Too Cool for Internet Explorer

Protected: pressing our vanities (seeking coauthors)

May 27th, 2012 by slewfoot

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

it’s synth-pop friday!

May 25th, 2012 by slewfoot

it’s synth-pop friday!

May 18th, 2012 by slewfoot

to facebook or not to facebook?

May 17th, 2012 by slewfoot

Music: The Dandy Warhols: Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia (2000)

A few days ago I “unfriended” approximately three hundred people from my “old” Facebook account and invited them to join my newer profile. This process took a long time, but I feel relieved having made the “transition.” On the new profile page, I’m much more circumspect about what I “post” as a link, status-update, and so on, and I have set the privacy settings to give me the most control (as much as possible) over who can “tag” me in photographs, posts, and so on.

Before I did this, I posted as a status a long rationale for why I am making the change. I’ll share that here, and then add some comments too.

Dear Facebook Friends,

Over the next few of weeks I will be “un-friending” or “de-friending” most of you on this account, and inviting you to “add” me on a different Facebook account under my actual name (search “Joshua Gunn”). This note endeavors to explain why.

A couple of years ago John Sloop asked me to think with him about the character of social networking using Foucaulidan software. John wrote most of the code. The parameters he set inspired me to think hard about Facebook’s function, and we were able to think-through this new social reality we occupy here together. The result was a couple of publications in which we advance a number of critical observations about the increasingly +compulsory+ character of Facebook and how that creates some interesting new “power” dynamics. The general argument cannot be summarized here, but the gist is that social networking has imploded what we once knew as “public” and “private,” and potentially gives access to private parts (broadly construed) we’d rather not be “public,” or at least should not be “equal access” (You can download a PDF of one of pieces here.

When I joined Facebook, my friends consisted of folks I had dinner with, shared embarrassing personal moments with—not to mention victims of my poorly memorized dirty jokes. Facebook used to be the new “MySpace,” which was the new “Friendster,” which was the new “Livebook” and “Nervenet.” Those older networking sites were very different—and had a stronger illusion of privacy simply because they were much, much smaller in scope. When I think about the world I inhabited in 1999 with my Livebook “friends” and compare it to what Facebook is today, it’s truly jaw-dropping—in size, in scope, in what this so-called social networking thing has become. And very few of us can +really+ claim to make sense of it.

As Facebook has evolved, it has horizontalized, fanning across a mediascape that is no longer possible to envision. Much more narrowly: I’ve picked up friends who were former classmates from 15 (sometimes 20) years ago. Family members. Friends with whom I have never dined with—even the parents of friends. I have almost five hundred “friends.” Who are you all? Well, if I go down the list one-by-one I know you. But this exercize stretches the concept of “friend” pretty broadly, from acquaintance to buddy to “oh, I liked that guy in the elevator.” Declining a friend request is fraught with anxiety now; and having a request denied or ignored can make a person feel bad. Facebook is compulsory in ways we’re only starting to understand, and the consequences in the larger socio-cultural-economic matrix are no less murky.

It seems like within a wink (ok, a four years-long wink) the social landscape has changed, revolutionized, morphed. Like, whoa!

But here’s the thing: Facebook has altered its interface so much that the “privacy settings” and so forth are so complicated I cannot figure them out. It used to be I could post a status and select “groups” of folks who could see it, but then the network of friend’s friends and so forth could see it, and then I’d click a subdirectory to say “no” to that, and so on. It just got so complex I gave up. As a consequence I’ve offended some of you. I’ve inadvertently insulted others whom I don’t really know. And gosh knows one of my buddy’s parents has seen me “tagged” in a photo posted by someone else, in which I’m suckling milk from a ceremonial goat hoisted above the heads . . . oh, wait a minute. I think they deleted that photograph. Nevermind.

Anyhoo—my point is that I’m giving up on the complexity of privacy settings. I’ve given up on posting and then deleting “heat of the moment” status updates. And I’m caused to think that that this account is so +old+ that it bears the traces of a history I’d rather keep among those who were party to that history. It bears the history of a very dated way of thinking about social networking that is no longer true of today.

Because Facebook has transformed from a—however illusory—interface of private, friendly interaction to one of public personae and self-publicity, I am slowly shifting folks over to my newer “Joshua Gunn” account. It’ll take some time. Weeks, if not months.

I learned some years ago that shutting down this account suddenly, or “de-friending” folks without explanation, is upsetting to many. Some of you are thinking this all sounds like self-important blather. I’d agree with you. But there are others who will be offended by discovering I “de-friended” them, and I know that for a fact. Hence this long-winded note.

For those who take the social network more seriously, understand I NOW believe that one’s posts on Facebook can have serious, material consequences. It’s thick with power, discipline, and surveillance. For example, it is commonplace for potential employers to survey one’s Facebook profile for hiring decisions. There are countless stories of folks getting fired for status updates (and incriminating photos). The list of implications infused with power is a long one, so I won’t belabor the point except to say: if you and I have a relation of power—if you’re my former student, for example, or if you’re my employer or represent my employer—then THIS account is most likely not the best place for us to interact.

Facebook used to be akin to my home office and pub; it is now the work office and reception hall. The “King Rhombosis” account reflects the former mentality and not the new reality—most especially with the title. It used to be the case one rarely if ever used one’s actual name in online networking interfaces! “King Rhombosis” reflects that older reality (oh, how many times I have had to explain why I don’t use my real name on this account . . . “it’s old skool computer geek” never seems to explain it quickly anymore).

So, I’m trying to make the transition; I’m trying to accept the change and comport my online interactions similarly.

One might respond: “But Josh, do you have something to hide?”

“Yes,” I reply. “Yes I do. That’s why I wear clothes.”

If you’re already friends with me on my “Joshua Gunn” account, you’ll notice little change. If you’re not, you may save me some time by “adding” me there.

A suspect more than a few hundred of you will not be reading this note, which I reckon only underscores my reasoning.

Anyhoo, them’s my quick-and-dirty answers for “why’d you de-friend me, bro?”

See you on the other side/site.


Although I did not want to, I even defriended good friends who are colleagues and students. The rationale here is that in addition to friendship, I have a working relationship with them too—there are multiple roles we each play. And insofar as some of those roles concern institutional power (e.g., I sit on his or her Ph.D. committee), it seems to me that it’s a good rule that keeping it more-or-less professional online saves face all around. I may “throw down” and party with students, for example, but that doesn’t need to be documented to a friend list that spans from acquaintances to my boss.


In response to this move, a friend messaged me and asked what I thought about Facebook snooping by potential employers for a graduate student going on the job market. I responded that it is definitely something to think about. At the very least, I suggested a thorough scrubbing of what’s on the Facebook page, or perhaps (as I have) a second account. She thought that would be too much work to maintain. It is, I agree, work.


Two years ago I probably would not have given the same advice. But since that time I’ve observed a number of things. A local acquaintance got fired from teaching because she had some racy photos of herself on Facebook. A recent story on NPR was broadcast last week about employers actively vetting the Facebook pages of potential hires, and there have been a few instances of employers asking for an applicant’s password. I’ve overheard colleagues discussing the status updates of students in meetings at the office. I’m sure you could supply your own stories about the increasingly permeable boundaries between what is presumed to be “private” and what is ostensibly “public.”

Think about it this way, from a more personal angle: you meet a person that strikes your romantic fancy. Do you see if they have a Facebook page? If they do, do you try to look at their posted photographs and status messages? I bet you do. It’s very tempting. And if so, how different is that from an employer wanting to know more about whom she is about to hire?


So, if you’re a grad on the job market, yes, censor yourself. You may think you have nothing to hide, however, even that attitude can raise some eyebrows. The CIA would probably not want to hire you, for instance.

In short: be careful.

textbook sneak peek: presentation aids

May 15th, 2012 by slewfoot

Music: Beach House: Devotion (2008).

Writing energies have been focused to roving in other pastures, both academic. One of them is writing about presentation aids in the public speaking situation. Here’s a small snippet of what I’ve been working on the past week . . . but you don’t get much. Tease? Yes.

Sensation Station: Aiding the Eyes and Ears

In keeping with the norms of radio broadcasts, many early television shows in the United States featured the sound of live audiences reacting to the actors on a stage or in a studio. Live audiences, however, were unpredictable and often laughed inconsistently at a joke or gag—or, worse, not at all. In the 1950s, CBS sound engineer Charles “Charley” Douglas decided to remedy the problem with the invention of the “Laff Box,” a machine that housed looped recordings (audio tapes) of audiences laughing. During a television filming, if the audience did not laugh at the right moment Douglas would augment or “sweeten” the show by punching keys on his “Laff Box,” much like one would an organ (which happened to look like a large, mutated typewriter). By the 1960s, Douglas had helped to transform television comedies almost completely with his “canned laughter,” enhancing the television experience for audiences watching from their living rooms to this day.

For those who can hear, the interesting thing about canned laughter is that most of us don’t notice it. Once you are used to hearing it, canned laughter on a television show is relatively unobtrusive, and yet, the laughs add information to what you’re watching. In the public speaking situation, “presentation aids” are designed to work similarly. Typically, a speaker uses presentational aids to help “sweeten” the experience of audiences during a speech, but hopefully in a manner that is not too conspicuous or detracts from the speaker and her speech.
By showing your audience objects, images, texts, and graphs, as well as playing sounds or music, you can make your speech lively and help to encourage understanding and comprehension. In this chapter we discuss all the elements you can draw upon to aid and enhance a speech, including the now ubiquitous use of “slideware” or presentation software programs, such as Apple’s Keynote, Microsoft’s PowerPoint, and that Internet-based Prezi. Along the way, we’ll also discuss the general rules preparing and presenting visual and audio aids, taking care to note how aids can “go wrong.” The key to using presentational aids is to remember that they are aids and are used to assist your speaking.

it’s synth-pop friday!

May 11th, 2012 by slewfoot

politics at the public university

May 10th, 2012 by slewfoot

Music: Quicksilver Messenger Service: Castles in the Sand (1970)

In my previous post I complimented UT President Bill Powers for publically disagreeing with the Board of Regents, most recently in regard to their not honoring his request for a tuition hike. Although the details of the plan that Powers (and various committees) proposed are important, his expression of disappointment was symbolically encouraging because of its advocacy for the welfare of the university and, by extension, its staff and faculty. The rumor broke last night that this advocacy may have put Powers’ job in jeopardy.

According to that ubiquitous “undisclosed source,” the so-called “dean of political reporting” in Texas, Paul Burka, has suggested that the Regents have approached the Chancellor to fire Powers. There’s very little in this story to go on and nothing has been substantiated, but the story is being discussed and reported as truth, of course. The reason is that the fantasy is quite plausible—the reason is that the fantasy is true.

This is to say, the idea that a governor would indirectly fire the president of a university for disagreeing in public has been made real, and repeatedly, and remains an viable “option” for political movers-and-shakers in higher education circles. First, just last month the LSU Board of Supervisors (the equivalent of our Board of Regents) fired system president John Lombardi for vocally disagreeing with the governor’s vision for the university system (basically, to free the flagship campus from the entire system as an autonomous enterprise). Second, closer to home, UT President Homer Rainey was fired by the regents in the 1940s for opposing the Regents demands to fire suspected “communists” in the Department of Economics. Since that time, the University of Texas has had a fairly colorful history of uneasy tensions between the administration and the Regents (and by extension, the governor’s office).

Politically, the character of power illustrated by firing a university system head or president is the familiar “rank and file” or “chain of command,” which of course is inherently at odds with the vision of education as a domain of “academic freedom.” As least some of the reason why the gesture troubles folks is that it represents a challenge to the assumed autonomy of the academic enterprise—an autonomy that has never really existed but which we nevertheless hold up as a guiding ideal.

For me, what is most troubling are the comments and observations from my colleagues who have been here at the university for decades. Owing to the fact that the Regents are appointed by the governor, the University of Texas has been a political football for most of its history. Even so, one trusted colleague observes the firing of Powers is the least of our worries. What should trouble us, she says, are the looming appointments to the board: two seats are up soon, and those seats are currently occupied by “moderates.” Because Perry has been governor for such a long time, the board is already stacked with his less-than-moderate political compatriots. What if Perry appoints two more neo-conservative, anti-intellectuals? (Many would say the question is not “what?” but “how soon?”—technically, the governor can appoint new regents at the beginning of the new year before the customary term of service is up on the academic calendar). Whether or not the rumors about ousting Powers are true, a more devastating reality is possible: an ideologically “pure” regency, a complete lock on less cognitively complex, bottom-line modes of management.

My colleague says that in her many decades at the university, owing to the nationalization of the tuition issue as well as Perry’s political stature, she has “never seen it so bad.” I’ve only been in higher education for sixteen years, and certainly as a graduate student I was shielded from the political realities of the public university, but even so I have also never experienced an educational system more politicized than that I do today. It’s not that I believe in a non-political educational system; all organizations concern resources, the use of force, and thus “power.” But it is often astonishing to me—despite my cynicism—that the politics is so naked, that the “do as I say, or else” has so much force, beyond the tempering of reasoned argument and consideration and perspective-taking/switching. Owing to a decidedly concerted effort to make education—previously an idealized, “safe space” of actualization and self-empowerment—the latest frontier of the Culture War, one wonders if there’s any space left for free thought in the national, political imaginary. Your bedroom is regulated, whom you are allowed to love is regulated, and now we’re engaging the possibilities and punishments of thought control.

Or as my teacher and friend Ron Greene would say: “Speech is Money.”

Double-plus-good?

on post-tenure review

May 8th, 2012 by slewfoot

Music: Ramona Falls: Prophet (2012)

As I tweeted some weeks ago, the University of Texas Board of Regents approved stricter guidelines and rule on on post-tenure review at my employer. I noted then that these rules only formalized what has already been in practice for some years (presumably before I arrived here): tenured professors should be reviewed annually regarding their performance. Although the process differs from one college to the next, all professors undergo annual review in their departments. We file reports every year on our service, teaching, and publications. These reports form the basis of annual evaluations, written by a department committee, which then go into one’s file. What the Regents passed makes sure this process is mandatory for tenured professors (it is already mandatory for tenure-track junior faculty), however, it has always been so in my college.

What is different about the new rules is that they appear to wrest power from departments, putting it in the hands of colleges (and under the purview of the university administration). The rules do this by adopting a universal ranking system (from “exceeds expectations” to “unsatisfactory”). I believe my department also already used such a ranking system. Nevertheless, the new policy only raised a few eyebrows because it would appear to threaten department self-governance, and I’ve overheard many a long-time employee doubt that many administrators would actually change current practice. The university has been governed so long “from a distance,” with departments having relative autonomy. Just from what I know as a seven-year employee, I don’t see the new rules changing much of how we govern ourselves (the system in place is already a tight ship, is working, and there doesn’t seem any incentive to change that except by making it “formal”).

The only other difference, and I suppose this is really the “big deal” from an outside perspective, is that the rules do make it easier to fire someone more quickly. As I understand it, if you were routinely performing unsatisfactorily as a faculty member, it would take—more or less—about six years to show you the door. Now it only takes two years of “unsatisfactory” ratings to start the “evaluation” process that can lead to dismissal. But there is no specified time table for the “evaluation” process. I am not an optimist about trends in higher education, don’t get me wrong, but I am not personally threatened—and I do not think my colleagues are threatened—by the formalization of the process. In an even-handed column on Inside Higher Ed, Kaustuv Basu interviews a number of thoughtful commentators here at the university who do not seem especially alarmed by the rules per se which, again, seem only to make formal what has been occurring here for quite some time. The “big deal” is from the outside; one professor remarked that the move will be “read” as an attack on tenure freedoms and may hamper retention and recruitment. It’s the perception that things have changed, or are changing, that is key here.

If there’s anything to worry about as someone who is here in a flagship school that just announced a formalized policy on post-tenure review, it’s the outside. Although I do think my university administration does things that are not nice to faculty and employees (and while I find the “star system” model of reward odious and counterproductive for community—most of the people I know would give up a little raise to make sure everyone gets something, as opposed to rewarding a few at the expense of many), my experience is that the people running the various processes of evaluation mean well and intend good. That danger is not—are not—us, but rather, politicians.

The gesture of formalizing these post-tenure rules—despite the fact we already observed them—is political. This political dimension is what is dangerous and troublesome, and it is also at the level of the political that people are really arguing over the policy. What does it mean to announce to the “outside” that you are adopting “stricter” policies on reviewing faculty, if those policies are not, in the final analysis, all that more strict? What it means is that the regents wanted to respond to those “critics” in the wider community who believe the professoriate is lazy, is not accountable, and so on. In this respect the announcement is of a piece with the controversy over teacher evaluations and “net worth” (students taught versus salary), the house bill that required all course syllabae be posted to the Internet (which we already did), and so forth. The alarmed reactions are not to actual changes that are occurring, but to the framing of public relations.

The danger, then, is the possibility that the university comes to resemble its PR, a slow drift toward incremental change over time. I am uncertain if the risks taken here—to announce radical change to deflate political pressure—is the best rhetorical strategy. Moreover, as someone in the IHE piece points out, the symbolism of playing visibility politics with policy can affect other institutions with a less willful (or more disempowered) faculty. A flagship university is a symbolic machine at its PR does have rhetorical effects that affect material changes at peer and aspiring institutions.

With these worries in mind, I have been pleased with our president’s often critical, public responses to the political subtext of the regent’s decisions (for example, the most recent one). I suppose he cannot be more forceful and must strike a balance. Still, a careful reading of his recent addresses reveals someone with rhetorical skill is helping him respond to the cultural battles that are besieging the university. I think if he was not critical and did not “strike” back at all, then I would be more worried.

it’s syth-dustrial friday!—-warning, NSFW or happy, go lucky conscience

May 4th, 2012 by slewfoot

bullied

May 3rd, 2012 by slewfoot

Music: Sennen: Lost Harmony (2012)

The freckled-faced new kid in eighth grade had tussled hair that seemed like a hospitable bed for lice. I didn’t wear hand-me downs like he appeared to wear, but only because I was an “only child,” I guess, and we didn’t have a Goodwill. Yesterday’s Walmart—a chain called Richway—had the cheaper generic brands anyway (“why advertise for a clothing company? Be an individual,” my dad used to say to justify my wearing the social markers of “uncool”). Two years prior, when I was in sixth grade, I convinced my mom to buy me some red, Converse high-tops. The fad came and went, and for a few months I felt like I “fit in,” that going to Middle School was akin to hitting the reset button on the Nintendo, that I could “blend” and be “cool.” By seventh grade my fear was back to normal (a kid named Dustin started bullying me), and by eighth grade I was starting to find my people (skaters) and adopting my own style.

The gradual embrace of my difference in eighth grade entailed a certain risk; although there would be no question about who I was—it’s not like I could blend in anyway—my conspicuousness marked me as a target for new social tests. The new boy, the freckled one, probably didn’t want to beat me up. But he knew he had to go through with it when the teachers mysteriously disappeared, somehow, on the long march from the field back to the school building.

“Kick that faggots ass! Do you want to be a pussy like him?” rang out from the cowards who didn’t want to do it themselves. “Fuck that faggot up!” was a familiar, commanding chant from the bullies who never really ever got physical and the fat kid who, surprisingly, would when provoked. Like the new kid. I can still hear their high-pitched boy voices, and girls screaming, pretending to be frightened by the spectacle of the new kid trying to bash my head into a large, barely unearthed rock near the ball field. I remember seeing the rock approaching my face, the rush of adrenaline that helped me move my head to an impact on the grass. And I remember losing badly, or so it seemed. The “fight” (or better, “attack”) was broken up by a teacher I didn’t know who came out to investigate. I remember the initial, accusatory tone of the assistant principal (I had caused a ruckus just a year prior by circulating a petition by the “Student Liberation Army” to allow chewing gum in school). I remember the next day, too, when the kid who assaulted me got in trouble and I was “absolved” of the initial charge of provocation; I had a few bruises, but the freckle-faced kid looked like a wreck the next day, with big black eyes. The eighth grade consensus was that I “lost the fight,” but the proof of flesh suggested otherwise. Either that, or the kid got beat up by his dad when he got home.

This was not the last time I was “in a fight.” I had only once started one: in seventh grade, with a best friend, and we figured out mid-tussle it was a bad idea. I had never provoked a fight prior or since. Apparently I have erased from my memory the numerous times I arrived home roughed- or beaten up. I know I was pulled out of preschool because a girl had it out for me; my mother says she bit me every day and drew blood and, when posed with the choice to stay with my grandmother at the age of five or so, I chose grandmother (and a years-long, bordom-dripping tutoring in soap operas, General Hospital and Days of Our Lives especially.) My father said he once paid a visit to the home of a child who routinely beat me up on the bus (by his account, my father showed up with a firearm and threatened the kid’s dad). I dimly remember this, and was glad to know my dad didn’t tell me his “solution” at the time because, you know, the “lesson” is not a good one. And I definitely remember getting picked on in church—a lot—and the “Sunday school teacher” turning a blind eye.

I do remember that my childhood—my existence all the way through high school—was synonymous with bullying, even if I have repressed all of the instances. I got out of Georgia and away from my “home” for a reason, and its crown is “trauma.” I don’t want to overly dramatize my experience, but I do see in retrospect how formative being picked-on and beaten up has been for me; it’s in my teaching, it’s in my scholarship, it’s in the food I like to give away to friends.

The eighth grade attack was the last time I remember having to fight alone, the last time I remember feeling hopeless or like no one was looking out for me. In high school I found my friends, my “group,” my clique: alternative kids and mods and goths and skaters and the one queer kid a grade ahead. The 1980 film My Bodyguard also inspired, I suspect, my befriending of a couple of guys who scared the shit out of most people (in all grades); one of them is still a friend to this day. Even though I figured out ways to surround myself with the comfort and, sometimes protection, of friendship, the bullying never stopped. At 39 years of age, I still experience it. Rarely. But I do smell it occasionally.

At home, I am still a “faggot,” that weird kid who got out and did ok, but who is still “not of us.” At my ten year high school anniversary in 2002, I was to give a speech because I was class president of my graduating class. My speech was about how we had now become adults and have the advantage of seeing beyond the group divisions that once structured our teenage world. I said the reunion was the time for us to take advantage of adulthood and to actually take the time to talk to and meet others from our class whom we were too afraid, or simply not allowed, to talk to. I was booed to silence and decided not to finish my speech. The hired DJ had to interrupt the booing, like a parent, telling these 20-somethings to “show some respect” (that is, to “behave”). This summer is our twentieth reunion and a few folks have asked me to come. I pleaded Bartleby, the Scrivener.

In college, I discovered that I really “fit-in” for the first time in my young life. I suspect this is one of the reasons I’ve never really left. Today I’m no longer called a “faggot” or a “pussy” (after all, an overwhelming number of us identify as queer; we “have the hegemony,” as it were). Now the terms usually—though rarely—used are “weird” or “eccentric” or (I think with some affection) “crazy.” But there’s bullying here too, and when it goes down I can always sense it, hearing an echo of those kids nudging on freckle-face to bash heads open on rocks.

In higher education, bullying sometimes happens in scholarship—usually at the keyboard of a junior scholar—when s/he attempts to “take ’em down” in scathing barbs and accusations of “misreading.” I don’t mean to implicate the critical agon (think Adorno), but rather, the ad hominem. This kind of bullying rarely goes to print, although I can point to some notable exceptions in which I have personally (and I mean to the person) taken a beating.

Other types of bullying seem to take place in that deep space between faculty, staff and “the administration,” a sort of Westworld of mass mediated threats in which Reavers—in the form of well-meaning “think tank” do-gooders, often self-described as “conservatives”—-attempt to intimidate with threats of publicity (“Can you believe Prof. Jones teaches a class on Elvis? Where’s the accountability!”). There’s also the bullying and intimidation that can occur in employment negotiations (unions play both offense and defense here).

The point of these memories, where they converge, is the second great disappointment of adulthood. The first great disappointment is that “love is not enough,” of course. The second is that adults are simply kids with experience. Some childhood bullies “grow out” of their sadism, learning to deal with the insecurities we all experience in better, non-violent ways (having children of their own seems to help). Some do not. I fantasize these become high school football coaches and policemen in rural areas, although I realize that’s a gross generalization based on my limited experience. And, perhaps the worst adult children are those who were bullied and then “grow up” to continue the cycle of abuse, either by inviting routine victimization or becoming bullies themselves (how many mean academics do you know who were beaten up on the playground?).

The second disappointment of adulthood is on painful display in the documentary Bully, which I screened yesterday. The film was well-done, and its message definitely needs to be heard, but I thought the film too frequently pulled its punches. It made me weep and quickly brought back the memories I’ve shared here. And those memories lead me to think that the brutality the film was attempting to “expose” was mistakenly eclipsed in scenes of mourning and outraged parents. I thought the film missed an opportunity to examine the lives of the bully: why does a bully bully? Isn’t this really the source of the problem? Isn’t preventing someone from becoming a bully the real issue here, not so much a call for more policing? Schools are already run like prisons, they certainly look like them. And we know what the prison system does to “criminals,” right? (Not to mention the execution of the innocent.) I think the film wrongly focuses attention on the failures of “adults” to punish bullies instead of zooming in on the likely locus of the problem: family life, poverty, entitlement, the lack of basic resources and health care, the “feed him a pill for his behavior” approach to acting-out, and so on.


To be sure, our teachers and school administrators are increasingly asked to do more with less, and I have a number of friends who are or were teachers with unbelievable stories of hardship and politics. The rabid politicization of education is not only a cause of problems, but also reflects a deteriorization of familial authority (ask any teacher, and you’ll hear stories of abusive, non-involved, irresponsible parents). Why are schools becoming a political battleground? Because we’re asking them to parent our children. Let me be very clear here: I have more sympathy for the hardworking, caring teachers and administrators of secondary and primary education than the film allows me to feel. Teachers and school administrators have it bad. Period.

That said, the film does a very good job of showing precisely how not to “deal” with the problem of bullying in the figure of Kim Lockwood, an assistant principal in Sioux City. Lockwood has a number of memorable scenes, two of which inspired me to yell out “you idiot!” in the theatre (one person clapped, in solidarity with me). In one of these scenes, Lockwood pulls aside two boys from the playground; one was picking on the other. Mrs. Lockwood demanded that they shake hands and “get along.” After the bully does so and leaves, she takes to chastising (!!!) the bullied boy, who reveals his parents called the police and on the bully and that the bully was told to avoid him. As Lockwood interacts with the boy trying desperately not to cry, clearly feeling accused and without advocate, she says a series of callous and dismissive things to him. It’s truly horrible. In another scene the parents of an adorable and sweet kid come to see Lockwood; the filmmakers catch the boy being physically beaten on the school bus and the spectator is led to understand they broke with verite protocol and showed the film to the boy’s parents and administrators. Lockwood appears false and the subtext at her failed attempts to soothe the parent’s concerns is that “kids will be kids.” To prove her sincerity, she shows the parents a photograph of her grandbaby in what comes off as the most ignorant and narcissistic gesture in response to the parents’ concerns and pain. I left the theatre wondering if this woman was fired, as apparently numerous others have also wondered.

Kim Lockwood is a human being, and no doubt editing can create impressions that are false. Even so, it’s clear the filmmakers believed she was soulless. She’s precisely the kind of “authority” I remembered hating growing up.

The implication of this film is that somehow, in our time, bullying is getting worse. I don’t think that’s true; I suffered the same—sometimes worse—bullying depicted in the film. It is all painfully familiar. The ways in which teachers and administrators help to facilitate bullying have also not changed (I remember a series of Mrs. Lockwood’s and also the insinuation my difference provoked this or that “all American kid.” You know, “your skirt was too short.” I dealt with that by actually wearing a skirt to the club as an underage partier, but that’s another story for another time).

I’m saying that there was as much need for training and awareness by teachers and administrators thirty years ago as there is today. I think as a culture we are becoming less tolerant of hatred.

Still, the responses to bullying—suicide, taking weapons to class, and as Columbine brought to our attention so vividly, killing perceived bullies or acting-out fantasies of mass slaughter—the responses to bullying are what appear to be different in our time. Those responses are indeed gestures of desperation, and of course the ubiquity of weapons in the United States doesn’t help. Educational authorities do not necessarily need to police better (although the film does document a need here). Educational authorities need the training to stop bullying before it starts, by knowing how to read the structural and cultural causes that inspire violence. The answer is not “you’re too sensitive,” “you need to suck it up,” or “you need to fight back.” The answer is asking the right questions: why is sadism an answer for the bully, and why is that answer appealing?

Well, I’ve written much more than I had intended. I guess this topic hits too close to home. If you’re reading this, I suspect it hits somewhere in the vicinity of home for you too. If it doesn’t, consider yourself lucky. If it doesn’t, at some level, I guess envy you.

I wish for a hippy’s conception of the way the world could be for all young people.