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Archive for July, 2009

On course design

Well, I haven’t been able to escape from work entirely. I’ve been taking things relatively easy since I finished teaching a week ago, but other school-related things keep cropping up and trying to encroach upon my free time.

The main issue looming in my mind is designing the course I’m getting to teach in the winter of next year, which will be a somewhat deeper survey of Europe, covering the period from 1648 to 1815.

In theory, this shouldn’t be too difficult, since it’s basically the first half of the period I covered in my introductory survey this summer.

Of course, since I find nineteenth- and especially twentieth-century history more fascinating, naturally, I spent a disproportionate amount of time (about three weeks out of four) covering those periods, whereas the earlier eras — basically the exact scope of my upcoming class — I raced through by the end of the first week.

I’m not really that concerned about being able to teach the content of this period; I do, after all, have about ten hours of lectures already in the can that covers this period (and I only have forty hours of class time for the quarter). I can fill it out by going into more depth on important topics like the Scientific Revolution, Peter the Great and the French Revolution, so it won’t be too difficult in that respect.

But there are other issues of course design that are continuing to perplex me. Not the least of which is finding readings that don’t skew my coverage heavily toward Britain and France.

It’s easy to justify spending a considerable amount of time on the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, and the evolution of political philosophy that occurred in Britain in the seventeenth century, since it influenced the ideas of natural law, universal rights and rebellion that inspired all sorts of challenges to government. As painfully dry as John Locke’s “Two Treatises on Government” are to read, they are influential.

Likewise, it’s hard to imagine not devoting a good chunk of time to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, since they represented such a radical break in European history and their influence extended well beyond the borders of France.

But it’s the rest of Europe that I’m struggling to cover in course readings. I really want to spend about a week on Russia from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great, since there are some interesting questions connected to making Russia “modern” and the idea of enlightened absolutism. And I’d like to spend about a week talking about enlightened absolutism in the Habsburg Empire (as well as Prussia), mostly because I find Joseph II an interesting figure.

Yet there isn’t much available in English that covers Eastern Europe in this period that’s in English. I can lecture on the key topics, but I want some readings to give students something to sink their teeth into. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of good novels, plays or other primary sources for this period, which is really right before the golden age of Russian literature and other literary canons.

Then there’s also the issue of how to organize the course. It’s two hours twice a week, but I’d prefer to have something to break up lectures so it’s not me talking for two hours straight. I also have to figure out whether to have exams, or if I should just go with papers. The course is capped at 50 students, which could be a bit unwieldy for large group discussions, though I can have them do it in smaller groups. But I’m also thinking in terms of what I want them to get out of discussions and in-class assignments and how it might serve the goals of the course.

Anyway, I’m still grasping for solutions, but at least I’ve got a couple of months before I have to order textbooks, and several months until I actually have to teach the course.

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School’s out

Finally, I’m done teaching, I’m now done grading, and for the next two months I have no school obligations, no research of my own to work on, no classes to prep. At last I can enjoy a lengthy break full of fun and relaxation.

My inner nerd tells me I should bust out Guitar Hero III right this minute so I can jam on Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” to put myself in the appropriate mood.

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Several college football players are suing the NCAA over the use of their likenesses in licensed video games without compensation, in another sign of how decadent and depraved college athletics has become.

Don’t get me wrong: I fully support the claims of the students, who are portrayed in games like EA Sports’ NCAA Football without the use of their names, but with their height, weight, skin color, position, play style, home state, etc. All without seeing a dime for the unauthorized use.

“We signed a paper at the beginning of college saying we couldn’t benefit from our name,” said Keller, who is now 24 and living in Scottsdale, Ariz. “So why was the N.C.A.A. turning a blind eye to this and allowing EA Sports to take our likenesses and make big bucks off it?”

Good question. Is it about business or, ahem, education, dear NCAA?

In a statement, the N.C.A.A. said the complaints were without merit and that the video games did not violate N.C.A.A. rules. A spokesman for Electronic Arts declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuits. The lawsuits come as the N.C.A.A. is considering loosening restrictions on the marketing of individual players. Christine Plonsky, director of women’s athletics at the University of Texas, argued that there was no harm in showcasing the talents of individual athletes, within limits. She and her colleagues “don’t view uses of their imagery as exploitative, but mere evidence of participation,” she said in an e-mail message.

Oh. So it’s more akin to getting a free t-shirt for participating in a fun run, rather than marketing amateur athletes’ images to make big profits that aren’t shared directly with the athletes themselves.

Now, if only these jocks could develop a proper class consciousness, they could rise up against this pernicious form of scholarship slavery and seize control of the means of promotion for themselves.

(And yes, I’ve been lecturing on Marx this week.)

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The good: the NYT has an article about Slovakia and the ongoing rivalry between Slovaks and Czechs (always nice to see some mainstream U.S. press on a topic vaguely pertaining to my research).

The bad: the article is probably oversimplifying things or overlooking key points (like the fact that the breakup of Czechoslovakia was relatively amicable and that Slovaks and Czechs still generally like each other).

The ugly: it’s a misinformed piece that also perpetuates some maddeningly inaccurate stereotypes about Slovaks.

Take, for instance, the “illustrative” photo that accompanies the article.

Slovakia: A little bit twenty-first century, a little bit nineteenth century?

The NYT’s caption describes this scene as “Slovaks walk past a polling station in northern Slovakia during elections for the European Parliament in June.” It strikes me as inappropriate on so many levels. For one, this is the first time I’ve ever seen a horse-drawn cart on the streets of Slovakia (though admittedly, having spent most of my time in its major cities, I’m unlikely to have come across the more rural and agricultural areas where such a scene would occur). I also find it amusing how the picture says, at least to me, “Look at how backward those Slovaks are — they’re still using horse-drawn carts to transport grain!” And yet, if you notice in the background, one of the buildings behind the cart is a kino or movie theater, a decidedly modern form of public entertainment, even if it’s not an American-style multiplex (which you can find in most Slovak cities).

Of course, the picture is also patently stupid — there’s no other adjective to describe it — since it evokes this idea of Slovakia as a land before (modern) time, yet the ensuing article mentions how successful Slovakia has been at attracting foreign investment, especially auto manufacturing, making it the “Detroit of Eastern Europe,” in the reporter’s phrase. It’s hard to imagine the NYT choosing to run a photo of a burro pulling a ramshackle vegetable cart alongside a story about the “Detroit of Detroit,” because that would be an obviously false and misleading juxtaposition of the modern and industrial alongside the premodern and preindustrial, even though Detroit is suffering from all sorts of urban blight — far more than Slovakia’s major cities.

Granted, the reporter can’t be blamed for what some idiot photo editor back in New York thought would make for a good visual. But if you want further proof that editors choosing pictures and writing headlines aren’t closely reading the stories in question, this would be Exhibit A.

Still, while the reporter, Dan Bilefsky, gets a pass on the photo, his article isn’t much better when it comes to dispelling common Western stereotypes of Slovakia.

Take, for instance, Bilefsky’s extended lead, which recalls the angry Slovak reaction to the way Slovakia was depicted in the Czech sculptor David Černý’s work “Entropa.” Sure, Slovaks didn’t appreciate being represented as a Hungarian salami.

But Bilefsky makes it sounds as though the Slovaks were the only ones outraged with “Entropa,” and the only ones urging the Czech government to apologize. Bulgarians were pissed about being depicted as a toilet. There were plenty of unflattering stereotypes being peddled as part of Černý’s goal of provoking a discussion of national stereotypes of the twenty-seven EU states.

Then there’s Bilefsky’s baffling characterization of the current Czech-Slovak dynamic as one of “ambivalence of relations between Slovakia and its richer, larger neighbor.” Frankly, if various opinion polls from the sixteen years since the split are any indication, there’s probably still more ambivalence over the decision to break up rather than any lingering tension between Slovaks and Czechs. I saw some survey data a couple of years ago that basically showed both peoples feeling they were worse off with the split while the other nation had benefited from it. There might be ambivalence, but I’d question whether it’s the sort of ambivalence Bilefsky seems to have in mind. After all, Czechs routinely name Slovaks as their favorite foreign ethnic group and vice versa.

Likewise, I don’t really get the sense that Czechs are lording over the Slovaks about the declining euro, since the Czech crown is hardly faring any better. And I would guess it’s probably a big disappointment to the Czechs (at least the non-Euroskeptics among them) that Slovakia adopted the euro first (and many other post-Communist countries remain in position to get there well ahead of the Czech Republic, which might well take until 2020, according to the projections of some Czech political leaders).

And while it’s true, as Milan Šimečka observes, that Czech culture remains more prevalent in Slovakia than Slovak culture is in the Czech Republic, the important point is that this is also a rather market-driven process, since there are roughly twice as many Czechs as Slovaks. Foreign TV shows and films are much more likely to be dubbed into Czech because most Slovaks can understand it anyway, whereas Czechs don’t have the same level of exposure to Slovak and the Slovak language. While the exchange of culture and influence remains skewed in favor of the Czechs, this is still a two-way street. Especially in Moravia, the eastern half of the Czech Republic that borders Slovakia, you find a lot more cultural proximity to the Slovaks than you’d find in Prague.

Plus, while some of the old mentalities remained entrenched — Czechs are probably still inclined to view Slovaks somewhat dismissively as “little brothers” while Slovaks probably still have a chip on their shoulder that inspires them to try to one up the Czechs — relations are probably a lot better today, after the breakup, than they had been for quite some time, since there’s no longer the mutual distrust bred from Czechs who thought they were subsidizing Slovakia and Slovaks who thought the Czechs were ruling over them.

I recall in December 2007, when both countries joined the Schengen Agreement the week before Christmas, there was a ceremony on the Slovak-Czech border with the Slovak prime minister Robert Fico and, I believe, his Czech counterpart. At the ceremony to dismantle the border, Fico said something to the effect that the barrier between the two peoples had always been artificial, and that it had never really been internalized.

Slovaks and Czechs might have had their differences in the past, and they might have a friendly rivalry today, but I think Bilefsky’s article is really overstating the salience of this rivalry for both sides.

On the other hand, maybe I shouldn’t be disabusing the American media of this notion of Czech-Slovak rivalry. After all, if I can get Americans thinking there are ongoing hostilities between the two peoples, it would probably enhance my job prospects. Though not as much as if the Slovaks and Czechs started shooting each other, which is probably less likely than a war between Canada and the United States, if “Canadian Bacon” and “South Park” are any indication.

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Here’s a hilarious excerpt from one of yesterday’s midterm. It’s not really historically inaccurate, just hilariously misspelled. (The spelling and grammar haven’t been changed.)

During the French Revolution, the Enghlitenment was an idea that based the revolution. People who were inspired by the idea started to question the ancient regime that the regime have devided people into three stakes.

Ah, yes, the legendary Stakes General that helped to launch the French Revolution.

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