Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hairspray!

I have an awesome new haircut. And my awesome haircut guys have a website! Who knew?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Refuge

There are many important historical sites along the Kona coast, in among the coffee and macadamia nut groves. Two of the most important (particularly for a student of Marshall Sahlins) are the heiau complex at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, and the nearby Kealakekua Bay. We visited both Saturday morning, driving the coastal loop of Route 160. I wish I'd thought to take a picture of the road itself, which is a good paved route with nice shoulders up to Pu'uhonua, but which reverts to a single-lane road (that's one lane for BOTH directions) for the four-mile stretch between the two sites. It passes over a deserted coastal flat of grass and brush, beneath looming cliffs (the tops of which are populated). However, I was too busy attempting to squeeze an oversized Ford sedan safely past cars coming in the other direction.

The first site we saw on Saturday morning was a refuge of the post-contact type, one of the Big Island's famous painted churches. A number of the European missionaries who worked on the Big Island brought with them the sense that churches should be decorated on the inside, and with varying degrees of skill, they painted the interiors of the wooden churches where they served. St. Benedict's Painted Church in Honaunau was both built and decorated by Father John Velghe, a Belgian missionary priest. It is a white Gothic Revival saltbox on the outside:

benedicts1

but inside the walls are entirely painted with Biblical scenes and mottoes in Hawaiian. This was my favorite scene, depicting Belshazzar's Feast and the handwriting on the wall:

benedicts2

The writing itself is in Hawaiian, and reads "Ua emi loa oe Ua pau kou aupuni Make no ka pono," meaning basically "You are found wanting; your kingdom will fall; you shall die." It's an interesting image, especially because Fr. John seems to have taken pains to make the text on the wall legible to his congregants; of course, the point of the handwriting on the wall was that neither King Belshazzar nor any of his advisors were able to interpret the words "Mene, mene, tekel, u-pharsin," and that it was necessary to call in the Jewish prophet Daniel to explain the meaning of the text. Daniel is there in the image, pointing to the words, but the words themselves are clear rather than mysterious.

We drove down the hill to Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, a site famous as the location of a heiau of refuge (pu'uhonua) where kapu-breakers could seek expiation and avoid the usual death penalty - assuming they could reach the site ahead of pursuing justice. The heiau is located on a flat lava-flow forming a point that extends out into the sea. For ordinary people, it would effectively have been accessible only from the water, since the point is cut off from the main part of the island by a residential site for members of the ali'i class, entry into which would likely have been kapu for the maka'ainana (ordinary people). A legend says that Ka'ahumanu, the famously intractable wife of Kamehameha I, fled here once at the age of 17, after her early unfaithfulness came to light. (She later became his famous wife and the politically powerful kuhina nui of three successive reigns.)

Visiting the site, you come to the ali'i village first, which contains several reconstructed hale of various types, along with other features such as a canoe landing (once reserved for the ali'i and now roped off for the endangered honu, or green sea turtle, which likes to come and bask on its sheltered sandy shore). There are even kanoa (bowls, probably used to prepare 'awa for drinking) carved into the lava flows which jut up through the sand here and there.

From the village, you approach the thick lava-rock wall that marks the boundary of the refuge (this photograph is taken looking across the inlet of the canoe landing toward the boundary wall):

puuhonua8

The wall is eight or ten feet high, at least that thick, and was apparently built around 1550. The angles of the corners and edges are still acute. As a transplanted New Englander, I have a certain appreciation for dry-stone masonry and the skill it takes to lay a really good dry-stone wall (i.e., without mortar), and the fact that this one is still in such good shape after 500 years on the shoulder of an active volcano is really impressive. Though there are no frost heaves on the Kona coast to throw down these walls, regular and sometimes catastrophic earthquakes (most recently on Oct. 15, 2006) can potentially do much worse; but here they have not.

The hale in the picture was reconstructed in the modern era, the original (or at least older) one having been dismantled as a "pagan" monument by Lord Byron in 1825. It is called Hale o Keawe, the original structure having been built around 1650 to house the iwi (bones) of Keawe and other important ali'i. The mana of Keawe is thought to protect the site. Beyond it is a high stone platform of about the same date as the wall, and a much older (and more or less ruined) rectangular platform whose use is no longer remembered. The modern Hale o Keawe is surrounded by ki'i (wooden images of the akua, or gods):

puuhonua12

puuhonua13

In the second picture, you can see an elevated scaffolding platform on the right, for the depositing of offerings.

The word ki'i has come into English not from Hawaiian but from the southwestern Polynesian languages such as Maori, in which the word is "tiki." This is true of other borrowings such as taboo (Hawaiian kapu) and ti (Hawaiian ki), the name of a plant. The function of ki'i is different in different parts of Oceania (sometimes they represent gods, sometimes ancestors, and of course sometimes both), but one thing they have in common is their use to mark the boundaries of sacred or significant sites. Obviously there is very little connection to fruity rum drinks with an umbrella in them, which is the first thing some people think of when they hear "tiki."

The kapu system was broken in 1819, but Pu'uhonua still serves as a refuge for one kind of wanderer:

honu1

The honu still grazes on limu (seaweed) in the tidepools of the site, and when we were there it was attracting as much interest as the rest of the site, to say the least.

The last refuge we visited on Saturday was Kealakekua Bay, a deep natural harbor four miles north of Pu'uhonua, famous as the site of Captain Cook's encounter with the Hawaiians in 1779, during his third voyage, at the height of the makahiki season, and of his subsequent death several weeks later. When Cook entered the bay, the locals were observing the makahiki at Hikiau heiau in the bay, which was dedicated to the god Lono. Here is the heiau today:

kealakekua5

Here is how the heiau appeared to William Ellis, an artist aboard Cook's vessel. Interestingly, when one of Cook's sailors died, he read the funeral service inside the heiau, making it the site of the first Christian service in the islands. The lava-rock obelisk behind the red truck was set up in the 1920s to commemorate this fact. There has been some suggestion that the Hawaiians took Cook's arrival as a manifestation of Lono's presence or power (or indeed that they saw him as an incarnation of Lono, sculptures of whom are hung with white kapa cloth in a way that resembles a square-rigged sail), and that this was somehow connected with the misunderstandings that led to the battle in which he was killed several weeks later. The site of Cook's death is marked by an obelisk set up on the shore in the 1790s by later British explorers; the site where it stands has been deeded to the United Kingdom. The obelisk, being white, is visible across the bay from the heiau site:

kealakekua1

(You can see it in the center of this picture, behind a sailboat.) St. Benedict's church is still a refuge, for its parishioners at least, and for those who rest in its graveyard; Pu'uhonua o Honaunau no longer serves to protect kapu-breakers, but only sea turtles; and while Kealakekua Bay is no longer an anchorage for sea-going ships, its reef is a protected wildlife reserve. The snorkels and sea kayaks bobbing across its surface are signs of its new status, and the informational placards posted on the shore, which identify the reef fish and corals, serve the same purpose as the lava-rock walls once did: to mark the entry into a place of refuge.

We have too many Bibles.

OK, I guess in some sense you can never have too many. But we just realized that we have two Tanachs (JPS and Soncino), a Tikkun (Torah reader's practice volume), an Oxford Jewish Study Bible, and two copies of the travel edition of the Etz Hayim chumash. We also have a handful of siddurim, a couple of Torah commentaries, and a lot of assorted Judaic literature in English. The thing that is "too many" about this is that while we have six Bibles, there is a lot of other stuff that we don't have at all: Mishnah, Gemara, Tosefta, all the Talmudic literature, in fact. Of course what we do have is the most important, the core of the tradition; but there's still a lot missing. It will be interesting to see, eventually, if we are the kind of Jews who develop a serious Judaica library; we are serious about books, of course, but how much study will we be able to do in the future?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

North Kohala is depressing

OK, actually, North Kohala is beautiful, and the winding mountain road that snakes along the ridgetops of the peninsula from Kamuela to Kapa'au is a sight to behold (though, as much as I appreciate our friend's loan of the car, I do not recommend a 1993 Ford Crown Victoria for hugging the tight curves). I sit on a Ph.D. committee in archaeology, for which the student is investigating the ways in which Native Hawaiians altered the natural landscape, and the ways in which this functioned to make the landscape meaningful. North Kohala is the focus of the investigation, so it was really great for me to see the place and get a sense of it. But this project is also key to why I found the place a bit melancholy. First, however, a description:

Kohala is the oldest of the five volcanoes that make up the Big Island of Hawai'i (Kohala, Hualalai, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea; some would add a sixth, Lo'ihi, which is still rising from the seafloor). It is the only one of these which is truly extinct. Half of Kohala is already gone, having slipped into the sea in a landslide of such violence that portions of the volcano have been found on the seafloor 130 miles away. This created the spectacular pali cliffs near Waipi'o Valley. What remains is some of the flattest land on the island, and this, together with being the oldest land on the island, means that the district of Kohala contains the most fertile agricultural soil on Hawai'i, since the lay of the land prevents water from running away too quickly, and taking nutrients (and new soil) with it. In the last century or so, it has been used to raise sugarcane, a practice made possible by the construction of the famous Kohala Ditch system of irrigation tunnels and canals. What remains now after the departure of sugar cultivation is a windswept landscape of grassy pastures and brush, some of which is used for cattle ranching and wind farms. The sense you get, hiking along the coast, is of a vast and lonely landscape, wild and nearly deserted.

We hiked a couple of miles from a remote airstrip to the main cultural site on the northern tip of the peninsula, which is Mo'okini heiau, a famous luakini heiau that overlooks the strait between the Big Island and Maui. A luakini heiau is a site where blood offerings were made, including both animal and human sacrifices. Not far away are the birthing stones where King Kamehameha I, who united all the islands into a single kingdom in the late eighteenth century, was born. It's a spectacular site, and one that people like us might not ordinarily be able to visit, except that the kahuna nui of the heiau lifted the kapu of entrance in 1978, for educational reasons.

mookini6

Here I'm standing at the back of the heiau enclosure, a long rectangle encircled by a low stone wall. You can see the remnants of some earthworks extending down the center of the photo, and the heiau itself to the right (looking rather low in this perspective, but actually 15 or more feet in height).

Here are some images of the features of the heiau itself:

mookini2

Looking in toward the interior of the large stone structure. We did not feel comfortable entering, but there were obviously some features inside. This Flickr photograph shows an aerial view of the heiau in which you can see some of the foundations inside the inner structure. Obviously it was a complex space.

mookini11

Modern hale pili (grass house) used for ceremonial purposes.

mookini15

Large stones set in the makai (seaward) part of the enclosure.

There is a rather unfortunate plaque set into a stone along the west face of the heiau, which declares that it possesses unusual value in illustrating and commemorating the history of the United States:

mookini1

No doubt this was set up with the best of intentions to preserve the site, but most information suggests that the heiau predates the United States by at least a thousand years. The plaque is clearly seen by some as a mark of possession left by a colonial power, since the words "United States" and "U.S." have been nearly scratched away, presumably by visitors to the site.

Nearby is the complex that contains the birthing stones where Kamehameha I is said to have been born, perhaps in 1756:

kamehameha1

Like the heiau, it once had wooden hale (houses) within the compound, and perhaps other features, now long gone. Both sites command a view of a lonely, windy landscape that seems deserted, which would be mournful in itself. But if you look around the sites, you see many stone features on the surface:

mookini8

These are nearly all man-made structures, stone foundations that once held wooden houses and other structures. The truth is that Kohala was not always a deserted landscape; the richness of the soil meant that before the decimation of the Native Hawaiian population by introduced disease, this was an intensely farmed and populated district. North Kohala is not a natural desert; it is a landscape of ruins.

mookini9

It is this that gave us the sense of melancholy when visiting the Mo'okini heiau. Although Mo'okini is still an active place of worship and remains under the care of the hereditary kahuna nui of the site, so many of the other houses that once stood here, the fields and groves and other marks of human intervention in the landscape, are now discoverable only by those who remember the accounts of the past, and by archaeologists.

As a professor, you always expect to learn from your students, and every project has the potential to open up new perspectives. It is my hope that the archaeology project I'm helping to supervise will leave me with a sense of the shape of the Kohala landscape when it was still a rich and populated district, and the meaning that the Hawaiians' labor of construction, farming, and living instilled into the built landscape.

Things I missed while I was away

Apparently, an eighteen-hour blackout, which we didn't even know about because we spent Friday night at the awesome Manago Hotel with no television, and we didn't bother to get a newspaper, thus making us apparently the only residents of the state who are not following the President-elect's vacation on a play-by-play level. My parents, six thousand miles away, knew that O'ahu was blacked out, because it meant that Obama was blacked out, and that earned it national coverage.

I feel a little badly for the guy. Is it really necessary to report that he bought a shave ice? Honestly, it would be more newsworthy if he DIDN'T buy a shave ice.

Friday, December 26, 2008

In memoriam

We are not at home now (obviously) but I just learned that our landlady died yesterday. Not at all unexpected; she'd been in hospice care since Thanksgiving, and we knew it would probably be this week, but it's still sad. RIP Virginia; we will miss you.

Winter in Hilo

Rain falling at a rate of two inches per hour on the corrugated steel roof of the house we're staying in kept us up off and on all night, and lightning and thunder, which we almost never see in Hawai'i, continue to light up the sky. Flash flood warning, indeed. It's starting to feel normal.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Missing Pele

The visitor services at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park are centered on the Kilauea caldera, although the park itself covers large portions of Mauna Kea as well. The most active eruption at the moment is the Pu'u 'O'o vent, which is located on the shoulder of Kilauea, and from which lava flows into the sea at a location outside the park, on the southern shore of Puna district. So what you see in the park, while impressive, is not the most dramatic of the sights to be seen.

kilauea01

Kilauea caldera, and the large crater within it called Halema'uma'u, were once a lake of fire (between about 1823 and 1924); now the caldera and most of the crater are covered in hardened pahoehoe, and the only lava is dimly visible from the air at the bottom of the current Halema'uma'u gas eruption. Still, the crater presents a moonscape unlike anything I had ever seen. A ridge sloping westward from the crater (to the left in the above photo) is the remains of a lava curtain that erupted from the crater floor in, I think, 1984; and gas vents and other upwellings appear all across the crater floor. It was once possible to hike across the crater floor, but the high levels of sulfur dioxide from the gas eruption make it deadly now, so we saw everything we saw from the northwest portion of the caldera's rim (the southwest part is in the gas plume, hence closed to the public).

kilauea02

Here is a view of the caldera wall, with the long slope of Mauna Kea behind it. We are at 4,000 feet here, and Mauna Kea looms another 10,000 feet overhead. There are plenty of nice (and very low-key) walks along the crater rim; we hiked a 2.2-mile portion of the trail between Volcano House and the Jaggar Museum and observatory. Along the trailside are steam vents, where groundwater sinks into cracks in the earth:

kilauea07

and comes out as steam:

kilauea10

The wind at this altitude is chilly and relatively dry (at least by local standards) so you notice right away when you walk through a cloud of steam from one of these vents. The visual effect is like something out of a Hollywood movie; you never expect to see the ground steaming by itself. Other vents bring sulfur gas to the surface from much deeper cracks, and deposit it as yellow crystals on the rocks:

kilauea23

Click through for more pictures from this trip.

The Park Service provides really excellent educational information about the geologic forces that shaped Kilauea, the formation of a shield volcano, the history of eruptions and so on, all spiced with sketches and quotations from 19th-century US and European travelers like Mark Twain, who visited in about 1867. But there is almost no information about the Hawaiian cultural significance of the site, which is, after all, the seat of the fire goddess Pele, and one of the most important cultural sites on the island. There is plenty of information on the conservation of the endangered nene, 'amakihi, 'apapane, and other indigenous birds. But there is almost no information on, for example, the rituals connected with eating 'ohelo berries, an indigenous relative of the blueberry and cranberry, which was sacred to Pele.

We have spent much of our vacation here visiting cultural sites like Mo'okini luakini heiau, so the absence of cultural information at the Kilauea site was peculiarly noticeable. The experience of visiting the caldera of an active volcano is overwhelmingly powerful; it is very easy to understand how this site was considered to be particularly full of mana. What's hard to understand is the way in which the official interpretation of the site fails to present or even acknowledge this, beyond an impressionistic sculpture dedicated to Pele that stands in front of the Volcano Art Gallery. It seems unlikely that the park rangers, who live in the neighborhood and surely must be aware of the significance of the site in their care, are unaware of its history. But it doesn't seem to be part of the official story.

We've been thinking a lot lately about how we should live in these islands, as outsiders coming from the dominant and dominating Mainland; it's important to us to find a way to be here, rather than carrying Chicago or the other cities where we've lived along with us. Understanding the way in which these landscapes we traverse were and are made meaningful by and to the Hawaiians seems to be one very important part of that approach. The earth isn't just earth; it has footprints on it, and if you look closely enough, you can see where they tread.

Hanukkah traditions

It is traditional on Hanukkah, in honor of the miracle of the temple oil lamp burning for eight days on one day's worth of oil, to eat fried foods: latkes and jelly donuts are traditional for the Ashkenazim. Lacking the facilities to produce either this year, we instead ate Hanukkah malasadas, sitting on the lanai at Tex's in Honoka'a. They were every bit as good as our friend, who recommended them, said.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Coqui tuning

We are spending a week in a friend's house near Hilo, while said friend is away visiting family for the holidays. The house is a little plantation cottage in a village outside Hilo proper, set on a hillside just high enough to see over the neighbors' houses and down to the wide Pacific ocean. (Pictures of the view later, when we get home and I have a cable to transfer them from the camera. As usual, I forgot to bring it.)

The ecosystems of all the Hawaiian islands have been drastically altered over the last two hundred years by the introduction of non-native and often aggressively invasive species, although the effects are different from island to island; Kaua'i, for example, has no mongoose, and hence has a much wider variety of ground-nesting birds than the other islands. Over the years we've been hearing about the coqui frog as one of the most troublesome of the invaders. It's problematic because it eats insects that indigenous species also depend on, but as far as humans are concerned its main characteristic is its incredibly loud song, which sounds "co-QUI, co-QUI" all night long. And I do mean all night long. I was a bit concerned about the noise from the main road just a few blocks away, but cars rushing by at 55 mph are nothing to the sound generated by thousands of quarter-sized frogs.

At a distance the sound melds into something like the chirping of crickets, but much louder; individually, the call "co-QUI" starts low and jumps up a major seventh. Occasionally some individual will make the octave jump, a consonance that strikes the ear immediately as somewhat out of place in the generally jazz-flavored cacophony.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Excellent student typo, final exam edition

"Seven Sages of the Bamboo Groove" (I want to be one!)
What she meant.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Electronics

Himself and I have decided, as a Hanukkah present to each other, to replace our television. This is not a great indulgence as the one we are using, while it works fine, was used when I bought it for $50 in 1994, and has only one input (and that for a coaxial cable). I'm not sure if everyone will realize how primitive it is for a television to have only one input. It doesn't even have RGB cables! The only reason we can even hook it to our DVD player is that it's a joint DVD/VCR player, and as a result still has coaxial in AND out ports. So it's about time to upgrade.

Although my basic default position on television has been an inherited knee-jerk snobbery, the truth is that the more time I spend in academia, the greater my appreciation for the value of mindless entertainment, as witness my treasured subscription to Entertainment Weekly (thanks, mindyfromohio!). Television commercials still make me want to scream, especially with their repetitiveness, and the majority of what's on is not of any particular interest to me; but the latter is, I think, only to be expected in a world of hundreds of channels. Especially as an academic, who is trained to have narrowly critical interests, I'm not surprised nor especially put off by the range of things I am not interested in seeing. I am sometimes fascinated by it: did you know there's a Polish-language broadcast on local-access cable here? Samoan, Tagalog, even Portuguese I get, but Polish?

But there's enough good stuff, from Anthony Bourdain (I'm a huge fan) to Antiques Roadshow (professional interest), that I do want to see things now and again. And then we Netflix such a range of things too. So we've invested in a DVR and, once the after-Christmas sales come up, we're going to get a smallish LCD TV monitor. The combination will allow us to play DVDs, stream video from the Netflix site, and record the shows that we do want to see so we don't miss them due to our evening obligations (like Compline choir, and student art openings).

At some point, however, I am clearly going to have to hook it up to the laptop and play some World of Warcraft - just to see the awesome.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Rain

After last Thursday's deluge, the rain continued to bucket down right through Sunday, and major flooding occurred all over the island. The newspaper reported gamely that the people who organize the annual marathon had sprung for waterproof timing equipment, which probably put somebody's mind at rest at least. But most of the pictures were of flooded-out houses, some of which were floated right off their foundations by the force of water, and highways disappearing under the runoff. We were relatively unaffected, except that we optimistically went out to the mall on Saturday and found the crowds totally undiminished by the weather (we turned around and high-tailed it back home). It was impossible to watch a DVD on Saturday evening because the rain was so loud, and we had a small pond instead of a backyard (about six inches deep at its maximum, I think); but we were fine.

Yet even a short walk outside during this downpour revealed the endless ways that water could sluice over and off things, a variety of form and fluid dynamics that beggared even English-language description, which hardly ever finds itself at a loss for words. The visible slow erosion of red volcanic soil at the corner of the neighbor's yard sent a rusty flume feathering across the black pavement. The runnels coursing down the muscular trunk of a kukui tree seemed to add ridges to the topography of the tree, until the eye detected the movement of the water. And above the valley floor, pounding curtains of rain wavered across the space between the mountain ridges. Our valley is famous for gentle rains, said to be the tears shed for a lost girl long ago; the violence of this past weekend's rain seemed full of a destructive delight, the water raging over everything in its path and rushing in wherever gravity allowed it to go.

Got my first spam comment

I must really be somebody now :)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I love weather, but this is ridiculous

I woke up on time this morning, not because I heard my alarm clock, but because the volume of the rain falling, which drowned out the sound of my alarm clock, fortunately also made it impossible to sleep. We are in the midst of a violent rainstorm with flash flooding, mudslides, closed highways, closed schools, etc. It is also the last day of classes for the semester, so we had to be here. I drove to work instead of biking, going the long way around the edge of the valley to avoid the intersection that always floods. The rain has been falling at a rate of up to 3.8 inches per hour (!) all over the island, and the narrow volcanic valleys mean it is all running off in a huge rush. Some people's houses have been flooded (not ours, but our back yard had 4 inches of standing water in it when I left).

The city has actually opened evacuation shelters for people displaced by flash flooding. I didn't realize that they recommend you bring things with you to the shelter: drinking water, personal hygiene supplies, but also tinned food that does not require cooking. They particularly recommend Spam, which is sort of classic for this place. Welcome to the shelter! Bring your own Spam!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

My office

Here's the interior of my office, for a "day in the life" view:

office1

The overloaded bookshelves are concealed here, out of frame to the left against the left wall and front wall of the office, and to the right behind the door. This is what I see when I raise my eyes from the computer:

office2

Click through to Flickr for a version with notes explaining all the images.

Walking the duck

For all those who thought I might have been joking about the man and boy walking their duck in the evening:

muscovy1

Monday, December 8, 2008

For those who loved The Little Prince, with apologies to Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Here is a view of my office from the outside, including the giant baobab tree around which the building is constructed:

baobab

It contrasts pretty sharply with the skinny little palm trees in the middle of the frame, which bear huge clusters of red fruit that the mynah birds love to eat. This is why every once in a while one of them will wander in through an open window and make off with something from my desk. It's just the neighborhood bar to them, after all.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

They're heeeeeere....

This sketch by my cousin R. left me rolling on the floor laughing, and I don't even celebrate Christmas. Possibly you have to live where I do to appreciate it. But I just picture the Christmas trees marching onto the beach to claim the island for, I don't know, the North Pole? Actually considering where most of the trees come from, I think we might just have been annexed by Oregon. Shh, don't tell anyone.

Fear for my students

I've been trying to suss out why I've been so depressed lately about teaching and about my students. (As an aside, this also explains the light blogging lately.) Like most large state universities, we have a very diverse student body in terms of preparation and ability, but the thing most of them have in common is that they've been singularly ill-served by their education up till now. One frequently encounters students who are perfectly able, but to some greater or lesser degree underprepared for college.

I'm not the kind of professor who wants to spend a lot of time grousing about teaching remedial skills, although I can't deny that it's disappointing to know that some of our students may never get to experience what I think of as the best of college education - the transformative engagement with difficult intellectual, personal, moral and ethical questions - because they're still working on things they could perfectly well have learned in high school (and in some cases, junior high). I realize that I had a particularly elite education starting in high school, but some of the problems I encounter in my writing-intensive courses center around skills I learned in my entirely ordinary rural public junior high school. IN THE SIXTH GRADE. So this is not (entirely) about the differences between an elite and a general education, except to the extent that it continues to drive home to me just how privileged the holders of elite educations are. (One of the results of my current job situation is that I can no longer read my college and grad school alumni magazines, because they send me into screaming fits of jealousy over the resources available to students there. It is unbearable to think about what I could do for my students given the same kind of resources, which I never will be.)

I believe that it is my responsibility to teach the undergraduates I have, not the imaginary students I think I ought to get. In fact it's not something I have any control over (my graduate students are a different story, and there choosing them is in fact part of my responsibility toward them); I have to begin where they are now, not where I think they ought to be, in order to be of any use to them whatever.

I teach a lot of writing-intensive courses, because my discipline is itself writing-intensive, and because, unusually for my field, I have been trained in the teaching of writing. It's the thing I have to offer, so I offer it. These courses are incredibly labor-intensive, given the need to give personalized feedback on all student writing assignments (four papers plus weekly reading responses), and the work itself may be part of what's getting me down.

There's also the effect, universal among teachers, of the fact that every batch of students has to learn the same thing for themselves. After a number of years you can end up with the feeling of "Haven't they learned it yet??" Of course, it's not the same students who've been flogging away at (for example) the problem of modernity in contemporary Chinese art year after year; it's a different bunch every year, so you have to be able to get yourself over that feeling pretty quickly. But honestly, I don't think that it's either the workload or the repetitive nature of the job that is wearing me down.

I think what's really bothering me is a sense of how little understanding some of these students have of what they read, and how little control they have over the meaning of what they say or write. I do everything I can to help them with this: my entire writing curriculum is based on techniques for giving them more control over language. It matters a little bit that they come out of my courses knowing something about the art history of China, but it matters a lot that they learn, somewhere along the way, to say what they really mean. Similarly, the fact that they miss so much of the meaning of what they read is terrifying, not because it's really important that they master the debates on Shang bronze decoration (these are in fact important debates, but only in a relatively limited context), but because it is clear that they are potentially at the mercy of people who have a better command of the language than they do (including, terrifyingly enough, myself).

As citizens, they are already responsible for understanding complex moral, political, legal, financial, religious, and other sorts of questions. How will they defend themselves from manipulation through rhetoric, an increasingly common political tool, when they seem totally unable to perceive rhetorical gestures? How will they be able to make decisions when they seem unable to evaluate the quality of the sources of information they encounter? How will they decide what to believe and what to disbelieve? It's not that I think education is the only possible key to a good life; for most of human history most people did perfectly well without it, as a good chunk of humanity still does. But whoever said that knowledge is power was right in so very many ways, and this is doubly or triply true in an information-heavy society like our own, with thousands of pages of documents, contracts, insurance forms, regulations, tax returns, ballots, mortgages and so on governing so many facets of our lives. At root, I am really afraid of leaving my students powerless in the face of this rush of information; or, perhaps more accurately, I am afraid of the limitations of my ability to empower them.

Vayetzei

Rex gave a great drash on Parashat Vayetzei yesterday.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

You know you live in a city without many Jews when...

... you're responsible for the oneg Shabbat, and you call the wife of the congregation president to ask where to get challah, since the glatt kosher deli in your neighborhood has closed, to nobody's surprise, for lack of business, and she tells you that you can't lose by going to Agnes' Portuguese Bake Shop.

Fog

We were scheduled to fly out of the small municipal airport of Inlawville on Monday morning, on a twin-prop plane that would take us to San Francisco for our Long Flight Home. Unfortunately, Inlawville sits on a river delta that is prone to thick fog in the fall and winter, and on Monday it was utterly socked in. Like, can't see the other end of the terminal socked in. Like terrifying drive on the highway to the airport socked in. Ours was the third SFO flight scheduled to leave Inlawville that morning, at 11.00, and when we got there at 9.00 both previous flights had been cancelled. It wasn't looking good for us.

The flight was listed as delayed till 11.48, which already would have meant missing our connection in SFO, and the auto-check-in kiosk helpfully informed us that our only alternative was the same flight tomorrow. Naturally we didn't believe this for a moment (although knowing that it was the Monday after Thanksgiving, we did realize alternatives were probably going to be limited) so we asked for assistance. It turned out to be possible to get on a later flight, leaving SFO at 2.45, which went instead to Nearby Large Town, whence we could get a short-hop flight home.

We thought all was settled, as we waited in the boarding area, until we heard our names on the intercom. We were asked to return to the ticket counter, outside the secure area. It turned out that the airline had given up on the twin-prop taking off in time, and had decided to pay for us to travel to SFO by van. As this takes about an hour and a half, it was no problem at all; we made our later flight, which was delightfully uncrowded, and despite having some trouble getting dinner while waiting for our short-hop flight home, due to the one restaurant in the airport being full of the passengers of a delayed Alaskan Airlines plane, we ultimately got our nachos and our trip home. We arrived five hours later than we'd planned; but you can't have everything.