March 2005
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March 2005 Archives

March 30, 2005

Out take from chapter 1

The wife tells me that this analogy was more precious than useful. It has been pulled from the current draft, which makes it blog fodder:

To use another food analogy, a trifle is created by layering sponge cake, cream, booze, fruit, and then all of these again into a single complex dish. You can describe a trifle in these general terms, but to fully describe any particular trifle it helps to at least summarize the layers in their correct order. And, just as an infusion of brandy can change the nature of the lower layers of cake and cream, so too did the more recent layers of the British religious settlement reconfigure the base on which they stood.
At least she let me keep the apple pie metaphor two paragraphs above the trifle.

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Red Ted
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March 29, 2005

Kipling is HARD

I gave the kids something that I thought would be both fairly easy to do and fairly challenging in terms of their preconceptions and assumptions. It was a good exercise, and I think I will use it again next year, but I was surprised at their reading abilities this time around.

I gave them three poems by Kipling: Gunga Din, Our Lady of the Snows, and White Man's Burden, with The Ballad of East and West as an optional reading, and then asked them to write 200 words on "how does Kipling use race?"

I learned all manner of new things from the students:
Gunga Din was an African American slave (not)
Our Lady of the Snows was a middle-class housewife taking advantage of Native Americans (not)
Kipling was a racist (depends on your definition of racist)
Kipling was a racialist (yep)
White Man's Burden was satire (one common reading, I disagree with it)
White Man's Burden was anti-colonial (as above)

Or, to be fair to the kids, what I learned was that Kipling is not as transparent as I thought he was, that American students have spent a lot of time reading anti-racist material focusing on American Negro Slavery, and that most of the kids did not take the time to read the poems carefully.

I think I might add a few words of guidance to the document web pages next time around. (The links above are to the exact version the kids got.) While I like the pedagogy of giving the kids a primary document and making them work out its place in context, most of the students are lazy/overworked, and I wonder if the average student would get more out of the assignment with a little more hand-holding.

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Red Ted
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March 23, 2005

Results of the Movie Assignment

Here are the results of the Movie Assignment I gave before Spring Break.

no movie: 15 - shame!
Casablanca: 12
Wizard of Oz: 9
Citizen Kane: 3 (watched together, and all fell asleep)
Modern Times: 2
Gone With the Wind: 2
It's a Wonderful Life: 2
Meet Me in St. Louis
Pride and Prejudice
Gunfight at the OK Corral
The Blue Angel (me)

The striking thing for me is that the two sections attacked the assignment very differently - I must have presented it differently without intending to. The first section watched old movies and then talked about the content of the movies. The second section was less likely to watch the movie and could only talk about the form of the movie - long cuts, less technical camera work, different acting styles.

I had talked up Casablanca when giving the assignment, so I am not surprised to see that a lot of people watched it. I was a little surprised to see just how popular Wizard of Oz was.

We spent a half an hour talking about what you see when you watch an older movie, and how you can use movies to explore both the self-conscious issues of the moment and the unconscious background assumptions - look at the language of cigarette smoking in Casablanca, for example, a sort of sign language that we have largely lost.

I ended up having to defer German Unification until Thursday, but if I did some cultural literacy then those half hours will have been well spent. Especially if the cultural literacy leads to future cultural literacy - if hearing the discussion of the movies their classmates watched, or having liked something they saw in the old movie, the kids go out and watch more of them. We will see - that is the sort of pedagogy that can take a couple of years before you know if the idea rally sunk in.

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Red Ted
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I read weirder things than this on my box of breakfast cereal.

A couple of weeks ago I had the kids read the short story The Nose by Nikolai Gogol and then write me a one-page thing on the class identity of the characters.

Many of the kids thought the story was strange. One told me that this was the weirdest story she had ever read.

I gave into temptation, and wrote in the margin of her paper:

"then you need to read more."

But then, maybe I just like to read very weird things. I found "The Nose" to be a perfectly reasonable bit of surrealism. And I like surrealism.

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Red Ted
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The One in Eight Rule

While we were talking about movies yesterday in class I mentioned the 1 in 8 rule to the kids.

Actually, we were talking about the 1950s, so it was the 1 in 10 rule. (And, I was using 1990 census data, when it was the 1 in 9 rule.)

What is this?

According to the Census Bureau, at the turn of the twentyfirst century, about 12% of the American population is African American. About 12 % is Hispanic, but Hispanic is a racial identity that overlaps with several other and differently visible racial identities. About 4% of the population is Asian

This means that the null hypothesis for racial breakdown is that about one face in eight should be "black", about one face in ten should be "hispanic" and about one face in twenty should be "asian." I use the scare quotes because physical appearance is only a so-so guide to racial identity -- there are a lot of people whose faces could pass for something other than their identity.

So when you look at TV ads, or the characters in a kids picture book, or any other situation where the media is attempting to represent a cross section of America, you should expect to see these ratios. If you do not see them, then ask why.

But, of course, those are national averages. They do not match the population of either Philadelphia or Des Moines. So anytime you do see those ratios, you also have to ask why.

The topic came up as we were talking about 1950s movies, and what portion of the cast was white, especially extras and people in background roles. I had noticed it earlier - I am that sort of a geek - in that the Fisher Price Little People toy set and picture books are an almost perfect one in eight (I counted.) while The Wiggles' extras and cast are lily white. Of course, they made their early videos in a very white province of Australia.

As I said, the One in Eight Rule is the null hypothesis. You almost never see the null hypothesis, but it is what you use to compare the things you actually do see.

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Red Ted
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March 21, 2005

The Movie Assignment

A week or so ago I blogged about assigning the kids a classic movie, any classic movie.

This is what I came up with - paraphrasing what I remember telling them. It comes with the added bonus of capturing my teaching rhythms.

The short version:
Watch a movie MADE before 1950
Be ready to talk about how the world that made that movie differs from our own.

I should have added, make it a movie that you have not seen before.

I plan to start class on Tuesday by listing the movies on the board and then spending about half an hour talking about them. I am watching The Blue Angel myself - never give a reading assignment you can't or won't do.

Choosing 1950 as the cutoff date removes a lot of Hollywood classics from the table. I already said no to someone who wanted to watch 1952 Singing in the Rain, yes to some movies made in 1950 exactly.

We have an extra assignment over spring break. It is not on the syllabus, so it can't form part of your grade, but we are sharing the assignment and anyone who does not take part will be publicly shamed [grin].

I want you to watch a movie. You can do that. But, it has to be a movie MADE before 1950. I have some suggestions - anything by Charlie Chaplin, anything by Buster Keaton, Casablanca, Citizen Kane but you can watch anything you want to.

We will talk about the movie on Tuesday. Look for any differences between the world that made that movie and the world that we live in today.

Let me point out a couple of things that you will almost certainly notice and that have more to do with the history of movies than with the changes in society.

First, movies made before about 1980 tend to be cut more slowly than movies made after MTV. They may take a minute or more for establishing shots - showing someone getting out of a car and walking up to a house while a modern movie will show them just walking in the door. This gives the older movies a slower feel - it might seem like it is podging along - but much of that feel is the difference in cutting styles.

Secondly, movies made after about 1977 have more and fancier special effects. Don't expect to see a lot of special effects, and expect the things you do see to be less than flashy by modern standards.

Thirdly, movies made before the gaming generation tend to have slightly different plot structures. The current pattern in movies, especially action movies, is to use the same basic plot as a video game. Our hero goes through various actions and events, all leading up to a one-on-one confrontation with the boss, ending when the hero murders the boss. Expect less violence, more story.

Now, lets get back to urban life in the early nineteenth century.

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Red Ted
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March 17, 2005

Limited Blogging

My blogging energy has been going to a discussion about religion and the early republic in comments over on Brad's weblog. I have a think piece on the way that will address part of these questions more fully, and that will probably get rewritten and worked into my conclusion.

Otherwise, well, I re-wrote the introduction and am making another pass through the chapter on religious establishments. The introduction was spotty, but parts of the middle are quite good. I did like the bit where I compared the American religious settlement to an apple pie, the British to a rum-soaked trifle (the yummy dessert, not the little thing.)

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Red Ted
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March 07, 2005

Name of the Day

Name of the Day:

Victory Birdseye
A delegate from Onondaga county to the 1821-22 New York State Constitutional Convention. He appears to have spoken five times, and served on one committee.

I would guess that this is either a man born in or around 1783, or a man born to a proto-evangelical household. My money is on the former.

I do like early 19th-century names.

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Red Ted
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March 05, 2005

Comments back

It appears that our hosting company shut down the default mt comments script to reduce the server load from comment spammers. I just found out that comments were down, and have renamed the script.

Comments should once again function.

Posted by
Red Ted
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Marx, Chaplin, and Bogey

A couple of times now I have asked the students if they have seen one or another cultural milestone, Casablanca for example. Few have. Heck, I never got around to until last year when La Sheila's rants finally convinced me to watch the thing.

On Tuesday we have a class titled "Karl, not Groucho." I predict that most of them will get the joke in the title, and that almost none of them will have ever seen a Marx Brothers movie.

The week after that is spring break. I am thinking about giving them an unofficial assignment - a recommendation rather than a requirement - that they watch at least one classic movie over the vacation. But what to require. As of right now my list is:

Anything by Buster Keaton
Anything by Chaplin
Anything by the Marx Brothers
Anything with Bogart and Bacall
Anything with Marlene Dietrich
Triumph of the Will (hard to find in video stores for some reason.)

What else should I give them?

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Red Ted
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Slow updating

I update less when I am grading, and no sooner did I finish grading the papers than I had a stack of blue books. Luckily, blue books go much faster than papers, mostly because I don't scribble very much on them.

Sure enough, I assigned too much stuff for the kids. I had too many folks withdraw because the class was demanding, and while most of the folks who stick wrote me acceptable papers (low grade was a C-), many of the people who struggled on the paper made time to write that by skimping on their other work. My exams are brutal for people who did not keep up on the reading.

I also need to review my lesson plans for the 18th century and make sure that I spend more time, probably an entire class, on enlightened despots and the lovehate triangle between Fred, EmTee, and Kate. (Frederick II, king of Prussia; Maria-Theresa, Empress of Austria; Catherine, Tsarina of Russia, and her hapless husband Peter the stupid then dead.)

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Red Ted
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