Monthly Archives: June 2011

Teaching Evaluations (Fall 2010/Winter 2011)

I received the written comments submitted by my students in FYSM 1506 Topics in the Study of Societies–”Power and Violence,” which is a two-semester long seminar for first year students. Carleton University uses what is perhaps the crudest of all forms of teaching evaluations: students are asked to answer thirteen questions on a scale of one to five, or they can answer “Not Applicable.” The thirteen questions are not especially helpful; for instance, “How do you assess your instructor’s performance in speaking audibly and clearly?” and “How do you assess your instructor’s performance in beginning and ending classes promptly?” Considering that I am a sessional lecturer–and all that implies–my evaluations tend to be surprisingly good: my numbers usually put me in the ranks of the highest evaluated instructors in the department and the faculty. In addition to answering the questions, students are also invited to submit free-form written comments on the back of the evaluations. The written comments are not looked at by anyone other than the instructor: that is, even if all the students write something like “Give this sessional a tenure-track position because they are, by far, the best professor we’ve ever had” (never happened to me, of course!), no one will actually see it. Chairs don’t read them, Deans don’t read them, and Vice-Presidents don’t read them.

My average score for questions 1-12 (the “how do you assess…?” questions) was 4.75. In comparison, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences average was 4.50; the sociology faculty in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology average was 4.43; and the average for instructors teaching first year seminars (such as myself) was 4.53. My score for question 13 (“How do you evaluate the instructor?”) was 4.80. The Faculty score was 4.47; the departmental score was 4.38 and the first year seminar score was 4.57. In all cases, I was rated significantly higher than average.

Because it was a small class (ostensibly a seminar, although I did most of the talking) and because it was a full-year course, the written comments are bit more friendly than the norm.

Awesome course with a great final assignment. Could use more videos and more legible handwriting but these things happen.

Hi CRAIG :)

Thank you Craig for the best FYSM class that I could have hoped to imagine! All the other students in our classes bitch + complain about how much they hate their FYSMs. Sucks to be them! I thought this would be boring + dragged out but your [sic] made this class awesome, especially the vampire/zombie readings. I suggest more of those for your future classes because everyone would actually read them! All the readings had something interesting in their own way except a few of them were too long so its no wonder some people lost interest. On the whole thanks so much! :) I hope that I can find another class with you as the instructor in the future!!! Dave

Dear Mr. MacFarlane [sic], Great course! You have some awesome antics! I will be looking for your classes in the future so I can harass you all semester once again. Thanks!

Craig was very good teacher. He was very knowledgable and good at making sometimes tedious material interesting.

Great work. Your snide sense of humour made my thursdays. [I don't think "snide" means what the student thinks it means.]

Good course if you enjoy abstract sociological writings from dead guys. Course was pretty easy though, also Craig is hilariously cynical and this lightens up an otherwise somewhat monstrous class. Laptop ban sucked, don’t do that again. Second semester better than first. [I don't think "cynical" means what the student thinks it means.]

 

In Defense of Flogging

Peter Moskos’s In Defense of Flogging presents a simple and radical argument: the penitentiary system, especially in the United States, is more or less a crime against humanity: not only does it fail to meet its stated objectives, but it is also exceptionally cruel forcing inmates to be subjected to beatings, rapes, overcrowding, no health care, and the like. This leaves us with few options. We can either ignore the problem, attempt to reform the system, abolish the system entirely (but leave open the issue of punishment), or introduce a new punishment into the administration of justice.

The proposed solution to the prison is probably one which no right-thinking person could agree with: flogging. Strangely, Moskos views this as the only humane solution: at least so long as corporal punishment is a free choice on the part of the criminal between flogging and incarceration. One might, of course, quibble as to whether it is a “free” choice when you are given the option of five to ten years in prison versus five to ten lashes. This is a point that Moskos does address directly–indeed, at the level of argumentation and evidence, the book is somewhat of a disappointment. (There is a bizarre footnote on Foucault’s Discipline and Punish [157-8] and an equally bizarre “reading” of Marx as being objectively in favour of prisons [102-3].) It is also disappointing–albeit not surprising that a former patrolman in Baltimore’s Eastern District (recall Herc, Carver et al in the Eastern Western)–would endorse dark alley beatings as a key component of justice. (You see, policemen are highly trained professionals who are, at the core, good people and they need a wide range of discretion to deal with wife-beaters, bullies, and dealers selling drugs around children–it’s all part of the game, as Omar Little might point out.)

Moskos’s view–and one that I agree with–is that the prison cannot be reformed. Reform and regulation, as animal advocates know, has the unfortunate consequence of legitimating a bad institution by making concerned people feel alright about their guilt. And, worse, reform and regulation leads to limited–at best–improvements in the quality of life of those trapped in the institution. Reform, in effect, is having your cake and eating it, too: it misses the point and, over time, leads to something far more monstrous than what you began with. Clearly, this should be unacceptable to any right thinking person. There are some good reasons to keep the prison in a minimal capacity, such as to prevent truly incorrigible people who have committed horrible crimes from ever hurting people again. He has in mind here repeat, violent sex offenders, serial killers, and the like: the sort of criminal that we routinely see on television, but rarely ever encounter in our lives. This seems agreeable and correct to me. I don’t see any good reason why Paul Bernado or Russell Williams should ever be allowed out of prison. The question remains, however, regarding what to do with the remaining 99.9% of prisoners.

The effectiveness of American prisons is confounded by the so-called War on Drugs; that is, while it is the case prisons don’t work anywhere, they are especially dysfunctional in the United States such that a strong case could be made that the penitentiary system is akin to the Gulag or Apartheid given that prisoners are overwhelmingly black, their rights and interests are significantly violated (many cannot vote while incarcerated and many are permanently disenfranchised after “doing their time”) and blacks are significantly more likely to be incarcerated for a crime that a white will not be incarcerated for (let alone prosecuted for). Much of Moskos’s argument comes down to efficiency: not only do prisons fail to meet their stated goals (a failure on any terms), their cost doesn’t justify that failure. Indeed, “the cynical among us might even say we’re spending billions of dollars to pay poor rural unemployed whites to guard poor urban unemployed blacks” [77]. Surely there are better means to address the socio-economic needs of the permanently poor than incarcerating the ones with dark skin and employing the ones with light skin to make sure the dark skinned ones don’t try to escape. Further, it must surely be the case that even the most generous social welfare system–complete with full medical!–would cost less than what the penitentiary system presently costs.

Predictably, given the above, the defence of flogging is primarily on economic grounds: lashing costs significantly less than incarceration, even when antibiotics are figured into the cost of lashing in the rare case of infection. Moskos is even willing to go so far as allow lashings to replace the criminal record: after all, if you’ve got giant scars on your ass, it’s pretty clear that they were inflicted by the judicial system. Moskos’s proposed system would allow for summary judgment: arrested, charged, guilty plea, lashing all in one night and, a month later, the criminal’s wounds are healed and he is able to return to work. While liberal human rights regimes defend the body’s integrity as sacred, it is kind of hard to argue with this logic: on the one hand, the criminal can freely submit to a lashing and get on with his life and, on the other hand, it’s not like bodily integrity is protected in any meaningful way in prison–indeed, the long-term physical, mental, social, and economic consequences of incarceration likely far outweigh the consequences of a half-hour of excruciating pain.

Despite the detour into back alley justice meted out by well-meaning, professional, and basically good cops in the second half of the book, there was one passage that was particularly interesting. Moskos notes the similarity between the factory farm/slaughterhouse and the prison [136-9]: both are excessively violent and are almost entirely closed to outsiders. This connection is often missed in discussions of animal rights and it is one that should be taken up more vigorously. There is no good reason to make the comparison between the animal abolitionism and slavery abolitionism but not also prison abolitionism. Sadly, Moskos’s solution to the slaughterhouse is to kill your own meat because it is the least that a meat eater can do–anything else is disrespectful, or some-such. It is a palpably silly argument, but at least Moskos’s thought is taking him, more or less, in the right direction.

The Euphemism of Euthanasia

I’ve commented many times on the willingness of the OSPCA to “euthanize” animals in its possession for a variety of bad reasons–being afflicted with curable diseases, a lack of space, ostensible behavioural problems, and so on. In all these cases the word “euthanize” is used incorrectly. Euthanization refers to the merciful killing of a being when it is in that being’s best interest. For instance, in the final stages of a terminal, painful, incurable disease. I can understand why organizations which claim to protect animals use such language: given that they are tasked with policing cruelty (albeit almost exclusively when that cruelty is inflicted on pets and not on either wild animals or food animals), it is in their own best interest to not appear to be cruel themselves. What could be more cruel than unjustifiably killing a being for the mere reason that it has a illness which costs a few dollars more than euthasol to treat? Or for not getting along with cats? Or for just simply not being wanted? This brings me to a very unfortunate event in Newfoundland: a bear cub–which previously had been exploited by a cop posing with it for a photograph–has been “euthanized” because it is too friendly to humans. Dogs are killed for being too unfriendly; bears are killed for being too friendly. No thought is given, of course, to whether humans should be trampling around in woods having picnics where bears are known to live: if a human invades a bear’s territory and the bear is upset about it, it is the bear’s fault. And, by “the bear’s fault” I mean the bear is killed–not euthanized. We should not be deceived and we should hold these organizations accountable–the newspapers, the wildlife agencies, the SPCAs and humane societies–for mislabeling this act. If it weren’t legal to indiscriminately kill an animal, it would be called murder.

Hugo (June 15, 2009)

Hugo (adopted Wednesday, April 2, 2008; deceased Monday, June 15, 2009) was “a nice old man” black and tan rooroo hailing from the Candycane Forest with an exceptionally moosey disposition and a great fondess for carnuba waxes in all their forms.

Being Vegan and Watching “Game of Thrones”

An especially unpromising start to a post: I observed on Twitter today that Game of Thrones is likely the least vegan show I’ve ever religiously watched. (Some extended this to the least vegan show ever–as Napoleon Dynamite would say, “You can’t possibly know that.”) I also commented that True Blood was likely the most vegan show I’ve ever religiously watched.

Even though Game of Thrones is exceptionally un- (if not anti-) vegan, I really enjoy the show. What this entails is that I enjoy the show even though at least seventy-five percent of the characters regularly wear fur; that nearly all the characters wear leather; that the direwolf Lady was executed for no good reason; that one horse has been murdered (by the Mountain after losing at the tournament) and another sacrificed (by the witch (?) Mirri Maz Duur to use in “blood magic” to save Drogo’s life); that an actual stag was skinned (by Tywin Lannister in his tent); Theon shoots down a number of messenger crows; and the background is filled with roasted pigs, chickens (recall Tyrion’s story about his first love and “three whole roasted chickens”), and all other sorts of animals. On top of all this, hundreds of horses, dozens of dogs, and–presumably–many crows are used in production as so-called “animal talent.” By comparison, vegetables only appear in the show at rather conspicuous times: when Roz the whore is riding a turnip wagon to King’s Landing and when Ned Stark is hit in the head with a potato at his execution. Other than those two instances, I can’t think of a single moment when vegetables are at the front of a scene.

One point of comparison is Battlestar Galactica where, if memory serves, the only food is noodles and some nondescript sauce. There are obviously logistical issues with transporting herds of animals through space (not to mention how unlikely it is that an animal transport ship would survive the Cylon attack and join the human fleet–and the novel Red Mars unintentional explores how absurd such an idea is), but I don’t recall any scenes where characters complained about a lack of meat or dairy. Noodles as the only food seemed to be accepted by all: it was so normal that it was absolutely unmarked.

This is where Game of Thrones comes in: not only is the brutal exploitation and abuse of animals (and humans) completely normal and accepted, but it is presented to an audience where such things aren’t taken for granted. (After all, in two weeks when Game of Thrones ends, a significant portion of the audience will start watching True Blood in the same timeslot.) Even those who eat copious amounts of meat recognize on some level that the way in which that meat makes it to their table is morally unjustifiable. (Call it, per Mark Fisher’s book, “carnist realism.”) Yet, here is a show where the audience–remember: an HBO audience watching high-quality Sunday night drama–takes it as legitimate (“awesome” in the words of one of students who happens to be mostly vegan) that an upset knight having a temper tantrum lobs off the head of his horse. This strikes me as rather odd. It is obviously not the case that television shows are vegan in any meaningful sense. Indeed, being vegan is more often than not an occasion for a joke (and, perhaps, an ironic, knowing joke on a white staple show like Bored to Death). But Game of Thrones stands apart from all this: the cruelty and the violence isn’t meant to shock, but to be enjoyed.