pick one and delegate the other. Both roles are incredibly important in an emergency, but they are inherently at odds. One must change in response to quickly changing conditions, and incite people to act. The other must remain calm and stable in spite of changing conditions, and make people believe that the confusing things they are being asked to do will work. If you are forced to take on both of these roles, then write your e-mails so that the distinctions between these two roles are very evident (with whitespace, changes in style and voice, etc.)

2. You must not be yet another source of information about the pandemic. People are already facing dozens of often conflicting bits of information about how to protect themselves, how bad things are getting, and what the future will look like. Direct them to authoritative and centralized sources of information but in your own communications only repeat information that is specific to your community.

3. The things you want people to act on should be extremely, painfully obvious. The action points should be presented early, in italics, bolded, and with flame emojis surrounding them. They should be stated simply and firmly as orders to the entire community. (If they are not orders, then they don’t need to be coming from you.)

🔥🔥🔥4. Acknowledge at the beginning and end of every e-mail that this shit is fucked and will be for a while, but everything will be ok in the end.🔥🔥🔥

Shit’s getting real: A cultural analysis of toilet paper

We are still only in March, but it’s already evident what will define 2020 for a significant portion of the world. Not the Australian fires, Trump’s impeachment, or perhaps even his re-election. It will be COVID-19.

Since it was first detected in China, the disease has spread with alarming speed, resulting in a worldwide panic. But while COVID has caused much fear, confusion, and anxiety, it has inspired little bemusement. Except for what it has done to toilet paper.

Across the internet, there are photos and videos of store shelves emptied of toilet paper by harried customers. The shelves are empty not just in the places where COVID has become established, but also here in New Zealand, where it has yet to have a material impact on the day to day lives of most.

There has been an overnight explosion of memes ridiculing the irrationality of toilet paper hoarders, and blog posts (including the one you’re reading) addressing the strangeness of the phenomenon. To be sure, toilet paper is not the only item that is in short supply. Surgical masks and alcohol-based hand sanitizers are also difficult to find. But a run on those items is understandable. For toilet paper, it is less so.

What is the meaning, then, behind this flurry of attention, talk, meme-ing, writing, and photographing focused on toilet paper? There has been much (repetitive) focus on the psychology of hoarding toilet paper, but little of it addresses the basic question, why toilet paper?

It turns out that toilet paper has many layers to it. Some have to do with the symbolic meanings that modern societies (or at least their Western versions) have assigned to it. Others have to do with the political and psychological security that toilet paper gives us. And of course, toilet paper is very useful. If we put these layers together, then we start to see some reasons that toilet paper should become what the anthropologist Sherry Ortner once called a “key symbol.” So, how has toilet paper become so central for people during a moment of profound uncertainty? Let’s begin with its history. This is not the first time that people have panicked over TP.

A History of Hoarding

Because COVID-19 originated in China, it should not be surprising to learn that the current toilet paper panic also first erupted in East Asia. (This graph of Google search trends show a spike in searches for “toilet paper” in Japanese, followed by one for searches in English.) The panic seems to have begun in mid-February in Hong Kong, triggered by social media rumors that imports from China were about to collapse. The phenomenon then spread to Japan by the end of February, despite the fact that Japan imports a miniscule amount of its supply from China. Alongside rumors of toilet paper supply constraints, social media also spread the idea that toilet paper and surgical masks were made of the same materials, further fanning fears of shortages. From there, panic buying spread to Australia, and then to the other parts of the English-speaking world.

There are good historical reasons for the toilet paper shock to have taken its initial hold in Asia as well. In her book Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan, historian Eiko Maruko Siniawer discusses an infamous incident that took place in Japan in the early 1970s.

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During the Oil Shock in October 1973, rumors began to spread around homes in Osaka that toilet paper was about to shoot up in price. The story was taken up by the mass media, and by November 1st, lines of hundreds of housewives had formed outside of supermarkets in the area. A few days later, the panic hit the Tokyo area. In Yokohama, one thousand housewives waited for two hours before one shop opened to buy up five hundred packages within fifteen minutes of opening.

Like the current panic, there was actually no impending shortage of toilet paper, though shops struggled to keep the item on their shelves. Siniawer points out that the panic-buying customers were generally women from firmly middle-class homes who had the time to wait in line and the space to store their stockpiles. They were emblematic, she argues, of a culture in which “the ability to consume, and the desire for cleanliness, comfort, and convenience, had taken root.” (Siniawer 2018, 110) The thought that toilet paper might run out constituted a fundamental threat to the newly emergent consumer class in Japan.

Whereas the 1973 incident was localized to Japan, the more rapid and transnational movement of information today seems to have turned toilet paper hoarding into a global phenomenon. The current incident also shows that at least some of the culture of cleanliness, convenience, comfort, and consumption of 1970s Japan is now firmly in place in many countries around the world.

This historical and cultural explanation is only one layer of the puzzle of toilet paper. To understand more, we will need to examine toilet paper’s utility.

The Hierarchy of Paper

Within any home, there is a large quantity and variety of paper. Konmari notwithstanding, many homes are likely to have a book or two, and perhaps many more. Some may be highly valued, like religious texts. There may also be secret diaries, children’s drawings, and old letters from friends and lovers.

These kinds of papers are at the top of the hierarchy of paper in the home. They are generally valued for their semiotic content, the writing or images inscribed on them, which are often unique (at least within one home.) The paper will also tend to be of heavier weight, and come in some kind of packaging, like book covers, picture frames, or envelopes, to protect what is inside and heighten the tactile and/or visual contrast of the paper from its surroundings.

Below this sacred domain is the level of paper that derives part of its value from its inscriptions, but can also become as valued for their material properties. In this category are things like pulp fiction novels, newspaper or old magazines, which derive their initial value from their inscriptions, but can easily transform into scrap paper, kindling, or lining of a hamster cage.

Going further down the ladder, we find fancy dinner napkins, disposable plates and cups, coffee filters, paper towels, facial tissues, and, at the bottom of the bottom, toilet paper. These papers are created to be soiled. They may enter the home spotless, but this is only a temporary state. Eventually, they will all be marked by a kiss that confirms their fate as waste. And among them, only toilet paper has the dubious honour of dealing with our shit.

Toilet paper’s position at the very bottom of this hierarchy tells us about one layer of its centrality. Because toilet paper derives practically none of its value from inscriptions, its most common and economical form is the blankest of blank slates. It can thus serve a very useful cleaning function, but it can also perform many of the functions of the other types of paper up the chain. It can be used to wipe kitchen surfaces and children’s noses, start fires (with caution), and carry scribbled reminders. (I have not yet drunk from toilet paper, but will admit to eating a Nanaimo bar off of some.)

Its material versatility and position at the bottom of the hierarchy of household paper make it an important foundation of a normative home life. The loss of that foundation can therefore present certain practical challenges. In a pinch, I can scribble a note on toilet paper, but leaves from a notebook substituting for toilet paper would only result in a big mess.

This material versatility comes paired with a semiotic versatility—its capacity to carry meaningful signs—that can allow toilet paper to move into other categories in the hierarchy of paper. Toilet paper can even rise to the realm of the sacred. In a pivotal scene in the 2005 film V for Vendetta, Natalie Portman’s character, Evey, has been thrown into a cell, out of which she is taken only to be tortured. Seemingly imprisoned by a totalitarian regime, she has lost everything that made her who she was.

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Lying on the cold floor, she discovers some toilet paper jammed into the wall, and finds a letter written by the previous occupant of the cell. Reading this letter makes Evey aware of the very foundation of her own humanity that cannot be taken from her, and she is reborn without any fear of the regime. From this point, Evey becomes the person she needs to be in order to start a revolution. In effect, toilet paper was the founding document for a new society. It can do this because if it can take our shit, then it can do almost anything.

The same does not quite hold true for paper from the top of the hierarchy. One cannot take a Bible and use it to clean yourself in order to make it toilet paper. It remains a Bible, but one that has been defiled. This means that toilet paper may have a foundational function to modern society that goes beyond even a written constitution. While we may use fancy paper and pens to write the basic laws of a nation, in some way those words have no meaning unless they could also be written on toilet paper and potentially carry the same force. Without the possibility of a constitution written on Charmin, modern democracy would be unthinkable.

Interestingly, while putting poop on a Bible does not transform it into toilet paper, it is possible to turn it into crap by contaminating it with the wrong words. Hence the endless debates over Biblical translation and interpretation. The appearance of a bad word threatens the integrity of the whole. A more vivid example of this phenomenon appears in the 1990s blockbuster action movie Demolition Man.

Sylvester Stallone (portraying a plays-by-his-own-rules LA cop named John Spartan) wakes from a long cryosleep in a strangely clean and orderly future version of Los Angeles, called “San Angeles.” He has been reactivated by the future police to capture Wesley Snipes, acting as Simon Phoenix. Phoenix is a criminal mastermind from Spartan’s own time who has somehow escaped and gone on a rampage in a city that has little experience with violence, having pushed its criminals (and the poor) far underground.

A running joke in this film has to do with the “three seashells.” After waking, Spartan is taken to the police station to receive a briefing on Phoenix. At one point, Spartan returns from the toilet and tells his new colleagues that they’re out of toilet paper, which meets with giggles from Rob Schneider’s desk cop: “He doesn’t know how to use the three seashells!” The whole time, their discussion has been monitored by a device on the wall that listens for vulgar language and issues an immediate fine and a ticket to the offending speaker. Spartan smoothly walks over to the wall and starts spouting a series of obscenities, collecting each ticket as it comes out. After having accumulated a bundle of paper, he returns to the toilet to finish his business. Spartan’s dirty language has turned papers that are supposed to be backed by the power of the state into “mere” toilet paper.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the people hoarding toilet paper in 2020 are doing so to safeguard democracy. But it is less of a stretch to say that the sudden disappearance of toilet paper from stores shakes their sense of security. As I’ve discussed, there are certain practical difficulties that arise from the absence of toilet paper that are more urgent than for other forms of paper. Moreover, paper’s material versatility has its complement in a significant semiotic versatility. If toilet paper can carry poop away from me, then it can carry practically any other message I could possibly imagine.

Symbols and Rites of Passage

Another layer of toilet paper relates more specifically to its symbolism. No anthropologist can look at poop without thinking of Mary Douglas. This is not a comment on Douglas herself, but on the influence of her work on symbols, particularly those pertaining to ideas of purity and pollution (1984). She wrote, famously, that dirt is “matter out of place”, and that “where there is dirt, there is system.” (Douglas 1984, 36) What she means is this: dirt and pollution are only perceived as such in relation to cultural systems of classification. People have cultural knowledge that sorts the things in the world into different categories. This is how we understand them and their relationships with each other. When we fail to fit something into a category, we perceive it as out of place, and we experience its out-of-placeness as dirtiness. This leads people to a number of possible responses to deal with that dirt and try to maintain the stability of their categories. This is linked to one of Douglas’s most important insights: the beliefs that people hold about dirtiness and, more broadly, pollution, can express “general views of the social order.” (3) This confirms what we’ve been discussing so far about the relationship of toilet paper to security.

Dirtiness, however, is relative. In her example, shoes are not inherently dirty, but it is dirty to place them on the dining-table. And so our ideas of dirtiness and cleanliness make up a complex system of relationships among objects or behaviors, the systems that we use to categorize them, and the situations in which we encounter them. Even feces is not always dirty: the anthropologist Gananath Obeysekere mentions in Medusa’s Hair, that feces can become gold for some South Asian ascetics (1984, 35). (Incidentally, Obeysekere mentions Freud as also suggesting a link between feces and gold, which Freud makes in the essay responsible for associating the “anal” with a propensity for cleanliness and orderliness.)

Toilet paper is similarly variable in its cleanliness and dirtiness. In most cases, it comes to hand in a clean state and leaves in a dirty one. Its primary purpose, then, is to mediate between the clean and the dirty. It removes the dirtiest of dirts from our bodies so as to return it to order. We value toilet paper so highly because we sacrifice its cleanliness each day to ensure our own. In Victor Turner’s words, it is “liminal” or “transitional” (1967). Toilet paper is like a symbolic membrane across which we propel our waste, so that we can maintain our social personae.

The connection to Turner suggests a further symbolic, or rather ritual dimension to toilet paper. There are many kinds of rituals, but nearly all of them are socially conservative. In other words, they work on the people who participate in them in such a way so as to maintain and strengthen the social structures of which they are a part. One of the important functions of Sunday Service at a church, for instance, is to re-affirm the relationships between the priest, the parishioners, and God.

A trip to the toilet can be viewed as such a ritual. Rooms containing toilets are usually marked off from other spaces and hidden in some way. In public toilets, people are often further shielded from one another in smaller private compartments. In order to enter such a room, people will often leave certain things outside, particularly food or drink. These are types of social and physical boundaries that demarcate the spaces where rituals take place.

Many people will recoil at the thought of a dirty toilet and insist on clean facilities, but in actuality the entire room is usually experienced as both. Some parts are perceived as dirtier than others: the floor and the toilet itself fall on the “dirty” end of the spectrum, while the sinks, towels, and buttons on air dryers fall on the “clean” (or at least “cleaner”) end. This mix of clean and dirty makes the whole space ambiguous, another common feature of ritual spaces.

We also momentarily suspend our ordinary social identities. Restroom conversations may be frequent, but many people will be put off if you use such places to try and make new friends. We only allow relatively secure social relationships to exist within them. For similar reasons, we may hesitate to answer the phone. If, as descendants of Descartes are said to do, people distinguish their minds from their matter, their social from their biological selves, and tend only to display their minds and social selves in public, then the bathroom, where some of the most unavoidably biological things happen, becomes a place where social relations can easily become threatened, and so we try to keep them outside.

Some relationships may form inside restrooms, but they are usually momentary ones that are meant to persist only within. A good example comes from the classic American sitcom Seinfeld. The character of Elaine Benes (Julia Louis Dreyfus) finds herself in a public bathroom stall that has run out of toilet paper. She begs her stall-neighbor to spare a few squares, but is refused. The comedy comes from the realization that this selfish neighbor is another character’s girlfriend, who turns out to be a paper hoarder. Elaine becomes obsessed with taking revenge on the stall-neighbor.

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If things had initially proceeded as Elaine had hoped, some paper would have been passed over without any further comment, and both could finish their business in peace. That the TP hoarder not only refused but also turned out to be someone that Elaine would encounter again outside of the restroom completes the set up for the rest of the joke.

This momentary interaction points towards the sacred communion that often occurs in liminal spaces. Stripped of their usual social identities, temporary inhabitants of the toilet can encounter each other as bare selves. Thus, something that is exchanged as a commodity outside of the bathroom can be offered inside to another as a pure gift. When this gift is not forthcoming, the fight can spill outside the walls and threaten ordinary social life. In this case, Elaine has her revenge, ruining Jerry Seinfeld’s relationship in the process.

We can therefore view a trip to the bathroom as a ritual in these terms: when our biological functions assert themselves (i.e. when “nature calls”), we enter an ambiguous space in which they can be exercised without threatening our ordinary social selves. Inside, we satisfy our biological needs, and cleanse ourselves before leaving the space, readying us to rejoin the social world. (In this clip from The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Zizek discusses the psychic horror of a toilet that overflows its liminal space.)

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Within this ritual, toilet paper becomes something of a magical object, like a talisman one holds for protection while crossing treacherous terrain. We find it already inside a space of ambiguity, and with it, we can safely find a way to return to the outside world. It allows us to momentarily acknowledge our own biology, but once acknowledged we release it like a handkerchief on the wind chasing a departing ship: we leave it behind, so that we can finally go home.

The Bottom

The symbolic importance of toilet paper therefore runs deep into the soul of modern culture. It is perhaps because we somehow recognize this importance that the mere thought of the disappearance of toilet paper from the world spurs some of us to act so quickly and decisively to secure our own supplies.

Toilet paper embodies security. It has a past that places it right in the middle of modern consumer culture. It sustains our homes: as long as we have toilet paper, the hierarchy of household paper can persist, and the many needs that it represents can continue to be fulfilled. It also gives us a basic sense of political security. Toilet paper’s existence guarantees the possibility of written law. And finally, it embodies a Cartesian separation of mind from matter, and it is necessary for the symbolic and ritual work that ensures the stability of the social and natural orders. It is these layers together that give toilet paper the strength it has to stand at the center of society. Therefore this run on toilet paper should not surprise us. In fact, we should expect such runs to occur any time the denizens of modern societies perceive an existential threat to their everyday routines. In these runs we can see the flow of the history of the world.

Book References

Douglas, Mary. 1984. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. 1981. Medusa’s Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Siniawer, Eiko Maruko. 2018. Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Turner, V. W. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Cornell University Press.

Conferences cancelled ‘cos of COVID

Anne Marie Gruber at the University of Northern Iowa has started a crowd-sourced list of cancelled conferences at bit.ly/cancelledcons.

Lots are cancelled through March and April, with many becoming online-only. Some March conferences are being postponed to August or later, which makes sense for conferences in the US with large domestic turnouts.

As of now, the conferences latest in the year that have already been cancelled are in Kyoto (May), Istanbul, Hong Kong (June) and Beijing (July) outside of the US and Western Europe.

Exploding Enrollments in Physics Based on Peer Tutoring and a “BA” in Physics

Again, The Chronicle, this time on a highly successful restructuring of a physics program at CSU Long Beach.

Physics professors at California State University at Long Beach have had remarkable success in turning out physics majors. The university is the largest producer of undergraduate physics degrees among master’s- and bachelor’s-granting institutions in the United States. It’s also above the national average in student diversity. About half of its 60 or so majors in 2019 were Latinx, one-third were female, and one-fifth were women of color.

The department created a peer-tutoring system in which students are trained through a three-credit course in physics pedagogy. And professors reimagined the tutoring center so that it is a regular part of the undergraduate experience, like going to the gym. “The normalizing effect,” Pickett says, “is that everyone is going to have a problem, and eventually everyone is going to be the one with the key insight.”

Those changes have given more students confidence that they can do physics, says Pickett. The peer tutors, for example, look like them and have done well in the given course. So why couldn’t they?

They also added a “B.A. in Physics,” which looks like a nice balance of key math and physics courses and room for exploration.

Peer tutors is something that is done (to a small degree) at my university, but it feels like an “extra help” kind of thing, rather than an integral part of any course. (Attendance hovers at around 6 or 7 out of 300 registered students.)

In addition, I have an ideological knee-jerk reaction to paying undergraduate students to perform instructional work. I’m concerned that departments could quickly become dependent on their relatively cheap labor in place of lecturers or graduate student TAs.

However, this article seems to suggest that peer tutors are brought in more as mentors for ensuring that a sense of community emerges among the students. This sounds like something worth paying for.

“Ungrading”: Students assigning their own grades

The Chronicle of Higher Education takes a look at Louis Epstein’s “ungrading” experiment:

Louis Epstein has long been frustrated by grades. Grading systems are somewhat arbitrary, says Epstein, an assistant professor of music at St. Olaf College, “even if we bend over backward to try to make them transparent and objective and fair.” Students, meanwhile, are conditioned to pay a lot of attention to their grades, sometimes at the expense of their learning.

In the beginning, students were anxious about assigning their own grades, Melby says — something I’ve heard from other professors who’ve tried ungrading. They asked questions, Epstein says, like: “How will I know what number I should give myself?” — a reminder that they’re accustomed to external evaluation. Throughout the course, the instructors emphasized that evaluating one’s own work is a useful skill in the professional world.

What isn’t mentioned is how the students’ self assigned grades deviated at all from what Epstein might have given anyway or if his university’s administration had any objections or concerns about ungrading. Still, I’m curious to try this.

Occupying Shakespeare

James Shapiro reviewing Shakespeare and the 99%:

[It is] the first book of its kind: one that gives voice to a seething and justified resentment of the academic elite by those teaching at non-elite institutions. Its publication signals that there is now more to be gained than lost by challenging a profession unwilling to acknowledge disparities in “income, power, and prestige.” It speaks to divisions long papered over and suggests that the myriad challenges now faced by faculty at non-elite schools are likely to be visited soon upon those who teach at research universities.

This part give me things to think about with regard to my previous post on the structure of American anthropology (emphasis added):

A crucial feature of the still dominant historicist approach to Shakespeare and his world is its insistence on “alienation.” The New Historicism, Daniel Vitkus argues, “sought to reconstruct the past in ways that defined that past as radically different. So much so, that sometimes the perceived strangeness of past cultural practices functioned to disconnect that strange past from the familiar present.” This emphasis on alienation may work brilliantly in Ivy League classrooms, but, as many of the contributors to this volume — almost all of them trained in this methodology — have come to discover, “the hermeneutics of suspicion” fares less well at schools where most students come from working-class backgrounds.

This makes me wonder how much the ideas, debates, and perspectives in which graduates of the “central” anthropology departments (and their students) are immersed are failing to land with students they teach at non-elite institutions.

On one chapter by Denise Albanese:

Her mostly first-generation students have worked hard to get where they are, and often bring to the classroom a “naive” predisposition — one that we all began with at some point in our reading experience: a desire to identify with literary characters, to think of them as real people. She concludes that her students are “not necessarily well-served by our insisting on disenchanting the literary object.”

How does this translate to the teaching of anthropology? Perhaps if anthropology is failing to connect with students, then this may not be just a failure to make it more “accessible” but that the theoretical underpinnings of the version of anthropology we present don’t speak to them.