formula feedingI’ve been doing a crash Google course in decision-making over the past three days, in the process of which I ran across both the Good Judgement Project and Penelope Trunk’s piece on trendspotting. Setting aside the absurdity of comparing the anecdotes of a deliberately trollish blogger with the measurable statistics of a researcher-led project, both the blog article and the judgement project pointed out that, given access to the same information, some people are better than others at forecasting. It’s unclear why, but my off-hand thought is that forecasting success depends on the same skills that underlie “intuition”: implicit recognition memory and the ability to spot patterns.

In any case, my only real claim to trendspotting bona fides is that I bought a pair of platform flip-flops a few weeks before everyone else in my high school did. That said, here are two random trends that I predict will be big in 2015:

(1) Formula feeding in the upper middle class. Research is increasingly showing that breastfeeding isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be, unless you’re talking about cracked nipples. (Just to be clear, I nursed my daughter for 26 months.) Upper middle class white ladies are urged to lean in, which is generally incompatible with extended breastfeeding unless you’re literally Sheryl Sandburg and can force your employees to meet you at your house. Added to that, evangelical mommy blogs are spending a lot of time talking about breastfeeding. Conclusion: formula feeding will become a way of signaling that we’re all much too busy and important to nurse.

(2) The name Jane. Fancy nineteenth century names have been back in for a while now–Penelope, Eleanor, and Charlotte are all name that we considered for our kid–so naturally normcore names are next. Once Kate Middleton names her kid George, can the world be far behind?


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From naturecore to normcore

Liz Lemon is my fashion icon #kiddingnotkidding

The New York Times’s example of normcore

The New York Times, of the “find three people and call it a trend” approach to style journalism, has up today a lengthy meditation about “normcore”: does it really exist, or is it simply a big in-joke? Is it a trend, or is it, in Alex Williams’s words, a “hypothetical movement that turns into a real movement through the power of sheer momentum”?

A little backstory: the word “normcore” was apparently invented by a firm of brand consultants, who wrote up a description of the so-called trend in a report as part of a London-based art project. In this articulation, normcore was supposed to be a “sociological attitude” rather than a “fashion trend”: in other words, normcore dosen’t signal a specific style so much as a stance, a way of participating in the mainstream rather than deliberately seeking subculture expertise and identification. One journalist cited in the article dismisses the idea that normcore could be a trend, because the whole point of normcore is that you dress to fit in, not to stand out: you wear a trucker hat to a NASCAR race and JINCOs to a rave.

Setting aside the irony of the New York Times conducting an ontological investigation into the nature of trends, the article misses a key assumption of fashion theory: there’s no such thing as outside fashion. “Normal” clothes don’t exist in some a priori mall that the Liz Lemons of the world inhabit and that hipsters can access when artisanal pickles become too mainstream. There’s no difference between “sociological attitudes” and “fashion trends”; ignoring trends is a trend.

"Contrive, if you can, not to look hampered in your own cravat"About 180 years ago, Catherine Gore’s 1841 novel Cecil took a nostalgic-slash-horrified retrospective view of the Regency of 40 years earlier, in the same way that we look back at the loose morals and unrestrained public hair of the 1970s. At one point early on, when Gore is still setting up the thematic interests of her three-volume novel, the fashionable Lady Harriet educates Cecil, a young “puppy” who keeps giving her the elaborate compliments that would have been popular forty decades before the Regency, in the up-to-date fashions of the times. As Lady Harriet explains, Cecil’s stiff compliments and stiffer cravat are really not the thing: “We are all pretending to be natural with all our might, till the affectation of nature has become as natural as any other affection” (74).

Hot off a busy decade of writing fashionable novels, Gore understood perfectly well that being “natural” is just another trend. See, being out of fashion isn’t the same as being outside of fashion. You might be out of fashion, but you’re never out of the fashion system; the whole system survives by continually bring in what was formerly out. Normcore is nothing more than Regency naturecore rebranded, the very definition of a trend.



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Wrecking the Figure/ Ground

Miley_Cyrus_-_Wrecking_BallMiley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” is almost unfairly easy to parody, but over repeated, sweaty listenings–“Wrecking Ball” is the second to last song on my running playlist, when I really need the agony of a failed relationship to keep my feet moving–I’ve come to see it as lyrically, even syntactically sophisticated. (Stay with me.)

In poetry criticism, the “interlocutor” is the person who the speaker implicitly addresses, but let’s just call him “Liam.” In one of the early lines, the speaker sings, “Don’t you ever say I just walked away.” Without punctuation, which I couldn’t find anywhere on the Internet, the line could be read, “Don’t you ever say [that] I just walked away,” or “Don’t you ever say, ‘I just walked away.’” Sure, the first version makes a bit more intuitive sense, but both readings are available: the antecedent of “I” could be the speaker (“Miley”), or it could just as easily be the interlocutor (“Liam”).

And then the chorus smashes (ahem) in, laying out the governing trope:

I came in like a wrecking ball

I never hit so hard in love

All I wanted was to break your walls

All you ever did was wreck me

Yeah, you, you wreck me.

We start off with the fairly obvious simile of Miley being like a destructive force that breaks down the walls of another’s heart and then, almost surprisingly, end somewhere more complicated: by the end of the stanza the wrecking ball is Liam, and Miley is the ruined fortress. The tenors and vehicles are unstable, impermanent. (In metaphors and similes, “vehicle” is the thing whose attributes are being borrowed–in this case, a wrecking ball and walls; and “tenor” is the thing whose attributes are being illuminated by the borrowing–in this case, both Miley and Liam.)

This reading helps clear up a disagreement about lyrics in a later stanza. Some sources give

I never meant to start a war

I just wanted you to let me in

I guess I should’ve let you in

While some give

I never meant to start a war

I just wanted you to let me in

I guess I should’ve let you win

A haphazard Googling didn’t lead me to any kind of “official” source, but, pace Miley’s songwriters, the correct version should be, even if it’s not, the first. That first version cleverly picks up the unstable relationship between speaker and interlocutor, formally constructing the absolute destruction of the relationship that the song describes: a war so intense that at the end it’s not clear which side won, because neither did.

Setting aside any pearl-clutching about the visuals of the music video (which I think are lovely), and the upsetting appropriation of twerking and black women’s bodies in “We Can’t Stop” (which I won’t even try to close-read away), “Wrecking Ball” brilliantly evokes the way relationships feel when you’re nineteen. In the end, the lyrical slipperiness suggests to me that the real governing trope here isn’t the wrecking ball so much as the inability to distinguish between Self and Other–again, stay with me–that, let’s be honest, is pretty typical of intense teenage relationships. The song might be an exorcism of Miley’s past and a middle finger to Liam Hemsworth, but it’s also a lyrically complex exploration of identity and obsession.

Well done, sirs.

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Andrea Barrett’s Voyage of the Narwhal

763952Andrea Barrett’s Voyage of the Narwhal gets off to a bit of a slow start–who are these people, and why are they sailing to the Arctic, and why do we care?–but it quickly snowballs, so to speak, into exactly what it promises to be: a literary adventure story with a sprinkling of slightly anachronistic feminism and a large helping of Frankenstein.

There are comparisons to be made to other books of man-vs-nature (Moby Dick, The Heart of Darkness), but the book fundamentally asks what would have happened had Walton refused to turn the ship around. Power-hungry Zeke  ignores his crew and captain’s warnings and pushes onward into the Arctic winter, eventually trapping his ship in the ice and losing a rather large percentage of the crew along the way. When protagonist and naturalist Erasmus finally makes his way back home, he finds that, rather than being hailed as heroes, he and the rest of the returning crew are failures: just before their return, another Arctic naturalist and explorer shows up with stories, specimens, and maps.

A few of the book’s conceits ring a bit hollow–the plot involving the woman engraver feels especially anachronistic and forced–but Barrett raises core questions about discovery and exploration and (crucially) who gets to write to the book when everyone returns home. Voyage of the Narhwal doesn’t exactly succeed as a pure adventure story or rich character study, but it offers a highly readable revision of the Romantic quest to dominate nature–and a provoking critique of quests and questors.

Other Reviews:

Read for: Book club

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I like servants, Queen Victoria, and mundane details of daily life, so I had high hopes for this book. Sadly, it lived up to none of them. Exhaustively researched and competently written, the book failed–for me–to inject any actual life into its account of “Life in the Royal Household.”

To be fair, I went into the book with incomplete information: I expected the book to be more about day-to-day life in the Queen’s house, in the manner of Judith Flanders’s wonderful Inside the Victorian Home, when in fact it traced the service of six members of Victoria’s household a.k.a. court: high-ranking servants, not scullery maids. (Scullery maids, of course, being infinitely more interesting.)

I stopped reading the book because I just couldn’t summon enough interest in its characters or events. Blame Victoria, who strived to create a court free from the scandal and intrigue of previous rulers and appears to have been largely successful. The Bedchamber Crisis would have been much more compelling had it involved sexual rather than political scandal, but that’s hardly Hubbard’s fault.

Amount read: Four chapters, or around 50 pages out of 360

Kate Hubbard, Serving Victoria

Discipline is not Pedagogy

The worst school in Texas sounds pretty bad. In a recent Salon article, John Savage details death threats, beatings, and a continual police presence, all part of the school-as-internment-camp so distressingly common in urban areas. He also admits that he was not, after all, the Great White Hope–although one notices that, by writing this article, he still casts himself as the Great White Explainer. (None of the long-time Pearce teachers he lauds are writing this article, after all.) To defend the school against its miserable TAKS scores, Savage praises the school’s faculty and staff:
Mr. Green … was a committed and graceful algebra teacher with an infectious positive energy. Born in Panama, he had as much street cred with the Latino kids as the black kids.
Mrs. Ologban, despite her diminutive stature, displayed absolute control in her classroom. … The first time I observed her I noticed she kept two lists of students on her board — a good list and a bad list. Too simple to work, I thought. But I was amazed when even disaffected students smiled when Mrs. Ologban wrote their name on the good list.
Mr. Parish … had some street in him and knew how to use it. … When a disagreement between the Latino boys from the soccer club and the black boys from the basketball club culminated in a fight, Parish was instrumental in calming everybody down.
In spite of their efforts, Pearce was still a failure — at least according to the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). The TAKS is just a test, and by no means the only indicator — or even a good indicator — of the commitment of a school’s teachers and administrators.
With all due respect to these committed teachers, John Savage hasn’t made the case that this school deserves to be considered anything but a failure. Mr. Green is “upbeat” and has “street cred”; Mrs. Ologban has “absolute control” in her classroom; Mr. Parish also “had some street in him” and manages to prevent a fight. These are all admirable qualitiesand they say nothing about the kind of learning that does or doesn’t go on in a classroom. Savage’s point here seems to be that the school should be considered a success because it has some teachers who are good disciplinarians and capable of relating to the students. Both of these skills might be prerequisites for actual learning–but they don’t actually constitute learning.
Certainly there are valid criticisms against to make against standardized testing, and let me be clear: I fundamentally agree with Savage. Focusing on teacher performance rather than the underlying socioeconomic causes of bad schools is idiotic and immoral. However, let’s not sugarcoat things: strict discipline does not an effective teacher make, and schools aren’t graded on behavior. Suggesting that a teacher is good because she’s found an effective method of discipline is just as wrongheaded–and unfair to Pearce’s students–as suggesting that a teacher is bad because she can’t singlehandedly overcome generations of poverty and neglect.
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More College Failure?

Yet another complaint from “employers”–as though “employers” are some coherent group–about recent college graduates lacking job skills:

“When it comes to the skills most needed by employers, job candidates are lacking most in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving,” the report said.

Well, okay. But let’s take “college” out of the picture here and just focus on 22-year-olds. Nostalgia would insist that 22-year-olds of ye olden days were perfectly skilled in written and oral communication, managing priorities, and making decisions and problem solving–but clearer-sighted neurobiology would insist that 22-year olds’ brains simply aren’t fully developed.

In my experience tutoring middle school students, I came to believe that certain school skills–like organization, record-keeping, and neatness–are correlated with brain development. Certain children develop the ability to perform these higher level, executive skills at different times.

Bemoaning colleges’ failure to teach amorphous, unteachable skills like “making decisions” rather than accepting that recent college graduates, even smart ones, are still in the process of becoming adults–well, that’s is just another way of making our educational systems into convenient whipping boys to blame for shortcomings that college was never meant to remedy.

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Why study the humanities?

Apropos of today’s report on the state of the humanities comes this quotation from a Slate article about the kind of people who get hired as tech gurus:

Working in tech plays tricks on your mind. The quality of coding and other technical skills can be assessed far more objectively than other measures of intelligence or job performance, and it can split your worldview into the same objective, extremely meritocratic terms: People are smart or dumb … ideas are right or wrong, morals are black and white. You start thinking you know what’s best for people.

Goodness knows that the humanities aren’t perfect in the kinds of people they turn out. (Anyone who’s ever experienced the peculiar awfulness of some humanities grad students will understand.) But one of the points of a good humanities education is exactly to erase, or at least call into question, the kind of black and white thinking that this article outlines.

Of course this so-called “fuzzy” rejection of strict dichotomies engenders a lot of complaining about the humanities’ soft skills. But what’s “soft” about having the moral and ethical capacity to think in complex, subtle ways about complex, subtle issues? Isn’t that the very definition of “hard”? 

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IB or Spelling Bee?

There’s a short piece in the Wall Street Journal about public schools adopting the IB curriculum to raise performance even in inner-city schools, apparently with good success.

As with any educational reform, some people–like mother-of-two Kelly Mann, a parole officer in Waco, TX–are unhappy about it. “It’s frustrating to see that instead of doing spelling bees or history reports, they are spending about six weeks of time focusing on poverty or saving white tigers,” she says.

It seems a little unfair to attack this poor women, but let’s throw out some ideas about what one could learn by focusing on, say, white tigers:

  • Geography. Where are white tigers found?
  • History. What’s the history of Western European countries in relation to the countries where so-called exotic animals are found?
  • Science. What causes white tigers’ coloration?
  • Social Studies. What is Orientalism, and how does it relate to our fascination with white tigers?
  • Language arts. How can students use digital and analog tools to find out more about white tigers? What format would be best for recording and developing their ideas? What avenues of communication can they use to share the results of their research?
  • Math. How have the populations of white tigers changed over time? When was the greatest increase or decline in their numbers? What percentages do these changes involve?

When you put it like that, it is a shame that students aren’t doing spelling bees. Instead of engaging in interdisciplinary, question-based education, they could be rote-learning lists of words completely divorced from context. Yep, that would definitely be better. 

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Two former Condé Nast interns are suing for unpaid wages, and good for them. In the summer of 2002, I spent an unpaid ten or so weeks interning at a fancy Condé Nast magazine, supported in that–as in so many things–by the generosity of my grandfather, the child of immigrants whose Depression-Era frugality allowed him to parlay a consistently meager professor’s salary into private college educations for his four grandchildren.

I was thrilled. This was my dream job, my ticket into Manhattan’s literary elite–except that it wasn’t. In fact, the whole experience was soul-crushingly awful. Part of that summer’s utter failure was the assistant in the department I worked in; at first I thought she simply hated me, for some unaccountable reason, but in fact–as I learned from someone else who later interned at the same department–I think she just hated everyone. The bigger problem, however, was that I did almost nothing, I learned less, and by the end I was crying the stairwell most days.

At this point, I can’t even say why exactly I was crying. I think on some level I realized that I wasn’t going to make it, or that “making it” wasn’t going to take the shape that I’d anticipated. Talent, luck and hard work–a combination of which actually got me the internship in the first place, when while interning (paid) for a literary agent connected with the magazine, I spotted a typo in the proofs of an essay headed to publication–simply weren’t enough. I needed money and connections, and I had neither. Landing the internship was supposed to make up for lack of the former by offering me the latter, but instead I realized, from overhearing conversations among other well-connected interns and their departments, that, as with the money, I was supposed to come pre-equipped.

That wasn’t my last internship. When the school year started again, I used my connection from the first internship to find a paid internship for the next summer, one that taught valuable skills and offered coordinated training with interns from other departments, all far more valuable than the $8.25/ hr the internship paid–although that, of course, was most welcome. (And from the company’s end, I suspect, the stakes are higher to make a worthwhile investment in training paid interns.)

Were those ten weeks wasted? On the one hand, that line looked good on my resume–for a while. (The sheen does wear off after a few years.) On the other hand, there was no effort to make the experience useful or even interesting; there was no training, no mentorship, and no kindness. Like the interns suing, I’m more than willing to work hard and put in the time and pay my dues–but dues, of course, are supposed to buy one membership in a club. Without that, the contract–whether official or unofficial–is worthless.

Condé Nast interns sue

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