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The Pins of Pinterest

August 18, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Recently, I was looking for some graphic that would help explain a few points about ancient Rome. My initial Google search sent me to mostly Pinterest sites. I thought that was interesting since I seldom use Pinterest. I did a little bit more digging and found some things that I wanted (both on and off Pinterest). But as I completed this process, I began to wonder about our reliance upon sites like Pinterest. It functions as an amalgam of posts, displayed as a stream of scrollable ideas which may fit your particular topic. It relies on pins, tags and keywords. As I navigated through the wide variety of pins, I wondered as to whether it was the best use of my time. So, today's blog is a result of my interest in Pinterest.

First off, the name is catchy, clever and witty. It combines function with interest. In other words, it is an online bulletin board that lets you pin only what you are currently interested in. You can create separate boards for each category of interest personal to you. The name relies on one of the oldest uses of “pin” - a small device used for fastening things. These boards enable you to follow other people, though, and have multiple topics all online (replacing that messy corkboard in the kitchen). So, now, your bulletin board of interests can be shared with friends, family or strangers. (It does allow you to create a personalized and private board just for you if you do not want to share everything.)

Pinterest supplies ideas that fill a specific need. They have recipes, lesson plans, craft projects, home decorating tips, how-tos and DIYs. This makes me wonder whether or not we are constantly replicating each other and if this replication is a problem? If we think of the way that the human imagination functions, I see that Pinterest can be both beneficial and harmful. For example, Pinterest is full of art projects and ideas. One can learn about a particular art form or medium simply by copying another's projects and in fact it is a good way to begin. Creative minds will be able to find creative ideas and expand upon them in any medium, I believe. To truly own the idea, however, one must not stop there. Copying allows only for skills and technique, but not necessarily creative thought. So, while the people on Pinterest supply ideas, the user must still transform that idea into a personal creative piece. In other words, Pinterest generates ideas, which is wonderful, but one must also generate ideas in order to advance.

The second issue that I find with Pinterest is misinformation. Of course, this problem is not reserved to Pinterest. Misinformation can be found all over the internet and is something that I mentioned in my article on blogs too. In the case of Pinterest, however, many teaching aides appear helpful, but I did find some with errors. Therefore, as with all information, it is best to do your own homework instead of simply relying on the first lesson that you find. Having said that, however, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Those who have done the research and posted thoughtful lesson plans or worksheets offer a beneficial service to educators and families everywhere. When I began teaching, other teachers presented me with a slew of handouts. I was able to copy these at will. Pinterest offers the same thing, but with much better technology, better graphics and eye-grabbing appeal, all of which resonates with the contemporary classroom.

I find that, in general, the people of Pinterest are really creative and thoughtful, especially with their own interests. The communities built upon common pins reinforces connections with a community. However, it struggles with the same issues as blogs and Facebook. For one, everything revolves around marketing. Many sites ask for money and most contain pop-up advertisements. The advertisements often align with the pinned information. For example, if you have clicked on an idea about crafts, you might see an advertisement for a craft store. In other words, each pin unwittingly leaves a trail of information about you, the user. Also, by creating online communities that revolve only around our own interests, we may be limiting ourselves in unforeseen ways. It is worth thinking about the way that we construct both an online self and an online community. Are these the same as their public counterparts?

None of the pros or cons that I have listed means much of anything by itself. I simply like to think about the technology that we rely upon everyday, how it interacts with ourselves and the various hats we wear. How does this technology affect my life in unseen ways? What do we gain by using the newest trend? What do we lose? One final factor that I have not mentioned in any of these blogs on technology is the idea of time. Is the time spent online useful? Has it increased your ability to be a better person in any way? I find that, personally, there is a line. Some information is helpful, but endless searching is fruitless and wasteful. Where is your line regarding time spent navigating social media?

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Comedians in Cars

August 11, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Before we even begin, I feel that I have to apologize...today's post takes the fun out of humor. In analyzing what makes a joke funny, we are pretty much surgically separating humor from the joke. So, having said that, let's dive in.... To better understand today's conversation, you might take a peek at the following video of Jerry Seinfeld talking with Alec Baldwin in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (about 11 minutes).

Jerry Seinfeld started Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee after a successful career as a stand-up comedian and television star. Each episode highlights a car which he uses to pick up another comedian. The show documents them discussing what makes a good joke. Sometimes, however, humor is best left to demonstration, as in the episode with Alec Baldwin. Instead of defining what makes a joke funny, they demonstrate how to tell a humorous story. The viewer is along for the ride, and hopefully, attentive to the demonstration. It's the old adage of show, don't tell. Of course, it helps that Baldwin also does impersonations. The ability to reenact a story is one aspect that enhances the stand-up routine. In other words, reading the story off of a page would probably be funny. But seeing the story, and hearing a variety of accents from a single actor, transcends funny. Baldwin makes the humor come alive.

The episode with Alec Baldwin begins with an inside joke. Since Seinfeld and Baldwin grew up in the same neighborhood, they share a personal history that the viewer does not. In this case, we laugh along with a discussion of their shared hometown. As they recreate a physical setting based upon their shared reality, the viewer constructs something similar. Though they are not identical settings, the jokes work because of a shared narrative. We each know a little bit about the dividing line between poverty and wealth. We envision the poor kid spying on the rich kid (who is, by the way, squandering his wealth and toys by singing into a fake microphone). This type of joke may require less foregrounding between the two speakers because of a shared history. In other words, the joke works on a meta-level that includes everyone, but is perhaps more powerful to those within the circle. So, while Baldwin and Seinfeld grew up with different circumstances, they have a literal terrain in common. Yet, the story works for us too because: a] we are included in the dialogue and b] most of us share some basic communal terrain and c] the delivery is well-crafted. This last part is, without a doubt, an art form. Knowing how to deliver, how to read, how to create a persona that gets a laugh and underscore it with some harsh truth, is, as Seinfeld indicates, probably unteachable.

Seineld notes his friend's story-telling talent when Baldwin retells a story of Rip Torn's bar fight. As Baldwin knows exactly what details to add (or more likely, what details to remove) in order to create a suspenseful and hilarious story. He re-enacts the bar fight, imitating Torn's voice and expressions. Narrative alone cannot create humor. Rather, a joke is shared. If something gets a laugh, then two people have held a single truth, at least momentarily.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines humor as something “absurdly incongruous” or “ludicrous”. Much like Rip Torn, a man in his 70s cracking jaws in a bar fight. Though the two actors know Torn better than the viewer, we definitely share in the joke. It seems very important to highlight the places where humanity connects like this. These absurdities enlighten our view of the world while also removing elements of fear. One can, of course, describe a bar fight in any number of ways. This version certainly aims to draw out the humor of the situation. But to what end? What is the point of creating a shared space, especially one that is funny?

In response to his reenactment and imitation of Torn, Seinfeld comments: “This, by the way, is your curse... you're a gifted, gifted actor who is cursed with the mind of a writer.” I have been puzzling over the idea that Baldwin is, in some way, cursed. I can see how it would be difficult to act if one disagrees with the vision of the director. I can also see how the character that one envisions no longer fits into the play with other dramatic interpretations. But I am not exactly sure how Seinfeld intends to separate actor and writer. Obviously they are different, but in what ways? People publish and read novels at rapid pace. Likewise, we consume television and movies at fast speeds. So, what exactly is the difference, and how does it affect our interpretation?

There are many types of humor. Slapstick can be overplayed successfully, whereas other jokes require subtlety and finesse. In most episodes of Seinfeld's show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee he asks for more than a chat. Seinfeld is trying to understand how humor works, and it is worth our attention, because humor may very well be an essential form of human connection.

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Meeting the Gods

August 4, 2017

“As a student I wanted to stand up at the mic during Q and A to challenge the terms under which one applies the term myth not to mention legend but I did not because the line was long because the speaker was well-known well-respected in other words he was a legend but not a myth.” - Layli Long Soldier, “Whereas”

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

As a former high school English teacher, I appreciate any new materials that make teaching easy and accessible. Recently, I read some of Rick Riordan's series of Percy Jackson and the Olympians. I was very impressed by the amount of accurate detail that he included in his texts about the ancient gods and goddesses. In The Lightning Thief, the reader is introduced to some very important mythic figures such as the Fates, Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Medusa and a variety of other gods.

Classical mythology can seem chaotic because it is. The first gods are often both spouse and sibling. Many of them try to kill each other and there is a lot of fear between fathers and sons. Also, the Greek gods are also often the Roman gods, only with different names. Therefore, mapping a family tree becomes complicated very quickly. Instead of simply creating a map, Riordan places the gods into a modern-day environment, allowing fictitious humans to interact with them. In many cases, the gods are true to their mythic figures. Riordan offers details about ancient societies also. Not coincidentally, the reader comes to learn that Percy is actually short for Perseus. Many of the details of Percy's life actually reflect the legend of Perseus. It is interesting to see where the stories intertwine and mix and diverge. Of course, I am already familiar with a good number of these gods, and so I am capable of navigating between the ancient myth and modern-day invention.

I appreciate Riordan's attention to detail and resolve to faithfully describe the gods. Whereas the a few internet sites actually offer some useful details, I was fairly disappointed with the film. I understand that it is difficult to introduce and develop many characters in so short a space, however, I feel that the Disney version left out many important details. I believe that Riordan's text offered a great opportunity since he already laid the groundwork in bringing an ancient belief system into contemporary life. Unfortunately, the movie left out all details about the ancient society. Instead, the movie focused on stunts and action. From the very beginning, the movie vastly differed from the text. In the same way that the Disney film of Hercules left out the motivating factor for Hercules' anguish (the fact that Hera hated him because he was an illegitimate son of Zeus), this film leaves out necessary portions about nearly all of the gods. There is very little understanding about the gods and their motivations, which removes a lot of the impact and tension. Also, the book is set up as a bit of a mystery, which is altogether missing in the movie.

I find this film interpretation very disappointing because the groundwork had already been done. I believe that many missed opportunities turned the film into a fairly flat piece. While it did attempt a nod or two in the direction of ancient myth, they were few and far between. Having said all of that, I do believe that students can learn a great deal from an actual comparison between text and film. For example, in reading the text, then outlining the characters, and finally comparing story lines between text and movie, a student might gain a good working understanding of mythology. This would be a fairly straightforward English assignment, easily implemented in most classrooms. I can think of a number of other exercises which would translate into other necessary skills. So, regardless of my disappointment in the film, a combination of film and text still manages to create useful and worthwhile lessons.

One of the most important elements, that I see, is the way in which myth is depicted in each medium. The quote from Long Soldier at the beginning of this post hints at the fact that, while myths were once a system of belief, as soon as we start to use the term 'myth', then we no longer believe in the transcendent power of that story. Therefore, myths are an ancient system of belief, one in which we no longer believe. As an example of ancient thought, however, myth continues to be relevant. While the story loses power as systems of belief change, the idea that spurred the story is still very much relevant. And this is where Riordan's work excels. He has transported the story into present-day, making it both comic and tragic for teenagers today. He grabs teenagers' attention by creating contemporary contexts for ancient myths. I like this technique in getting readers interested, in making the stories real and relevant for them, and also in displaying a use for creative writing. All in all, I believe that Riordan's work offers an interesting and unique path for a first meeting with the gods.

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July Quarterly Discussion Review

July 28, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“what other end or period is there of all the wars and dangers which hapless princes run into, whose misery and folly it is, not merely that they make luxury and pleasure, instead of virtue and excellence, the object of their lives, but that they do not so much as know where this luxury and pleasure are to be found?” - Plutarch, “Demetrius”

Plutarch considers the lives of Antony and Demetrius to be filled with vice. And yet, he includes these two lives in his volume dedicated to virtue. It reminds me of the wandering post I wrote about vice last year. I ended that blog with the question about whether or not an intimate understanding of vice could possibly lead to virtue. It seems that Plutarch at least weighs the idea of gaining virtue through a peek at vice in these two chapters. He likens the experience to a way of learning music. He writes, “Ismenias the Theban used to exhibit both good and bad players to his pupils on the flute and say, 'you must play like this one', or again, 'you must not play like this one'; and Antigenidas used to think that young men would listen with more pleasure to good flute-players if they were given an experience of bad ones also. So, I think, we also shall be more eager to observe and imitate the better lives if we are not left without narratives of the blameworthy and the bad.” In other words, virtue is not inherent, but must be taught. Therefore, Plutarch details the lives of Demetrius, the “City-besieger” and Antony, the “Imperator” as examples of how not to live life. In fact, as the introductory quote explains, Demetrius and Antony seem to have set off on the wrong path from the beginning of their lives. Both were from excellent families and both excelled in military skills, but failed to understand virtue off of the battlefield. For example, Antony's earliest friends included cheaters and thieves. He loved ostentatious displays of rhetoric, passion, emotion and drama. Demetrius also loved to appease his own appetites. He appeared to have no understanding of virtue as demonstrated by his extreme desire for pleasure.

It seems to me that their downfall resulted from a desire or need for pleasure. And yet, the way they went about pleasure-seeking seems entirely different to me. Once Demetrius freed Athens, he was rewarded with a room in the Parthenon. This previously unheard of gesture emboldened him, rather than humbled him. Therefore, he darkened the Parthenon (a temple dedicated to the virgin Athena) with prostitution and liquor. Even late in his life, as a prisoner, he eventually gave in to these desires. Rather than pursuing virtuosity, Plutarch notes that he ended his life playing dice and drinking, as if unaware that material pleasures are not the true path towards excellence. This seems, to me at least, to represent his own selfishness. Yet, Antony, who also demonstrated much selfishness, directed all of his passion towards Cleopatra. Plutarch often condemns Cleopatra's hold over him and claims that she manufactured some of his downfall. Cleopatra and Antony also held ridiculously lavish feasts and created unnecessary expenses. However, he was devoted solely to Cleopatra in something more akin to obsession. For her, he abandoned wives and battles and all duties. I wonder if this devotion is different from Demetrius' passion for pleasing himself. I am not sure whether the need to please always stems from selfishness or not. Regardless, these men lost great amounts of money and lives in the pursuit of satisfying their own pleasures. Worse than that, neither had much remorse for having done so. And either way, Plutarch condemns them both. Reading these chapters, I am continually reminded of the War of the Roses as portrayed by Shakespeare. A great many lives were unnecessarily ruined in both cases. And more than that, what they started had incredibly disastrous ends, not for themselves, but for entire civilizations.

Even though I have read Plutarch's analysis, and even though he explains the points at which he finds fault with Demetrius and Antony, I struggle to find one indictment stronger than the other. I wonder, which one does he believe to be better? Yet, it strikes me, while reading through these lives, that there is no better or worse, per se. Instead, I feel that Plutarch wants us to understand complexity. Even these two people who had all the fortunes necessary to be great, could not be great. And in the case of Antony, he faults the public for some of Antony's shame. Plutarch explains that Antony played the part so well, was so charming and lovable, that in the end, the people wanted more from him than he did himself. This strikes me as devastatingly tragic. Likewise, the people of Athens played to Demetrius' ego, and in doing so, they created (or ignited) a monster.

I am indebted to those who spent time on the phone with me in discussing Plutarch's dense text. I continue to learn so much, not only from Plutarch, but from others response to his words. Our next Quarterly Discussion will occur in October and I invite you to join the conversation. Email me at asimon@hmu.edu for more information.

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