Passing the Buck but the Buck is HEAVY

This is part III of my reflection on Ungrading my classes this semester. Part I is here, and Part II here.

Last week, the devil demanded his due. It was progress report time. I pledged to let students reflect and grade themselves and to resolve the grades posted through conversation. But I didn’t realize one thing:

These conversations are exhausting.

It took a lot of time to cajole students to consider follow-up questions and to examine evidence from their writing to justify their scores. A. Lot. Of. Time.

I’m definitely picking my battles. Some students I might not have agreed with, but if they made their case and weren’t way off what I would have said the mark was, then I let it go. In most cases where I couldn’t in good conscience do that, after I asked them to consider the exemplars we studied and look at specifics in their own writing, students changed their evaluations of their own writing. Afterwards, I tried to be encouraging, reminded them this was all process and that they should take this reflection as a foundation to build on.

I did have one conference with a student through my online office hours and it seemed so much better to be having the conversation live. I don’t know how the student felt, but we were able to dynamically look at the writing, I could help direct her attention in real time, and she settled very quickly on a score that seemed reasonable and based on the evidence we had just looked at in her writing.

But there is no way I could do this with all two hundred students.

I remember at one point in my AP classes (back when classes took place in classrooms), I set aside a chunk of time to have one-on-one conferences with students about their writing. It took all week to schedule them all, the meetings were really rushed and did not feel as fruitful as this one-on-one discussion I had during office hours last week.

Maybe, as I’d originally planned, it doesn’t have to be everyone…but darn it, I think everyone would benefit from this process. Even if it’s not everyone who goes through a “live” conference, it still means rethinking and retooling my procedures to try to get those windows with more kids.

 

P.S. I also got this e-mail from a student:

In this correspondence, I hear Rorshach from Watchmen. She’s looking up and shouting “validate me.” And I have to answer, “No.”

My reply:

She, too, came by office hours. It was a nice chat, but I still get the feeling that she wants very much to live in the old world.

To the Trump Voter

“Losers…Suckers.”

Now, at last.

Now, at last you have no excuses. No false equivalencies left to fabricate. No way to spin away what is right before your faces.

Now, Trump has shown the very bottom of his nature.

He has shown that not only does he not care about us, his fellow Americans, but he thinks we are all beneath him.

By insulting service members, by insulting our fallen soldiers–our war dead–he has revealed without question that not only is he without empathy, but he is constitutionally incapable of understanding sacrifice and nobility. He is the worst of us.

You cannot hand-wave this away as a fabrication of the “mainstream” media. At least four sources in the room heard this. Four people who were part of the Trump administration. This is confirmed by, of all outlets, Fox News.

Fox News.

And you cannot pretend he is not an unrepentant liar. He lied immediately during his denial, claiming that he was so upset about not visiting the cemetery in France that he called his wife back home to bemoan the disappointment.

But she was on the trip with him. She was right there.

He is a liar. He is a narcissist. He is the smallest man to ever occupy the Oval Office.

Now you cannot deny it.

You cannot.

But it is not too late. It is never too late.

You can still do the right thing.

It’s hard to admit when we’re wrong, but you can do it. I did it when Clinton was revealed to be a liar and a bastard–and quite possibly worse. But his faults and crimes pale in comparison to the display we have witnessed these past four years.

What will America be after another four years of this?

Weaker. Our alliances, tattered now, will be laid to waste. Our enemies and rivals, emboldened now, will tower over us.

Poorer. The economy that is struggling to revive itself will only limp toward profits for a few, leaving the many wounded by these crises in pain and need. The brain drain we are already seeing from slower immigration will accelerate, with more Americans of means fleeing the crumbling United States.

Sicker. Our healthcare system, strained, will be utterly shattered. Our environment, unprotected now, will be completely sullied, degraded by greed.

Uglier. We see in our streets strife and disorder. You think this is something Trump will stop? He has brought it on us. He has led us to this terrible moment by emboldening white supremacists, by stoking violence, by simply being himself–selfish, hateful, petty.

You cannot deny it any longer. Trump is the problem. He has brought us low.

He lied to you. You believed him. You thought he would be different. He was. He was worse. So much worse.

You must admit it to yourself. You must.

We must do better than what this man offers us.

Trump is right about one thing said at the Republican convention: This election will decide America’s soul. And what does embracing this man as a leader say about us as a nation? If he is shameless enough to disparage those who made the ultimate sacrifice for country, how can he be the man to redeem that country’s soul? In your hearts, you must know what you have to do: Admit that this election is bigger than party or party priorities. Admit you were wrong. Do the right thing now.

Reject the tribalism. Reject his hateful, divisive vision for America. Embrace reason.

Vote Biden.

 

Passing the Buck and Pulling My Punches?

This is Part II of my record and reflection on Ungrading. Part I is here.

I am two weeks into the semester now.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. Revolt? Shock and awe? Between my description on the syllabus and the supplementary video I recorded for my students, I got almost zero questions about the grading system. I think I had to elaborate once or twice in six “live” sessions and not-at-all for my one purely online asynchronous class. Of my 200 plus survey responses, very few mentioned the grading system. One notable exception read:

“My concerns right now is that I have to grade my own essay and I have never done that before. Also the grading system it somewhat excites me knowing there are no more points but at the same time that terrifies me.”

Which is pretty much exactly what I would hope a kid would think and say about it…well, except for the terror.

I can relate, though. I started to feel, if not terror, then at least anxiety as I began grading, er, dammit–began reading my students’ writing samples last week. They were assigned a one page analysis of Anna Quindlen’s “Write for Your Life” so that I could get a sense of their capabilities and have a benchmark for their writing portfolios. Ordinarily, I would soak these pieces in comments, correcting typical errors, criticizing over-summarization, suggesting angles for deeper thinking.

But, this semester, I’d vowed not to make anyone cry with my feedback, so…

I tried to keep my feedback almost entirely in question form and to only post about three questions for each student to think about in revising their pieces this week. For me, though, it felt like pulling my punches. I worried that I was being too soft. After all, kids whose writing needed a lot of work might not get the sense of how deeply flawed their efforts were. Kids who really knocked it out of the park may not have a sense that they had done well. I also felt like the questions I was asking were just the same old critiques in different syntax.

So, yeah, maybe there was some terror. Fear I wasn’t doing anyone any favors.

But when I found myself writing this comment, I started to feel like I was getting it:

It was a simple moment in feedback. Last year, I would’ve just put “example?” in the margin and moved on. Or, worse, might have just slapped something like “this is vague.” But the open ended question felt like much more of an invitation to conversation than a rebuke. I started to, I think, get a sense of the ethos I was going for with all of this. So in another essay, instead of just barking at the student to be more specific, I said:

So I thought back to those kids whose work needed lots of, well, work. How much good was I going to do them by just overwhelming them with negative feedback? Wouldn’t that lead to the kind of shutting down I said before I wanted to avoid? And what about those kids who could already write a great one-page analysis (that actually took them three pages)? Shouldn’t they get more out of it than a sense of smug satisfaction? So I left them notes that part of academic writing was working within limits and guidelines and asked how they could focus on the most important elements for a one-page response? And I found questions to ask them about their ideas, too. More nuanced, more focused, perhaps. But I tried to give everyone something to think about.

It felt like progress.

But looming on the horizon is the prospect of progress reports.

My original plan was to give the students a temporary grade as feedback. I would use the BlackBoard rubric for their online discussions to give them my sense of how well they were doing and protest up-and-down that it wasn’t really a grade and they shouldn’t think of it as such and it’s just feedback, I pinky promise.

Looking back, as the first number to get slapped on them in this supposedly fundamentally different class, this now looks like a terrible, horrible, very bad idea.

Fortunately, fate intervened. There was massive miscommunication between our high school campus and the college where the students are enrolled for their Dual Credit classes and the rosters on the college side look like they were diced in a food processor when compared to the real class rosters at the high school. Going into their first weekend reading assignments that require BlackBoard discussion posts, at least 20% of my students are either in the wrong class section in BlackBoard (and would see their contributions to the BlackBoard forums erased when they get moved) or aren’t even yet able to access BlackBoard.

On top of that, I want discussion to extend throughout the whole week, but knowing my campus, we’ll have to post progress report grades by noon on Friday, leaving me very little time to actually record scores for BlackBoard participation.

Again, thank god for all that nonsense.

Because thinking “what am I going to do” got me past the cockamamy plan of just trying to grade hundreds of BlackBoard posts Thursday night–if all the kids can even get into BlackBoard by then–and made me remember that the students are supposed to be evaluating themselves. If this is their first of the necessary-evil grades, then they should, ya know, grade themselves.

So instead of me slapping a number on them as teachers always have before, in class starting tomorrow, I will take them through a BINGO game identifying common errors and stylistic faux pas in writing to let them get a sense of what issues they need to improve. Then they will read a sample student exemplar of the assignment they just turned in and write a reflection in their portfolios assessing how well they did. Then they will give themselves a progress report grade with this rubric:

A – I completed a thorough analysis in a timely fashion and took thoughtful notes on all the weekend readings.

B – I completed a solid analysis on time, but I feel I could have done a little bit better; I read the assigned readings and took helpful notes.

C – I completed my analysis (but it was late or not the best I could have done); I did some of the assigned readings and took some notes.

D – I completed my analysis late and did not get very far with the readings.

F – I did not complete my analysis.

There! Now I’ve completely acclimated to Ungrading and from here on out, everything will be hunky dory?

Right?

 

 

 

Passing the Buck – Prelude to an Ungrading

This is not a how-to. This is a how-I-did.

For the uninitiated, Ungrading is the name I favor for a movement in education that looks critically at “assessment” and asks the hard question: What are grades supposed to mean?

I remember first grappling with this question more than a decade ago. Wanting to be precise and purposeful–and correct–in my grading practices, I dug into resources and documentation from the state of Texas, where I’ve now taught for over two decades, looking for simple guidelines for what the grades in my course should actually represent.

There weren’t any. Not just no simple guidelines. There were none at all. No one seemed to know what grades should actually mean. Or at least, no one seemed willing to put it down in words.

I think the secret answer is “the grade just tells you which students are better than the others.”

Over the years since then, my school district has made various pronouncements about grades. For example, there should be fifteen daily grades per grading period. (See, the periods are all about grades, but we don’t know what the grades are about.) My school experimented with a push toward standards-based grading, wherein teachers should award points based solely on mastery of the relevant state standards. As a campus leader, I was neck-deep in this push. We cooked up rubrics and did trainings. But teachers kept giving extra credit points to kids who brought in Kleenex boxes for the classroom.

I stepped down from my leadership position to teach Dual Credit full time and relished the autonomy of just teaching my way–away from the sway of the very same kind of top-down initiatives that I had spent a decade spearheading. It was a good gig and I liked it. Kids feared and dreaded my “harsh” grading, but enough told me in their end-of-year reflections that my “heartbreaking” feedback made them better writers that I consoled myself with the idea that I was doing the work, making them better.

All along I watched the Ungrading movement from the side. I’d flirted with gamification one semester with an AP class, but found that none of them were interested. To the undermotivated, it seemed like grades in another form (because it was) and to the grade-hounds, they shrugged and seemed to say “if it ain’t broke…”

But it is broke. I couldn’t shake that feeling.

2020 came and the world fell apart. A pandemic ripped the economy to shreds and sent us all indoors. Until injustice dragged thousands upon thousands into the streets. Our leadership came to assert its authoritarian tendencies more and more, even as its incompetence became more and more apparent. I thought of O’Brien in 1984: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” But it didn’t seem so much a boot as an oversized clown shoe.

Yet amidst all this tumult, I was in autodrive. I was already used to BlackBoard, the online system used by the community college, so shifting online didn’t scare me. My wife recently told me about a colleague who showed up to professional development in a shirt that read “Aspiring Retiree” and that was me too. In the forefront of my imagination at work and whenever I thought about school there was a giant countdown timer. Anyone could ask at any moment how long I had until I could draw a pension. It was seven years as I faced the beginning of the 20-21 school year.

Seven long years.

After I’d spent a week refreshing my syllabus for my introductory composition Dual Credit course, a friend and colleague asked me if I’d changed anything to “reflect current topics in our nation and world…?” I think when I got that text message, I kind of bobbed my head, like I’d gotten a little slap. When I’d built my very first syllabus for the course, I’d built a social justice unit smack dab in the middle of the course, drawing on lots of exciting readings in the textbook for the course. Then, before I ever got to teach it, I had to redo the syllabus when I found out that my kids would be getting a newer version of the book, one that had mysteriously lost the texts central to that mini-unit. Thinking about my friend’s question, I started wondering why–in the middle of one of the most tumultuous times I’d ever lived through, much less these young people–I should be satisfied with only teaching them reviews of Fault in Our Stars and Dave Barry memoirs about Halloween. They were fine writings and all, but c’mon: This was 2020.

So I started rebuilding the syllabus I’d already spent a week tinkering with. I thought at first I might throw in one or two contemporary essays to spice it up. First I found an Atlantic piece of how Germans saw the Trump regime and its pushback against protestors. Then came Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s speech on the house floor and various analyses of her performance. Before I knew it, I’d rebuilt the first third of the syllabus as a mini-course in discourse and rhetoric.

And then something else happened. A “in for a penny, in for a pound” switch got flipped in my brain. I joined an anti-grading Facebook group. I started reading blogs. Downloaded a Kindle copy of Hacking Assessment by Starr Sackstein.

And I ungraded that syllabus.

According to this new plan, there would be as few grades as possible. I’d have to give out some during the course of the semester to post on progress reports and such, but I noted that these were “not final” and were meant to just be a kind of feedback. For the real grades, the 15% on each major essay, the students would evaluate themselves and I would confer. Then the real final grade would be the subject of reflection and writing for the students at the end of the semester. The syllabus read, “Grading is one of the most problematic aspects of education. The myth that a single number can communicate how much a student has learned is deeply ingrained into our educational system, so much so that many students find it hard to imagine any other way of engaging academically. For this course, grades will only be used to the extent that they are institutionally required. Students are strongly encouraged to focus on learning and on the ongoing development of their capabilities as writers holistically and not on arbitrary or limiting grade assessments.”

I recorded a video for my online classes elaborating, trying to explain the philosophy more, urging them to “focus on what you can learn through the process of engaging in discourse during the course of this semester. What can you learn from the texts you read? What can you do in writing that you couldn’t do before? Do not be afraid of what grade you’re ultimately going to get. Take risks. Forget about the grades. Don’t think about scoring an easy A or eeking by with a good-enough C. Reject all those shallow labels and focus on your growth and capability. Because at the end of the semester, you want to be able to look at yourself and assess how ready you are for college level inquiry, to be part of academic discourse. Have you learned enough and what more do you still have to learn? Being able to answer those questions for yourself will be worth a lot more than a column full of numbers.”

I sat back from this thing I had created, this plan that felt bold and audacious to me. I saw that it was good. But was it hopelessly naive? Would it lead to disaster?

I ran it by my daughter who’s just a few years out of high school. She was a grade hound in her day, but when she read my script for my video, she said she thought if she’d had a teacher tell her those things it would have really made her think. Ultimately, she thought she would have appreciated it. “Besides,” she told me. “You’re excited about doing this. You should.”

But, really, this isn’t about those grade hounds like her. They’ll be fine, I think. I want to get to the kids who just coast by or don’t even coast. Throughout my career, I’ve been vexed by a certain type of student. In both honors and regular classes, I run across capable, bright students who nevertheless just shut down, who seem to give up. I know they could do the work and get the grades, but they don’t. I’ve tried a thousand times to reason with students like this, to cajole them into action, to get through to them somehow…to no avail. Students who could’ve passed easily, but maybe didn’t know how to truly excel, just let themselves fail. It seems like a kind of learned helplessness or maybe a defense mechanism. Maybe, on some deep psychological level, if they don’t try then they don’t feel like they’ve failed.

If grades and top-down judgments from teachers have played any part in creating this sub-set of our student population, then that alone justifies the attempt to ungrade my course as much as possible. Because if that is the case, then my “harsh” and “soul-crushing” grading (yes, it’s actually been called that–not proud of that fact) must have perpetuated the trend and it is high time I pay penance.

So this year, I’m shelving the safe syllabus I built early in the summer and I’m going to run with the grand experiment.

Gulp.

What To Do About the Schools?

As the summer of “meh” winds down, the debate about how to handle the new school year amidst the ongoing COVID pandemic grows more raucous by the day as time to develop a good option for restarting American education (and there are no good options) runs out.

The Atlantic recently featured an article by New York ICU nurse Kristen McConnell titled “I’m a Nurse. Teachers Should Do Their Jobs Like I Did.”

Now, Ms. McConnell likely had nothing to do with that rather combative title. The construction of click-baity links is something left to professional journalists and editors, but McConnell’s argument that teachers are essential just like grocery store workers and, yes, medical professionals like herself is not far removed from the sentiment slapped at the top of her essay.

And, to be sure, some of her argument makes sense. Yes, education is essential to our society. Yes, social distancing and mask-wearing have made grocery stores and hospitals reasonably safe to resume necessary operations. Her question, then, is why not schools?

There’s no easy answer here, and that’s where McConnell is wrong. She pretends that the situation on the ground and the immediacy of the societal need is simply the same as with her grocery store and hospital analogies.

New York city just released a plan to add 2,475 new ICU beds to the system. To. The. System. City-wide. At my suburban high school, we have more than 2,475 students. Every. Day. Likewise, a grocery store on a slow day (which they should all be slow days if we’re sticking to essential shopping only) will have at least two thousand customers. In. A. Day.

But in an American high school like mine, there are three thousand bodies stuck inside a big, blocky building for eight hours. Eight. Long. Hours. Thousands of teenage bodies colliding with one another again and again like billiard balls.

It’s not the same. It’s not controllable.

And, of course, McConnell also admits that her teacher husband was doing his job even when schools weren’t in session–through Zoom, through e-mail, through whatever means necessary. (Just as she admits we’re only having this conversation because of a monumental failure of leadership in our government.)

My job in the next few weeks will not be easier. I will not have the next couple of weeks off. (Granted, the being able to wear shorts every day is kinda nice.)  We will be conducting live classes following a bell schedule, but through Microsoft TEAMS. However, we can’t bank on every student being able to log in with their schedule because of potential conflicts for students, like taking care of younger siblings or watching over elders or a thousand other things we can’t and shouldn’t presume to know about their lives at home. So students will also be able to access our recorded lessons and do the classwork asynchronously later. Taking attendance for the day to report our head counts to the state will become a fun little game of detective work! Hooray!

So this isn’t a vacation for America’s teachers and we’re not asking for one. I think most of us would prefer to go back to normal. But that’s not happening.

Social distancing in school, as Ms. McConnell suggests, means that my classroom right now has only half its desks out (the rest are piled against the wall) and their positions are mapped out by blue tape on the floor. Our current cockamamy plan is that some students will remain online in the coming weeks and some will come back, further complicating the challenges of teaching during the pandemic.

I understand that teaching elementary kids online seems highly problematic. We might expect high school age students to learn through a computer screen, but how much are little, little ones going to get out of such an experience? But, as my wife who has taught second and third grade for over twenty years will tell you, there’s something pretty unpalatable about trapping kids in their classrooms all day without breaks for PE, music, lab time, lunch in the cafeteria, etc. Those little bodies and minds don’t deserve to be stuck in socially-distanced rows, unable to circulate. The monotony and sameness is stifling.

And maybe that’s the lesson we need to learn from all of this.

Our schools are not healthy places for our kids to go back to during this pandemic, but maybe that’s because our schools weren’t healthy places to go to in the first place.

Many–myself included–have argued that this crisis presents myriad opportunities to reevaluate how our society runs. How much are we paying those “essential” workers anyhow? Why should people who suffer through weeks and months of recovery for COVID leave the hospital only to face inevitable bankruptcy because of our for-profit healthcare system?

Maybe we need to also ask: What should our schools look like?

We are still running an industrial-era school system in the post-industrial world. Kids, with their bright, curious minds, shoved into rooms with fluorescent lights for hours and hours. Asked to sit still. Listen. Take this test. Then another. And another.

Though we can’t make every pie-in-the-sky idea for transforming schools work for this upcoming school year, we should seize the larger opportunity to make fundamental change in the way we teach and the way students learn.

I’ve embraced this ethos for the upcoming semester. After years of flirting with the Ungrading movement, I’ve rebuilt my syllabi to deprioritize arbitrary numbers as a means of assessing student performance and product, and shifted toward a model that (hopefully) focuses them more on reflection, self-assessment, and meaningful learning. It’s an experiment, but honestly, it can’t be worse for kids than the mind-numbing system based on constant multiple choice testing and teacher-centered “engagement” that has dominated educational thinking in the 21st century. Through my twenty year career, I’ve watched our school system sink deeper and deeper into a morass where students are measured only based on what circles they can bubble in and where teachers are expected to run a three-ring circus of constant stimulation to command students’ limited attention spans and (somehow) work miracles.

It’s absurd. So let’s start asking some hard questions: What do these tests actually measure? Do students need to be in class this many hours? Could we redesign schools to focus less on hours of education and more on actual progress–but not measured just by standardized tests? Smaller classes for less time? More student-driven learning? Outside learning?

This is an inflection point in history. We’re seeing the limits of our politics, of our healthcare system, of our justice system, of our economy–it’s time we reckon with education as well and build something better.

 

Discipline

America looks today like a failed state. A botched response to a global pandemic has left over a hundred thousand dead, the worst fatalities in the world. The sloppy, unhasty lock-down and lopsided stimulus in response to the pandemic has now hurled us toward a second Great Depression. And now, police violence has triggered monumental unrest throughout the country.

Let’s be clear. We must make a distinction between the protestors and the rioters and looters. There were tens of thousands of protestors in many of the afflicted cities. Only a few hundred rioters and looters, though.

Because if tens of thousands of people had rioted, then there would be no Philadelphia, there’d be no Minneapolis. If tens of thousands of people set out to burn a city down, then it will be burnt down. Whether looting is really a political act is open to debate, but Dr. Martin Luther King’s remark that a “riot is the language of the unheard” has been quoted quite a bit in the last few days. It’s important to note, though, that while he sympathized with the anger that led to rioting, he objected to it both on moral and practical grounds–because he feared that rioting could be used as justification for further oppression and would alienate large segments of the white populace. We can see from the currents in online discourse that he continues to be hauntingly prescient to this very day.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail and other writings, Dr. King speaks about the need for discipline among non-violent protestors. In preparing for marches and demonstrations, he knew it was asking a great deal, asking perhaps something unnatural, for protestors to not react to violence, to meet sometimes horrific attacks with peace and restraint.

This component of the campaign for Civil Rights took planning and coordination.

Spontaneous protests like those that sprang up over the past several days in the wake of the murder of George Floyd obviously cannot benefit from that kind of planning and coordination. To be sure, many march organizers worked hard to ensure that the protests remained nonviolent, but other forces have now conspired against those best intentions.

We don’t yet have a clear picture of what those forces are. Obviously, some of the looting is simple opportunism. But there seem to be radical elements from the left and right–although they may only be from the right posing as the left–looking to exploit this moment toward their own ends. There may be instigation from foreign agents using the Internet to stoke our divisions. There were other moments where police have prompted violence through unwarranted use of force. These contributing factors may never come into perfect focus. Only time will tell.

What we can reflect on now, though, is another kind of restraint, another kind of discipline.

The police are the segment of our society to whom we, typically, grant a monopoly on the use of force. In theory, this monopoly is wielded in order to serve and protect the public’s interest in maintaining law and order.

But, of course, there are problems implicit in this long-standing arrangement. What if, for example, the order the police maintain is corrupt? What if, as was the case during segregation, the law itself is immoral? And even if the laws and the societal order being protected are just, what kind of discipline does this monopoly on force require of its agents?

We know a lot about how wielding power, particularly violent power, shapes human behavior. From historical case evidence to psychological studies, we can see how dangerous a monopoly on the use of violence can be. To wield it responsibly is asking at least as much if not more than King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement asked of the members of their movement.

And, to be sure, there are many fine civil servants who wield that power ethically and responsibility, fully cognizant of their duty to the public, the entire public–victim and accused alike. In recent days, we have seen many officers and departments reaching out to stand in solidarity with outraged communities.

But we’ve also seen too many times that there are many within our police forces who do not wield their power ethically, and I’m not even talking about Derek Chauvin and the other officers who held down George Floyd.

What about the cops in riot gear, chomping at the bit to bash some skulls? What about the officers indiscriminately shoving people to the ground as they advance through the streets? What about the police vehicles being used like battering rams on assembled crowds? What about the cops hosing down protestors with pepper spray from car windows? What about reporters being hit with rubber bullets or beaten with plexiglass barriers?

How do we address this kind of police behavior? This is the conduct of police forces in an authoritarian state, and there’s no place in a democracy for this kind of behavior. There is a pervasive problem in police culture, an us vs. them mentality that allows officer to dehumanize and assault the very people they are meant to serve, along with an insular ethos whereby bad cops are not called to task by their peers.

Obviously, protests and video records of these abuses and crimes bring greater visibility to the problem of police abusing their monopoly on the use of force, but they do not in themselves present a clear path forward. The protests’ purpose is to bank social capital to leverage change (something the distraction of violence and looting makes harder, so we should all keep our focus on the positive direction of the much larger non-violent demonstrations) and we should be careful not to squander that capital.

Bringing Chauvin and his accomplices to justice is not enough. We need systemic change to maintain this visibility and make police procedure transparent so that bad cops are flushed out of the system, or at least too damned scared to abuse their power. (In fairness, many departments have already moved in this direction and, nationwide, police killings are down compared to past years.) Given the role that video evidence has played in bringing so many of these kinds of crimes to light, it’s tempting to push–as so many of us did years ago during the rise of Black Lives Matters–for more body cameras. According to the Police Use of Force Project, though, these tools are too easy for crooked cops to circumvent and have not correlated with fewer police killings. Instead, their research shows that demilitarization, greater oversight (especially federal oversight), and more emergency response options for communities lead to the best outcomes when seeking to reduce criminal transgressions by the police.

We need tougher standards for cops (and I’d say, better pay to recruit better candidates to replace the officers who need to be purged from the ranks for their crimes) and we need to demilitarize the police departments and reculture them so they do not think they are fighting a war on the communities they’re meant to serve.

All of this calls for national leadership that we are unlikely to see until after the election. It may also feel inadequate to those of us who remain deeply troubled by the rise in overt racism in our society over the last few years. There is ample evidence that racism and implicit and institutional bias are deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that overt, visible statements of racist sentiment had become taboo in American society in the last generation and that that taboo has subsequently been worn away over the last few years, allowing all manner of repugnant displays–from public harassment of people of color to white nationalist marches–to become more commonplace.

Policy can’t create taboos. The taboo against explicit racism that seemed to have taken root in American thought only a decade ago can only be rebuilt and strengthened by loud, unequivocal anti-racism from all of us. Tens of thousands of Americans in the street saying “enough” is certainly a powerful way to push back against the tide of ugly racism that’s risen the last few years.

But that racism is only one dimension of the problem with our police forces and those problems require targeted and informed policy decisions–from both local and national elected officials.

That means the next front in the campaign for justice for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Sandra Bland, for Philando Castile, for Eric Garner and for all the victims will be waged on November 3rd.

 

 

 

 

A Cruel Invitation

My daughter–recently returned home prematurely from study abroad–told me a story she heard in South America about a pair of researchers who just emerged from an eight week research junket in the rainforest to find: A pandemic sweeping the globe. Cities on lock-down. Businesses shuttered. Completely cut off from civilization, they return to a world transformed.

But aren’t we all, really, like them. This is the twenty-first century we didn’t know was coming.

This isn’t like the movies, is it? In film, the viral apocalypse spreads–undetered, unassailable–until human civilization buckles and we tear each other to pieces trying to save ourselves.

Instead–aside from some toilet paper hoarding–we’re doing the right thing. We are making tremendous sacrifices to suppress the spread of the disease. Even though it does not threaten us with a barren world like Stephen King’s The Stand or other super-viruses from fiction that result in a Mad Max-like hellscapes, we are coping. Civilization hasn’t broken. It has prioritized.

And really, I find that heartening.

To be sure, there are parts of this global story that bear deep reflection. We see already that nations that responded swiftly, that prepared wisely are faring and likely will continue to fare much better than the United States. By now it is apparent that no level of corruption or incompetence will sway the base of support propping up this president, but it must be noted: Trump disbanded a pandemic response team in the executive branch and then lied about doing it. Trump waved away early concerns about the virus, and then lied about ignoring its dangers. As always with this so-called-president, he has failed the test of leadership dramatically–worrying more about positive news and the press than American lives and well being. It’s an all-too-familiar pattern: this president believing that through sheer bravado and self-deceit he can rewrite reality in his favor.

Yet this time, reality failed to oblige.

When we come through this pandemic, we will indeed be facing a new world. Our economy will be in tatters. Jobs will have been lost or disrupted. Supply chains strained. We will–as a people–face many choices about how to move forward.

If we are willing to sacrifice so much during this crisis to protect the most vulnerable among us, then maybe we need to admit that our way of life, our economic system, our very society do not do that on a day to day basis.

Our growing inequality is on display everywhere. Across the border in Ciudad Juarez, there’s another story buzzing around. A member of high-society, some rich kid just back from Europe, was too entitled to pay any heed to the orders to self-quarantine and spent a week partying in night clubs and socializing before his diagnosis. He’s now isolated alright–in hiding from death threats. And here in the U.S. we’re asking questions about why so many high profile celebrities and athletes are managing to get preventative testing, when people who are already sick go without. Our for-profit healthcare system is strained and scrambling to prepare for the triage days to come. Our coproratopia shutters, leaving hourly workers adrift.

When we rebuild…we can do better.

Already the bailout is taking unfamiliar shapes. Yes, help the airlines, they say. Obviously, they say we should help out small businesses. But now, Mitt Romney sounds like Andrew Yang, suggesting we just hand out money. That’s pretty bold for a Republican whose party is always on the ramparts, ready to combat the evils of socialism or big government.

And this is a time for bold leadership.

Honestly, the best choices to lead us through the wake of this disaster have been eliminated from the field of candidates for the upcoming election and we are left with a choice in November between the inept man-child or the bumbling, amiable every-man. Personally, I’d rather have Warren crunching the numbers or Sanders rallying the people–but we’ll just have to hope their leadership in the Senate is enough to help us through this.

The real momentum for transformation, though, must come from us.

From the people.

We need to demand the bold restructuring that will inoculate our society against this sort of disaster in the future and build a more just world as a monument to this moment in history.

Let us insist that the executive branch be reigned in after decades of expanding power and that it become fully transparent and accountable to Congress so that decisions like disbanding the National Security Council’s global health security office can no longer be taken on a whim.

Let us consider using taxation–as we did after the Great Depression and World War II–to produce a more equitable distribution of wealth. Should we tax every dollar earned above a million dollars at a much higher rate as we used to? In 1945, it was over 90%. Should we impose a wealth tax to fund the rebuilding of our nation so that the huge stockpiles of banked capital in the hands of people like Jeff Bezos are not simply growing wealth for the 1%, but generating economic activity for the nation?

Should we deprivilege corporations in favor of cooperatives so that when calamity strikes, workers are part owners and can enjoy some economic security, knowing that when normalcy returns, they are part of the solution and not a cost to be cut. Should we restructure the very nature of the corporation–that very synthetic beast–and find new ways to generate capital and drive markets? Can we break the cynical operations of high finance and reward stock holders for the health of a company as a whole and not simply for profit margins that come at the expense of employees and customers–but never, somehow, CEOs.

Should we reunionize? Should we take our democracy online? Should we amend the constitution? A Green New Deal, perhaps?

If this looming pandemic-driven recession is our Great Depression, then we know what our Great War is that must follow it. Because of the flaws in our systems, we have created a society of waste and neglect that is reshaping our environment, our very world. Yet today, dolphins were spotted in the canals of Venice. As we recede from our conspicuous consumption to protect ourselves, so too does the natural world breathe easier for a moment.

If we can rise to the challenge of this crisis, then we can find the fortitude to reshape our lives and our culture to fight the good fight and preserve the world for our posterity. They are right now leaving their colleges, sheltering themselves in their homes, giving up their wages to protect the older generation from the ravages of this disease.

It’s only right that in the next phase, we serve them by helping to create a better world.

America First

I haven’t written about this administration in a while. I haven’t said much specific about politics in a while, actually. But it’s left me with very little to say. I’ve been wanting to find ways of being more positive. I’ve tried asking myself:

Is Trump really so bad?

I want to understand how so many can support what has seemed to me so intolerable. So as a thought exercise, I’ve tried going through it all objectively. Yes, clearly he has shattered norms. He is incurably dishonest. He is brash and rude. But is it possible to just look at these things as showmanship? Could it just be an act? Could we on the left have been distracted by the bluster and miss the substance, the ideology behind it?

But even if you do that, then you come to see that if Trump’s persona is a comedian’s schtick, then his policies and ideology are those of a huckster.

Recently he commented to Fox News that he believes America should get paid for sending its troops to a foreign country. He has in the past bristled over the cost of our alliances to South Korea, to Japan, to NATO.

This is the mentality Trump brings to the White House. The cheap landlord trying to get his dime.

This is America First.

This is Trump’s business model. But this is not leadership.

Leaders do not put themselves first.

 

To Do List for the Nation

It’s 2020, so I’m spitballing here. What should be our priorities for sustainability in the next decade?

-Subsidize solar, wind, and tidal energy.

-Replace fossil fuels with biofuels (but not corn-based ethanol, sorry).

-Establish a plan to shift all (non-medical) single-use plastics to bioplastic.

-Subsidize green roofs.

-Develop a national rewilding program.

-National initiative to improve municipal recycling capacities.

-Shift to only sustainable palm oil in products sold in US.

What else?

https://twitter.com/helmlingdotcom/status/1212456810990505984

Review: The Expanse Season Four

Season four of the Expanse has arrived! If you haven’t watched it, go do that. 

Because below thar be SPOILERS! 

The first episode opens up with what amounts to a roll call, revisiting the series’ various characters, now clumped into a few groups that will mostly remain separate through the season as they grapple with the ramifications of the galaxy being opened up for possible exploration and exploitation by the events at the end of season three. 

On Earth, UN Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala is facing a new web of political machinations, far less sinister than the plots she foiled in season three, but in some ways, this new ordeal is more horrifying: an election. Despite popular clamoring for expansion, her impulse is to hold back on colonization beyond the ring gates. Having seen the horrors of Eros, she is reluctant to open the floodgates and let the “blood-soaked gold rush” that central protagonist James Holden predicted begin. 

So when she needs someone to help her apply the brakes to the expansionist zeal, she turns to the man who knows the ring-building protomolecule best: Holden himself. At her behest, he and the Roci head out past the ring gates to a little planet called Ilus, or New Terra, depending on who you talk to.

The Ilus storyline where Belter squatters and corporate stooges from Earth tussle for control of a planet that is brimming with both hostile alien organisms and world-shaping protomolecule technology is adapted largely from the fourth Expanse novel, Cibola Burn.  

On Ilus, Holden and his crew work through a pretty self-contained story arc. The Earth expedition crashed under suspicious circumstances and their security chief, Murtry, wants to flush out the Belter terrorists responsible. Meanwhile, Holden has ferried the protomolecule’s artificial intelligence based on the memories of Joe Miller along to Ilus and inadvertently switched on the planet-scale machinery beneath the surface. Meanwhile, Naomi pushes herself to the breaking point trying to acclimate to a planet’s gravity and Amos makes a new friend (wink, wink). The conflicts these core characters face are mostly external now since they have coalesced into a little family and aren’t at odds with one another. The action here isn’t quite episodic, but the challenges and complications our core characters face feel somewhat disconnected from the larger issues of the galaxy, just as they did in Cibola Burn. 

That novel takes place almost entirely on Ilus, away from all the other characters except the core Rocinante gang of Holden, Alex, Naomi, and Amos. Season four of the show, though, does not leave the rest of the cast from the previous seasons behind. 

Just as the show continues to track Avasarala’s political conundrum even after she has sent Holden on his way, it also keeps up with Drummer and Ashford, who are now both in uniform and hunting rogue OPA around the ring gate to maintain the uneasy alliance with Earth and Mars. Ashford is a changed man since season three. He acknowledges his errors and has resolved himself firmly to non-violence—well, in the largest sense anyway. He still has to shoot down pirates, but he preaches to any he can catch that the new Belt needs to reject violence as a political tool. It’s easy to see that this stance is both his penance for almost lashing out at the ring gate and wiping out humanity and the natural evolution of his compromises in the name of progress when we met him in season three. The show, though, hints that he has also come to blame himself and his life of violence for the death of his child, alluded to in past episodes but made more tangible here as he watches some old zero-G home movies. 

The Expanse was no doubt trying to get the most out of its big guest star here and lets him outshine Cara Gee’s Drummer a bit, but that’s understandable, considering his fate. His loss at the end of the season suggests darker developments ahead for the peace between the Belt, Earth, and Mars. 

The show also finally goes to Mars. We’ve technically been here before, but only for an outdoor combat exercise in season two. At long last we get to see Martian culture through Frankie Adams’s Bobbie Draper, now a disgraced ex-marine looking to reintegrate into Martian society. Ever since she first joined the show, I’ve been hoping that they would just leave Bobbie on the Rocinante once she was there (even though that’s not what happened in the books either). Bobbie’s reluctance to do so makes sense for her character, though. She is, as we hear so often, a good Martian. But that means less than it used to now that Martian society is fraying. Why spend your lifetime terraforming Mars, many are now wondering, when there are livable worlds on the other side of the gate? 

The novella Gods of Risk features Bobbie as a side character and is one of the most forgettable of The Expanse’s ancillary pieces. Going into the season, I’d kind of hoped we wouldn’t be seeing it hashed out on screen, but it does serve as the jumping off point for Bobbie’s arc here. The series, though, extends that story and eventually makes her foray into the underworld connect with the larger events in the system. It makes sense for the show, and even makes sense for the character—to an extent. Bobbie slides into her criminal life a little too easily. I honestly thought she was probably under cover for the cop who harasses her at the beginning—that she’d discreetly contacted her and was gathering evidence to bust up Esai’s little syndicate. 

But the Bobbie Draper we met on the show has always been different than her counterpart in the books. Always a little angrier, and always a more fervent believer in Mars’s destiny. Having that carpet yanked out from her and losing her sense of purpose yet again just works as justification for stepping outside the law. Many fans may have wished that she would just take Avasarala’s job offer and leave Mars right away since Frankie Adams and Shohreh Aghdashloo are delightful together and their chemistry in seasons 2 and 3 made those some of the best episodes of the whole series, but hopefully we will see plenty fo them together in season five. 

In their discreet plot arcs, each of the main characters from the previous seasons interacts with new faces—some potential allies, some foils, and some antagonists. Bobbie spends her time running with a crew who are in no way as cool as the Roci gang. Avasarala has a couple of new political flunkies (I really thought one of them would turn out to be Soren from the books) and a new political opponent. Their two story lines likely feel the least significant because those other characters don’t seem to be sticking around for long and don’t really carry much weight when all is said and done. When Bobbie is back on her own, we aren’t exactly left missing her erstwhile fellow criminals—and would rather see her clash with the new enemies she meets in only a literal flash at the end of her story on Mars.

The Expanse has had villains before, monsters like Dresden or people warped by their ambitions like Errinwright and Mao. But the show’s best antagonists are the ones who kind of have a point. Dawes and Fred’s conflict was layered and nuanced, just as their eventual alliance is presumed to be (I hope they are moving heaven and Earth to ensure we see Jared Harris again in Season 5) because you could see Dawes’s argument and understand his ambitions for the belt even when they ran counter to what our heroes wanted. 

Murtry, the boogeyman of Ilus is certainly not one of those characters. He could have been, and it’s somewhat disappointing that the show misses such an obvious chance to develop him as a more nuanced counter to Holden. The moment when he spins around and says, “Now that’s a threat” and fires without real provocation was too black and white. A simple second or two of footage where the Belters, uncowed, continue challenging him, a simple “What if it is?” to cast some shades of gray into the moment would have made his whole arc and all the choices he made afterward more compelling. 

But Murtry was never staying around long anyway, so it’s no great loss. 

If The Expanse missed its chance with him, then it stuck the landing with Marco, who is obviously being set up as a major antagonist for the future of the show. We know from the exposition introducing Naomi’s former love and lover that he has a reputation for being “charismatic,” but that flash of tell, don’t show in Ashford’s dialogue is rendered totally forgivable when we meet him and find that, dammit, they weren’t kidding.

Played by Keon Alexander, Marco is seductive. His scene in the airlock doesn’t just win over some of the enemy factions, it woos the viewer. He is easily the strongest new presence in any of the separate threads that run throughout the ten episodes of season four. 

These threads come together—or at least start to—in the end. Like the novel Cibola Burn that provides much of the material for this season, season four does a lot to set up the board for future action. That foreshadowing becomes more overt by the end of the season when Marco Inaros reveals his plan to attack Earth, where most of the rest of our characters either are or are heading to. The entire plot on Ilus was about resolving the nagging issues of intergalactic expansion, wiping away the last traces of the intelligence that opened the gates for us so that this bold new frontier would be ours, truly ours, and even demonstrating that, in a pinch, we can survive the myriad trials waiting for us on these habitable, but still alien worlds made available through the miracle of the protomolecule.

But in the hands of showrunner Naren Shankar and his tremendous cast and crew, the season is also a settling of personal frictions. Each character explores and resolves inner conflicts. Drummer is going to be her own person. Avasarala has made her peace with defeat, for the first time. Bobbie, robbed of her life-long purpose, has found another mission. By working with Lucia, Naomi accepts that she has remade and redeemed herself. Alex, too, is able to articulate his regrets about his family, but is still sure he is where he belongs. Holden moves past being simply the “hand terminal” the protomolecule is punching buttons into and chooses his role as the vanguard for this new civilization. (Amos is, well, still Amos; but even he has faced the very root of his trauma through the ordeal of going blind.) 

Through it all, they’ve now been tested and are steeled for the challenges ahead in Season 5…

 

IF YOU’VE NEVER READ THE BOOKS, THEN THAT’S THE END OF THE REVIEW—TURN BACK NOW!

 

And readers of the books know what those challenges will be.

Obviously, setting up Marco’s attack on Earth seems like it’s spoiling one of the big shocks of Nemesis Games. In the post Game of Thrones era, TV viewers no longer expect that the heroes will always thwart the bad guys at every turn and many are likely prepared now for the rocks to fall. 

The build-up, though, lends more direction to the events of season 4. These threads that Drummer, Ashford, and Bobbie have been pulling lead somewhere—somewhere more horrible than any of them has yet realized. Looking ahead to season five, it’s difficult to imagine how the show will reckon with a catastrophe of the scale described in the books. One hopes it does better than the novels did. Holden making “sympathize with the Belt” videos after the greatest atrocity in human history always seemed both tone deaf and pointless. I think Shankar knows where to go with this, though. The level of foreshadowing that has gone into this moment—not just with Marco’s holograms and the captured Martian’s warning about the dream of Mars being “writ large,” but from hints and mentions of “rocks” falling throughout the show’s life—suggests that he knows that he and his crew are building up towards something both massive and monstrous. 

The Expanse is often compared with BSG—hell, I’ve done it—but the disaster of the Cylon attack launched the series. This will be different. The entire world of The Expanse will be upended and a new order will be left in its wake. 

 

Stray Thoughts:

  • I wonder why Brian George was recast. New Arjun was one of the most distracting things in this season. It’s hard to accept such a dramatic turn in Avasarala’s relationship without the sense of continuity we’d have had with the previous actor remaining in the role. 
  • Also, the choices they make in Avasarala’s arc on Earth are fascinating. The conceit of her losing the election was concocted for the show, along with the tension in her marriage (which had alway seemed like her rock both in the novel and past seasons of the show). But the really fascinating wrinkle comes in her debate with Nancy Gao. Gao’s attack on the economic policies on Earth is dramatic and we can’t help but see Avasarala as a guardian of a social order that is fundamentally unjust. As with her later manipulations that alienate her husband, Avasrala is just plain wrong. It’s an interesting choice for one of everyone’s favorite characters and I’m curious how it will shape her future. 
  • We get to see Nadine Nicole’s Clarissa Mao reach out to Amos via video chat because she has no one else left in the world. She comments that she has to—cough, cough—spend the rest of her life in jail. Stay tuned, Peaches. 
  • Also, for shits and giggles, I inaugurated a new Twitter feed with one-sentence recaps of every Expanse episode as self-help book titles like this one. Check ‘em out.