Friday, July 26, 2013

A poorly written rejection letter

This morning I received the following from the University of Tulsa. I had forgotten that I applied there at all, and have since accepted a position at another school, so this isn't really a big deal either way. But I still think that I could easily have read this letter and assumed that they decided to hire me:

Professor Coyle Neal
[Address] 
Dear Professor Coyle: 
I am writing to let you know that we have completed our search for an American Politics specialist.
The search committee was very impressed with the quality of the candidates that applied for our position, but unfortunately we can only hire one person. Thanks for allowing us to look over your materials. Please accept my very best wishes for your future success. 
Sincerely, 
[Chair of the American Politics Search Committee]



Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Twilight Facebook Series

Here are my thoughts on Twilight, recorded as I was reading it on Facebook and now gathered in one place. 

Enjoy!
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The wife is making me read "Twilight." My original plan had been to shut the curtains, turn off the lights, and hide under a blanket so that no one would see me reading it... But then I thought, "hey, why should I be the only one suffering?" So I will be sharing with the world my thoughts on the book as I read it.
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So "Twilight" opens with a Bible verse? Is this "Christian fiction" of some sort? No wonder there's so much vitriol spewed forth against it...
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"The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me." Twilight, page 1.

I suspect that either Stephenie Meyer doesn't know what a hunter is, or she has never actually seen anyone "saunter."
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I'm am now 50 pages into "Twilight" and still nobody has died. These might very well be the laziest vampires in all of fiction...
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"Twilight", ~75 pages in.

Clearly, in the world of "Twilight" (or maybe all of Washington state?), women are insane. This chick has three guys clearly interested in her, and yet she still describes herself as depressed, the loner, the odd man out, etc; and spends all of her time obsessing over the guy who has said like five words to her.

Of course, not being a woman myself, I suppose this could be a completely accurate and unbiased account of the female mind.

Also: the body count remains depressingly at zero.
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"Twilight" ~pg 130. Still no one has been killed- are these vampires anorexic? Is this book some form of teenage morality play?

Also, so far Edward has been described as "beautiful" and "perfect" 15 times (no, I didn't keep track- Amazon told me; it was just often enough that I noticed a pattern). Given that at this point she has had like two conversations with the guy, she is either some kind of insane stalker or shallowest protagonist ever.
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A summary of the dialogue between the two main characters in the first 200 pages of "Twilight":

Edward: "I'm dangerous."
Bella: "I don't care."

Keep in mind, the sum total of Edward's "dangerous" activities to this point have been 1) staring from across the room; 2) being slightly bipolar. Which might be "dangerous," but seems more "creepy" to me. Which further makes me wonder how sad and boring life in the Pacific Northwest must be if that is what passes for a "dangerous" bad boy that all the girls fall for...

Also: the vampires have yet to eat anyone. [Sigh]
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My new operating theory is that "Twilight" is actually a crypto-feminist bit of cultural criticism, where the role of "man" is played by Bella and the role of "woman" is played by Edward.

The evidence? Bella takes the stereotypically male position of deciding that she is in love with Edward based solely on his physical characteristics (seriously at the point when she says "I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him" -pg 195- the number of things she knows about him that do not involve physical appearance can be counted on one hand), while Edward spends hours asking her personal questions like "what's your favorite color," "what's your favorite gemstone", or "what kind of flowers do you like". In other words, Bella is shallow and focused on physical appearance, while Edward just wants to talk.
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"Twilight," ~pg 275.
So far in the book:

Number of people eaten by vampires: 0.
Number of times I've thought "If I overheard this conversation in public I'd have to resist the urge to punch them, or projectile vomit, or both at the same time": ~1/every 10 pages.
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On page 332 of "Twilight", we have our first report of a vampire attack. That is, we have a second-hand report of a vampire attack... An attack which occurred three and a half centuries earlier in Europe and resulted in the creation of a vampire who lives by eating deer.

I'm beginning to suspect that this book is supposed to be ironic. Stephenie Meyer is taking everything awesome about vampires and writing the exact opposite. Her fans think that this is cutting edge vampire fiction, while she laughs all the way to the bank.

Those of us who are older (and, I can only assume, awesomer) know that real vampires are described best here.
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On page 375 of "Twilight", 3 more vampires show up- vampires who DO eat people. And what do these new vampires want to do?
Play baseball.

By Stephenie Meyer's logic, The Sandlot is one of the greatest vampire movies ever made.
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Finally finished "Twlight." After 460 pages of the two main characters staring longingly into each others' eyes, there is a burst of vampire fighting action. The riveting scene is told as a flashback as what's-her-name is in the hospital:

Bella: What happened to James? [The evil vampire]
Edward: After I pulled him off you, Emmett and Jasper took care of him. (461)

"took care of him"- is there a finer explosion of activity in all of literature?

Friday, July 12, 2013

Is "Is College Worth It?" worth it?

"Don't flush your money away on college" is the basic message of Bill Bennett's and David Wilezol's Is College Worth It? Between rising education costs, fewer job opportunities, and the reality that most jobs do not require a college degree, ICWI makes a compelling argument that you very well might be better off foregoing college and learning a trade, participating in online education, or simply entering the workforce.



Overall, ICWI Is very a worthwhile book.

First, it is by and large well-written and a quick read. The exception to this rule is that from time to time the flow gets bogged down a bit in statistics (which is a drawback I list below as well), but as far as I could tell none of the statistics were superfluous and it wasn't distracting enough to make me want to set it aside.

Second, ICWI is brutally honest about the increasing financial cost of a college education compared to the real-world opportunities-- opportunities a college education doesn't really open up at all, despite the common cultural belief that if you don't go to college you've somehow failed at life. To repeat: college does not guarantee you a good job and a happy life. People who say otherwise are either ignorant, liars, or university recruiters.

Third, ICWI puts a positive spin on online education and MOOCs that is refreshing amidst all the standard  gloom and doom predicting the demise of liberal learning at the hands of internet profiteers. Not that I necessarily agree with such optimism, but I at least enjoyed reading something a bit more sunshiny in an otherwise generally glum world.

Fourth, ICWI does a good job of highlighting some of the causes of the current educational crisis in higher ed. Namely, the failure of the public school system to adequately educate many, many children; but also including rising administrative costs (often disconnected from any increase in quality of education); federal intervention (through student loans); political correctness funneling cash into ridiculous programs; and so on. While it doesn't go in depth into any one of these-- that's not the point of the book anyway--all the appropriate nods are given.

And of course, it answers the question of whether college is worthwhile--and does so in a surprisingly nuanced way (given how short the book is, there wouldn't seem to be much space for nuance). If you care about the question at all then this is a useful book to read.  
Overall, the strengths pretty solidly outweigh the drawbacks, of which there are only three and a half:

First, it's the sort of book that's only going to be read by someone for whom it is too late. That is, someone who already has a college degree. Part of the reason for this is that at times ICWI is a bit statistics-heavy, such that one nearly needs a college degree to follow all of the details. But even beyond that it's just not the sort of book that high school students are likely to pick up and read. While a handful of guidance counselors out there might, for better or worse it's still likely only to be influential on those who have already gone through the system.

Second, some of the scenarios at the end of the book are quite frankly hilariously ridiculous. For example, one student considering college is described and offered advice like this:
You never took high school that seriously and did just enough to graduate. Everything was hard or boring. A year later, you're still living at home and working as a roofer... After work, you like to come home and watch UFC and smoke pot with your bros... VERDICT: Take a hard look at the military... And stop smoking pot or you won't be eligible.  (213)
They don't go quite as far as to say "get a haircut, hippie!" or "get off my lawn!", but the crotchety old man definitely comes out to his porch and yells a bit here and there throughout the book. (Which I think is actually kind of awesome, such that I almost put it in the "strength" column, rather than the "drawback" column.)

Third, at the end of the book is a list of the schools that are worth attending, if you can get in. This is not a drawback in any specific sense (so far as I know all of the schools listed really are quite good), but in the more general sense that such a list will of necessity exclude schools that are quite good and worthwhile, while over time good schools will go into decline. For example, there are any number of state schools that are both affordable and offer a solid education (most of the Western state schools fit this description quite nicely), but don't make the list simply because the authors aren't familiar with them. On the other hand, I will be very surprised if ten years from now some of the smaller liberal arts schools have the same reputation for excellence and affordability. With that said, I suggest that if they haven't already, Bennett and Wilezol set up a website (or use Bennett's existing website) to keep a running tab of schools that can be edited as needed. So I guess by "drawback" what I really meant in this instance was "I'd like to see more on this matter from Bennett and Wilezol."

Objection 3.5 is a quibble, but given the nature of the book review program I participate in (see disclaimer below), I should point out that there's nothing particularly Christian about this book. Despite being published by Thomas Nelson, this is a political, social, cultural, and policy-oriented book, and has nothing to do with religion. Like I said, a mere trifle of an objection not even worth a full number of its own...

Even with these three drawbacks, ICWI is a well-written and interesting book and worth a once-over.

Recommended for those interested in the state of higher ed, and of course for those considering college.

Disclaimer 1: I Received this book free from the publisher on the condition that I write a review. I was not required to write a positive one.

Disclaimer 2: I am friends with one of the authors of this book (not Bill Bennett, though no doubt he's a decent guy as well), which I don't think colored my analysis, but very well might have. 

In defense of arrogant orthodoxy: A review of "Humble Orthodoxy" by Joshua Harris

Joshua Harris wonders why so many of us with immaculate theology are such stupendous jerks. Really, I don't know why he had to write a book exploring this when he could have just asked--it's not like we're going to keep the answer a secret. We are such jerks because we are right. And when you are right, you have a moral and ethical obligation to proclaim that rightness to the world and in the face of anyone and everyone who would stand in your way. Don't like it? Well maybe you should have thought about that before you decided to be wrong...

In all seriousness, this is an excellent enough little book. (And it is little--weighing in at 83 index-card sized pages, of which 20 are "study guide" material.) If you struggle with arrogance--or if you're like me and don't really "struggle" with it at all--Humble Orthodoxy is an excellent reminder that we ought to be loving, kind, and gentle in our theological dealings. Whenever we're not, we're forgetting that we are sinners in need of repentance just as much as those towards whom we are being arrogant, and so giving lie to the very truth we are speaking even as we are speaking it. Really, I need someone to follow me around whispering in one ear that I ought to be practicing humble orthodoxy (and in the other "remember, Caesar, thou art mortal!"). Harris's book isn't quite that effective, but it's certainly a step in the right direction.

With that said, I have one minor quibble--and a quibble which probably couldn't be easily dealt with in a book this short in any case. Yet it remains a quibble and I'm a book reviewer, so I get to share it. Basically, Harris suggests that the following are our options as Christians:

Humble Orthodoxy
Humble Heterodoxy
Arrogant Orthodoxy
Arrogant Heterodoxy

I think we should be a tiny bit cautious here, because in reality once we've crossed from "orthodoxy" into "heterodoxy", the conversations should change. "Humble" and "arrogant" are no longer the most important part of that description given that one may have crossed from "Christian" into "non-Christian", depending on the nature of the Heterodoxy in question. In a sense, it's infinitely better to be arrogantly orthodox than humbly heterodox, since the difference may very well be between heaven and hell. Again, I think that requires a longer discussion than could really be held in 60 pages of exposition, but it's worth pointing out. (At least in my arrogance I think it's worth pointing out, were I humbler I might not think so.)

Even accounting for that minor quibble, this is an excellent little text and worthy of your attention.

I received this book for free from the publisher on the condition that I review it. I was not required to write a positive review.