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Welcome. I'm an academic fundraiser and writer.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

If It Walks Like a Duck...

Want to know what Alan Turing has to do with essay writing? Check out my 2013 presentation, "If It Walks Like a Duck: Turing's 'Test' and Automated Essay Evaluation":


Alternatively, here's a nice summary of the talk by Lindy Briggette:



Sunday, December 16, 2012

What educators can do...not give up.

As Rutgers English professor Richard Miller points out in his probing book Writing at the End of the World (2005), whenever there is a heartbreaking atrocity like what happened in Newtown, educators ask ourselves whether schooling could have prevented it. Quite likely there is nothing, Miller considers, in our education curriculum--no reading assignments, quizzes, or essays--that could penetrate the heart of a deranged man and stop him from killing children.

"The dark night of the soul for literacy workers," Miller apprises, "comes with the realization that training students to read, write, and talk in more critical and self-reflective ways cannot protect them from the violent changes our culture is undergoing." In a methodological tribute to Cartesian skepticism, Miller proceeds to ask whether reading and writing matter at all in the 21st century.

I teach Miller in a writing class at Quinnipiac University, which is not far from Newtown, CT. We just finished writing about his question last week. And while Miller's skepticism ultimately gives way to a limited optimism, my students often can't stop wondering about the stories he tells of people who were led astray by words. The evanescent Chris McCandless, subject of the book and film Into the Wild, who followed the words of his nature guidebooks faithfully until ingesting poisonous seeds, is the image that lingers in their minds.

While books may have limited reach today, one historical document that stands as a counterexample to the waning power of textuality is of course the Bill of Rights. The "right to keep and bear Arms" is apparently so ingratiated into the American consciousness that even a President who championed health care reform and gays serving in the military punted on assault weapons ban legislation during debate season. As law professor Kenji Yoshino has recently pointed out, though, no constitutional right is absolute. You can't harass someone or lie about them publicly and hide behind the First Amendment.

And just as the digital world has posed new challenges for interpreting the freedom of speech, so too do new technologies beg for a new understanding of the Second Amendment. If I walk into a school armed with a radiological weapon, nobody would argue that my action was constitutionally protected. It's absurd. Nor could I "arm" myself with sarin gas. Again: bizarre to even imagine.

And yet, a killer breaks into a school with an automatic firearm, and we time and again collectively shake our heads and wonder what can be done. Why? I'm not a public policy expert. But one proposal, echoing Miller's angst, has to do with poor reading practices. We are the propagators of an oral tradition that lionizes the Constitution (note the ubiquitous capital "C" there) and its supposed "rights" without examining the linguistic context of the document, without understanding or caring just how drastically the word "arm," for instance, has changed over time. We can easily trace the evolution of other words referring to pre- and post-automation objects: "wagon" used to mean a horse-drawn carriage, now it means a kind of car, and so on. Similarly, "arm" used to mean a musket, a dubiously reliable weapon capable of firing a mere couple of rounds a minute. But since today's guns sort of look like the old guns, and since we still call them "arms," we do not generally acknowledge how terribly different, how drastically more lethal, these weapons are than those that were protected by the framers. They may look more like muskets but they act more like grenades...or worse.

To a schoolyard, an automatic firearm is a weapon of mass destruction. Yet we Americans have ingested a toxin in the guise of an uncritical, religious belief in archaic words on a parchment page--a belief so fervent it has lead us not into the Alaskan wilderness, but to the chasm of madness. Please, let's realize the lies we've told ourselves, let's push for tighter, more innovative firearm regulations, which many studies say work. Let's do so for the sake of my kindergartener, your kindergartener, for the sake of everything precious in this world.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Introducing: National "Anything Goes" Hair Day

Let's face it, the hairstyles worn by the ladies of the US basketball team on Saturday were pretty spartan, if not downright lackluster. Yet it's as if all the blogosphere wanted to talk about was their win over France. At times it appeared as if Diana Taurasi's hair was drenched with sweat. At one point I thought, oh my gosh, if Lindsay Whalen goes for another steal, her bun is going to unravel altogether. Candace Parker's layup is great and all, but a simple ponytail? Really? On the upside, Geno Auriemma's feathery coif was a three-pointer in my book.

It goes without saying what these 'ballers needed: more bobby pins! Gabby Douglas, who was unfairly faulted for her (understated? plain Jane?) hairdo, knew how to hold her hair in place with these good old fashioned accoutrements. Compared with the hoopsters, Douglas and her teammates were princesses at the royal ball. After all, gymnasts like Gabby get judged on their artistry. It's not enough to stun the crowd with impossible leaps and flips. You also need shiny leotards and stage makeup. And you gotta rock the motionless hairdo if you want to medal in this sport.

I'm afraid that if American athletes can't bring themselves to raise their game in the hair department, the country may just be headed on a slippery slope back to the old days. That's right: the 70's, where "natural" hairstyles were acceptably worn in public. I'm talking Angela Davis. Janis Joplin. Art Garfunkel. James Hetfield. (If you're thinking, wait, Hetfield is 80s, then you know exactly what I'm talking about.) People who woke up and basically left the house without doing their hair. Check out these shocking photos:



What has been forgotten is that the progenitor of this look, the man who first popularized the natural hairstyle, was this radical:


That's right, Albert Einstein. And as we all know, Professor Einstein was a socialist. For socialists of his era, revolutionizing man's understanding of the universe was more important than demonstrating that you can be smart and sexy. And that's pretty un-American, isn't it? We might as well be Canada if we are going to break our addiction to image.

To combat this backlash of prizing function over form, to show just how deeply average hair threatens our modern way of life, I'm proposing that September 1st be designated National "Anything Goes" Hair Day. Just wear your hair however you feel like, preferably with a minimum of effort, and--this is important--make yourself a pact not to evaluate anybody else's "anything goes" hairstyle. See just how it feels to be noticed for your talents, your wisdom, your kindness.

Then go out and shoot some hoops. Gracefully. In the meantime, somebody please buy Abby Wambach some bobby pins.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Other Duties as Assigned...

For those of you starting out in the nonprofit sector, you may be surprised by the kinds of tasks you’ll be asked to take on. It doesn’t matter how educated you are. Doesn’t matter if you, say, went to Wellesley and graduated summa cum laude. Master’s in Philosophy? You can take that degree all the way to this here receptionist’s seat, thank you.

My first nonprofit job was as the teacher for a women’s shelter in Tijuana. While you might think that stunning paper I’d written in grad school on Leibniz got me the job, it was actually my work with the American Friends Service Committee documenting human rights abuses along the border that did the trick. The women’s shelter, Centro Madre Assunta, was run by an order of nuns from Brazil, and catered to women from other parts of Mexico who had come to Tijuana looking for work in the NAFTA-generated maquiladoras, along with women deported from el otro lado—the other side. (San Diego, my old home.) One of the residents, Rosa María, who was to become a close friend, had come to Tijuana to take some classes.

When viewed through the iron gates that harbored it from the city, the Centro appeared minimalist, a paved courtyard with a few trees plus a dorm building to the side. Behind the dormitory was la casita—a little house with a blackboard, TV, and games for the children who accompanied their moms to the shelter. The Center’s director, a loving but serious nun named Madre Gemma Lisot, showed me around and explained that my job was to teach all of the kids who showed up, and to keep the casita clean and in good order. After a quick tutorial, and for a $70 a week salary, I became the teacher.

And teach I did. My classes redefined the meaning of “mixed age group.” Some days, there would be moms and babies together with tweeners and teens in that casita. They came every day grateful to keep up their studies in any way, since the children obviously were missing school during whatever transition their family was undergoing. The kids, in fact, instructed me as much as I instructed them. And I don’t mean instructed figuratively as in, “thanks to these kids, I learned how precious life is.” I mean instructed literally, as in, “hey teacher, do you know you just told us that ‘Education will set you free-of-charge’”?

At the end of each day, after dinner, I would unlock the casita, straighten up the toys, and sweep and mop the place spotless. Part of my motivation in doing a good job was to humanize my people—my fellow Americans—and show that we actually do know how to clean up our own messes. We’re not just the blowhards to the North. Cleaning wasn’t that hard at all—just sweep it out, run the mop along the floor, and así.

One evening, a few weeks into my tenure, Madre Gemma invited me to check on the Casita with her. She glumly opened the door to the schoolroom.

“You see, Kenna,” she said, sweeping her arm around the place, “the casita isn’t really very clean.” She pointed to some shoe marks on the floor and some dried mop tracks.

“No es limpio,” she emphasized. Spanish was her second language too, so she always kept it simple with me.

“Ok, sí, Madre Gemma.”

“Tu tienes que hacer mejor trabajo,” she proposed.

“I’m sorry, Madre.” I promised to do better.

She swished off in her habit. After she had left, Rosa María walked up.

“I see that Madre Gemma isn’t happy with your cleaning job?”

Rosa María had a wonderful way of signifying through subtle inflection that I was just the slightest bit…laughable.

“Apparently not.”

“Well, Kenna,” she said, grabbing the mop. “Let’s see.” And she set herself to show me how to clean. How to really clean.

First, you sweep the place to death. Then, mix the detergent in the bucket, don’t just spray the floor with the 409. Then, mop every crevice. Next, you rinse the mop and wring it out with your hands. And last, you go over the entire place a second time, with the dry mop. You see? Your turn.

That was cleaning.

Rosa María patted my shoulder.

“Muy bien, Kennita!” she said. “Ya eres maestra.”

You’re the teacher now. Of course, the christening was another moment of burlesque on Rosa’s part, because we all knew I was the learner here. I had, through my previous half-ass cleaning job, neatly confirmed the stereotype of Americans as douchebags.

Perfecting the part of janitor will not necessarily prepare you to become Executive Director, but most of you who have chosen to pursue nonprofit careers have entered a world where low overhead budgets mean most everyone is expected to hustle. True, your friends working on Wall Street, or even on Main Street, may have a custodian to empty their trash. But you have something they don’t. The answer to what that something is cannot be named in a witty epigram at the end of a blog.

For me, that “something” was the smiling kids running to the gate every morning, at the sound of my Tercel, calling, “Maestra!” For you, it will be something else. Meanwhile, the shock of the presumptively menial will wear off as you realize that you have accumulated a ton of experience along the way. Despite having to mop the floors.

Or perhaps, because of it.