Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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Youth scholarship available for prose workshop

Registration for my prose writing workshop ends early April 7th at 2:00 PM. A generous donor has made a scholarship available for the first young writer, aged 16-20, to claim it. It’s for half tuition, or $210.

To claim this scholarship, be the first person to register for the prose workshop by emailing me here. I’ll send you my PayPal info.
Details:

Prose Writing Workshop, with Gint Aras

Friday nights, 6:30-8:30, from April 7-May 26

Upstairs Apartment and Lounge, Buzz Cafe

905 S. Lombard, Oak Park, IL

Open to writers of any level, aged 16 or older

Registration ends after 8 students have registered, or at 2:00 on April 7.

Cost: $420

Hope to see you!


Photo by Bennorth Photography


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We probably don’t know what we’re talking about

Yesterday I was reading the newspaper while waiting for my daughter to get out of ballet class. To my right were two women engaged in a typical conversation between parents whose only true connection is that they feel the same activity—in this case ballet—benefits their kids.

One woman was from England, the other Mongolia: they said as much to each other. I couldn’t tell a thing about their social class, except that they paid for a lot of activities. Their cliched conversation—unaware of its bragging and ironies—meandered typically. The kids liked ballet but not gymnastics, karate but not horseback riding, skating but not soccer—or maybe it was soccer but not skating, maybe diamond cutting but not glass blowing.

Whatever. There just wasn’t enough time in the day anymore for all these activities! And school! The homework! Argh!

It was excessive. Truly excessive. Several hours each day. How could their daughters, seven year old girls, get transported from their ninja training to their preparation for the Bolshoi when they also had several hours of daily reading and math?

Soon enough, the women came to the magical discussion: Common Core. All of this was the fault of Common Core. The math was too difficult and the reading too excessive and the numbers funny and the words arbitrary. To quote: “This Common Core is asking them to find the cumulative. Why do they need a word like cumulative?” Then she bragged: “I didn’t even learn that in college.”

I tried to ignore the conversation, as my blood was already boiling just from reading the news. But they kept at it with their Common Core and the meddling and the funny numbers and strange bubbles and the several hours and frustration about why learning couldn’t be fun. (As opposed, I guess, to cumulative.)

I finally interrupted them. “Excuse me,” I said as politely as I could. “I didn’t mean to be eavesdropping, but your conversation leaves me curious. What actually is the Common Core?”

Shishwish wang dabble and frockfrack too complicated. Frigmack moof mackle and ploopluck weird methods. Agwack mick mickle. Zeepopeepopuck. No, impossible, shippity pippity, Because parents can’t do the math.

The women spoke their shishwish wang dabble with conviction and passion. They were so certain of their frigmack moof mackle that their eyes opened wide as entrances to mansions. By the time they got to zeepopeepopuck, they had already built an eight wonder of the world, and there it stood before me in the shape of a Pippity.

The point of this post is not to defend the Common Core. America has long ago burned all of its books and sold off the ash as truth. At attempt to unify what all American kids should know at the end of each grade is bound to present problems, but that’s a discussion for another day.

My point is that these women were guilty of the very thing education should be built to fix. They had no idea what they were talking about but pretended they did. Their evidence was that their daughters’ math homework was unfamiliar, more difficult than they could bear. They did not ask the questions any educated person should know to ask: If as a professional adult I can’t figure out a 2nd grader’s math homework, is it because the problem’s too difficult or my skill level too low? If I don’t know what the Common Core is, how do I know it has something to do with these math problems I don’t like? 

Maybe the reason we can’t figure out our kids’ math homework—um…2nd grade arithmetic—is because we never learned any math at all, just a method to get to an answer within the context of a particular kind of exam. We remove that method and context and find ourselves lost; the cumulative effect of our “education” leaves us spewing nonsense in public, blaming something we don’t understand, have not even bothered to read about, and yet we speak confidently, presenting our ignorance as a paradigm, all while our daughters plié before a polished mirror. Maybe the point of this education reform was to keep future generations from turning into us.

With less than 48 hours left before our polling places open, we can rest assured. The reason we find ourselves in the mess we face is not because of something outside us. We’ll be in this mess so long as we believe that spewing ignorance with confidence is everyone’s right. Because we’re all entitled to our opinions, all our opinions are correct.

clown_chili_peppers

Photo from Wikipedia


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We are all members of our culture

I’m depressed today because I know I’m complicit. Separating myself from the culture—indeed, the cultures—to which I belong is impossible.

I am an American at a terribly low point in our history, and I can’t separate myself from the embarrassing maelstrom in our daily rhetoric, the “leaders” we believe reflect our values, at least in part. I refuse to use their names in this post. Using their names has for a long time been part of the problem, a way of using attention junkies to gain attention.

I’m an educator at a time when education is far less effective than it should be, both yielding and reflecting the maelstrom. I’m in higher education at a time when the whole system—the system that compensates me so that I might pay my student loans—looks at students as streams of revenue, at courses as products, and thinks of itself the way an empire might, at its teachers the way Pharaoh saw captured troops. A contemporary college’s greatest partner is a bank. Its greatest enemies are artists and philosophers.

I’m a man of letters at a time when people argue in comments about clickbait headlines. Despite the headline’s purpose, so many don’t bother to click, yet freely unload their frustrations, ignorance, hatred, fear and anxiety. I have written such headlines in attempts to profit. My refusal to monetize this blog is a cheap and pathetic attempt at integrity, one whose sincerity is questionable. It’s embarrassing to receive a “paycheck” for your “writing” in the amount of $6.00, the result of 12,000 “clicks”. We’ll say, “Hey, better $6.00 than 0!” We justify so many vile acts this way.

I could go on. I think I’ve summarized the situation well enough. No…I’ll go on.

I am a child of migrant refugees who now fear and loathe migrants and refugees, who blame refugees for failing to contain a war that banished them from their homes, migrants for working jobs that, if performed by others, would raise prices. Among us are sons and daughters of those displaced because tyrannical demagogues decided to send their armies into battle, slaughter citizens en masse. These children of the displaced today support a demagogue and tyrant. I am complicit in this irrational fear, in this simultaneous hatred and denial of one’s back story. I have paid money to companies that financed movements and politicians who profit by inflaming the maelstrom. Some of these politicians hold shares of the company that sends me a bill each month.

That bill buys a product that’s bad for me. The company knows, all of its employees know the product is bad for me. How many of us pay our bills from the sales of products we know are bad for the people consuming them, and how many of our bills represent purchases we know are bad for us, bad for our kids, bad for people not yet born? The maelstrom swirls, gaining speed. We all know what we’re doing, and we go about it as if there’s no alternative.

Our national rhetoric is about to achieve a level of profanity we may not be able to imagine. I think it’s important, right now and right here, for all of us to stop using this sentence: “Look at what they’re doing over there.” That’s a dangerous delusion, part and parcel of the problem. The correct sentence is this one: “Look at what we’re doing over here.” If we could wake up to ourselves, to our actual predicament, which is that our conditions are the result of our actions and ideas, we’d see the alternative path.

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A student weighs in on Palin

One of my students asked me this morning if I had heard the junkyard of syntax Sarah Palin had delivered at Trump’s event in Iowa. I told him that, yes, unfortunately, I had heard it.

This student wondered how this could happen. Shouldn’t the college teach him how he could become Palin? Instead, the college found it necessary for him to learn the details of grammar and the nuances of English prose, this when a woman of Palin’s stature was allowed to vomit a rat nest of phrases and neologisms, and to do it on television, broadcast it around the world, utterly unaware of her ignorance.

Well, I said, he was also “allowed” to babble whatever came to his head in public, if he wanted. No one would stop him, just as no one had stopped Palin. Did he really want that?

That’s not the point, the student continued. The point is that Palin was less articulate than the sounds of a tin can  blowing down the sidewalk, and had fewer points than a cluster of fishhooks in some drunk’s tackle box, yet it did not interfere with her ability to have a career or cost her any money. In fact, she probably made money by going on stage and unloading her crap. She probably sold some books. She probably got more followers on Twitter.

Sure, I said. That’s what happened. That’s the world we live in.

If the student did this, he complained, he’d be punished with low grades and might not pass his classes. He’d never achieve his dream of becoming an accountant. He could see no route to Palin’s stature that did not also require him to correct his thought process and language skills.

Yes, I said. That’s true.

The student wanted to know what somebody was going to do about it.

I don’t know, I said. It seems everyone’s perfectly well entertained, at least for the moment.

“We have bigger problems than anyone’s talking about,” he said. “This isn’t a joke.”

I agreed with him, a young man of nineteen, born to recent migrants, paying his way through community college by making deliveries, working over 20 hours each week while taking on a full load of classes.

Anatomyofafishhook

Photo from Wikipedia


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Three important differences between teaching in America and in the Netherlands

This past May, I participated in a teacher exchange between the USA and The Netherlands. It focussed on visits to “vocational schools”, the European equivalent of Community Colleges. I’ve been on all sorts of exchanges and cross-cultural academic ventures before, including participation in literary seminars, and a brief teaching stint in Cuba. This trip to the Netherlands was amazing by any measure.

I recently gave a “presentation” at my college regarding this trip. I said about as much as I stated in the previous paragraph, adding only that colleagues should take advantage of the opportunity. In all, I spoke for about three minutes, and did nothing but drop the kind of platitudes work expects from us these days.

“They have very good tea.”

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As expected, colleagues, particularly upper-level administrators looking to gauge the usefulness of spending an extra $1,500 on a faculty member, had questions in private. The big one, “What’s it like to work out there? How’s it different? What do you learn?”

I’ve never answered it honestly.

So…here it is, if you want to know. Three important differences:

1.) Generally speaking, Dutch educators do not imagine getting shot at work.

I have imagined getting shot at work countless times. It happens almost every day. At work, I have thought about escape strategies, and I look at every room as a place where I might either have to hide or try to escape from an active shooter.

Sure…I have a fiction writer’s imagination, so that plays a role. But I do not imagine getting executed on a guillotine in the college courtyard. Our college has no guillotine that I’m aware of. Yet getting shot or witnessing a slaughter is a real occupational hazard. We were even briefed and shown a film. What to do if you are about to be killed at work.” Three steps: Run! Hide! Fight! It’s rare for me not to imagine, if only in a flash, a shooting taking place on campus as I sit in my office chair.

In fact, I did some calculations with a friend from the math department, and we have surmised that the chances of us both getting shot at work are substantially higher than the chances some powerful person in our community might come out and say, “Raises for faculty across the board. We really appreciate you.”

2.) Dutch educators are paid a living wage

This means they can, even when they work part time, afford either to live off their salaries or to supplement their lives while in some temporary condition or as part of a second career, usually right in the town where they are working. In the meantime they don’t have to fuss about looking for health insurance, managing how they’ll pay off their student loans, etc. etc.

I know some reader is going to throw eggs at me: you are handsomely compensated as a full time instructor. Indeed, I’m one of the lucky ones. But a minority of college classes are taught by full time instructors. Most courses are taught by adjuncts so mistreated that it’s embarrassing to begin the narrative.

It’s part of the game. American colleges, taking a tip from the government, look at students as sources of revenue first, potential graduates second, and human beings only somewhere down the line. Most colleges will happily take the coin from student loans but never bother to orient the young people to the nature of that game, one unique to America.

If students are revenue, colleges look at faculty primarily as cost. You are a walking chunk of change which could go elsewhere, preferably to the friend of a board member, one who’ll handle some concocted administrative need. It’s dehumanizing to be seen as an obstacle disturbing the distribution of revenue in the “way the powers see fit”.

3.) Corruption

I’m sure there’s some desk jockey working in the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science who has managed to secure his best friend’s son a job. That lad is now jockeying a similar desk in a similar office somewhere in a Hague basement. Or maybe there’s the college director who approved a purchase of Kapsalon for every visiting teacher, and he sent the kids to get the yummy snack from his friend’s kebab stand. The Turk charged an extra 10% and the director got a cut. The scandal! An outrage!

This is chump change compared to the corruption in American education. No Child Left Behind? Well, they couldn’t call it No Test Publisher Left Without Lube. And here in Illinois…ha ha ha…ha ha ha! Oh, shit. Oh…let me. Let me button my pants. Where are my latex gloves? Yes, I left them under the desk. My God, they’re filthy.

The CEO of Chicago Public Schools gets busted for accepting bribes

*gulp*

I’ve just been informed that my chances of getting shot at work have substantially increased. No…I’ve just been told…yes, I’ll comply…they remain the same. Exactly the same! There’s no corruption in Illinois. No. We treat even the birds and squirrels as human beings. We are loved as employees. We love teaching and learning, and we all teach just as we all learn, either the hard way or the easy way. We are all good here. We’ve been blessed.


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What I learned at faculty seminar days

Yesterday, on Presidents Day, (In America, we celebrate “presidents”, all of them.) I attended our bi-annual seminar day. On this day, faculty and staff are treated to presentations and other events like raffles and the distribution of service awards, seniority gifts, a dessert social, etc. We also had Union and English faculty meetings.

Here is what I took away from the event. I’m presenting these epiphanies in no particular order, just as they return to my memory:

1.) The best way to treat someone addicted to cocaine is to give them even more cocaine than they currently have. Use it in the classroom.

2.) If you are entertaining, people will pay you tuition. You are entertaining when you are loud and know the secrets of the internet. Entertaining teachers teach an important lesson: volume and internet secrets are important.

3.) If you find yourself in an emergency, read the guidebook. It’ll explain what to do about the emergency. There are eight varieties, all of them with endless variations. (So I guess that makes them similar to musical notes.)

4.) Enrollments rise and fall. When you accept more students into your classes, enrollments will rise. If you reject students from your classrooms, enrollments will fall. This is true right around 100% of the time.

5.) A good way to pass the time is to point out the obvious to a group of people whose degrees place them steadfastly in the 98th percentile of educated Americans. An example of this: take ten people with masters degrees in math, put up a graph before them and say, “Here are the numbers.”

6.) If someone brings a toy to class, turn the toy into a lesson. For example: today’s lesson is on the Second and Third Laws of Thermodynamics. Please pull out your cell phones. Look up the following “Second and Third Laws of Thermodynamics.” I’ll take your questions. Anybody? No? Class dismissed. (Collect paycheck anyway. Call yourself “innovative”. Brag endlessly. Charge money for your knowledge.)

7.) If  you are pissed off at a colleague, you need a good reason. Example: this colleague makes me angry. Why? Because I’m pissed off.

8.) What you actually do in classrooms is not really all that important. What’s really important is what you will never be able to do in an important classroom. The important room does not yet exist but is in the process of being built for students who do not yet exist but are in the process of being recruited (from nowhere).

9.)    Somebody’s soon going to write a book called 50 Shades of Greyhound that depicts a sado-masochistic orgy on a bus traveling from Toledo to Tuscaloosa.

10.) Everybody’s doing a great job!

 

Image from Wikipedia.