Thursday, 12 February 2009

Lady Nerdfighters Unite!

This poem has now been re-dedicated to the Nerdfighters of the world. "Who the hell are Nerdfighters?" you may ask. Here, go check this out: The Birth of the Nerdfighter (from Brotherhood 2.0) DFTBA! (Don't Forget To Be Awesome! Fight Worldsuck!)


I’m not searching, I’m not leaping
I’m not waiting by the phone
I’m not begging, I’m not snatching
when a man throws me a bone
I’m not lying, I’m not trying
I’m not dressing to the teeth
these clothes that I am wearing
hide no lingerie beneath
I’m not dreaming, I’m not scheming
and I won’t put out an ad
I’m not phoning up old lovers
I’m not looking for my dad
I won’t diet, I won’t primp
no, I won’t lay down and sob
I won’t get a tuck, a lift, a suck
nor contemplate a nose job
I’m not planning, I’m not playing
I’m not clubbing every night
I won’t take part in fads
I won’t wear my jeans skin tight
I’m not reading COSMO, ELLE or VOGUE
nor books on how to please
I’m not a virgin or a slut
I’m not a bitch or tease
I’m not faking, I’m not aching
I’m not baking him a cake
I’m not baiting, nor blind-dating
and I’m not out on the take
I’m not running to a therapist
my psyche is intact
I’m a functional non-victim
I’m quite normal; it’s a fact
I’m not praying, I’m not swearing
I’ve no rep that’s on the line
I’m not changing my religion
my philosophies work fine
I’m not anxious, I’m not frightened
I’m not wallowing in sorrow
I haven’t got a mother
who wants grandchildren tomorrow
I’ve got no clock that’s ticking
I’m a woman, not a bomb
I don’t time my ovulations
there’s no rush to be a mom
I’m not buying, I’m not charging
I’m not giving it away
I’m not daring, I’m not caring
if it takes another day.
The truth is that I’m hopeful
for I’m loving’s biggest fan
but my happiness depends on me
and not upon a man.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Why Are So Many Americans Geographically Illiterate?

Most Americans couldn't find their asses even if they had a map. Why? Because they can't read the map.

The level of American geographic illiteracy is astounding. I teach Geography courses at a community college and I see it daily in my classrooms. But don't take my anecdotal evidence as the be-all and end-all; National Geographic has been conducting surveys for decades and comparing data between both developed and developing nations. Here are some highlights from the 2006 survey (they're currently conducted every four years):

  • Only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq on a map—though U.S. troops have been there since 2003.

  • 6 in 10 young Americans don't speak a foreign language fluently.

  • 20% of young Americans think Sudan is in Asia. (It's the largest country in Africa.)

  • 48% of young Americans believe the majority population in India is Muslim. (It's Hindu—by a landslide.)

  • Half of young Americans can't find New York on a map.

Download the full report here.

While working on my bachelor's degree in 1995, I sat in the Cal State Northridge Geography Department's computer lab, near two girls studying for a quiz that week. They spent a good ten minutes with a blank world map, arguing over which ocean was the Pacific. With embarassed giggles, they made their best guess and shrugged it off. They had come thiiiiis close to picking the Atlantic. I almost fell out of my chair.

How did we get to this point? It certainly didn't happen overnight. Why aren't students in the U.S. given more instruction in where things are in the world, where their country fits into the bigger picture, and why people and places are interrelated in ways that affect us every day? Why have my students not had any geography since 8th grade, and then only as a single unit in a larger Social Studies course? Some teachers believe that if you've had History with all of its maps, you've had Geography (trust me on this one--it's not the same thing). Believe it or not, the seeds if this tangled vine were sown with the ancient Greeks. But pointing the finger at Hippocrates won't get you far in understanding the Big Picture. Modern politics played just as large a role, if not more so.

[the following section includes adapted excerpts from Physical Geography: Earth's Interconnected Systems, by Angela Orr, Kendall/Hunt Publishers, 2006]

Traditions of Geography
What is the core of the discipline, the central motivating question or purpose, the material which geographers should be spending their careers studying and defending? In 1964, William Pattison wrote “The Four Traditions of Geography” for the Journal of Geography, in which he attempted to synthesize the basic ideas of academic geographers into a coherent framework. Two of these, the Human-Environment Tradition and the Area Studies Tradition, both offer some insight into reasons behind the loss of geographic literacy in the United States which began in the second half of the 20th Century.

The Human-Environment Tradition
This tradition focuses on the inter-relationships between the natural and the human world. It is perhaps the oldest of the four traditions, the brain-child of Hippocrates, the Greek physician of the 5th century B.C. who wrote On Airs, Waters and Places, in which he attempted to discern the influence of nature on humans. Unfortunately, this tradition led to the embracing of the concept of environmental determinism, and the similarly disastrous concept of social Darwinism, in which it was assumed (without much in the way of true data) that the environment creates conditions of natural selection and is therefore the main determiner of the outcome of human activities. In other words, the most successful (and therefore “superior”) societies or cultures are those which developed in regions of the world dominated by certain types of climate and environmental conditions.

This dangerously-applied concept became one of many justifications for the abuses of racism and imperialism, and sadly dominated American geography well into the 20th Century. By the 1920s, however, it became evident that the most influential studies were being conducted by “armchair geographers” who rarely went out into the world and who often used inauthentic data gathered from other researchers or from anecdotal evidence, rather than authentic field work, clear observations and carefully-derived data.

For example, the climate which produced the strongest societies, according to the environmental determinists, was often the same climate of each author’s home country. For the ancient Greeks, the mediterranean climate brought about cultural perfection. For British authors, it was the west coast marine climate. For Americans, the four-season humid continental climate.

But environmental determinism could not explain the contradictions of situations such as sequent occupance, in which successive societies use and modify the same environment, yet leave vastly different cultural imprints on that place. California is an excellent example of sequent occupance, where numerous different societies (hundreds of different Native American tribes, Spanish and Russian occupiers, Mexican, European, and American settlers) all have successfully adapted to and utilized the same environment, each in very different ways,

Eventually, the hypothesis of environmental determinism was refuted by the larger academic community. Today, those geographers who define the field in terms of the Human-Environment Tradition now accept that there is an interaction between culture and nature. Neither can exist without influencing and being influenced by the other, at this stage in the human habitation of the planet.

The Regional Tradition
Geographers who focus on the Regional Tradition are charged with the characterization and description of places, of regions, as being distinctly different from one another, rather than simply a summary of their locations and associated cartographic facts. A researcher in the Regional Tradition is expected to be an expert, with encyclopedic knowledge of a particular area. This academic focus was dominant in American geography in the first half of the 20th Century, largely due to the interest in defining political boundaries after the World Wars.

However, it soon became apparent that the boundaries of a region can be constructed any number of different ways, and that there existed in geography no universally accepted method for determining which way was best for any one area. We can still see the effects of the difficulties of defining regional borders in many parts of the world, such as Israel and the former Yugoslavia, where lines drawn on a map for political convenience did not match up with real world interactions of people, environment, and economy.

Science is all about gathering information, making generalizations, and testing hypotheses. Regional studies, as it was originally conceptualized, pieced together already gathered knowledge, sought out what was unique or different, and focused very little attention on testing and theorizing. Because it was largely atheoretical and descriptive, regional studies came to be viewed as "unscientific". The Cold War era and the need for more rigorously-trained scientists led to the general academic concensus that anything unscientific was, essentially, useless.

Both the backlash from environmental determinism and the lack of scientific rigour led to regional studies being phased out of the teaching curriculum in American K-12 classrooms. Today, researchers in this tradition have begun to accept the difficulties of regional identification. The realization that Americans have become largely geographically illiterate has led to the reinstitution of regional studies as part of a new set of geographic standards being incorporated once again into the schools.

Geography Today
There has been an effort on the part of some American educators to renew geographic literacy, as exemplified by the eighteen National Geography Standards identified by the National Council for Geographic Education in 1994. It remains to be seen, however, just how well this approach is working. I certainly have yet to see it in my own classroom. Geography generally remains relegated to a position of lesser importance in both physical and social sciences in the secondary education system.

It must be emphasized here that Geography is just as important and rigorous a field of study as any other. Perhaps more so, as our country forges new connections with other nations and cultures around the world through overseas businesses, politics, military movements, humanitarian aid, financial assistance, and tourism. Our nation is made up of people from almost every country in the world, yet we know so little about those places, cultures, and environments that our citizens are often forced to rely on the knowledge, perspectives, and agendas of those offering information—information which may not be complete or accurate, whether through ignorance or deliberation.

Imagine, for example, a company based in Belgium, with production facilities in Singapore, customer assistance in India, and retail sales in the North America, Europe, and Japan. That company will need to make well-informed business decisions, taking into account the cultures, politics, finances, and environments of the places they deal with every day. Geography is an excellent field within which to formulate studies, focus groups, and reports on critical economic and security issues. The nation’s businesses and political institutions will ultimately pay the price for a deficiency of geographic education in the United States.

Turn in your seat right now, dear reader, and point south.

I rest my case.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

It Takes A Lot of Shit

Our worst experiences can become the defining moments that lead us to personal greatness. In other words: It takes a lot of shit to grow great flowers.

But it doesn’t end with the worst experiences—we all know that flowers need more than dirt. Of course, we have to water those flowers, often with our tears. And when the littlest beam of sunlight finally breaks through our emotional clouds, the sprouts emerge, seed leaf and single root, extending themselves, hungrily stretching their bounds. Until one day, seemingly quite suddenly, spring is here and the sun is shining, and you look around to discover you’re surrounded by a field of blooms.

It's all going to be okay.

Like all things in nature, those flowers are transitory. We forget this fact, quite often. Being tool-wielding creatures fascinated by permanent structures--stone monuments and ancient pyramids--we expect everything around us to remain just as we see it. And we extend this belief to our best selves.

If we are built rather than grown, then it is our parents who built us—physically, emotionally, culturally. That creation takes sweat and blood and regular maintenance to remain healthy in so many little ways. When we are broken or hurting, we turn to the masseuse, the doctor, the psychotherapist—the repairmen. When it comes to our deeper selves, we can pay someone to fix the cracks, but not the structural damage. Sometimes we have to tear it all down and start again.

Personally, I think we're more organic than that. We're not starting over from scratch or patching up with Bondo. Rather I see us absorbing the decayed moments of the past as we grow atop them, in a never-ending cycle of death and renewal.

The flowers?

The flowers wilt.

My daughter has always had a love-hate relationship with flowers. She’d pick daisies and roses and random weeds out of peoples’ yards on our walks, entranced by the magic of petals and leaves held aloft by such fragile stems. Some would go carefully into her pocket. Some were given to Mommy because she knew with her child mind that I would see their beauty just as she did. After all, I was the adult extension of her tiny body, wasn’t I? Most days, I think she saw me more like a sock, keeping her warm when it was chilly, kicked off when the sun was shining and the sprinkler puddles just too inviting not to run from my grasp. Splash and pick the flowers.

But the flowers would always wilt. Their limp petals mirrored her fallen face, desperate to bring them back to life by drowning them in a glass of water. I would hide the glass behind a box of crackers, toward the back of the kitchen counter, agreeing that surely the water would help. Her emotional storm eventually quieted and a new activity replaced her fixation with a more positive outcome—beating me at “go fish” usually did the trick. Thank God we can’t have any pets in our apartment. I remember my brother’s death-watch of a beloved fish at age nine and don’t care to imagine the power of ten by which my little girl’s reaction would be magnified, watching any animal die.

Because the flowers always die.

You stand in that browning field, wondering what you did wrong. Sometimes it is something you’ve done. More often than not, it has nothing whatsoever to do with you. Action begets reaction, which begets further action, in the unbroken chain of tiny events that make up our cultural and biological history. We don’t see that daisy chain of moments. Each of us the center of our own private universes, we see only the causes and effects of our own experiences.

Those flowers died because of…me? Or you? It depends on your level of narcissism.

Sadness drowns us and we have trouble seeing the bigger picture through the tears. Because, you see, those flowers never die in vain. Did you not notice the bees? The butterflies and moths? They are the strangers, ignored; the annoyance of an acquaintance—the grocer, the mechanic, the aloof third-grade teacher. Even the people we love, all of whom leave within us gentle reminders of our essential connectedness. We may not have noticed, but each left its indelible mark on the future. Each pollinated us as the insects pollinated the flowers, surrounded by now-fallen petals at our feet. And each left within us silently dreaming seeds.

How long until they feel the safety of soft earth surrounding them?

Those fields will bloom again, my friend. They always do, year after year. Sometimes the season is longer, sometimes shorter, but always it returns, eventually. And all of the fertilizer of the wasted, worrisome, horrible, even horrific, events of our lives will feed them, just as it always has.

My Sweet Pea rarely picks the flowers, any more. We watch them bloom and smell them, touch them and love them where they live, and then we wave good-bye. They drop their seeds or hibernate for the winter. Our walks become less frequent as we move indoors with the changing season. Until spring, when we emerge like the insects from our busy hive to watch the patient gardeners carefully sprinkle the stinking manure that grows such great flowers.

And each moment passes into the next.

Will you join me as we sit patiently in the dirt? It’s so much easier to wait together. We can hold one another as we water the future with our combined tears. We’ll share the beauty of that first beam of light, the first seedlings, the first daring buds.

Together, we will celebrate the slowly-opening moments of our recovery.