Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Is "The Good Person of Szechwan" racist?

In November it was reported that Knox College, a private institution in Illinois, was canceling a production of "The Good Person of Szechwan", a play by Bertolt Brecht, on the grounds that the play (which is set in China) is offensive to Chinese people.  I decided that I should read this play, so I did.  Before I weigh in on the criticism, let me acknowledge three points:

1) The play was originally written in German, and I am reading it in English.  (Specifically, I am reading a 1962 translation by John Willett.)  I cannot assume that whatever I find/don't find in this English translation would also be present/absent in the original, or in other translations.

2) There are severe limits to what you can conclude about a play from just the text.  Everything about the staging, whether the actors' mannerisms and accents and gestures and other dramatic decisions, or the set, costumes, props, lights, make-up, etc., can help convey a message. These elements of the staging can accentuate or de-emphasize something that is present on the page.  Moreover, a play could be inoffensive on the page but be offensively staged, or even be problematic on the page but be staged in a way that wrestles with the problem rather than embracing and endorsing what is problematic.  Thus, there may be good reasons to oppose a staging of a play that is inoffensive on the page, and good reasons to stage a play that is problematic on the page.

3) When I read this play, I'm seeing it through the lenses of whatever stereotypes I hold about China and Chinese people.  Those may be different from the stereotypes that Brecht and the audiences of his time brought to the play.  They may also be different from the stereotypes that other audiences in the US would bring to the play (though I have to suspect that I have a reasonable understanding of the stereotypes that people at a college in the Midwest would bring, seeing as how I'm a college professor from the Midwest). A play could be perfectly innocuous in most settings, but happen to conjure up offensive stereotypes in some other setting. That, however, raises the interesting question of whether a play should be judged on the understandings of past audiences, as opposed to the words on the page, the intent of the playwright, the intent of the present director and other artists involved in the staging, the actual work presented by performers in the present, the interpretations of a modern audience to said performance, or the interpretations of people who declined to join the audience to avoid pain.  (Or all of the above.)

Finally, in the interests of disclosure, I haven't come across much description of Brecht's views on race and Asia, but I also haven't searched very thoroughly.  Brecht was an exile from Nazi Germany, and he wrote the play in 1938-1941, while in Sweden and the US.  He cleared the minimum moral threshold of not being a Nazi, for whatever that's worth.  So, while I can't assume Brecht to be free of racist contamination, I also can't use the Nazis and their views to make any inferences about Brecht.

With all that out of the way, let's analyze the play itself:

The play reads very much as a fable, one that could have been set in almost any society.  Of course, fables often work best when set very far away, to strip away the mundane and focus on the dramatic interplay of a few key elements.  China was clearly chosen as the setting because it is a distant land, not because Brecht wanted to explore China on its own terms.  Thus, the relevant question here is not whether China is portrayed accurately, but whether it is portrayed through the lens of offensive stereotypes. 

Honestly, the generic nature of the setting, the fact that it is a fable about general human dilemmas rather than a meditation on Chinese culture, weighs against any reading in terms of offensive stereotypes.  It could have been set in any distant city instead of Sichuan, and as long as the time was in the modern world the various mentions of modern amenities (e.g. airports) would not strike the audience as strange.  It is very clearly a fable of human nature.  Indeed, one could set it in another country without even changing many of the characters' names.  A few characters have Chinese names*, but the rest have names like "The Unemployed Man" or "Mother-in-Law."

I'm actually surprised that the students were offended by the racial aspects of the play rather than the gendered aspects.  Shen Teh, the prostitute and main character, often struggles to defend herself against people trying to take advantage of her kind nature and help themselves to her money, so she often puts on a mask to pose as her invented cousin Shui Ta. Shui Ta is able to stand up to people and even prosper in business. The fact that her simple disguise is so convincing clearly shows that the play is a fable, a contemplation of how people react to other people in different stations, rather than a dramatic portrayal of plausible events and actions, which reinforces my point about how this play is not attempting to dissect Chinese culture from a Eurocentric perspective.  However, in showing how she only gets respect when posing as a man (and sometimes takes actions as a man that she regrets when reverting to feminine presentation), this play definitely takes up the topic of gender.  I will leave it to people better-versed in feminist theory to take up the question of whether Brecht treats gender with proper sensitivity, but gender is surely more salient to this fable than anything specific to China and Chinese people.

One criticism of the play, according to the article linked above, is that the main character is a prostitute, and thus the play is portraying Asian women negatively.  Honestly, though, just about everyone in the play is terrible and greedy and takes advantage of poor Shen Teh. It's hard to read the play as portraying Asian women, en masse, as being of loose** sexual morals.  Indeed, Shen Teh actually quits prostitution when she has the financial means to do so.  She's one of the few characters to try to adhere to a standard of morality that involves helping everyone no matter how outrageous their demands and how little they do to help themselves.  Were it not for the fact that Brecht was anti-capitalist (even going so far as to voluntarily live in East Germany after the war) I would read it as an allegory about the unworkability of socialism.  Instead, given that the Gods appear as a trio, I assume it's a critique of Christianity's proffered foundation for a compassionate society.  The play acknowledges the challenges of being good (according to a particular moral compass) while living in this world; if one wanted to reconcile this play with socialist sympathies I suppose the answer would be (1) even (especially?) good things can be hard to achieve in this world and (2) socialism would require a system with enforcement mechanisms rather than reliance on individual adherence to Christian ethics.

Anyway, having only read the play once, and mostly with an eye searching for racial/ethnic factors rather than matters of gender or socialism, I am loathe to delve much farther into those topics.  What I will say is that it's really hard for me to read this as anything but a fable set "far, far away" rather than some sort of attempt at portraying Chinese society as such.  I suppose that one could take offense at that indifference to setting, but then it still strikes me more as a literary device with strengths and weaknesses to be weighed, not as anything over which a reasonable person might experience pain.  Yes, the staging could still make or break this play, but isn't that in the nature of all plays?  As it stands, what's on the page is hardly worth taking offense over (at least in regards to matters of race and ethnicity).

The kids at Knox College should lighten up.

*I cannot judge whether the names are commonplace, inoffensive Chinese names, but I know a lot of Chinese people and these names don't seem terribly unusual.

**To the extent that one chooses to view this as a bad thing.  Sex work is a complicated topic, and those who have thought deeply about gender issues have come to a variety of complex conclusions on the matter.  I offer no negative judgment on Shen Teh for having worked as a prostitute, but I see why it is a delicate matter, and why some might prefer that the play not focus on a prostitute as the representative of Asian women.  However, Shen Teh does not spend most of the story as a prostitute, and there's nothing to suggest that she is offered specifically as a representative of Asian women as opposed to simply women in general.  Or, more accurately, women trying to adhere to a particular type of moral code that is very much the subject of the play's exploration.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A great one has departed, and the system will resist any who try to fill her shoes

Today my wife and I went to a memorial for Dean Joan Schaefer, an old mentor of mine.  By the time I was in college Dean Joan was formally retired, but that which is formally true on paper is rarely a reflection of practice (to return to one of the constant themes of this blog).  As a Dean Emerita she was, officially, still involved in a scholarship fund (which I benefited from), a study-abroad summer program at the University of Cambridge (which I also participated in), and a few other programs. Unofficially, she was a confidante, friend, advisor, mentor, sounding board, and protector for countless students who sought her out or were noticed by her. She was certainly important to me, and in tough times I drew strength from her. Dean Joan remained in those roles formally until 2006, and still went to campus frequently to talk to students for a few more years after that.  Before her retirement, her job title was "Dean of Women", but she transcended that title very quickly, and for essentially her entire career she had an open door for any student who needed her.  She was the mother and grandmother of the Trojan Family.

We still have people like her in lower-level roles, and officially we have people with similar titles (though nowadays they are the Dean of Student Affairs rather than Dean of Students, and certainly not Dean of Women or Dean of Men).  On the official level, the biggest difference between Dean Joan and a Dean of Student Affairs is that a Dean of Student Affairs oversees people who actually have in-depth interaction with students, promulgating policies and managing budgets and mitigating risks.  They might interact with a few students (especially student leaders) but most mentoring is delegated.

In the lower levels, we have many people who have taken on a wide portfolio of mentoring and counseling that goes beyond their official job titles, and we had them even back in the day of Dean Joan.  The difference is that back in the days of Dean Joan we had one person who not only had an open-ended mentoring portfolio, we had her sitting at the same table as many other high-ranking administrators.  Nowadays, the professor or mid-tier Student Affairs administrator or coach or whatever who takes on such a broad portfolio will never sit at the high table.  Nobody who sits at the same table as the upper administrators will have much ground-level interaction with students.  The ground-level stuff is done by people who report to people who report to high-level administrators and explain how their one-on-one interactions are advancing the goals outlined in the latest Five Year Plan Strategic Plan.

At my institution, the closest we get to people who combine a broad ground-level mentoring portfolio with reasonably high-level access (more because of political significance than official flowcharts) are people who run Special Programs, usually aimed at students with identifiable disadvantages, and generally with the goal of helping some identifiable segment succeed in some set of majors.  It's all highly specialized.  This is a poor substitute for a Dean Joan whose official brief is 50% of the student body, and who has a sufficiently expansive role in Student Affairs to concern herself with 100% of the student body, while also reporting at a high level.

At this point you're probably thinking that my objection is something along the lines of "All Students Matter" or "Why do only _they_ get a special program?"  No.  I wholly agree that some people have it harder than others, so while all need attention some need even more.  By all means, have Cultural Centers and Resource Centers and whatever else.

Rather, what I object to is that the personal touch is only valued as a Solution To A Problem.  There's a statistically significant gap, an identifiable disadvantage, so the person who provides the personal touch is valued...provided that they can help improve the numbers, or at least help with PR.  There's no baseline of "College students are people being brought in for a formative experience as they prepare to join the professional classes, so we value those who provide attention, and if some need even more then provide even more."  Rather, they only value those who can provide the attention needed to plug the gaps that cause embarassment; all of the other personal attention is at best taken for granted and at worst treated as inefficiency.  Every valued attention provider is a specialist aimed at a segment, and the greatest value goes to those who help plug a noticeable gap that looks bad for somebody in charge.

I suspect that most (not all) of those whom Dean Joan helped still would have done fine without her, but she helped most to do even more and a few to succeed at all.  We have people who provide similar attention today, but they do it only because they value it, not because the system values it.

What I'm ultimately talking about here is valuing the human connection as such, not just as a fix for embarassing numbers, and valuing it at the highest levels of the academy.  Alas, the technocrats have moved us beyond that.  I don't think it's a coincidence that Dean Joan, concerned with the individual touch at the highest levels, was also such a staunch advocate for the arts and humanities, the areas of study most directly concerned with the problems of the human condition.  What she provided transcended any faddish Best Practice, and USC was blessed to have her sitting at the highest tables.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

NYT gonna NYT

This article in the NYT a few weeks ago started off so promising, skewering many of the "STEM Shortage" narratives.  But then they started talking about how hot and promising "data science" is.  It used to be that I heard stories of people getting hired into "data science" jobs with no prior training specific to the field, just a decent background from a PhD in some data-heavy science or engineering field.  Then I started hearing of various "boot camps" to prepare data scientists, because employers didn't want to train people.  Lately I've seen ads for "data science" MS programs.  And now a NYT article saying how hot it is.

Data Science is about to be saturated.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The purest distillation of the modern zeitgeist

Not much time, but I must memorialize this post by Kevin Drum:
Hillary Clinton describing her typical day in What Happened:
Six a.m.: I wake up, sometimes hitting the snooze button to steal a few more minutes. Snoozing leaves you more tired—there are studies on this—but in that moment, it seems like such a great idea.
Of course there are studies on this. And of course she knows about them. This is Hillary Clinton in a nutshell.
There's nothing wrong with paying attention to studies and following the tips.  But it just figures that that's how a member of the technocratic establishment would describe her mornings--in terms of studies and Best Practices.

Just try being human.  Climb down from Mount Olympus and be human.  Don't descend too far--you'll wind up being sub-human like Trump--but descend a few steps and see what humanity is like.

On a related note, Bladerunner 2049 was amazing.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Eulogy For My Mother

I don't normally use this blog for such personal stuff, but I want a place to keep this, where it's easy to share.  So here's the eulogy that I gave for my mother, Ann Marie Sicilia Thompson, who passed away on September 13, 2017.

First and foremost, my mother was a mother.  She devoted all of her energy to it.  The stress and sleep loss are probably part of why she was so often sick.  She made sacrifices so that my brother and I could go to Catholic grade school.  She worked full-time, raised us by herself, and went back to college to finish her degree, because that's what was necessary.  She missed a lot of sleep for us.  In return, she expected the absolute best of us.  I knew that I could not come home with a bad grade or a report of getting in trouble at school.  It was simply not an option.

When my brother and I got older and moved away from home, it seemed like the highlight of her life was to fly out to visit us.  Whether it was flying to Europe when my brother studied in Spain or worked in Romania, or flying to California to visit me and my wife, it was what she lived for.  And she loved my wife as much as me.  In some families there are rueful jokes about mothers-in-law, but my mother would have sided with my wife if she and I had had a dispute.  My mother expected the best of me, and if I was on bad terms with my wife my mother would demand that I do better.

The other thing that my mother took seriously was nursing.  She absolutely loved it.  Partly out of compassion for the sick, partly because of the intellectual challenge, and partly because she was proud to follow in the footsteps of my grandmother, who is also a nurse.  My brother and I would go to our grandparents' house after school, and when my mother got done with work she would come to pick us up, and before leaving she would sit at the kitchen table and talk about patients and cases with my grandmother.  I learned a lot of science listening to those conversations.

No matter what else was happening in the family, my mother was the family health caseworker.  If I had to see a doctor for something, she could tell me exactly what the doctor would need to know about family medical history, out to second cousins and great-grandparents.  If my grandparents were in the hospital my mother was there watching them like a hawk.  My brother is still alive and with us because of the way my mother watched over him when he needed surgery several years ago.

And it wasn't just the family who was impressed by her nursing skills.  I'd like to read a tribute from a former co-worker of hers:
You Mom was such a caring person. It didn't matter where the person came from, why they were there, if they were injured, sick, or came up with something just to have attention. She treated all her patients with the same quiet, straightforward, caring.  
When I was in nursing school she mentored me. There are so many things that she taught me, that I still use 20+ years later.
 I also want you to know that your mom lives on in spirit through the many lives she touched. I am just blessed that one of them was mine.

She was such a blessing, so devoted, and I have much that I need to learn so that I can make it through life without her.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Statistics and Standardized Tests

I have posted a paper on the arXiv (a website for physics articles) addressing statistical issues in interpreting standardized tests.  This is a volatile topic, and my argument is long and nuanced, so I don't want to retype the entire thing in a blog post.  The short version is that a couple years ago somebody noticed that there are many successful scientists who did poorly on the GRE.  One possible interpretation is that the GRE has no predictive power for performance in a PhD program.  Another possibility is that performance is predicted by a combination of several variables, and a low score on any one of them might easily be compensated for by a high score on another.  Moreover, admissions processes typically enforce such a condition, so the only people getting in with low GRE scores probably did well by some other measure (e.g. research experience, relevant work experience, lab skills, etc.), while people who did poorly by some other measure must have had something to compensate (e.g. the GRE).  Consequently, when you compare people with high and low GRE scores, you aren't actually holding everything constant.  I use computer simulations to illustrate these points.

I also include a digression on "ought" vs. "is" statements, illustrated with two characters (Helena and Cosima) from Orphan Black, my current favorite science fiction show.  It may be that Helena is less likely to succeed in graduate school than Cosima is, but if Helena had a disadvantaged upbringing (and believe me, she did) then we ought to give her a chance to exceed our expectations.  This is an important point, given the diversity implications of standardized tests.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

They were normal by the lights of their society

There's been much discussion of this picture of Auschwitz guards, taking some time off from their busy schedule of extermination to enjoy a little rest and relaxation.  The discussion has been of how normal they look, and I agree, they do look normal.

But I'll go one step farther:  Unlike today's neo-Nazis they do not look like members of a fringe group.  They look like cheerful, well-assimilated members of their society, people who are wholly in-tune with the widespread assumptions shared by all Right-Thinking members of their society.  Were they alive today they'd be popular people, sharing this photo on Instagram and getting "likes."  They'd be respectable people who don't question conventional wisdom.

I don't fear that Nazis, as such, will ever return to power.  There are indeed neo-Nazis in our society, and they can do a lot of dangerous things, but they will never consolidate power again.  Not in that form.  Yes, there's a neo-Nazi sympathizer in the White House, but his impeachment and removal is an inevitability at this point.  He will soon enough be toppled.  His followers might riot, they might do a lot of damage, they might kill innocents in retaliation, but as long as they carry Nazi flags they will never again gain true power.  That might seem like small consolation, given the harm they could nonetheless do, but it's an important consolation when one considers the power that they'd have if they controlled the resources of a modern nation-state.

That's not to say that the bad guys will never again hold power.  Of course they will.  By some lights the very definition of a "bad guy" is "a person in power."  But the neo-Nazis of today are fringe losers, and their label is far too toxic for mainstream acceptance.

No, the type of evil that the Nazis represented will only return to power by adopting a form that is not so frightening to the well-adjusted majority.  Now that the swastika has (accurately) been emblazoned on our cultural memory as a symbol of purest evil, no successful movement will ever again use it.  The next time an evil that great gains power, they will use some other symbol, a symbol that a decent person who desires social acceptability might come to embrace.  The bad guys might start off with mostly just fringe losers in their camp, but they will go mainstream in order to win, and then they will purge the losers.  Hitler did exactly that.  He rose to power on the backs of fanatical street-fighting men, creepy losers, then he got wider popularity, gained power, and purged many of the creepy losers.  That's what made him dangerous:  Once he had power he availed himself of the sorts of mainstream people who know how to make trains run on time, run munitions factories, raise and organize armies, and keep the economy humming to support the construction of that deadly war machine.

I want every Right-Thinking Person to reflect seriously on this.  The original Nazis, the ones who helped Hitler when he was small potatoes, they looked nothing like the people in that picture.  But once Hitler had power he was able to make use of normal, socially well-adjusted people who could fit in and conform to the society around them.  The sorts of people who could get out of bed on time, show up to work, make things happen, feel secure in the knowledge that they are in harmony with all of the other respectable people around them, and then at the end of a long week of mass murder go blow off some steam with other well-adjusted members of their society, taking group photos of smiling people at a party.

Question authority.