Politics in Rural America. Some thoughts.

Movies: I really liked Hell or High Water, and Jeff Bridges does a great job at the understated role of the hero. I kept thinking about the younger brother in the main role, that I had seen him somewhere before. Looked him up and was surprised to see. His Texas accent was so natural, yet completely gone in his other role as a space ship captain.

Politics follows, read if you like.

But yes, the feelings of despair in rural areas, and willingness to try anything, are a sober wakeup call. Pair that with the opioid crisis killing 50,000 farmers a year (more than AIDS in its heyday), add the information filter of social media, group sociology like acceptance of blue lies, and you can see why J.D. Vance resonates. (Andrew Sullivan, first part of article). But in the words of a guy in a similar situation to Vance, Where was the outrage 30 years ago when the factories in the rust belt were imploding?
He is moving from Silicon Valley back to Ohio and looking for startups, working from home on his investments, and searching out new companies. Surprisingly, startup success is better in rural areas and small towns, better than urban areas. The problem is J.D. Vance doesn’t know anything about small rural startups.
James Fallows is writing a book about flying around the country in a Cessna and visiting these small towns and how vibrant they are. Should be ready by the fall, but he has posted a lot of it in blog form at the Atlantic. So it is not as simple as pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.
Oh, and for those who like to listen, on a different topic, is John Dickerson (Face the Nation) who does a wonderful audio podcast (Dad, try these out) at Slate called Whistle Stop. He used to do reflections back on past campaigns, but now it is historical echoes of current topics. He covers the Bricker Amendment and how the isolationists were battling the internationalist elites to try to pare the power of the president (Eisenhower) and how Lyndon Johnson was so masterful in getting its proponents to shoot themselves in the foot.

Wolfe on Darwin and Chomsky

I thought I had decided not to read Tom Wolfe’s latest The Kingdom of Speech, I had read a few reviews and remembered his declining quality since A Man in Full. I have read everything of Wolfe’s except The Painted Word, and found Back to Blood a warmed over Bonfire of the Vanities in Miami, following the same pattern as Man in Full and Charlotte Simmons. I liked his fiction better than his non-fiction. So I was surprised when it showed up in my Kindle. Ah, I had pre-ordered it before reading reviews. Spring break, why not read it? It IS about linguistics, my field.

I was pleasantly surprised. It was a wonderful 192-page rant. He is a great storyteller and a master wordsmith. His arguments sound really really plausible It is also a great lesson in critical thinking, about how a great author can get you to see one side of an argument.

Kingdom of Speech (KoS) has a style that harkens back to Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, but without the energy. In the 70’s he lampooned the liberal elite and their infatuation with the Black Panthers. In KoS he tries something more dangerous, lampooning Chomsky the linguist by way of Darwin and ultimately science as a whole. He doesn’t get away with it, but it is still an entertaining read. And he makes it all sound so plausible.

Wolfe starts with Darwin, and tells a story of another theorist, or scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who, according to Wolfe, beat Darwin and had solid evidence to boot, of the theory of evolution. Wallace was the outsider who collected evidence (a bug-catcher) in the Amazon Basin and Malaysia, and presented it scientifically as a theory. Darwin, who spent 20 years in an armchair came up with the theory only after seeing Wallace’s manuscript of an article, racing to publish at the same time with help from insiders. Then he tells a parallel story of Chomsky, tying the two together with the idea that speech is the only thing that makes man different from other animals.

Chomsky in this telling, is the armchair theorist and his Wallace is Daniel Everett, a linguist who studied a small tribe in the Amazon. Like Wallace, Everett used real data to support his claims, but was dismissed by Chomsky who was better connected. Chomsky rode the wave of scientificalization (great word) of the 50’s, but has this idea of a biological seat of language in the brain that is unrealistic, only changing the theory when pressured by other linguists or anthropologists.  An example:

Thanks to Everett, linguists were beginning to breathe life into the words of the anti-Chomskyans of the twentieth century who had been written off as cranks or contrarians, such as Larry Trask, a linguist at England’s University of Sussex. In 2003, the year after Chomsky announced his Law of Recursion, Trask said in an interview, “I have no time for Chomskyan theorizing and its associated dogmas of ‘universal grammar.’ This stuff is so much half-baked twaddle, more akin to a religious movement than to a scholarly enterprise. I am confident that our successors will look back on UG as a huge waste of time.

High drama, but the facts do not bear out the assertations. We see Wolfe focus on one part of the science only, and like his supposed target, ignore any kind of data that gets in the way of a good story.

Games in Class

I have two games lined up for classes when they begin next month. I have been reading and exploring on ways to up the experiential level in a boring class setting.

Classcraft looked cool at first. Making classroom behavior into a group-based RPG fit right into my small group structure for teaching and interaction.  I considered my audience of college women and started to doubt whether they were familiar with MMORPGs. They could always ask their brothers, or even fathers. I asked in my class and happily about 25% (6/24) had played a similar type game on their Playstation or phone before. I was also wary about the thing being just a juiced up behaviorist trick, with the gold stars wrapped up in a pretty package. Not after the research. It is used in 20,000 schools. Granted, most of those are Jr. hi and HS, but close enough. The features lead to team-building and if my students can do that in English, perfect. I can build in using English as part of the settings as well. There are random events which spice up things, and make them more real. The only thing that still worries me is the reliance on competition, of which my students don’t have much of. Yet. Good for my first-year speaking and listening class.

Fantasy Geopolitics is a game to stimulate conversation about the world, about geography, and mostly about the news. I know my students are not familiar with Fantasy Football, but the concept I think they will latch onto quite easily. Instead of making up a team of football players at the beginning of the season, students choose a “team” or collection of countries (for my class, each student can pick 6). Then each class thereafter they can trade countries instead of players during the weekly “draft” at the beginning of class. The neat thing is that the countries are all rated by how much they appear in the New York Times. So instead of getting a hot running back for your team, you will be looking to see which countries have wars, revolutions, economic upheavals or other reasons to get in the news. After the first 3 weeks or so, goes the research, students start looking for signs that a country is ready to burst onto the newsfront, an embroiling scandal or whatnot. Each week, students are then rated on how much their exposure goes up or down. This means students need to keep reading each week. We use Newsela for graded reading access to news, but students can also look at authentic headlines in the NYTimes. The developer started with a Kickstarter campaign, but now the game resides at FANschool.org. They have other version of politics in general, and one for elections, but my students need geopolitics more.

Both of these games were featured in one of the best games for education books I have read in years. The Game Believes in You by Greg Toppo has a dozen chapters, each using an exemplary software to show how games belong in and improve education. I will show my colleague who teaches English Literature the endless runner game Stride and Prejudice. Still in development is Eoghan (pronounced owen) Kidney’s VR (virtual reality) adaptation of Jame’s Joyce’s Ulysses. This has been in development for 3 years since getting money on FundIt, similar to Kickstarter, and it looks like a group at Boston U is starting up something similar called Joycestick (get it?). We can learn empathy and great storytelling through Inanimate Alice. Another way to center your thinking and do literature at the time is the game Walden, a game, now out in Apha ($18). We live in Thoreau’s world and learn to become more self-reliant and negotiate society on our own terms. Finally, we learn how to throw trucks and run like a chicken using our brains and an EEG collar as the only interface. What this really does is work like Ritalin or Adderall (the games are still in trial) to focus attention.

Each of these games is an example of a different kind of software, each addressing a different kind of learning. The book is highly recommended. As soon as I finish reading the book, off I am to develop the first two to fit into my class, and have fun with the others.