Cats’-meat Man

“Cats’-meat men peddled their wares from door to door: these itinerate vendors sold skewers of horsemeat used for cat (and dog) food, customarily trundling their goods in a wheelbarrow and often depicted as trailed by a horde of extremely interested felines. In the nineteenth century, a cats’-meat man reported that there were twice as many cats in London as dogs.” From Kathryn Shevelow, For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008: 69.

The Continued Moral Depravity of the OSPCA

I’ve been pushing the thesis that pets are not animals, which explains why pets are relatively well protected by the law while all other animals are not protected by the law–even minimally; for instance, how common agricultural practices are exempt from the purview of the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Sadly, the event has already happened (apparently on November 26) and by all accounts, it was a success raising $2500 for the Orangeville SPCA (note: Orangeville is a branch office of the OSPCA and not an affiliate; that is, it is part of the OSPCA and not a local organization independent of the OSPCA). I draw your attention to the “Citrus City Tattoo ‘Dead Things’ Art Show.” Where do we begin with how depraved this event is? First, we are to bid on “dead things” to support “living things”? Second, we are fetishizing death; in this case, 30 skulls taken from goats. Third, it is sponsored by “Dave’s Butcher Shop”? The owner of the tattoo shop comments, “Any amount makes a difference to the animals.” Yes, including penning them up in giant factory farms, loading them into overfilled trucks, driving them hundreds of kilometres without food or water to the slaughterhouse, cruelly killing them, dismembering their bodies, shipping those dismembered body parts to body shops all over the land and then having asinine fools buy the parts all the while congratulating themselves on supporting “the local butcher”! Yes, it certainly makes a difference! And, while we’re at it, let’s collect 30 skulls from these goats and gaudily “decorate” them and call it “art”–because it is “art” if you call it “art”! Let’s get them all together in a tattoo parlour and invite “animal lovers” to buy some skulls to save some cats and dogs!

Below the fold is a chronicle of these pieces of “art”–a bunch of goat skulls in a plastic bucket, the same skulls drying out in the sun, and, finally, a completed work of art. All shamelessly stolen–just as the lives of the goats were shamelessly stolen–from the above link.

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Academic “Integrity”

A few weeks ago, the report of the committee that oversees academic integrity investigations was submitted to the Senate. I’ve since lost the link to the report, but it doesn’t really matter. Of the 54 cases of plagiarism in the Faculty of Public Affairs, I personally reported 6 of them, which accounts for 11.1% of all cases in the Faculty. My “catch rate” is fairly consistent from year to year, which suggests that I am not plagued with exceptionally dishonest students. The university I teach at is a comparatively unselective public university in Canada; it’s classified as a “comprehensive university,” which means that it offers a full range of undergraduate programs, a large number of graduate programs, but does not have a law or medical school. (The quality of the undergraduate programs–if not necessarily the students!–is par for Ontario; there are a number of exceptional doctoral programs at the university as well.) I think the following can explain my over-representation in the statistics:

  • I do not use exams, thus all of my assignments are written essays. For first year students, I expect about 1500 words per essay (they do two per semester) and for my third year students, I expect between 1500 and 2000 words per essay (they do four per semester). Given the relative poor quality of the work, I gather that written assignments are comparatively uncommon in the Faculty overall, which puts students at a disadvantage when they happen upon a “writing intensive” course.
  • My assignments are organized around course readings and do not expect secondary research on the part of students. Either I give them a passage to analyze (for my third years) or I leave the topic of the essay completely and absolutely open (for my first years). Given that I am fairly well-read in the literatures they are writing on–and given that I spend too much time reading blogs, a commonly plagiarized source–I’m well prepared to catch my students.
  • Most teaching assistants in the faculty are either high performing undergraduates (the qualification to TA a course is to have received an A- or higher in the course) or Master’s students, the cost of whose tuition is offset by the performance of labour above and beyond their coursework. My colleagues who do assign written work likely “let” their teaching assistants do most of the marking. Given that undergraduates are not especially well-read in literatures (by definition), it is doubtful that they are in any position to catch plagiarism. Likewise, MA students are, in essence, undergraduate students doing a victory lap, which likewise makes them unprepared to catch plagiarism.
  • It is also possible that when my colleagues do catch plagiarism they are–contrary to policy–more inclined to find ways to fail the paper or deal with the issue locally so as to avoid the odious paperwork that goes along with proving a case of plagiarism. It’s possible I’m unusually complete in my reports, but it generally takes me four or five hours per assignment to properly document the violation–how many people are willing to invest that much time?
  • A very significant number of students make it to their third or fourth years–plagiarizing the whole time–but are never caught. This seems highly likely: most of the students I catch plagiarizing usually defend themselves (rather poorly) by saying something to the effect of “I’ve never been in trouble before” when three out of four of their assignments are clearly and painfully plagiarized. Given that they made it halfway through an undergraduate program more likely than not plagiarizing all the way, it stands to reason that they’ve never been caught in the first place or the situation was “dealt with” in a way that was not transparent to the student. More often than not, the students who do plagiarize receive mediocre grades on non-plagiarized assignments, which suggests (1) they shouldn’t be enrolled in a university program to begin with and (2) their plagiarism, if and when caught, was dealt with informally by just giving them a bad mark–which they are already accustomed to. (I give “bad marks” for bad work; a number of students will submit assignments that receive marks in the zero to fifteen percent range; i.e., not just a fail, but  super-fail.)

I have no idea how much I will contribute to this year’s statistics, but I’m well on my way towards being overrepresented, yet again. Of the 188 essays I have marked so far this semester (54 from my first year students, the remainder from my third year students), 7 of them are plagiarized. (Two assignments were very borderline and I decided to deal with them locally.) Chances are more (especially in the third year class) are plagiarized, but I missed them. Overall, the rate of plagiarism is 4%, which generally fits with my experience of roughly one in twenty assignments being suspicious.

I do not know how to fix the problem and I offer no solutions. But it is my impression that what is already a bad problem–looking at the official statistics–is actually much, much worse. But, overall, there are two general criticisms that can be made: universities are admitting students who have no business being in an university program and to accommodate for unprepared (or unpreparable) students, we shift more and more of our evaluation to exams and tests rather than written assignments, which we let unprepared teaching assistants mark. A related problem is the over-reliance on contract instructors, especially so-called “professionals” who want to benefit from the “prestige” of being able to say that they “teach at the university.” I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of my colleagues who are public servants, lawyers, NGO employees and so are well-intentioned, but, when you compare the work involved in plagiarism reports versus the pay, it just isn’t worth it and, by virtue of being contract, temporary workers, they are in no way invested in “the mission” of the university. (So far this semester, with seven plagiarized assignments that I’ve reported, I’ve spent between 28 and 35 unpaid hours doing the paperwork–perhaps the union could negotiate some sort of “reward” for each successful plagiarism report, but this would likely lead to the university becoming more lenient in the enforcement of the policy.)

For the record, every single allegation of plagiarism I have made has been upheld by the Dean.

Updated December 20.

Why Punish?

The final reading of the semester for my first year students is an extract from Peter Moskos’s In Defence of Flogging. I’ve previously discussed the book here, but the basic argument is–more or less–prisons are ineffective at best and gross human rights violations at worse, thus they should not be used in the case of minor offences (however, it seems, they are appropriate for “major offences,” however defined), rather for minor offences, flogging is appropriate–and more humane. Many of the students opted to write one of their two essays on the book.

Generally speaking, my students have all presented the following (as) facts:

  1. Rule-breaking is a universal feature of human societies;
  2. Punishment is the universal response to rule-breaking in human societies;
  3. While the penalty must be “proportionate” to the offence, generally speaking, the harsher the penalty, the lower the rate of rule infraction;
  4. However, regardless of how harsh the penalties are, rule-breaking continues at a greater or lesser rate.

To an extent, many of the students recognize that these “minor offences” have social causes of some sort: i.e., being non-white, being male, living in a city, and being poor. Nonetheless, these social causes are psychologized to the effect that even though they recognize that petty theft or dealing small amounts of drugs is caused socially (i.e., in a context of limited education, limited resources and, therefore, limited opportunities, the best option might be deal drugs), they nonetheless want to hold individuals responsible for their own social circumstances. The equivalent would be holding an infant responsible for being born with cancer–and then punishing the infant for having had the audacity of being born with cancer. My point is that they recognize the child is nonetheless not responsible for having cancer, but they want to punish the child all the same for having cancer because they are responsible for having cancer. Plainly, this does not make sense.

My replies to most of my students have been to take one of two (or both) approaches:

  1. If punishment is a universal response to the equally universal rule-breaking and if rule-breaking persists despite punishment, why bother punishing at all? Either punishment is not about the offender and is about the punisher or people have recourse to punishment when it is plainly obvious it doesn’t work. Either way, punishment does not deter and, therefore, justifying punishment on the basis of deterrence is nonsense.
  2. If the infractions under discussion–drug dealing/possession, minor theft, inconsequential street fights, unruly behaviour, etc–are attributable to social conditions, then isn’t the best response to address the underlying social conditions rather than holding black, urban, male youth responsible for being black, urban, male youth?

I’m curious to see how or if they respond to this line of argumentation, especially given that most of them are or have expressed interest in being “criminology” majors. I’m also curious to see what happens when they get to developmental psychology and social learning, if they’ll make any connection between positive reinforcement and positive outcomes.

Feminism

I complain a lot about my students, but sometimes they do make me proud. Marking essays this weekend from my first year seminar (i.e., seventeen and eighteen year olds), a student–a boy–rightly complained that the course reading list did not include perspectives on power and violence from women or about women. He is absolutely correct. Given that this is the third time I’ve taught this course–with a nearly identical reading list each time–why did it take a teen boy to point out the obvious? Where were the girls on this one?

Uncolonizable

Last night we watched “Battle: Los Angeles,” which is a fairly bad movie about an alien invasion of the world, but which focuses upon the front in Los Angeles, mostly Santa Monica. At no point is the perspective of the aliens addressed, but we spend a great deal of time on the rather boring backstories of a number of the characters: a Marine about to retire with a shady past, a Marine who lost his brother (coincidentally, his brother was in the same unit as the retiring Marine) and who is about to be deployed for the first time, another Marine who seems to have PTSD, and so on. All of these, presumably, are to humanize the Marines and give us reason to identify with them. Throughout the movie–as the Marines find access to televisions–we are treated to updates from a talking-head expert on CNN who has hypothesized that the aliens are attempting to colonize Earth in order to secure access to water (but, of course, “Earth” is constantly reduced to “America”): the cyborg organic/machine hybrids which seem to do the fighting–whether they are centrally controlled drones or somewhat autonomous soldiers–appear to run on water.

We then have a rather crude comparison being made: Americans with respect to oil are the same as the aliens with respect to water. We are therefore being asked to identify with the colonizer-come-colonized. So long as the Marines are colonizing–that is, doing their traumatic tours of duty in Afghanistan or Iraq–there is no problem. But, once the colonizers are transformed into the colonized, there is a major problem. The point of the film, then, is to re-inscribe the lost role of America as colonizer and erase the aberration of America as colony. (Poignant, perhaps, that we watched it on what is the American Thanksgiving weekend which, among its ideological functions, is to represent America’s past as a partnership rather than a colonial invasion.)

While the main character–the retiring but called back into active service Marine (stop-loss, if you will)–is the one who is supposed to gather our attention: how he has been traumatized by the death of his team on the previous tour of duty, how he was the only survivor, how he was supposed to die, how everyone around him thinks he is responsible for the deaths of those Marines, and how his devotion to his duty has prevented him from having a wife and child (don’t worry: through performing his duty he will find a surrogate wife and a surrogate child). He is, by far, the least interesting character. Our attention should be focused on the one Marine–the team’s medic training to become a doctor–who has enlisted in order to gain access to America, to improve his life, and so on. This character is a Nigerian national who significantly says at one point, “I’d rather be in Afghanistan.” Again we are dealing with the play of colonized/colonizer: the colonized Nigerian wants to be the colonizer. The Nigerian soldier would rather be in Afghanistan colonizing than be in the United States resisting a colonial force.

Given the constant flip-flopping between colonized and colonizing, it is strange that we are being asked to identify with the colonized: the destroyed civilians and the rag-tag Marines who will single-handedly resist the alien occupation. But, this is illusionary because we are only being asked to identify with the colonized in order to re-inscribe the natural order of things; that is, we must resist the possibility that America can fall to a foreign force with unknown motives even though their technology is vastly superior and overwhelmingly powerful–no matter how strong the enemy, worry not, because we will prevail–and we must only see the truth of American exceptionalism. America is the uncolonizable; America is the only legitimate colonial force–even the colonized agree with that.

Now, this is a strange genre of film. The majority of stories about the destruction of the United States have auto-immune causes–losing control of military technology (“Terminator,” “Battlestar Galactica”–the killer robot hypothesis), a sudden viral epidemic (the various zombie and “contagion” movies), or a secret cabal or government within the government. The America-destroyed-by-aliens genre is comparatively narrow. Off the top of my head, I can only think of “Mars Attacks,” “War of the Worlds,” “Independence Day,” “Skyline” (which came out almost at the same time as “Battle: Los Angeles”) and, of course, “Battle: Los Angeles.” What’s particularly interesting about these films is that although America is easily invaded–initially, at least–by an overwhelming force of hostile aliens seeking to colonize us for various nefarious reasons and despite their vastly more advanced technology, the colonizers are always idiots: in the case of “Battle: Los Angeles” all you have to do to defeat the enemy is destroy each of the twenty command units. You see, the colonizers are so dumb that they’ve made all of their forces centrally controlled. Destroy the centre and you win. But, given that the point of the movie is re-inscribe the view that America is uncolonizable and that only America can legitimately colonize the world–that is, America is an alien to all others–doesn’t this suggest that Americans are profoundly stupid and their colonial power is rather fragile? Why, then, haven’t a rag-tag bunch of Muslims or Africans or whatever risen up and easily dispatched America? Likely because they haven’t embraced the American Dream. Who knows.

Regardless of how stupid the movie was, at least the images of destroyed cities were nice to look at.