Science educator, biologist, technology guru, and award-winning author of Esperanto-language haiku, haibun, and prose. he/his
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Steven D. Brewer's blog
I attended a screening of Drawing a Line, a film about the divisions left in Germany after reunification. I felt like I learned a lot about this period in German history and had an opportunity reflect on human nature.
A young man was recruited by the Stasi to inform on his friends in the punk underground. Being a cocky young man, and needing money, he agreed. He thought he'd be able to just tell them what he wanted them to know. But when he informs on some youth that were involved in spray-painting graffiti, it ends up with his brother (who was also involved, but not named) getting swept up and imprisoned.
He continued to provide information to the Stasi until he refused military service and became a conscientious objector -- for which he was imprisoned. He refused to be an informant in prison. Then, later, he left the GDR and was in West Berlin with several of his friends from the punk community that he had informed on -- it wasn't clear whether he continued providing information after he left prison or after he left East Germany.
In West Berlin, it was his idea to conduct an action to paint a white line along the entire length of the Berlin Wall. A variety of viewpoints are expressed in the movie about what exactly the line represented: crossing something out or drawing a line under the events that happened in this young man's life.
Twenty years after the Wall came down, they released the Stasi files and someone put together who the informant was. He had never told them or confessed to his role in the events. The tension in the relationship between the two brothers was the central feature of the movie.
The movie ends with a scene of the Palestinian Separation Wall where someone had painted a blue line all along the wall and questioning who made it, what their motives were, and what it meant.
Having just watched Douglas Rushkoff's talk about throwing rocks at the Google bus, I was reminded very much of Ishmael. We are captives of a system that constrains our range of options. It was easy for me to imagine, as a young man, believing I could control the situation and then finding that I was in over my head. Another gripping part of the movie was of a man who'd been a guard on the wall. He was unapologetic — proud even — of the role he'd played: he'd accepted the duty, been good at it, and taken pride in his work.
Near the end, the film-maker tried to bring the two brothers to reconciliation. It's emblematic, I think, of the divisions that still exist in Germany after reunification. How do you move past this pain point without letting go of the past, yet recognizing a mistake that can never be balanced or unmade? It was a poignant movie. Well worth watching.
Recently, a 2008-2010 work/life study by UMass faculty that included findings about about contingent faculty got some new play at Inside Higher Ed. When this got tweeted around, I posted Balancing Interests: Tenure System Faculty, Contract Faculty, and the Administration at UMass Amherst which are the remarks I made at an AAUP conference in 2009.
Since then, the join faculty union of UMass Amherst and UMass Boston has continued to make significant progress to improve the circumstances of contingent faculty. In the previous two contracts, we negotiated several really key enhancements. In the first one, most of the benefits went to UMass Amherst faculty and in the second, most of those benefits were extended to UMass Boston faculty.
The largest benefit was to transition faculty from fixed-term contracts to a state of "continuing employment". Upon renewal of the second one-year contract, faculty receive a two-year contract and there is an evaluation process after the first year of this contract. Faculty that fail this review have the second years of the contract as a terminal year. Otherwise, faculty move to "continuing employment" where they are no longer subject to fixed length contracts. For this reason, we have moved from calling contingent faculty "contract faculty" and now use the term non-tenure-track (NTT).
Another benefit was to ensure and verify that departments actually evaluate NTT faculty for merit. It had become clear that a number of departments didn't even consider NTT faculty. Now, in addition to improved directions to personnel committees, there is a committee that looks at the data and investigates departments that don't fairly compensate NTT faculty.
Some progress has been made toward workload, working conditions, and other concerns as well, including the formalization that a 3-credit class can count for no less than .25 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) per semester. My personal aim has been to assure that all NTT faculty have some professional space in their workload available for performing University service. This would imply no faculty with a 4/4 teaching load. If your teaching load equals 1 FTE, you can't serve on any University or department committee in a professional capacity. But this hasn't happened yet.
There is, however, a growing recognition on the part of central administrators that it serves the institution poorly to hold NTT faculty at arms length. And they are making efforts to change how lecturers are viewed and treated by the administration. For many of them, it's a difficult transition to make, and you still hear them (e.g. the Dean and the Provost in Fall 2015) refer to "faculty and lecturers" as if lecturers are not faculty.
There are still gaps. We have not yet successfully organized the Continuing Education faculty. This remains a growing pool of disadvantaged workers in the heart of the enterprise. We have also failed to create a system of effective professional development opportunities for NTT faculty: this is a glaring problem. When NTT were only used for sabbatical replacements, the need for professional development could be overlooked. But many of our NTT faculty have been teaching continuously for 20 or 30 years with little or no opportunity for maintaining their currency with the field. This is a travesty that does not serve the institution and needs to be corrected.
Those factors aside, UMass Amherst still represents a far better model for equitable treatment of NTT faculty than the national average. We should do more to show what we've done and help other institutions — and faculty unions — recognize the benefits of organizing the NTT faculty and not allowing them to be exploited.
Six months ago tomorrow, we had to let Penny go. With her loss, our family became dog free and now, indeed, pet free for the first time in my memory. (Muffy, the scorpion I kept in my office, passed away over the summer.) It's been a rather sad six months.
Reportedly, my family had a dog — a
beagle basset hound — when I was very young, but I don't remember it. We got another dog when I was in elementary school: a boxer. Her name was Miss Boxer and, as children, we liked to imagine her wearing a tutu and carrying a purse. I grew up thinking that a boxer was what a dog ought to look (and act) like — and other kinds of dogs just didn't compare.
There was a brief time in my life, when I first started living with Alisa, when we had cats. Brrr. Cats. To say "I have cats" would now feel like a disease.
When we bought a house, one of our first plans was to fence in the back yard and install a door to get into the yard. With this accomplished, we got a dog. And not just any dog.
We went through a reputable breeder and bought a purebred fawn male boxer named Plato. (His full name was Platonic Harmony of the Spheres). I created a website about Plato to document our early adventures with him. He was a wonderful dog, although Alisa never really warmed to him. He was my dog: he didn't really care about anyone else. He tolerated most people, but had really very simple interests. He wanted a walk. He wanted some food. And he desperately wanted the companionship of other dogs (to romp -- and to fight).
Alisa had been thinking about getting another puppy for a while before we got Penny. We did not get her from a reputable breeder. (Although she was AKC registered -- we ultimately named her "Pretty Penelope Go Penny Go"). We were at a rest-stop in Pennsylvania and saw someone with a whole flood of boxer puppies. She was a broker carrying puppies, probably from a puppy mill and probably intended for pet stores. She was reluctant to sell us a puppy but we persuaded her and took Penny home with us to meet Plato.
Plato adored her. At first. Eventually, he would retreat to his crate to avoid her ankle-biting. Penny was a terrible menace: she chewed up anything and everything, including the parking brake handle in our car. She ruined several pieces of furniture and some of our chairs still bear her tooth marks.
She was fearless when she was with Plato and they romped and played and were inseparable. Then Plato was diagnosed with canine lymphoma and died within months. She never really recovered from the shock. She grew increasingly timid and eventually was largely governed by her fears: of things that flap, of going over rumble strips in the car…
Penny was Lucy's dog. Whenever anything happened — any noise or conflict — and Penny would be cowering behind Lucy's knees. But Lucy cared for her, treasured her, and doted on her in spite of her idiosyncrasies.
Penny's muzzle had turned grey even when she was quite young. And when one of her hind legs had gone lame years before, we'd investigated cruciate ligament surgery, but they'd said she had a heart murmur and directed us take her to a doggy cardiologist for an echocardiogram before they could evaluate her for surgery. At his point, we'd said to her, "Well, we hope you just get better on your own." Which she did. At the time. But we didn't have high hopes for a long life. But she surprised us.
She lived a long life for a boxer. She got slower and slower. Eventually, Lucy would take her out for a walk and, although you could see that she wanted to go, she'd get to the edge of the yard, look longingly out at the world, and then sadly turn around to go back inside.
In the end, she couldn't get comfortable. Especially as the summer approached, she was hot and couldn't settle. She would try to lie down and then scramble back to a sitting position. Her joints were obviously painful. She could barely get down the one or two steps into the front yard.
She also was obviously confused. She would get stuck in a corner and have a hard time working herself back out. She didn't seem to know where she was or what was going on. She didn't always seem to recognize people anymore.
We came together as a family and decided it was time. Alisa found a webpage that said, "A day will come when it is clear to you that your pet needs to be put down. And that day will be one day too late." This was helpful to us as we watched Penny's quality of life decline and dreaded what was coming.
During her last couple of days, someone was with her almost constantly. We coddled and cossetted her and tried to make her last hours as comfortable as possible. We all had time to say goodbye and then Alisa and I took her to the vet and we let her go.
In the six months that have followed, we've missed the doggy companionship. The house seemed very empty and quiet, especially at first. I miss her velvety muppies and soft ears. And her short, waggly tail.
We're not likely to get another dog. I find that people (including myself) tend toward overly romanticized conceptions about what a dog is. You see this most clearly in Disney movies where all the characters have animal familiars: non-human-actors that are subservient allies who try to advance the agenda of their human partners. That's not what dogs are. They're not like children or people or friends — they're animals that have been selected to push our socialization buttons.
But I still miss Penny. She was a good dog.
In addition to facilitating a panel on Makerspaces, I attended several other presentations. I'm new to Community Media, so it was useful to attend.
The first presentation I attended was about getting cable companies to allow PEG stations to use the electronic program guide. This is something I've asked about repeated with respect to Amherst Media, because Comcast has been unwilling to do it here and the program guide only shows "Local 1" or "Educational Programming" -- and TVGuide shows nothing at all. The presenters (one of whom is the current president of the Alliance for Community Media, the national parent organization of ACM-NE) provided a solid background about the resistance of cable companies to allow this and offered many helpful suggestions. As much as 40% of television viewing happens via DVR and, if your content isn't scheduled correctly, people can't easily view your content this way. Cable companies ought to see PEG content as a huge draw for cable television: the viewership is often low, but extremely "sticky" with a very loyal following. But many cable companies resist letting PEG stations schedule their content because it helps them organize and build an audience, which will turn out during the franchising negotiations. Their suggestions were mainly to push hard for access to the program guide, make a persuasive case that it serves their interests to serve their customers well, keep pushing, and document everything.
The keynote speech was by Martha Fuentes-Bautista, a faculty member from UMass Amherst who's worked extensively with Amherst Media. Several years ago, she did an indepth study of Amherst Media's relationship to the community, Access360: Building engaged communities in a digital age. In her keynote, she spoke about the community media ecosystem and how to engage with all of the different components and stakeholders.
After lunch, I attended a presentation that I thought was going to be about fundraising and how to seek funding. Instead, it was about a particular campaign that the community foundation of Hartford ran in collaboration with a local PBS station as marketing for their 90th anniversary. It was an interesting story, but was more about marketing and branding than it was about how to look for funding. When people asked how much the campaign had costed, they refused to say, although they agreed the number was possibly more than the entire annual budget of many local public-access stations.
In the last time slot, Jim Lescault and I attended an "ask the lawyers" presentation. People raised a number of interesting questions about franchising, crafting releases for content, the new PEG enterprise fund statute, and other interesting topics. Seeing the kinds of questions people ask was as helpful to me as the answers.
The day wrapped up around 5pm -- just as traffic on the expressways peaks -- so Jim and I went over to a local barbeque place to get a sandwich and then, next door, to the tavern where they were holding the afterparty. We hooked up with a couple of people Jim knew and had a very interesting and wide-ranging conversation. I also got to try a new (to me) IPA: Stony Creek Cranky. Good beer, good friends, and good conversation. A fitting end to a great day.
Last year, it was Jim Lescault who spoke about Makerspaces at the ACM-NE Annual Meeting. This year, it was my turn: yesterday, I facilitated a panel with speakers from three Makerspaces: Bryan Patton and Devra Sisitsky from MakerspaceCT, Christ Anderson from AS220, and Christine Olson from our own Makers at Amherst Media. It turned out pretty well.
I provided a brief introduction to the philosophical alignment of public-access television and the Maker movement. I drew heavily from the presentation I did for Science for the People, but turned down the Marxist rhetoric and focused more on community-building. At the same time, I wanted to puncture the hypothesis that a lot of people seem to have that "The Maker Movement Is Going To Save Us" and "The Maker Movement Is The New Economy". I felt a little bad when I realized that the team from MakerspaceCT was going to do this exact presentation right after mine. But I left my comments in because I think it's important.
The three presentations about Makerspaces were all very different from one another. Christine provided a very nuts-and-bolts look at our Makerspace, focusing on our sense that building the community was what was important, as opposed to installing some equipment in a room and calling it a "makerspace". It was a great introduction to what we're doing, what's working, who we're trying to partner with, and what our challenges are. I thought it was a fantastic model if another access station wanted to get started trying to build a Maker community. Neither of the others really had anything to do with access centers, but both were interesting for other reasons.
After the presentation, a woman congratulated me on the panel. I admitted that I thought it was a little incoherent because the different presentations were so uncoordinated and from totally different perspectives. She disagreed saying, "No! That's what made it useful: to see it from all these different points of view." I was very pleased and was glad to be a part.
Update: I posted again about the rest of the conference.
When Max Gladstone and Theodora Goss both tweeted links about Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker not allowing Syrian refugees, I thought I would retweet both. But I was surprised to discover, when I tried to retweet the second tweet, that Theodora had blocked me.
I can't say that I know Theodora well — I first heard of her through Philip, who I believe was a Clarion classmate. I met her at Reader Con a year ago and introduced myself briefly. And I had followed her on Twitter for a couple of years. Being a teacher of writing, interested in poetry, and sharing a connection through Phil, I thought I could have the temerity to occasionally comment on things she wrote. When she posted a picture of a beautiful sunset in Budapest, I commented that there were beautiful sunsets in many places that people rarely took time to appreciate. When she posted a picture of a teacup with a sakura painting, I offered a haiku about the longing for spring that the picture inspired in me.
— Steven D. Brewer (@limako) October 14, 2015
Since you don't receive any notification when someone blocks you, I don't know exactly when it happened -- or, indeed, how many times it's happened. But I know of one other instance where I was blocked (in Twitter) and twice when I was unfriended (in Facebook). The two instances in Facebook were due to political differences: people found my left-leaning political positions unsupportable -- in one case telling me I should leave the country if I didn't support their red-state agenda.
The other case in twitter, was due directly to something I said. A trans person retweeted a link by (what was seemingly) a young woman who was mocking her boyfriend for saying she wore too much makeup. I replied to to the tweet, perhaps offensively
.@lilkittten @frenezulino He meant, "If you want to look like a clown, feel free to wear makeup—just don't think you're doing it for me."
— Steven D. Brewer (@limako) April 28, 2015
This is a pet peeve of mine: I have frequently heard women claim that men require them to wear makeup (or pantyhose or whatever), when it appears to me that women actually police each other regarding clothing and appearance much more than men ever do. And I've always thought that wearing make-up makes you look like a clown. But usually, I have enough sense to keep my opinion to myself.
I should have recognized that there are a lot of reasons why people wear make-up. An elderly male colleague who has psoriasis wears foundation because people otherwise would stare at the livid rash across his face. They still stare because of the makeup but, evidently, he finds that better than the alternative.
Phil suggested that Theodora probably blocks a lot of people who post creepy things to her on Twitter. I can certainly believe that: I've seen some of those. He offered to contact her and ask, but I demurred. I certainly don't want to force myself on anyone. Still, I was surprised and a bit hurt to find myself lumped in with creepy people. The internet is a weird place.