Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Eleanor Catton Controversy

Basically, an author speaks her mind, says nothing wrong and everyone jumps on her. Or did she say some stuff that was wrong? From
She said New Zealand did not have a lot of confidence in the brains of its citizens and there was a lot of embarrassment over writers.
 Catton said she grew up with the "strange belief" that New Zealand writers were less great than writers from Britain and America.
Yeah, I'm inclined to agree with this. I mean, in general, we seem to import almost all our media, cringe at the stuff that is made here reflexively and, as a result, make it have to work twice as hard as media from everywhere else. It doesn't help that a lot of it is, actually, bad. It's probably better when it comes to books and stuff because, frankly, no-one talks about them unless there's a film adaptation, an award or controversy. Which, I suppose, is just another way of saying she's write (hilarious).
"The good side of New Zealand is that there isn't all that kind of shallow literary fame where everyone's backstabbing each other."
The problem was New Zealanders were reluctant to express firm beliefs in anything.
Um, I'm not sure. It's pretty easy to not back stab each other when there's nothing to gain from it. At the same time, I think it is important to distinguish between "express firm beliefs in anything" and "express firm beliefs". We've got a lot of media nobodies willing to say stuff, but we don't really here or ask academics their opinions much. Maybe that's due to this, I cannot say.
Although The Luminaries won the Man Booker prize, it failed to win the New Zealand Post Book Award main prize.
"There was this kind of thing that now you've won this prize from overseas, we're not going to celebrate it here, we're going to give the award to somebody else," Catton said.
 "If you get success overseas, then very often the local population can suddenly be very hard on you."
This is called Talled Poppy Syndrome. Tall Poppies get cut down by those poppies who aren't so tall... in other words, the masses punishes success. It's a real thing but I don't think it happened to Catton. She possibly should've got the overall NZ based prize but maybe not. In general, though, people have been very pleased with her success with The Luminaries. Note, pleased with not pleased for her.
She was uncomfortable with the way the Man Booker was seen as a New Zealand award.
"It betrays an attitude towards individual achievement which is very uncomfortable. It has to belong to everybody or the country really doesn't want to know about it."
Obviously, I agree with this. And the thing is, a lot of people don't recognise that we always do this. The phrase is, I believe, Small Country Syndrome. We, as a nation, always look for the Kiwi angle. Always. There is a Theory of Everything and it says that, on some level, if we look hard enough, we can make this directly relevant to New Zealand. There is, though, one exception. It's called Russell Crowe. In that case, you do everything you can to not look.
She did not like being an ambassador when her country was not doing as much as it could for the intellectual world.
Why is she even an ambassador in the first place? Because she did something that attracted attention and now we can use her to make New Zealand more famous. Small Country Syndrome again, there.

Are we doing as much as we can for the intellectual world? Let's ask National if they have any further plans in their war on universities... oh, wait, they do. National and ACT also take a very "Job Training" perspective when it comes to education in general. So, yeah, this is obviously true. Objectively true. To deny it is to ostrich.

On a more cultural side, recall what I said earlier about media.
"At the moment, New Zealand, like Australia and Canada, (is dominated by) these neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture," Catton is quoted saying.
"They care about short-term gains. They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want. I feel very angry with my government."
Sadly, completely and utterly true. Look at RMA reform. Look at our river quality (100% pure? More like 100% dangerous to touch, let alone swim in). Look at National's approach to education (job training, failed charter school model). Look at which parties object to the CRL and which ones fawn over motorways. Look at the NZ Herald's tendency to endorse urban sprawl. Practically any aspect of NZ society today shows this same message of today is the only day that exists. Catton is absolutely and completely correct.

John Key, of course, recognised this (he may have a lot of idiotic policies and come across as a complete moron, but he is not a stupid man) and decided he had to act. So, we get this:
Responding to Catton's comments, Prime Minister John Key said he was disappointed she felt that way, but not necessarily surprised. 
"She has been aligned with the Green Party, and that probably summarises the Green Party view of this Government.  
"I don't think that reflects what most New Zealanders perceive of the Government. If it was, they probably wouldn't have voted for us in such large numbers.  
"I'm disappointed she doesn't have respect for the work that we do, because I have tremendous respect for what she does as a writer, and that's why I think she's been so widely acclaimed."
 Okay, yeah, he's probably right about the Greens (er, I agree with Catton and voted Green for instance) but the point is that the Greens, despite being our third largest party, are still sufficiently marginal (especially after that homeopathy crackpot list dude's Ebola outburst) for that to serve as a way of marginalising Catton's view. Despite the current National government's obsession with trying to come across as being economically orthodox and orthodox economic's obsession with margins, Key has no problem in using marginalisation tactics to ignore issues he doesn't like.

The bigger issue is the idiocy of the "I respect you, therefore you must respect me" argument that Key also deployed to invalidate Catton's arguments in case the marginalisation failed to achieve the desired effect. Contrary to the opinions of the NZ Herald's writer Claire Trevett it absolutely is an attempt to "to gag Catton and [ridicule] her." This isn't even the only problem with Key's views on respect, from the comments section of Trevett's opinion piece and a user named Cathy:
i thought john key's comment was bizarre.
he respects Eleanor Catton's work so therefore she must respect his work. says nothing about whether the work is worthy of respect or not. if he wants anyone to respect his work then he should do something worth respecting. i have no difficulty understanding Catton's lack of respect for him.
  The most liked comment? Well, here are the words of Gandalf from St Heliers.
Eleanor Catton is right in her criticisms of the governments economic ideology, and about tall poppy syndrome. Intellectuals generally get cut down in NZ, and are accused of being left wing. All the articles dripping sarcasm, cynicism, and subtle government promoting rhetoric doesn't change that.
 Mind you, I think the online readership of the NZ Herald site is less keen on National and Key than the site itself.
Key said he was not concerned with the level of international coverage Catton's comments received. 
"In the end, it's a free world and people will judge New Zealand on its merits. 
"I'm certainly very happy with the reports and the overall progress the Government is making on behalf of all New Zealanders. We had an election and they judged that themselves." 
Actually, I think people decided that the entire left (rather than just the Internet-Mana Party) spent far too long altogether discussing corruption and then felt enormously let down when the election's main political figure (bizarrely*) turned out to have a really incredibly disappointing clincher of evidence. National's policies, unlike in the case of the partial privatisation in 2011, weren't really occupying any of NZ's collective thought space.

*I mean, that Dotcom was a central player upon the stage was bizarre. The evidence thing was probably predictable.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies is a 1950s book written by William Golding that sees a plane full of British schoolboys crash land on an unsettled mostly tropical island. The British government has its hands full with a nuclear war so the boys could be there for the long haul. The question, though, is will the even survive the first day? That's the plot line and now the rest will contain spoilers.

Do I like Lord of the Flies? Yes, without hesitation I do. I liked it when I read it for fun and didn't really worry about the excess of symbolism. I liked it when we studied it in year twelve English. I really liked getting an excellence for my essay on it.

Important themes

The Darkness of Man's Heart is the big one. I mean, it's actually a quote from the book. Basically we're all bad and it's society that keeps us contained. Also important are the various ideas on the nature and role of individual and society. But these are secondary and get revealed in establishment of this first theme (for reference, Golding tends to have the individual in competition with society for a reason). Remember the book is a literary response to another book that had boys stranded on an island, but everything works out all right for that lot (i.e. no-one gets murdered a la Piggy or accidentally ritually sacrificed like Simon: how do you accidentally get ritually sacrificed? read the book).

Important Characters


The boys' absolutely terrible leader. He's big, he's bold and Jack walks all over him. Lots of very heroic traits and undoubtedly a good person. He's just not the right kind of personality to deal with the situation at hand.


The leader of the paramilitary choir/hunters. A tragic figure in my eyes. It's pretty clear that his entire identity is built around school and his place in it (i.e. choir leader). Ralph recognises this and lets Jack maintain control of the choir. However, the perversion of the school order (he's not a prefect I believe was a complaint) is a bit much for Jack and he slowly becomes Hitler. A better leader but a worse person than Ralph.


A lot of people forget that Piggy wanted to be leader too. Ironically, he was probably the only one who would have worked as a leader with Ralph and Jack as the muscle to keep him in power. But would Jack have been able to accept that order? However, he was never going to be leader. He lacked charisma and physical aptitude (he was asthmatic and bespectacled... although the latter is usually a minor physical hindrance) so he ended up as the "true wise friend" who gets killed by his opposite number. Piggy's glasses bring him importance but when they're being used, in some real sense, Piggy is pointless. Ultimately, perhaps not smart enough to function as the wise advisor but that was his role.


Like the Beast, Simon is, in my opinion, completely over-rated as a character. The problem with Simon is that if you don't think the Beast is actually all that important to the book, Simon's not so important either. At any rate, the rituals of the hunt kill Simon when he wanders into the circle (he was a little out of it), which means the fact that the Beast is a dead airman never gets revealed. Simon functions as the spiritual aspect of the boys and without him they're not going to realise that their enemy (the Beast) was internal. As I said above, Piggy probably wasn't quite clever enough: he, unlike Simon, was too interested in becoming part of the group. Simon was comfortable with being other and that was both his great strength and the cause of his demise.


Crucial character. He is as important to the theme as Jack and Ralph. He's the boy who's unable to throw rocks directly at a little'un and he's also the boy that kills Piggy with a great big rock. He's responsible for the conch's demise. He does the dirty work for Jack, terrorising Sam'n'eric. Jack may be the boy who starts leaving society behind but it is in Roger that we meet a native of Castle Rock. Ultimately much more important than Sam'n'eric who are, basically, just there to make up the numbers (and, indeed, that's how Golding uses them).

The Naval Officer

Let's be honest here, Lord of the Flies is a novel where the plot is an excuse to have symbols. Most of the characters are symbolic and most of the plot just exists to reveal symbols and/or help the symbols reveal the theme. This is why the un-named Officer is one of the most important characters. He turns up, has a few good lines and is pretty much there to show that it is only society that constrains the evil. Plot-wise I guess he does save Ralph literally and the boys metaphorically so there's that too.

Some of the Symbols

The Conch

Not quite the magic conch, but close to it. The symbol of democracy and all that. In some sense, the conch is the big mistake. The effectively project all of the old life onto it and when it shatters you know things have reached the point of no return. Oh, wait, Naval Officer.

The Beast

The boys know something is wrong so they create the Beast. Problem is that it's them that's causing the problem. Yadda yadda yadda. I was never particularly interested by the Beast/Simon/Lord of the Flies part of the book. And I think it's not a coincidence that you can shut all these aspects that get most of the attention away into a self-contained unit.


This is the ultimate expression of society. They need it to have any hope of escape. Even the individual hunters need it to sustain their hunting. It is the social need that society must provide. Right at the end, when Ralph is the main issue what is used to get rid of him? That's right, burn the island down! Still social, just evil now that society has been made evil by the intense focus on the individual.

Core Conflicts

Fire versus Meat

Society versus Individual. A symbolic conflict.

Spear versus Conch

Two competing bases for tribes.

Jack versus Ralph

But, of course.

Best Line

"I saw your fire." - The Naval Officer

That's the final vindication of Ralph. Everything that he stood for is, in four words, proved right and Jack proved wrong. He might have been an awful leader that helped as much as anyone to ruin a shaky chance, but he was right! Except, Ralph himself sometimes lost the point of the fire.

The line is my favourite for the simple reason that it's what finishes an essay on Lord of the Flies. The final symbol of society enters a plot, ends the war and does all that because of the thing their society had to provide: fire. The conclusions from such evidence are undeniably: society constrains evil, and everyone needs society, ultimately.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

On the Differences of College and University

Just a note, I am not using college in that nasty foreign sense of university. Instead, college refers to secondary education (i.e. high school), as it should.

Recently I came across, on Facebook, a Buzzfeed video entitled High School versus College You. As it was one of the last things I encountered during the day it naturally weighed on my mind a bit and I decided that imitating it in the course of considering my opinion of what it contained would be fun. I should point out that I am fairly sure that the video is playing for humour and like good humour it is working from a position of truth.

Post-College vs. Post-Uni

In the video the central character (played by Eugene Lee Yang; so we'll call him Eugene) has some fairly clear ideas of where he wants to be post-college. He'll stay in the same state (it is an American production) and has a list of potential universities which he's keen on. Unigene! (get it?) in contrast has "no idea". I blame his use of an Apple laptop for this (hahaha).

This is a question that comes up reasonably often in my experience both at college and at uni. In may respects, I am in exact agreement with Eugene. My response in year thirteen would have been, "Uni" although what I was intending on doing specifically was more vague. This aspect may not necessarily have struck the makers because, apparently, the US system specialises later on than first year. If you ask me now, my answer will be "no idea". On one occasion I said, "I can see myself writing a lot of reports" which is probably the closest I have come to actually narrowing down a career path for some years now. But, yeah, I agree with the video's point that in university one has to consider the wider world and, for a lot of us, the question is just too huge, especially when put in context with our current results. I think most people in my situation have vague dreams which would be used as answers if a way of making them come true was realistically out there.


So, Eugene turns up at 7:58am and has a few minutes to get to where he needs to be. He's kind of keen to get there on time as well. In the uni section he rocks up at half twelve, coffee in hand, and just shrugs off the administrator's line.

Okay, so this one is totally unrealistic with my experience of university and, for a lot of people. high school (we use college and high school, often in the same breath). At university no-one is actually checking if you're there or not, except in the case of tutorials (which a fair few people won't turn up to). At college, you get a lot of too cool for school types so... But Unigene has got something of a point with "This course is an elective". It's incredibly dismissive and, in fact, pretty disrespectful. Which is, really, the point. Turning up on time is a matter of respect for your lecturer (or, in some cases, lack of respect for the variations of transport). In some lecture theatres with the entrances at the bottom (i.e. near the lecturer), you're likely to just resort to a recording rather than walk in part-way through and have everyone see you as you do so. You may not even intend on turning up and, instead, rely on the recording instead (a riskier strategy, but still commonly done)... which is an indication of how much you care about being there in the first place. Ironically, you're probably more likely to care about something you've chosen (unless it's one of Auckland's GenEds) because that's a course that you've chosen, rather than something that you have to do as part of your degree. The GenEds do, in my eyes, function more like Unigene's elective because they're something most people have to do to get a degree and they're quite likely only approximately close to the interests of the person in question.

In short, uni does absolutely nothing to incentivise you to turn up other than provide the education it provides anyway. Tutorials are something of an exception as sometimes stuff like plussage is only an option for those who are always there. Maybe one or two marks. Mostly when they take the role it is purely administrative. This is is one reason why teachers in year thirteen and orientation stuff done by the uni push a message of increased student responsibility. I'm not sure how things are in the states but this is how it is here in NZ.


At college, Eugene moans about the dullness of his peers and speaks of a desire to escape. Unigene (I'm really pleased with this name) moans about the sharpness of his peers, speaking of the meaninglessness of "Asian Excellence".

I liked college. It was fun, I had fun. There were the odd bad days and times where I was less keen but they were very much the exceptions. So, for me, I never had any particular desire to be gone as soon as humanly possible. I also didn't spend much time whining about idiots because most of my friends were as smart as me, close to it or smarter. This is what happens when you start in an advanced class: you don't tend to spend a lot of time with people who are dull. Although, of course, what really matters is the ability of your peers to maintain your interest and, frankly, intelligence doesn't have to come into that. Certainly, intelligence in the sense of "does well in the classroom" is something that people shouldn't hold in too high a regard. At uni, I kind of agree. I did write a post where I mentioned my mediocrity. I think, for many people, they'll do stuff at university which challenges their perception of their own intelligence. The tail ends of Maths 150 was that for me but earlier on there were things I struggled with, hinting at later problems. If you take the message of this segment of the video to be "success at school won't necessarily translate to success at university" then I agree completely.


Eugene tries and fails to mention his interest in a girl to said girl. Unigene, though, downs a shot for a little Dutch courage and manages to get something out. I'm more of a "Don't bother with this sort of thing person" so I never mention my like like feelings to anyone except my head. As a result, I have nothing to add to this. Or, really, anything to say.


Basically this relates to acquisition and behaviour. At college, Eugene can get a single can of beer from his older brother. At uni it's "chug! chug! chug!" with much more alcohol around. Drinking isn't my scene but I heard about some excessive parties while at school and at uni I've been to parties which have included excessive drinking (but also less alcoholic things otherwise I wouldn't be there; and neither would a few of my other friends who also don't drink/drink little). Personally, I am inclined to say the only difference is that uni parties are more able to obtain drinks. I don't think, once you're beyond year nine, there is any difference in how people behave when able to drink to excess.


At high school, Eugene has what amounts to a lavish feast laid on by his mother. Unigene gets 10c two minute noodles. The implication is clear: cost dictates decisions more in university when it comes to food. That's both in terms of quality and quantity.

This one is interesting, mostly because I feel as if it is neither experience that is particularly realistic. I eat pretty much the same stuff for morning tea and lunch at uni as I did at college. That is to say, sandwiches. In fact, there's an argument that I frequently eat better as there is a greater tendency to not have what amounts to jam sandwiches and instead have ones with fillings. This is, of course, despite the train introducing additional costs. Unigene's meal is straight out of Craccum's povo student stereotype, which is probably the point (I did, after all, decide this was a video largely made for humour) as it is in Craccum (Auckland's student magazine that aims to amuse and frequently almost gets there, stopping at bemuse). Certainly, uni strains budgets but, looking around, there are a lot of people who have no qualms stopping at what are fairly expensive locations in and around uni. Or people go into the city a bit more (i.e. walk for five minutes). What I am saying is that while cost probably becomes a consideration for a lot of people who would never have thought too much about that before, it doesn't reach the extreme in the video for most people. When it does reach that extreme I urge anyone in such a situation to research and reach out to people and groups that will help. They exist. Also, perhaps try a more rigid budget (which is, I appreciate, hard... people talk about sanity purchases for a reason: they're part of being human).


College finds a frustrated Eugene who's living up to the teenage stereotype that cries 'give me some space mum!'. He doesn't actually say that but Eugene probably would get feels from someone who does.  Unigene is another story. I think it's pretty clear that Unigene is living away from home because he says of his mum that he "[misses] her so much". In general their relationship is very different, Unigene actually wants to talk to his mother, for one thing.

Again, I don't really have much to add here. Largely because I've never had any parental issues like this and because I still live at home and instead commute to uni. My mother often helps me with my lunch, to continue the previous section. I did know someone whose mum came to visit him at uni and some of my friends who went further afield seemed very happy to get back home (as did the first year bloggers that Auckland recruits for its Inside Word thing) so I'm going to say, it's pretty close to how it is.


This one is quite clever. Recall the very first segment where Eugene has a clear idea of where he wants to go post-school? Well, here he's irritated by a friend suggesting they get lunch lest he miss out on getting into a good school (weirdly Americans call their colleges schools: this doesn't really happen here despite the Business School). It also recalls Unigene's not knowing his post-uni plan and in the Angst section Unigene complains about everyone else's being so clever. Why? Because Unigene jumps at the chance to go and have lunch with a friend (okay, so jump is hyperbolic: he does contemplate it in the way that one does before doing something one knows one will regret/feel guilty about later). Considering that context I think the video is providing a reason for Unigene's thoughts in those sections.

This is a very variable one. For some things you'll do the workload where you might not have previously. As an example, Business 101 where each workshop is based on everyone's having already done the readings. At the same time, more classical style homework probably is less likely to be done because a) no-one follows up on it b) answers may well not be provided and c) you can convince yourself that you'll make up for it when you study for the exam. Even if b) doesn't hold true, the only people who will notice are probably the two people either side of you and yourself so, again, there is simply less incentive. I'd also argue that the opportunity to spend time with friends will be seen as more precious so the opportunity to do so is viewed as being more valuable than it is in college. You see less of them because timetables are all over the place and even if you share substantial portions of your timetables there is simply less opportunity for socialising within lectures (and, to an extent, tutorials) than there is in a high school lesson. On the whole, though, the video's probably bang on.


A study in motivation. College Eugene isn't keen on PE: he has no respect for it. As a consequence, he sees no need to exercise. Unigene considers exercise in what we might consider a more primal level. "Why is everyone here so hot?" he complains and gives himself twenty.

This is a more complex issue. At the start of last year I was, for me, quite into a fitness regimen. This was more due to being really unfit but I did see uni as an opportunity to start over. Eventually, though, getting back after dark really put a stop to this (even though it didn't need to). Now I find myself having to do a lot of stretches due to having 'clinically tight hamstrings' (which has resulted in a back complaint) so I've tried to start up again. But the time is the thing. Where a lot of people manage to stay in their fitness routines, a lot of people don't have the time for this. One girl/woman/female human I happened to over hear is a good case in point. Essentially, she went on a run for the first time in (I gathered) a while and it felt very good. According to the explanation offered to her friend she simply didn't have time with her uni workload. I had and still have a suspicion that she was trying to get into second year med so she would, therefore, have been in what is both an intense and high stakes programme.


"You're the only one who gets me" Eugene says to a solitary female friend. Unigene, though, is inundated with friends. Maybe this puts a different perspective on what I said about the Homework section... could he just want to talk to one person at a time?

Well, here's the thing with friends and I. Firstly, literally all my good friends went to uni (one even pursued and achieved discretionary entrance so was already there). Secondly, most of said friends went to Auckland (same as me). Thirdly, most of them are also pursuing BComs. Fourthly, I commute to uni instead of living in, say, a hall of residence. Fifthly, a lot of people I am merely friendly with also went from my college to my uni. What is my point? Well, I didn't make very many new friends at all (in my first year). At the same time, I had more than one good friend in the first place. Although, I would argue that there are fewer to no best friends who completely "get" me. But the fact that so many people I already knew were around and that I was good friends with quite a few of them doesn't help one make more friends. I'd definitely have liked to make more new friends. There's a definite advantage to knowing a wide range of people and being able to talk to them pretty much whenever you're both free (sometimes you just don't feel like reading in the library but with the number of friends I have being not huge there's frequently no-one around). So, my advice is pretty clear: even if you've got lots of friends around go out of your way and try to make more of them. This isn't really very easy due to the restricted social time in lectures and the like, but it is possible... especially with tutorials.


When I set out to make this post I envisioned myself having more points of disagreement than I actually did have. Mostly I just had comments where I decided I departed because of peculiarities in my own experience (a fifity-five minute commute is atypical; catching the train itself isn't so much) or random things that I thought confirmed deeper truths. However, there is one important addition that I think is missing from this. And I like to think that the reason it's missing from a list that is 70% not directly related to the main point* is because, in the States, the good-time parts of uni seem to be what is really remembered. That is, of course, Lesson versus Lecture, That's what's going to replace the "Post-College" section. Although, I have to agree, 30's kind of old.

*The main point is education. Naturally, being fed (meals), psychological well-being (angst and friends), well-being more generally (fitness) and healthy relationships (friends and parents) are really important as well. It's also worth recalling that I don't think this video is a serious comparison so I'm actually being unreasonable. If this was a forum, a cynic might say that I am looking to score easy ideological points. It gets worse when you remember the video's angle is the differences between the person. Furthermore, I considered one's direction to be directly relevant along with homework and punctuality. But back to the main drag.


When it comes down to it, this is the big difference. University is what we can consider to be big scale. A lecturer talks at maybe hundreds of people at once. This will usually last, reasonably non-stop, for about an hour. That's the basic model of a lecture. These days the lectures are often recorded so you can go back and check details, or even not turn up in person. Good lecturers have decent pacing and utilise humour and other tools to keep interest or explain points. In many courses, simply moving through material isn't sufficient and significant portions of the lecture will be used to work through examples. In some courses there is a hell of a lot of content and the pace is relatively breakneck. The student, in fact, has little time reflect, if any. Such courses are the most likely to rely on words and the odd visual aide or supporting data. Some lectures are more reliant on readings having already been done while others theoretically act as companions to readings most people won't do. Those are the ones most likely to have videos. In short, though, they all run on the same idea that the lecturer is the one with the knowledge and the lecturer uses the lecture as a medium to impart that knowledge.

School is a little different. There's this same core principle of teacher imparts wisdom to pupil but it's not done via lecture. At least, not usually. Instead it's more PowerPoint driven with some discussion. Subjects like maths involve a lot of examples and explanations of examples. Worksheets are frequently deployed and sometimes reading from textbooks is undertaken (typically with exercises at the end). There's quite a lot of down time. And, ultimately, that's the big difference for you. In school your classroom self is typically talkative and inactive rather than the busy, silent student of the lecture theatre. In many ways this is what I liked about Business 101 and 102. It had the downtime. It had the social elements. It was a break from the standard model. Which is another difference, uni makes you more aware that there are different ways of doing things.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015


An interesting and somewhat controversial topic. And by controversial I just don't mean the ethical/legal side of creating fictional works set in another creator's world or using another creator's characters. In what we might term authorship circles, especially communities of amateur/semi-professional writers, fanfiction isn't the most loved thing in the world, unless it is the entire point of the community in question. After all, the hard work has been done. The world is created, the big themes established and character directions and motivations are also in place. However, there is something that we could call the urge to fanfic. It is an entirely natural response to consuming a story (in any form) to, say, insert a self-avatar into the existing narrative or try and create one's own continuation of the narrative. I suppose the distinction is that these usually don't leave one's head (or, for the younger "reader" play action). But, fanfiction is also something that fans use to contend with problems in stories such as disappeared characters, what happens in time skips and, of course, epilogues (ever a risky business). I've written the odd fanfic or roleplayed in existing universes before myself. I've even read a few fairly long ones. But, mostly, I just have ideas.

These ideas are where I really want to go with this post. I mean, if you want to make a point it is often easier to do so through fanfiction. Why? Because you don't have to establish all these things... it's there. You can use the world and its characters and make the pure point without having things get in the way. I've kind of sort of had to do this as part of a drama assessment. I say "kind of sort of" because the devised pieces that we did (or, at least, how I understood them) were meant to either follow a character in a time before or after the action in the script they came from. That would have been pretty cool if I hadn't spent a whole year looking forward to creating something utterly new in a group setting a la every other devised thing I've ever done (if you accept a reimagining of Beowulf that incorporated elements of Arthurian legend as utterly new: you probably shouldn't). When it comes to comics (or graphic novels, because that's how I consume those) this is something that the actual creators love to do. There is, in some sense, only one difference. Some of the ideas are what we'd call canon. Which reminds me, these two paragraphs are thin veils to explain an idea I had to explain a massive hole in a specific character's plot arc (in real time they vanish for a few years).

Joshua Foley or Elixir is/was/will be a very powerful X-Man (i.e. a mutant in Marvel's comics). In fact, despite not being a reality warper, To use competitive gaming lingo, Elixir was what we might term broken. He was able to reverse the effects of M-Day, for instance. Although, I think it has to be said, I don't think he knew too much about that. Apparently he was also able to do some resurrection or, at least, heart regeneration. He certainly could've avoided the whole death of Wolverine thing because creating a healing factor is one of things that his power-set can do quite easily. This was probably why he disappeared. Marvel wanted him out of the way before he could remove dramatic tension too much and it was easier simply to ignore him than continually come up with reasons for his being out of action. He was broken more literally in that by the end of Necrosha healing was something he struggled with and, instead, he had started to become Wither 2.0 (which is ironic on account of Elixir sort of being Wither's foil and, certainly, his rival). Apparently, when he returned after however long in universe Elixir still had this problem. I suppose that's what happens when you put a healer in a mutant wet works team. My idea was to explain what he was doing instead of featuring in comics. With a little adaptation it can fit the two "facts" I have learnt recently... i.e. he's still Wither 2.0 and that he spent some time in Genosha.

The idea that I had isn't necessarily a good one but it is one that I thought was fairly interesting. Okay, so firstly Elixir is helping deal with the aftermath of Necrosha in Genosha. That's something I didn't know about (although how canonical it is I am not sure) but it isn't a problem. At any rate, this sort of recovery work is coming right after Elixir's spell in the black ops version of X-Force run by Wolverine. That's an arc in Elixir's life which is even closer to the whole shadow of child soldiers that X-Men likes to bring up as though it isn't really true (look at a throwaway line of Legion's before Cyclops gets his latest unit of child soldiers to take him down). So that's, to my mind, going to weigh on his mind... especially because he's struggling to get back into the heal thing. It'll also occur to him that he's effectively just fought in a war and now he's dealing with the fatal casualties in a recovery operation. To my mind, this is going to add up to one major thing in the relatively simple mind of Elixir (he may have all of Beast's knowledge these days with respect to human anatomy and physiology but the dude was never going to become a doctor by himself) and that's soldier. You see where I am going, right?

Okay, so now we've got this interesting dilemma. Is the US army going to let someone who is obviously a mutant become a soldier? Yes, I think they would when the mutant in question is pretty much exactly who you want to be next to you when you get shot. But, Elixir can't heal, right? Well.. I think it's much more interesting to view Gold and Black Elixir as a version of the Void. I mean, the colour scheme is almost correct. Elixir's power set is literally total control over the biological nature of humans (and maybe not just humans). There is no reason, given what we know, for him to not be able to, say, change himself into some 6'8" giant with red hair and pale skin or a 5'2" chick with grey hair and olive skin. I think the fact he is gold coloured in the first place his how his mind copes with what he can do. In the same way that Beast has become more Beast like, Elixir became more elixir-like... except Elixir exerted subconscious control over the process instead of falling to a secondary mutation. This is why he turns into Obsidian Man when he uses his powers for ill: it's a coping mechanism of, again, what's a fairly uncomplicated mind. On some level it's just a way of trying to figure out who he is. A once mutant hater discovers he's a mutant and, as a result, his deeper mind tries to come to turn with this by making him have a physical manifestation of his mutant nature. Under such an interpretation, he becomes stuck in his black form because he doesn't know what he is any more and it's something of a struggle with identity. But that changes with his conclusion of soldier. Soldiers aren't evil. They perform a valid but unsavoury role for societies and they also perform (especially in more defensively minded defence forces such as NZ's) a lot of quite, er, savoury functions. This is something that I reckon most people understand, and Elixir's realisation of it makes him Golden Boy again.

So, he enlists. For our purposes, it's time he's a bit more grown up but maybe the US will let under eighteen year olds join up (I don't know). At first things go pretty well for him. After all, he's used to the sort of communal lifestyle and other aspects of training. But due to his abilities he's going to get deployed by people who are more practically minded than the hates and fears us crowd. That's not exactly smooth sailing because it's a different kind of combat and Elixir's closer to it. He'll save lives and he'll get noticed. This is the issue. We know that aspects of US government departments aren't exactly Mr Nice in 616 (look at Wolverine, X23 etc.) and Elixir's going to end up experiencing something similar to his role with X-Force: medical support for dodgy people doing dubious deeds. This is going to a) put him in situations where the Obsidian Man is called for b) cause him to question his realisation of soldier and c) eventually it's going to hit the fan. By which I mean someone else will make a mistake and everyone will get blown up. Elixir will be able to save one person out of a team of, say, five and they'll get back. But the experience will, frankly, set him right back to square one. Which is, I believe, where he is before he, maybe, gets killed.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Universities in New Zealand

Lately I've been, personally, feeling somewhat more mediocre and thoughts along those lines have probably informed these more general thoughts on the mediocrity of universities in NZ (or, at least, Auckland). The definite spark was a conversation I was having on an internet forum about an announcement by the US president to try and make "community college" free for Americans. For those who are unaware, community colleges seem to be somewhat like polytechnics in that they provide a form of tertiary education and it's generally reasonably practical in outlook provided by an institution largely for the community. However, they also provide the general education that the first two years of US university represents and one can transfer learning done at a community college to a proper uni. Some even actually offer degrees. The point, though, is that Obama's proposal would make the funding available for anyone with a grade point average (GPA) of at least 2.5. It's a good idea but it's the GPA thing that really made me start thinking.

For me, coming from NCEA, GPAs are pretty new so I am not so sure of the validity of the comparisons I will be using. But, basically, a GPA is calculated by dividing the total number of grade points earnt by the number available. In Auckland's case a mark of A+ is worth 135 points, with a 15 point reduction per each mark less (i.e. A is 120, A- 105 and so on). This means the maximum GPA is 9. In the US, the scale is different and only runs up to 4, in most cases. Now, my GPA is 6.5 which translates, in my view, to 2.9 (1dp). It is, as far as I can tell, a GPA that's okay. However, my fellow forumites had a pretty low view of a GPA that was under 3.0 and here I am thinking that something that ends up under that is okay (i.e. my 6.5/9). Hmm... obviously different standards applied. But, I did go back and pay closer attention to that scale. Let's make a comparison:

Mark Percentage Range USA Percentage Range Auckland Percentage Range Victoria
A+ 97-100 90-100 90-100
A93-96 85-8985-89
A- 90-92 80-8480-84
B+ 87-89 75-7975-79
B 83-86 70-7470-74
B- 80-82 65-6965-69
C+ 77-79 60-6460-64
C 73-76 55-5955-59
C- 70-72 50-5450-54
D+ 67-69 45-4940-49
D 65-66 40-4440-49
D-/E/F <650-39 0-39

Assuming that in all cases the C- is the lowest passing mark, it's pretty clear that NZ is more lax (I also checked Canterbury and Otago and they're pretty much the same as Victoria). Ignoring that there are some problems with percentage based systems to start with, the quality of work that will pass in New Zealand is, theoretically, lower than that in the States. Maybe it's more difficult work (believable) but, on the face of it, it looks like mediocrity.

This impression of mediocrity is built up even more so by admissions... it doesn't really take too much to get into a university in New Zealand. My grandfather was over for Christmas and he brought up the topic of my irritating and immature as they come thirteen-year old cousin's future, particularly with reference to beyond school. He brought out the standard line that you'd expect of an older man who grew up in England... getting into university is pretty tough. The reality rather surprised him. Basically, if you can't get eighty credits in NCEA, in level three, you're an idiot. If you can do that and still not obtain University Entrance you're either over-specialised or an even bigger idiot. Getting UE and those eighty credits is a rank score of at least 160; that's enough for a BA and other bog standard degrees. Well, not quite because a normal specialisation BSc is 165 and a BCom is 180 (with some subject specific requirements; however the Business School ego trips so that score doesn't really reflect its difficulty). Full disclosure, I got a rank score of 305/320 but I was aiming for 320. But the point is, getting into NZ's "best" university is pretty easy for non-idiots... Yeah, mediocre entry standards. Mediocrity.

That's not to say that New Zealand's universities are bad because I don't think they are. It's also not to say that ones in the States are necessarily better. To explain we'll recall an earlier post of mine where I established that I see university as part of the continuing story of specialisation in education. I would also agree with the view that university is meant to be challenging, which is where this 'rant' against mediocrity partially comes from. With the "compare with the States" methodology employed here, it looks like NZ doesn't do very well on that latter view of universities. In terms of the former, I think it's a different story. However, there's two other things that need to be said about university admissions.

The story that we get from US media is quite a simple one. It's that university (or college, as it is stupidly referred to there and in many other places) is something that people have to strive for to get into. However, many universities in the States do two specific things that I'd like to discuss (although I am aware of the first thing at only one uni).

Firstly, I'd like to talk about a scheme employed by the University of Texas that, when I encountered it a few years ago, disagreed with me. Basically, their scheme looks at the top 6-10%  (it varies) of each cohort in a particular school and those pupils within the pre-set band are eligible for automatic admission. I've heard that it's a form of affirmative action and in that sense it cleverly exploits the light-segregation that still exists in many parts of the USA (i.e. certain neighbourhoods are still largely of a single ethnicity, although this is no longer enforced by law). That's not the problem that I took with it, though. The issue I had was that the standard of competition at one school is not necessarily the same as at another. In other words, what might put you within the top 10% at one school could be the same level that you'd see at another school that would only put you within the top, say, 17%. According to this, the 7% from the second school who would fall in the top "10%" at the first school then get chucked in a more broadly competitive pool, which means they have to be better than all the other people who missed out on automatic admission. When I first encountered this scheme that really got on my nerves as being chronically unfair for my example's 7%. That's not actually true. In actual fact, it is a very clever scheme that, to an extent, counter-acts the whole wealth prediction factor of education. Those pupils from poorer areas are competing to enter, first and foremost, on a level playing field with peers who come from the same background to get in. But, for the most part, it's a purely academic endeavour with a slight geographical influence. Which sort of brings us to the next point.

There's an episode of Bones where Cameron's daughter is trying to get into uni and Cameron writes up an essay to support her admission. Wait, what? You write an essay to get into university? And, hang on. isn't there some film where the main characters bomb on their pre-SAT and then conspire to steal the answers? Yes, yes there is. What, though, is the point here? Well, I see university as being a continuation of education and, as such, I think admissions should be based almost purely on academic performance. The story is different for things like scholarships but, in all honesty, I'd prefer they were based purely on academics and/or need. Writing an essay or attending an interview as a regular part of admissions is, to my mind, inappropriate. It's fine for getting into something specialised within the uni (for instance, a friend of mine admitted to second year medicine had to go to an interview) or when the applicant is applying with qualifications from out of the country (i.e. it helps the administrators determine just how comparable the results are). University is not something that only the "moral" or the "worthy" should be able to attend. Admissions shouldn't require some sort of examination of motives. It should be for those bright enough to attend. Which is really where I draw ire with the idea of the SAT. Entry should be based purely on performance in school. That is, don't divorce school work from work for university entrance, even in a limited fashion (I am given to understand that the SAT is only partially the basis for any decision making). So, here, we have something that I think NZ's university system does better.

Now, we're back on point after that brief detour through some talking points in American universities (but, judging by the History Boys Oxbridge routinely desires interviews so it's not purely American). What do NZ's universities do quite well? Well, they're much better than American universities at continuing that theme of specialisation. In the US it is, in fact, entirely common to not start working towards a major until two years into a four (not three, as in NZ) undergraduate degree programme. That's quite bizarre. Even with all the Business School's core courses, first years at Auckland do at least something that is relevant to their end goal. Furthermore, these US universities conspire to create this strange situation by having their students do general courses in subjects. Frankly, it's like starting year nine at college from what I've been told. In other words, all the specialisation is still too come. Mind you, I'm pretty sure NZ's secondary schools are better than those in the US and that a greater degree of subject freedom is placed in the hands of senior pupils than those poor souls in the States. In that context, it makes more sense to be working on an intended specialisation, with some broader stuff, straight away. The General Education components that Auckland now uses are small fish in comparison to the main Thing, and that's the best of both worlds. Students get a degree of more advanced broad education but they're pretty firmly on that road of specialisation.

There's one final thing to say before I wrap this up... university seems to be far more settled in the States. Just last year, National proposed some reforms of the more administrative parts of NZ's universities that were very poorly received. While I can't remember if the reforms reflect changes that have happened in the States, I am pretty convinced that it would be more than just people who are at uni or are university staff, that get involved and discuss it. Maybe it's because NZ's pretty young as a country but stuff like that is big, and bad, news (like a lot of National's intrusions in education... note the extreme unpopularity of its education ministers... although, not all). It should have been an issue that troubled National, certainly more so than Kim Dotcom (boring) or housing prices (where National's staunch view that foreign buyers aren't responsible is probably the most socially responsible position it's had in a long time; in contrast with the xenophobic scare-mongering of the left *cries inside*). That's what I mean by settled.

It's Just a Game

Let's consider the game. What is it? Basically, it's some activity with a competitive element to it. Tiggy is a game. You compete against the other players to try and avoid being it There's no real winner and there is no defined end either (except, maybe, the bell if you catch my drift). But, despite that, it's definitely competitive. At some point you reach a point where helping your fellow player only makes sense if it helps yourself. It is a game. The point of bringing up tiggy is because it does, to my mind, raise some questions about the nature of a game. You can't say that games exist to be won (i.e. are competitive) and simultaneously say that tiggy is a game because that lacks a winner. Maybe being in (i.e. it) at the end counts as losing so everyone else wins. Maybe you have to say that a game has two meanings. Firstly, it's some activity with a competitive element to it. Secondly, it's some activity undertaken for amusement (although, how is, for instance, a play not a game here?).

Whatever. To me, a game is competitive. It's something that you play. It's something where you either try to beat other players or some aspect of the house (say, for instance, a time limit). Games thrive on the idea that they pit players against something with some sort of stake involved (which is, as tiggy shows, not losing in all cases and usually winning as well). Games are, in short, probably the most worthwhile form of entertainment out there. But, there is a problem with games and that's when players have different intentions.

Take, for instance, a game of basketball that I played in year eight. My thirteen year old self (unless I was twelve at the time) was on the losing team and one of my friends spent a large part of the game saying, "It's just a game". That's a phrase that exists to try and make people realise that games aren't really super important... it's time to let go. But, there's the problem. Games mean more to some people... it's never really just a game: it's a lie. However, a PE lesson is surely just a game (ignoring that it's meant to be educational)? Well, the real problem here is that my friend and I had very different goals. I didn't want to give up. He'd already given up. "It's just a game" was more an excuse to not try than a phrase to make me (and any others involved) take things less seriously. "It's just a game" is, as such, best used afterwards as consolation rather than in a game where it becomes a way of ignoring the central and defining nature of games: competition.

To use another PE lesson, the following year, we were also playing basketball (I don't like the game much actually). Like the previous anecdote it wasn't necessarily played following all the proper rules (teamwork tends to be the main lesson), but it had enough of them. Essentially, there were four teams of which two played at a time. The team who scored first stayed on and played one of the teams on the benches. My team had a very simple strategy. I stood near our net, received the ball from someone else on our team and then threw it to one of our other team members who, then, invariably, put it in the net. After we'd spent a bit too long doing this and winning our PE teacher stopped the game and called everyone in. He then explained what we were doing and how to stop it. Why?  Because it's a competition. Games aren't meant to consist of one player or group of players just stomping everyone into the ground (whether literally or figuratively) because that's not really a competition. At the same time, it wasn't our obligation to ensure that the game was competitive. We're put on the court and we're there with two purposes: to win and to not lose. In theory, this means that one has no real incentive to, say, keep going until 160 odd to 2. However, a game is also meant to be fun. You're not there to mill around and do nothing. With something like basketball basically all you can do is either cheat and give the ball to the other team deliberately or you can take shots at the net.

Okay, so what about games where a large degree of what happens is based on luck? Say, for instance, Scum/President. Some people say that the game exists to make a moral point: those on the top stay on the top. To that end, they use "broken" rules that basically make sure that the random dealing of cards always benefits the same people (the presidents). That's bull. It's not fun to always win and it's not fun to always not win. As a consequence, most people who play the game use rules like eight below (when an eight is played you must play under), sixty-nine (always gets a snigger out of immature little pricks... when a six is played and a nine is played on top of it, every player must play two face cards) and with jokers only being able to be played when there are the same number of them as what they're being played on (i.e. two twos cannot be beaten by one joker. even though a two is lower than a joker). There are other ways of having competitive rules and the lesson is still made. Those on the bottom of the heap do (as in reality) get punished and when the game is played again they're at something of a disadvantage having had their best cards replaced by worse ones from the President's hand. Like in reality, this is recoverable... it's just that in the game, it's easier to get everything to come together in the ways that enable this. What's really interesting here, though, is that President shows that games work best when they've got rules that make them more competitive.

President also shows something else: games can be used to model the real world. People often use chess to try and make real world points. However, it, like President, has some severe limitations. Chess even forces players to play and the inability to play according to its rules leads to draws (admittedly, that's a realistic outcome). Something which is both competitive and co-operative is much better at explaining something. Game theory, which basically uses things that we might understand as games (it doesn't, for instance, use specific games but, rather, takes some real world situation and makes it resemble a game and then uses mathematics to have a look at that) is something of an extension of this. You can, in fact, use other games to try and explain how to approach a particular game. Again, with President, one should think of a stage in the Tour De France. Sometimes a few cyclists will break away from the pack and they will try and head for the finish. Some, among that group, will then start to sprint at some point. In each cyclist's mind is the same thought, "If I sprint too soon I will be caught and I will be lost". President is the same. With good rules any hand can win, but if you try to win too soon you risk losing.

Before I finish up, one more PE lesson anecdote. In year ten my PE class consisted of the same people with whom I did my core subjects (i.e. maths, English, social studies and science). We were an advanced class and, as that might suggest, there were some quite definitely not sporty people in there. However, that shouldn't excuse the absolutely terrible game intelligence of my peers. For instance, when we played touch they would a) pass away from space b) run sideways and backwards and c) run out of space. This adds up to very little actual attacking and a lot of what a soccer player might call high defensive lines and a pressing game. It's not enough, though, to play the game. You do have to be aware of how the game is played. With touch, you generally want to either attack down the wings or draw play towards the wing (i.e. take people out of position) and score in the centre. To avoid this, you will keep your team spread along the line (i.e. the width of the field). You will, if enough people play, have someone who hangs back a little in case your line is broken... they'll try and chase. The skills that win games are speed, passing and catching. These can't be used to any useful effect without game intelligence. To take things wider than just games and bring it back to the point. Games are never just what you're doing. they are also why you're doing it. In this sense, it's usually not "just a game".

Sunday, 18 January 2015

A Very Good Course - History 106

History 106: Europe Transformed (Pre-modern to the Present)

This is sort of like a course review. Mostly it's my way of dealing with the fact that more than a month after the arrival of my scanned exam scripts for my other semester two 2014 courses I am still waiting for some version (whether scan or photocopy) of my History 106 exam to turn up. My reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, I want to know exactly what I got, same as with any other course. Secondly, I want to know what I wrote because I can't really remember. Ignoring the almost philosophical question that second point raises (i.e. "So what did I actually learn then?), it's really beginning to frustrate me. This is especially true given that, otherwise, of the nine courses I have done, it's one of the best (if not so).

The Course

History 106 is pretty much what its title says it is. In the course, one looks at the various transformations Europe has undergone since circa 1450 to now. These transformations are considered thematically (a sign of a good history course) under five broad themes: conflict, political authority, gender, Europe and the rest of the world, and the lives of ordinary Europeans. In this sense, it handles the more traditional subject of European history in a modern way.

As with History 103 (Global History), the lecturers open with a brief spiel on the nature of the tutorials. Their point is that the tutorials are the heart of the course. In some sense, they're not really. Lectures are fast and furious. If you want to your lectures densely packed with information, my two course experience of history says, "Take a history course, doesn't matter which". The tutorials consist of a knowledgeable tutor who helps coax relatively awkward discussions out of a classroom sized pool of people, based mostly on set primary source readings. For me, these are duller than the secondary sources of History 103 and it was more effort to read them. I also didn't feel as if we were ever actually put in a situation where we actually had to consider them differently to the secondary sources of history 103 (and, full disclaimer, that feels a lot like an intro to history course in hindsight).

Because the period of 1450-now is so huge, each lecture takes on (basically) a single topic, which is done in a fair amount of depth. However, the lecture format means the wider context usually can't be discovered so easily. Luckily, there are some very good additional (and optional) readings available for those that want them (although this view is based on only having read a few of them). These readings are not required to do well on the four multi-choice, online CECIL tests. That just requires reading over tutorial notes and worksheets, the lecture hand-outs and the lecture notes themselves. The essay (the other coursework assessment) is much more complex than this. It requires reading half a dozen densely packed and narrowly focussed scholarly works (all pre-set, except for one that's a choice of three) set in a broader, multi-lecture relevant topic. That requires far more work than the one in History 103 and I wish I spent more time on it because at 68% I did very badly (B-), even receiving a comment along the lines of "narrow focus". That poor mark just serves to increase the frustration with not knowing exactly how well I did in the exam, as it meant getting the overall course mark I did (i.e. A-) required a pretty good exam result. This brings us to...

The Exam

In two hours one must write two essays. One essay will draw on content from the entire course. This means the themes. The second essay will draw on content from the end of the course. The questions are remarkably similar (arguably too similar) from semester to semester, so I imagine it couldn't be too difficult to find examples that people have written (if you know where to look or if people actually post them online). The point is that the similarity of the questions means examining past exams (hilarious, I know) doesn't really help one gain any particular insight into how to actually approach answering the questions. Basically, it's next to impossible to glean any insight into the deeper nature of many questions: what angle does "why?" mean? (It makes sense to me.) This also makes studying for the exam more difficult than it need be. The second part of the exam is easy enough to study for, though. Just go through the last few lectures and get the relevant material from there.

Now, we're back at this post's purpose...

What On Earth Did I Write?

I will now try to reconstruct the idea of my answers based on three key things. Firstly, my memory. Secondly, the revision that I did. Thirdly. how I think I think.


Well, I am pretty sure that I answered the political authority question and the Colonisation question (why spend so much effort and then get rid of them?) for parts A and B respectively. Okay, so my memory is not very helpful. However, I do remember not having a real idea of the angle (I wrote about this already), so I guess I can keep that in mind for the third part of my reconstruction.


Well, I've got a whiteboard full of notes from when I went through the entire course and took down information relevant to the "Europe and the Wider World" theme (incidentally, this is my recommended study method: comb through your notes with an eye for things relevant to a chosen theme). I also did a more primitive and somewhat less exhaustive version of this for political authority. This would suggest my memory's wrong but then you've got my "Broad Map"

Core Transformations in Political Authority

  • Start
    • Inseparability of Religious and Political Power, monarchical, from God.
    • to Absolutist Rulers, seek dominance of state, dominate religion.
    • to 1789, French Revolution, equality, democracy and merit
    • to Totalitarian states
    • to Democratic regimes operating in broadly linked systems.
  • End
  • Have to justify why these are the most important transformations...
    • I'm not sure what this really means in the scheme of things.

Ultimately. I have six and a half pages of refill (single sided; they're really four double sided pages) on this theme. I then have a few additional notes expanding on the whiteboard for the other theme. A couple of sides of refill are on the two world wars (the question is considering whether they're better thought of as one).

How I Think:

Well, I clearly had prepared for two different topics in the case of bad questions for each one. Political Authority and Europe and the Wider World, for part A, and largely recycled the second thematic research topic for the colonisation question, plus the additional World Wars stuff for part B. I was struggling with how to answer the questions but I don't seem to have drawn up any rough plans for the Wider World topic. This would suggest my memory is correct. However, colonisation appeals to me (much of my 103 work related to imperialism and/or industrialisation) so I imagine that I really wouldn't have wanted to waste the work there.

The Proposed Reconstruction:

I think I ran out of time to cover the EU and post-war Europe stuff in the sort of depth that I wanted. Otherwise, I think I ran with that question as above. That is, my evidence related more to the justification of calling each transformation I identified as part of the most significant.ones with respect to political authority. I think I probably distinguished between the Great Chain of Being and Divine Right style kings by the more defender of the faith mentality of the former. I know that I would have included, as we were very strongly advised to do, stuff from the tutorial readings as well.

In terms of the second topic on empires... I'm really not sure. Right now, I would argue that a combination of emotional, political, economic and strategic reasons led to the acquisition of empires by European powers... placed in a context of longer term competition. These empires were let go less out of choice and more out of necessity. Changing political scenes (Cold War, dominance of the "anti-imperialist" USA), failure of the European powers in the two world wars (even those that won), and changing society... the two world wars, I am sure, would've featured strongly.

It's going to be interesting to see just how right my reconstructions are. Even if I don't find out until March.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Thoughts on History: the man, the mouse and the marzipan

This blog post has been a pain in the arse to write. One of the things about history, as a subject, is that it is meant to help one develop the skills necessary to sustain and substantiate an interpretation or argument. However, I have failed to do that in this post. It has had many different incarnations and even received IRL thought (which is to say, when I'm out and about it's weighed on my mind). Ultimately, I decided the only way to do it is by going right back to basics. That is, prompts... except normally they're called titles in this context. So, with that off my chest (I have confronted the beast)...

What is History?

History is about knowing how the past helped to create the now. Despite history's being forever trapped in the unknowable past, that's what I see it as being about when you get down to it. History is just another way of understanding the now, just through the lens of the past. It can't ever obtain an objective truth or, in some cases, determine that one truth is worth more than the other. It can't ever, truly, reconstruct how things were. It can, however, reach enough of these things that it can a) provide interest in an exploration of what is almost a fantastic world (i.e. the past: even yesterday is the fantastic) and, as such, has appeal of its own, and b) the aforementioned lens of the past thing. That, to my mind, is sufficient to deal with oft levelled charges of "What is the point?" It also shows that history is something that requires imagination and, as a consequence of that, must necessarily involve narrative. Horrible Histories takes an interesting approach in that it takes a very clear view on what people want to read about... it appeals to the same morbid fascination that makes crime such a powerfully attractive setting for fiction. However, it does rather go with a more names and dates sort of thing despite this clear choice of narrative. History's not like that. It involves understanding relationships and perspectives. History is a wordier subject but it is not one that involves copious (rote) memorisation.

History really involves constructing and understanding arguments and research. To do the former you need the latter. You also need to be able to understand and recognise relationships and perspectives. Those abilities have wider life applicability, but they're also very important in historical research. Whether you're looking at primary or secondary evidence you need to know how it all ties in, as well as understand where it is coming from. Obviously the view of a colonial settler is going to differ to the view of an existing resident. That doesn't mean only one of them has something valuable to say. In this sense, history, like statistics or economics, helps people in democracies understand when the cards are being played deceptively. While history isn't about great men and women, it is useful for everyone to know how things became the way they are. When you think about it, a lot of our political views are really observations informed by our values and often this leads us to conclusions that we find, on some level, contradictory or disagreeable (the former in the sense that we hold opinions that don't tally with our internal self images, the latter in that we find ourselves being attacked). History can help us move pass these contradictions and disagreements by showing us how these observations came to be. For instance, I used to be quite rigidly opposed to Maori and Pasifika assemblies in schools... a cursory glance at history tells one why they exist and what their role is. In other words, understanding history allows us to make proper observations rather than just observe shadows on the wall.

In short, history exists because it provides both interest and a valuable perspective on the now.

What is History Not?

As a subject, it's not some long list of names, dates and other factoids. Facts, by themselves, are trivial in the minds of university lecturers. That doesn't sound good, but the reality is that facts are trivial in literally any subject that you care to name. How facts are linked... that is, information... and used is so much more important for anything. That brings us back to history being about relationships. Think of an English essay in school. The quotes are facts, the supporting materials used to sustain the argument/interpretation... the proof. That is the role of facts, they are not the subject itself. While Horrible Histories is fun, ultimately it just reinforces this perception that History is names and dates. It really isn't and, in fact, is quite a meaty subject... as opposed to something like the University of Auckland's Statistics 10X course: History is something one can dig one's intellectual teeth into.

History also isn't the story of great men and women. Take, for instance, a chess game. My moves affect those of the other player and vice versa. In real life, there are many, many people are involved in each movement of a pawn on that board. Some have somewhat more influence than others but, ultimately, everyone is (to mix metaphors) a leaf in a storm caused by the wings of a butterfly. The actions of a dictator are, ultimately, influenced to some extent by events beyond their control. They are, in effect, playing chess against the aggregate of millions. It's not a chess game either... while people can be treated as pawns, everyone isn't embroiled in some game that has this inexorable end. Like evolution, history doesn't have some wider game plan that it's trying to achieve. The now we know is no more inevitable or the point of everything before it than humans are the end objective (the goal) of evolution. Both also share long term trends in the sense that each species' developmental history can be very roughly paralleled with historical patterns. Basically, I am disagreeing with anyone who says we can understand history as the story of democracy or liberty, for instance. The modern values of the English speaking world arose as part of a unique chain of events. You can't understand Magna Carta of 1215 as some starting point (or, indeed, a point) in a movement towards democracy . You can understand it as something which has importance in understanding how we have the modern democracies that we enjoy (largely via Sir Edward Coke's relation to it). It's somewhat subtle as a difference but it's quite important.

It's probably apparent that I also disagree with the assertion that history repeats. History doesn't: nothing is that similar. We can look at, say, Hitler and Napoleon and say, "Yep, pretty much the repeat" but the reality is the strokes to make the picture look like that are too broad to have any meaning. The two World Wars are even better. You can, and I feel as if many do, think of them as the original and the repeat but despite being very different it's also better to think of WWII as being the second period of conflict in a thirty year's war in the 20th Century. History only repeats in trivially broad senses. What we learn is how the now is built up from the past. We can understand and recognise why things happened the way they did and how people thought, at least to some meaningful degree. We can't learn to recognise which things are the same and which are not. If two events were to share quite similar causes, we must recognise that the reasons why those causes are different. History isn't locked in some cycle. Say, two wars erupt over the independence of a sub-national region, eighty years apart. Say that there was a third war like that earlier again. Are these three repeats? No. The ends of each of the other wars must be considered as important causes in the second two. Already we've reached some sort of really meaningful distinction that only a broad brush such as "three wars of independence" ignores. The second may have been sparked by religious upheaval, the third by famine or deprivation. When you understand that history is about knowing how the now came out of the past, you'll get why a historian is sceptical of any claims of repetitive history.

What is the lot of History in New Zealand's Society today?

It's a non-compulsory subject and one which isn't particularly popular. In primary schools it's almost exclusively boring little worksheets which are all the same for Waitangi day and are what you do before school starts properly. Important historical commemorations were, disgustingly in my view, Mondayised by the greedy little pricks known as my fellow citizens, who view our public holidays as being either days off or extra-pay rather than days which mark important dates. NZ has a nice national myth where we're happily bicultural (clue, we never were) and no wars have been fought in NZ (ignoring that there were many pre-European Maori conflicts, the NZ and Musket Wars are largely forgotten). As a consequence of this you really have to look for historical landmarks. Perhaps most tellingly, history is treated as a pathway subject... something you do only because you have to if you want to do something else. I have some non-researched and somewhat conspirational views on why this is the reality we experience (much to my regret).

To a large extent it comes back to how New Zealand became the society we know today. In a few short words it goes: Maori colonisation, early European contact, Treaty of Waitangi, war, physical European dominance (Belich's substantive authority), Gallipoli, time, Maori renaissance, now. Incorporating history into the country's curricula more solidly just can't be done now without NZ history popping up and this raises some interesting problems. In the same breath we also explain why NZ history isn't all around and celebrated in the same way that we might see in the heavily mythologised and heroised USA (which is also bad, for different reasons). For earlier colonial governments, NZ history revealed the shaky legitimacy behind its authority. In fact, for a long time, localised initiatives were what made history be remembered (and these events were usually still fresh). For later governments, it was really too late for that to matter and Maori were so marginalised that the history was always going to be the one way. Towards the end of the 20th Century, though, and that's beginning to change. You've got the broader Maori Renaissance going on and you've also got some revisionism going on in NZ's historiography... most of which was right. Suddenly NZ history becomes something that cannot ignore that shaky legitimacy and it also becomes something where the protagonists are frequently Maori. This all sounds rather conspirational (you can tell because it barely makes sense) but my gut feeling is that this hypothesis is correct. For early governments, history needed ignoring. For middling governments, the historiography was now favourable. For later society?

Let's talk about that later society. That's sort of where we are now. In my experience, history is one of those subjects where people want to feel some sort of connection. If the protagonists are identifiable, younger members of society are more involved. When most history in primary schools happens right at the start of the year, just before schools shut again, and revolves around something that somehow ends up as Maori history rather New Zealand history and most pupils aren't Maori? It doesn't look good. When you factor in that this history is mostly worksheets, you get a perfect storm that just makes people disinterested or opposed to history in general and NZ history in particular. Whatever anyone says, NZ's still got some serious issues around racism to deal with and what we're doing with the Waitangi Tribunal (poorly understood as it is) just isn't helping. We need a new way but that's irrelevant. This, to my mind, is why history isn't really taken up in large numbers when it's something that is on the cards.

How Should History Be Taught?

Thematically and individually. However, before you get to secondary pupils need grounding in some broader history. As such, my view is that we should have something that looks like this.

New Entrants: the current Waitangi Day worksheet approach is okay, here pupils are still grasping the basics.
Year 1: same as above. This is also usually the first full year as well and the Treaty is important.
Year 2: we can be more ambitious now. However, I think three worksheets are sufficient as this is still really young. Discuss pre-European, Waitangi Day and early European history.
Year 3: broaden the previous years understanding and discuss the two world wars, with particular focus on WWI as it is more poorly understood.
Year 4: it's time to compare and contrast Waitangi Day with the histories of national days in other countries, in particular Australia (close), France and the USA (these two are quite internationally important). Also look at Armistice Day and other commemorations similar to ANZAC Day. Maybe try and chuck a non-Western national day in there.
Year 5: it's time to look at why New Zealand was colonised. Waitangi Day in more depth.
Year 6: pre-New Zealand Europe and a quick run through of English history. Maybe more emphasis on the latter, depends how much of the former overlaps with the previous.
Year 7: look at some Chinese and Japanese history, and finish with particular emphasis on the roles of Japan in WWI and Japan and China in WWII.
Year 8: there are four terms so do Pre-European New Zealand & Waitangi Day; WWI and its causes in brief; WWII and the Cold War; and Wars in the Middle East since 1945. To be clear, history is not the story of warfare either, it's just something simple to look at.

Naturally, because this is all primary school other topics can be tied in here. Reading and grammar can look at the rich variety of texts relevant to historical topics. In this sense, it's really about finding enough time to include history to the extent that pupils can enter secondary school knowing some important world and national events. This is more names and dates because that's what education is at this stage. Building blocks. In some sense, my list may be too repetitive and too Eurocentric. Maybe do some Pacific or Asian history at the end of year eight instead or do that and combine WWI and WWII and move the Middle East unit forwards. In some other sense, what really matters is that the topics are at least 60% directly relevant to NZ and the other stuff (whatever it is) big enough to be able to link it in with other topics easily. Including WWI is very important. Making sure it's not just Gallipoli is even more important.

Now, as these years have social studies...

Year 9 & 10: I think it's really important to include a unit on the Industrial Revolution and the history of trade since 1800 or so at some stage here. Otherwise it's just about making sure topics chosen aren't just about geography and that they're treated in a largely similar way to how NCEA level history is. In this sense, year ten should include two eight or ten week topics. One like level one geo and the other like level one history, on top of my Industrial Revolution and trade one.

Now, what did I mean by thematically? Well, you'll notice that above that at no point do I suggest something like running through from Rome to the end of WWII. Thematic history takes a theme and studies it through a number of different historical events. I think, and this is something we didn't do, that this is quite useful. At university, the history courses I've done have both tried to do that big chronological timeline. However, they've done it in such a fashion that the exam questions are thematic or individual. That is, when you're doing the study for the exam you look at everything that's been studied and unify it under a theme like "industrialisation" or "power". This thematic angle was also sort of utilised by NCEA classical studies with things like "power and freedom" or "political and ideological change" but they were used in individual topics. A thematic course would study maybe three or four important historical topics linked by a theme and then the pupil would need to understand that theme. Scholarship history is very thematic. The theme I had related to historiography.

In contrast, individual study is what NCEA history is big on. This basically means taking a reasonably big but still constrained topic like Black Civil Rights in the USA or The Rise of the Third Reich and studying them in depth. This is another way of getting the relationships side of history out. By looking at topics in depth you can garner a better understanding of causes, consequences and themes in them. Hey, maybe do themes as a meta course.

I don't believe massive chronological lists with a great many topics or even just a great many topics are good for historical study. Great for background context, crap way of teaching the subject.

If this post has seemed in any way disjointed, this is what happens when you reuse paragraphs written for different purposes. The title refers to history consisting of some part people, some part animals and some part food. Or, maybe, I just liked the sound.