Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Let STEM be

Today is the birthday of one of the STEM movement's major proponents, Sally Ride. She is a hero of mine because she went to space, and I think that is badass.

Ride was an important part of the successful movement to encourage greater emphasis on the STEM disciplines, STEM being Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

I am a proud fan of that movement. I hope to watch my kids build robots and computers for fun in the not-too-distant future. 

And I am not alone. Policy makers, educators, and producers of educational materials have shown their support for an increased emphasis on the STEM disciplines. 

But now people are upset because they believe this increased emphasis takes away from instruction in the arts. And they aren't really wrong. 

As has been the case with many education reforms, a policy rooted in a good idea slowly gained too much inertia and grew unwieldy. 

When Sally Ride began advocating for more emphasis on STEM education, she was mostly focused on reaching students who are under-represented in the STEM fields. STEM was sorely in need of new points of view. It still is. For this reason (and others) the continued emphasis on STEM learning outcomes remains a laudable goal.

But once people start buying into an argument, they sometimes can't stop. And the new-found love of all things STEM has led some to odd conclusions. There are those who have convinced themselves that the only valuable education is a STEM-based education. 

From that leap of logic springs the inevitable backlash against STEM education goals.

That backlash, however, is not a reaction to the STEM movement; it is a reaction to the oversimplification of the STEM movement. People have pitted the STEM disciplines against the arts with a silly false dichotomy: science good = arts bad.

One result is people calling for policy that replaces STEM with STEAM - making it Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math. 

While this does undermine the false dichotomy, the movement for STEAM is misguided.

I never thought I'd be one to dismiss an argument for better representation of the arts. I studied theater and fiction. I support the arts in my community. I want more arts in school.

But changing STEM to STEAM is the wrong way to go about that. 

STEM education goals are great, but they are not the only goals in our schools. 

And no intelligent STEM advocate is calling for that. 

If a school cuts art programs, we should not blame the STEM disciplines. We should blame the school for such cuts. 

The STEM movement was never supposed to be about bashing the arts or replacing the humanities with "more practical" skills. This is not a zero-sum game. 

But that is the suggestion made by the effort to change STEM to STEAM: 'If we jam an 'A' in there, we've got all of the goals of schooling in this one acronym.'

Not only is that is a misrepresentation of the work done by Sally Ride and others like her, it is a disservice to the broader goals of education. Where is history in that acronym? Where is philosophy or civics? 

STEM disciplines exist alongside the arts and humanities. They are complementary ways of looking at the world.

We should not try to insert the arts into STEM. We should teach the STEM disciplines more effectively. We should also teach the arts more effectively. Our civics classrooms should foster more active participation in governance. Hell, I think every high school kid ought to take an intro to philosophy course.

We should teach our children the many ways to examine the world in an effort to foster scientists who value aesthetics, artists who value systematic inquiry, politicians who can grasp the nuance of a scholarly debate on climate change, pundits who can hear another point of view, and the list goes on. Our goal should be to foster innumerable ways to see the world.  

Let STEM be. 

If you want better outcomes in the arts or the humanities, look to what Sally Ride did, and reach out to the kids who need it most. Show them the beauty of viewing the world through many lenses. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

It is creepy that an algorithm can flatter me so effectively

Had an uncanny valley encounter with an algorithm on the interwebs today.

A while back I signed up for this thing called Klout. It counts your social media interactions and gives you a number that makes you feel popular. I figured why not.

So, they send me an occasional email when I'm having a good run on social media. 
I often read these emails, because the service only sends ego-boosting news: Your score went up!
Anyway, this week when I clicked, their website informed me that I have earned the credentials of "expert" in several categories. 

Now, I know these badges of expertise are just more ego boosting in an effort to keep me coming back, but... and maybe it's just because the Turing Test is in the zeitgeist right now, but...
It is creepy that an algorithm can flatter me so effectively. 

According to a bot, I am an expert in the starred categories listed above.

It's not an entirely accurate list, but even the 'mistakes' make me feel like the bot knows how to say just the right things... or almost just the right thing.

I mean, what does it mean to be an expert in comedy? That's a weird thing to say. Is that to say I am funny, or I know about things that are funny, or I can identify funny things? 

I don't know. It's just weird enough to know that a robot is involved. 

How do you all feel about robotic flattery? 

Friday, May 08, 2015

Grating, know-it-all, killjoys with no sense of humor

Yesterday, after a long day of writing, I read two short think pieces that were well written but wrong-headed. They forced me to confront an uncomfortable truth:

Many writers who have a progressive worldview (similar to my own) are likely perceived as grating, know-it-all, killjoys with no sense of humor.

The first thing I read was a post about Cards Against Humanity by Leigh Alexander over on Boing Boing. The post directs readers to a fun and snarky review of the intentionally offensive board game. The review argues there is nothing funny about the dirty/racist/offensive jokes constructed during game play.

Only moments later, after I breezed through James Franco's sappy look back at a time when he worked at McDonald's, I was directed to Joanna Rothkopf's response. Rothkopf has a good time skewering Franco (it shows in the writing, which is fun from one sentence to the next). The skewering is all about how Franco shouldn't write about McDonald's unless he is willing to go into all of the injustices served up by the fast food giant.

Before I explain why these pieces get on my nerves, let me say this: There is a real problem with misogyny, racism, and classism in modern media.

  • We don't see women portrayed in thoughtful or realistic ways in the movies, video games, comic books, or on television nearly enough
  • Popular media do not portray gender, race, sexuality, or consumer lifestyles in a healthy way. 
  • And why the hell isn't the Wasp part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? 
So, yeah. This is a real issue, and it deserves rigorous scrutiny from fans, social critics, and the media at large, 

Oh, and would you look at that!

That's where this debate has taken me. I just wrote a long version of "I'm not racist, but..."

Regardless of the cliche, however, I don't think what I want to say next is racist or sexist or reactionary or pro-corporate or whatever other horrible label you want to apply.
Here goes:

Because of the systemic nature of racism, misogyny, and pro-consumerism values, nearly everything we see can be critiqued harshly as racist, misogynistic, and/or classist.

For a person who wants to write those types of critiques, it is too easy to sit back and wait for a famous person to speak up, or a movie franchise to become successful, or an independent board game to make millions. And the people who jump on those instances and cry foul are not wrong. 

But pointing it all out is not helping.

Look at the targets I found yesterday. A self-aware board game played among friends (do not play Cards Against Humanity with people you don't know very well... EVER!). Or a celebrity's sentimental throw-away about his time struggling to pay the bills.

And there are so many other examples. Less than a year ago, I responded to a very intelligent argument about Weird Al Yankovic reinforcing racial bias in college writing courses.

But look at what we're objecting to.

It's all ephemeral. It's bubblegum. 

Maybe more importantly, the stuff we're objecting to is the symptom of a much larger problem - a problem that won't be solved by hating on James Franco or trashing a board game. 

When progressive think pieces tear into these light, fluffy bits of pop culture, at a certain point, it all starts to sound like people bragging about how they don't watch TV: "Oh, I don't enjoy the things you enjoy because I'm better than that."

That alienates people. That makes people think progressives live in a world where everything is offensive and there is no fun. The people who tune out are often the people who need most to hear about the bigger problem, who need to see that privilege and inequality are eating away at the social fabric needed to make communities work.

But then... if pointing out the symptoms doesn't help, what should we do?

Well, when my students workshop each others' writing, I tell them to share positive feedback and constructive feedback. I make sure we all understand that 'constructive feedback' is not negative.
Don't tell people what they are doing wrong. Tell people how you would improve what you see.

I think that's the advice I'd give here.