Archive for March, 2018

College Teaching

As long-time readers of this blog may have discerned, I have quite a few links to higher education, including a three-year stretch as a college lecturer. I’m anything but pleased with what I perceive as the trends in so-called higher education, because in areas outside the hard sciences, what I’m seeing in the vast majority of universities and colleges is the unbridled growth of “consumerism,” where institutions are competing for the favor of students and where numbers rule with little understanding of what those numbers really mean and what the result of chasing them is turning out to be.

Right now, the big push is for student retention, but in all universities, the results are dismaying, because teachers are subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, pressured not to flunk non-performing students. In the more “competitive” institutions, grade inflation is rampant. The average grade point average at highly selective colleges is now right around a B+. The national average GPA is slightly above a B, a full grade increase over the average GPA a generation ago. Part of this grade inflation is the result of student evaluations being factored into the performance evaluations of college teachers, because teachers who are demanding and who don’t give “easy” grades get lower evaluations, and that jeopardizes their being able to hold their jobs – no matter what administrators claim.

Students apparently now can’t even calculate their grades. My wife the professor provides the formula so that any student can calculate his or her current grade at any time in the semester. So do most professors at the institution, but the students at her university, and indeed, throughout the country, are pushing for real-time current grades being electronically available. Even with computers, this takes a considerable amount of time, because the grades have to be entered into a separate system, whereas under the old system a professor only had to enter and calculate periodically, rather than continuously.

These days, a course syllabus resembles a legal contract, partly because of federal regulations, and partly because of student pressure, but what’s ironic is that most students don’t actually read the entire syllabus, and some don’t read it at all and don’t listen when a professor tells them the important parts. Then they complain that they didn’t know something that was spelled out in the syllabus.

Students are also demanding multiple choice tests [imagine that]. That just might be because there’s only a small percentage who can actually learn material and accurately synthesize it, and then write a logical and factual essay test or paper, despite all the administration and educational rhetoric about teaching “critical thinking.” I’m sorry, but if a student can’t frame and write a logical assembly of facts to support or rebut a point, that student’s critical thinking ability is limited.

As for studying… that’s suffered as well. A generation ago, the average full-time student spent 28 hours a week outside of class studying. Today, it’s less than 14 hours, and tests have shown that 46% of students learn almost nothing in their first two years of college [and most of the drop-outs or failures fall within this group].

Then, there’s the problem of student comfort. Most students today don’t really want to be challenged intellectually, even though learning new things and ways of looking at them is one of the necessities for really learning. Learning new things makes most of them uncomfortable. You think not? Then why all the problem over trigger warnings and the like? They also have a very limited attention span, except, apparently, for video games and cell phones, which may be why some education gurus are suggesting curriculum revamping based on video games. Imagine, learning based on what students find interesting rather than learning based on making necessary knowledge interesting, but apparently little that isn’t electronic is interesting to this generation.

Too many of today’s students don’t like to learn basic facts, and they don’t seem to understand that without knowing basic facts, they can’t progress to understanding the more complex features of the field in which they’re studying. Not only that, but the majority of them take little personal responsibility for learning. Both the students and the administrators are requiring teachers not only to teach, but to motivate all the students. I’m obviously old-fashioned, but it seems to me that students need to motivate themselves.

The more dedicated college teachers are struggling with how to deal with these issues without dumbing down their curricula or succumbing to grade inflation, but their creativity in dealing with this is hampered by ever more prescriptive requirements from administrators, ranging from more and more regulations impacting every aspect of their job to actual instructions to emphasize teaching to the “various student learning styles.” Teaching to a variety of learning styles effectively means teaching less content because it requires presenting the same material in different ways. Add to that the recent requirements for dealing with student psychological difficulties, effectively requiring professors to be psychologists as well.

To all that, add the fact that, over the last generation, cost pressures have resulted in university faculties shifting from roughly two-thirds being full-time to less than a third now being full-time with benefits. Since part-time faculty don’t have benefits and are paid poorly, they often have to take adjunct positions at more than one institution. This isn’t conducive to getting the best teaching or teachers.

It’s almost as if administrators have decided that college teachers are essentially intellectual factory workers whose job is to process “X” number of students per year and pass them through, keeping the students happy, whether they learn anything or not… or whether they can use facts, think, and analyze the elements of a complex problem or situation.

Welcome to Higher Education: 2018.

How Long Will It Be…

…before Republicans and others who supported Trump will acknowledge their mistake? Will they ever?

Trump hasn’t been true to much of anything in his entire life. Not to his three wives. Not to keeping his word. Not to actually doing the entire job.

Evangelicals supported him over Clinton, largely because of Hillary’s spouse, and because she’s a woman, and women in power have never been all that acceptable to traditionalist patriarchal believers, let alone appealing. Can anyone accurately claim that Trump is either more religious or moral than Clinton? Anyone who does has a different view of morality than is set forth the Bible that evangelicals hold so dearly.

More than a few business interests supported Trump largely, it appears, on his promise to cut taxes, totally ignoring the massive deficits those cuts will create, and,the fact that, after the first year, the tax structure won’t increase demand, not to mention, interestingly enough, turning their backs on the Republican Party’s former longstanding rhetoric about the need for fiscal responsibility.

Trump promised to drain the swamp of Washington, D.C. Instead, he’s brought a degree of insider dealings and cronyism not seen since the wide-scale corruption of the Harding Administration almost a century ago.

For all the rhetoric, I don’t see any increase in jobs in the coal industry. Nor any massive on-shoring or return of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

And the firing of Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe two days before he could take full retirement was incredibly petty, especially since McCabe is actually a Republican. Neither decency nor loyalty in that action.

Trump’s been quoted, as least once, and possibly more often, as saying that people will believe whatever you tell them, if you just keep telling them that. And, unhappily, he’s proved that, at least for more than thirty percent of Americans, he’s absolutely right.

And that’s why, despite his dishonesty, immorality, lack of understanding of either government or economics, his increasing alienation of foreign heads of state of present allies, and his treachery in dealing with both subordinates and Republican politicians, he’s likely to remain President for some considerable time… and that makes the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Senate complicit in all that the President has done and will continue to do.

Conflicting Values

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, writer and scientist Alison Gopnik lays out the basis for one of the greatest and most unacknowledged value conflicts in American life – the conflict between family/community and higher-level professional success. She doesn’t quite put it that way because she’s exploring the associated problem of contempt, and why those who value family and community are contemptuous of those who place a higher value on professional success while a large segment of the “professional” class, especially scientists, academics, and creative artists, are at least equally contemptuous of those who exalt home, family, religion, and community above professional success and values and all they entail.

Although I never quite thought of it in those terms, my brother and I, while sharing many political views, are on opposite sides in prioritizing what is and has been most important in our lives. That’s not to say that we both weren’t ambitious, yet, in the end, we somehow switched priorities along the way. I certainly started out more in the traditional mold, serving as a Naval officer as had my father and grandfather and then returning to Denver and preparing to go to law school in order to join my father’s law firm, while my brother, upon graduation from college, took a job with a large and prestigious multinational financial institution. Three years later, he was back in Denver, if still in the financial area, where he has remained ever since. He’s the one who holds the family traditions dearest, and who, to some degree, sacrificed opportunities to remain part of a community he has always valued.

While I valued, and still do, family, I found that I could not accept the “legal” tradition, decided against law school, and then discovered that there was no way to provide for a growing family, to write, and, frankly, to make something more of myself while remaining in Denver at that time. My opportunities, such as they were, lay in the staff side of politics and in Washington, D.C. My wife, the professional singer and voice and opera professional, found that she could not succeed in her field without frequent moves and often great inconvenience, not if she wanted to remain involved in music on a professional level. Those conflicts led to both of us ending up single, meeting years later, and marrying.

Whether most people want to acknowledge it or not, professional success in many fields often entails and sometimes demands relocations and moves. Professionals and others who make those moves are effectively prioritizing their professional beliefs and values above the traditional model of a lifetime close to family and in the same community. There are also other conflicts that arise as well.

For example, when industries change, traditionalists don’t like the idea of having to move to find a job, because not only is there the strain of unemployment, but also the strain of losing community and family support.

There is no single absolute “right” way to prioritize one’s life; that has to depend on the individual. The problem today is that most people and most politicians don’t recognize that there is an unrecognized and growing rift between “traditionalists” and those whose lives are, for lack of a better term, “professionally values oriented.” The “contempt” problem that Gopnik addresses arises from the fact that each group, either consciously or unconsciously, believes that its priorities should be the basis for government, when, in a modern high-tech world, government needs to accept and recognize both sets of priorities, at least to the degree that neither group’s priorities should be imposed by law upon the other, except in cases of public safety.

This Worried Age

Because I’ve been involved with F&SF for a considerable period of time, I’ve seen trends in writing come and go. I’ve seen writers burst upon the scene and then fade, while others creep in and persist, and occasionally, one of those who bursts upon the scene does in fact persist. I also have made it a habit, particularly over the last decade or so, to read as many of the newer writers as I can. This is why I have only read one book of quite a few writers. To be truthful, in some cases, given my tastes, one book was quite enough. In other cases, I would have liked very much to explore more of that writer’s work.

What I have noticed is that in my sixty-odd years of reading F&SF, I have the feeling that I’ve never read nearly as great a percentage of books with worried or pessimistic outlooks. Now, I can understand this to some degree with science fiction, because the present suggests some rather disturbing, if not horrifying, possibilities. But there are also some rather better possible future outcomes, and the future we face, if history is any indication, is likely to be a mixed bag. But I don’t see much SF that reflects that.

Even a large percentage of fantasy seems to have a gloomy tone, and I have to wonder exactly why, because fantasy doesn’t have to be linked so closely to “reality.” Is it because the expectations of earlier, post-World War II generations were unrealistically optimistic, and there’s a wide-spread perception that reality has turned out to be so “disappointing” to many? Or is it because technology has changed the structure of society so that certain abilities are worth far less and others far more?

I’m old enough to remember classmates paralyzed by polio or who wore braces. I know people whose eyesight was permanently damaged by measles. I can remember when women couldn’t get credit cards except through their husbands. My uncle died a long and painful death from complications caused by strep that now never occur because of antibiotics. The rate of and absolute numbers of people suffering extreme poverty world-wide has been roughly halved in the past generation. And if we’re talking economics, the U.S. mortgage interest rate twenty years ago was two to three times what it is today. In roughly a thirty-year period in the first half of the twentieth century there were two world wars; and while we’ve had wars since then, we haven’t had devastation on that scale.

Do we face threats? Absolutely. Will some of them cause regional problems and devastation? Some very well may, especially if we don’t address them soon and effectively, but at present, and on balance, most people in the world are very much better off than they were a generation or two ago. Yes, the white male American middle class that once made a good living off semi-skilled manufacturing and mining isn’t doing as well and, apparently, that means to too many of them that the entire world has gone to hell. On the other hand, working conditions and pay for women and minorities are improving, even if they have a ways to go.

In writing, there’s been great change. The collapse of the mass market paperback and the whittling away of the chain bookstores because of the growth of ebooks and electronic publishing has throttled the careers of some writers, and sparked the careers of others through the availability of self-publishing.

As always, life presents a mixed bag, but in speculative fiction, there’s a difference between pointing out problems and dwelling on them and presenting them as awful and insoluble. And I happen to think that it’s time for a more balanced outlook by F&SF writers. I’m not denying there are and will be problems. And some problems won’t have solutions and will require accommodations, but our future depends on both problem-solving and accommodation… and an attitude that’s a bit more optimistic.

But then, that’s what I’ve always tried to write… and I’m the first to realize that it’s not to everyone’s taste. Some people really like to read and write gloom, doom, and despair. I’m just not one of them.

Certainly Not “The Best”

I recently read an anthology of “best science fiction” from 2016, published in 2017 and co-edited by a respected editor with whom I’ve previously worked. I’m not revealing more because the purpose of this critique is to point out a disturbing trend in short fiction in at least one part of the F&SF field.

To say that I was appalled would have been an understatement. The anthology might better have been entitled “Best Horror Science Fiction,” except that I have the feeling that the stories likely weren’t horrifying enough to be considered horror these days.

Add to that the fact that virtually none of the stories really had any real science in them, and only one of them even had an SF setting, except that story was essentially a ghost/horror story. Most were what I’d classify as extraordinarily improbable fantasy takes on reality, including several with monsters, none of which monsters were even remotely scientifically possible.

Then there were the stories that had the plot line of “repetition in hopes of a better ending is futile.”

An additional problem for me was that all but one, possibly two, of the stories were “ugly,” and, out of all the stories, only one could have been considered even remotely upbeat. There was also only a single story that could be called clever or polished, yet all of them were reprints of works published elsewhere.

Now, I don’t have a problem with the occasional “ugly” story, or downbeat and gloomy stories, and certainly not with fantasy, but I do have a problem with an anthology marketed as “best science fiction” that essentially has no science fiction, is largely comprised of horror stories, and offers the message that only gloom, doom, and despair are “excellent.”

Unhappily, this particular anthology doesn’t stand alone, although it is by far the most extreme version of “only grubby negativism represents excellence” that I’ve so far seen. I’m certainly no Pollyanna, and I’ve written some grim futures, but one can write “dark” well, and not crudely, as Shakespeare definitely demonstrated, and human history has always been a mixture of elegance and crudity, excellence and slipshod incompetence, kindness and depravity, and the conflict of many more opposing forces. Wallowing in crude depravity and ugliness, while ignoring the other side, and all the other aspects of life and the universe, and calling such dark stories “the best” is both inaccurate and a disservice to readers and the field.

Obviously, the editor has gone over to the dark side of modern mainstream fiction, and I hate to see that in the F&SF field, especially in these times.

The Real Problem With Finance

What’s not to love about the burgeoning U.S. financial sector? After all, the U.S. finance, insurance and real estate sector now accounts for 20 percent of GDP — compared with only 10 percent in 1947. And since 1980, the growth in the finance sector has accounted for a quarter of all growth in the entire services sector.

This is anything but an unmitigated good, with more than a few downsides. For example, corporate conglomerates, which used to provide long-term, decently paid employment and stable retirement benefits have largely been broken up as a result of the pressure of financial markets for short-term gain, also called “shareholder value maximization.” This development has also shifted much corporate decision-making from the boardroom to a conditioned response to national and global financial markets, in turn drastically slowing down real capital formation in the U.S. and the E.U., as well as gutting basic research funding by U.S. industry.

In addition, the growth of finance has resulted in significant income transfers from the working middle class to financial professionals and executives. One of the results of this income transfer is that demand for goods and services has not increased nearly so fast as in other times of economic expansion, simply because the working middle class hasn’t been able to afford as much in terms of goods and services and because the well-off and wealthy don’t spend as high a percentage of their income on goods and services. The lack of demand has also kept wages down, and while the Trump “tax cuts” will likely spur demand this year, that’s strictly a one-time economic boost.

Those who think corporate tax cuts will offer significant improvement are also bound to be disappointed come next year. Despite record profits in many areas, the majority of improvement in corporate balance sheets has gone anywhere but to workers, and there’s no sign that corporations are going to give significantly more to rank-and-file workers. To professionals and executives, yes, but not to those lower on the corporate food chain. A lot of those profits are going to corporate share buybacks, to keep the stock prices up, rather to workers or even to shareholders through increased dividends, all of which benefits executives with stock options.

All of this is the result of American businesses falling for the short-term siren song of the finance boys’ [and the overwhelming majority are still men] “shareholder value maximization,” which, ironically enough, often doesn’t even benefit anyone but short-term shareholders or corporate executives who’ll likely be gone in five or ten years.

And, if you still believe in the goodness of the financial sector… you’re likely to be part of it.

Is Freedom Killing Us?

Most Americans, from what I’ve heard and seen, like to think of themselves as a peaceful people, who only fight when provoked and to defend their freedoms. Certainly, over the
decades, pundits and politicians have pondered “the price of freedom.”

Now, most people are at least vaguely aware of the price of freedom. One measure of that is the number of dead and wounded in wars. U.S. military casualties in wars from 1775 through 2016 totaled roughly 1.35 million dead and 1.5 million wounded, but those don’t include civilian casualties, which were significant in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. There are some conflicting figures concerning the Civil War, but I’ve used the latest, and higher, consensus estimate of 750,000 Union and Confederate deaths.

But there’s an additional price we pay, and that’s the price we pay for our relatively unlimited right to bear arms. From just 1968 through 2015, 1.52 million Americans have died through the use of firearms, largely from suicide and homicide. This figure has been fact-checked repeatedly, and it still holds up. Other historical sources show that in 1910, roughly 10,000 Americans died from the use of firearms, and by 1920, the annual deaths were close to 20,000. Add in the firearms deaths from 1900 through 1968, roughly 1.5 million, and the total of non-military deaths by firearms over little more than a century is double the number of military casualties in the entire history of the U.S.

But we shouldn’t single out firearms. For most of the past fifty years, annual deaths from motor vehicles have run higher than those from firearms, but in recent years have declined to close to those deaths from firearms. More and more safety features have been required for automobiles and more training for young Americans, but fatalities continue at a high rate.

In 2016, more than 63,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, a number higher than either automotive-caused or firearm-caused deaths. Then add to that, according to a 2013 Columbia University study, almost a fifth (18%) of all deaths among white and black adults aged 40-85 was caused by obesity. The CDC has calculated that another one fifth of all deaths were caused by smoking. And the vast majority of such deaths resulted from conscious choices by those who died, from freedom, if you will.

Then there’s the question of how many deaths were inflicted on others by another’s freedom. Smokers inflict lung damage and eventual death not only on themselves, but on others through second-hand smoke. Careless drivers kill others. Opiod misuse and addiction often involves others. Thirty-five percent of all firearm deaths are homicides. How far should as society let “freedom” go?

In addition, from these numbers, one could reasonably assume that a significant percentage, possibly half, of all Americans really aren’t looking out for their own best interests. But then, what else is new?


In this day of video-everything, the old-time art and skill of puppetry is still hanging on, if by a thread, so to speak [and yes, it’s a terrible pun]. In fact, one well-known F&SF author – Mary Robinette Kowal – is also a successful professional puppeteer. And there still is something fascinating about what a skilled puppeteer can do.

Unfortunately, there are puppeteers in our lives that go totally unrecognized. Most people recognize slanted news as a form of puppetry, and, of course, “slanted” refers to the news we’d rather not hear, rather than inaccurate news. Most people don’t make a distinction between accurate slanted news and inaccurate slanted news, which is a shame. I’d define “accurate” slanted news as news where every fact is correct, but where facts are missing or where accurate facts are presented in a misleading context. Obviously, inaccurate slanted news is where both facts and context are wrong and deliberately mislead. Equally obvious is the fact that even accurate facts in a correct context can be perceived as misleading and totally slanted and inaccurate news can be perceived as accurate and truthful by those who wish to believe it.

Advertising can also be another form of puppetry, with a myriad of techniques used to influence and guide potential buyers. One could also call campaign donations as at least a form of attempted puppetry.

But there’s another form of puppetry that grows daily in its influence and sophistication, and that’s the online/internet algorithm. Everyone knows about algorithms, at least in the general sense, and how they pop up suggesting that you buy “X” because you purchased something similar. Because I periodically check on how my books are selling at certain outline retailers I get lots of emails and ads suggesting I buy more of my own books. This sort of puppetry is obvious, and often annoying, but among the algorithms that really bother me are the ones that govern search engines, because those algorithms are “optimized” for someone other than me, and for the most part, from what I can discern, for “popular” tastes and requests. That means it’s a lot more work for me to find what I want. In fact, it seems harder and harder every year.

But the deeper problem is that with more and more people using search engines and with the breadth of the internet and its comparative shallowness [unless you have access to an academic/university library database], what generally comes up in response to any inquiry on a given word and subject is pretty much the same. It’s popular, but is it accurate? How can you effectively cross-check it? Well… if you want to read every entry, you might get a better idea, or you might get a hundred versions of the same thing.

In a way, the convenience of the internet and algorithms can make an unsuspecting user a puppet, while conveying a sense of being informed that’s not always warranted. Despite the myth of the “wisdom of the crowd,” that was based on estimating numbers of physical objects that were physically present, not on evaluating the complexities of a high-tech society. Marketing and search algorithms have little to do with factual accuracy, only with popularity, and that’s something always to remember, because as human beings, we can be so easily seduced by popularity.