In a post several weeks ago, I lamented the lack of onboard recycling on Toronto-based flights, and I called upon airline executives to allow passengers (like me) to volunteer to move recyclable items off planes and into airports where recycling bins exist. A manager wrote to me to respond to my blog and placed the blame at the feet of the Canada Border Services Agency and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, both of which supposedly prohibit recycling on those flights to prevent contagion.
The more I think about it, the more I doubt this claim.
Do recyclables really spread disease? Germs do stick to plastic cups and aluminum cans, but they also stick to tray-tables, armrests, and windows (maybe even fabrics) that are probably not all disinfected between flights.
And can the recyclables possibly be a significant risk compared to, or even in addition to, human beings? We are the ones who spread disease. It's on our skin, our breath, and in our blood and bodily fluids, and we're not going through quarantine every time we pass through Toronto. (If you've heard Toronto described as a sort of quarantine or culture-free zone, it's not; it's a good city.)
The conspiracy theorist in me imagines all too easily how convenient a ban on recycling might be to airlines, the CBSA, and the CFIA. By banning recycling, they can save money on sorting used items and claim to be reducing the risk of pandemics by protecting borders and food supplies.
I'll try to find a study that might have been the basis of this highly questionable policy. In the meantime, I'll be scratching my germ-ridden head.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “P.S., World Leaders at Airlines.” Publicly Interested. 14 Mar. 2016. Web. [date of access]
If professors followed the lead of their students and posted anonymous evaluations of students as a rejoinder to RateMyProfessor.com and the Yik Yak app, how would evaluations change—and how might students react?
Before I try to answer these questions, let me tell you a story. It happened one night long ago to a very new university teacher: a rare ice storm on the northern prairies. Rain and sleet fell as temperatures dropped just as steeply (if that’s how ice storms work), and in the morning everything outside was perfectly and beautifully protected under a hard coat of ice—the trees, the sidewalks, and all the porn that could be spread out over his four-door sedan (or hers, of course).
Who, for the sake of a prank, carries around a dozen glossy skin mags to pull apart in an ice storm?
Somebody did. It was that wintry time of year when students, steaming after getting bad grades, feel only the heat of the moment instead of a chill. Some of them flame their profs or post hot-headed criticism on social media. Others prefer revenge served cold.
I never found out whether the prankster did have some connection to said teacher, but the prank happened to have a lot in common with the implicitly sexual evaluations that students can put on RateMyProfessor. The rubric there identifies “hotness” and “easiness,” both potentially sexual terms, both implying a “meat market.” Chilli peppers rate the hotness, so the food-sex-commodity implication is pretty clear.
How foolish I would be to suggest that profs are the porn stars or nude models of their students’ fantasies when the opposite is the better known problem, but RateMyProfessor definitely shows that the problem is not one-sided in an era of social media. Some students, for example, have used the Yik Yak app to post a long and anonymous series of sexual and insulting comments about three people who were team-teaching their large class.
Teachers are public figures—in that their classes are sometimes large enough to contain strangers (this being one of Michael Warner’s criteria of a public), or include students who are practised enough at disappearing into the crowd that they aren’t recognized by name—and a lot of students would freak out (as many teachers do) if they realized that any of their mistakes could be witnessed by 45, 185, or (God forbid) 600 or 1,000 people. Rampant video recording on cell phones does threaten a lot of bullied kids with terrifying publicity. Teachers are not immune either.
Friends of mine have quit their teaching jobs because of how scary they (the jobs) can be. Besides a politician’s, what other job demands the worker to submit to mass anonymous evaluations—and, in the teacher’s case, with a frequency measured in months rather than years?
Politicians are not the only ones with their jobs on the line. In another example, an untenured instructor was fired on the basis of a potentially baseless allegation. RateMyProfessor calibrates the student-teacher relationship and gives the powers of anonymity and of the crowd to students. Although anonymous evaluators have no fear of reprisal and can therefore speak freely and disburden themselves (a plus), hate speech and libel become much more likely when no one has to anticipate results other than the satisfaction of an insult with no comeback. Some people I know monitor their RateMyProfessor comments and invoke their lawyers to compel the site to remove its more egregious claims.
If profs had RateMyStudent.com, I wonder what changes in the power differential would occur. Free of consequences, anonymous and commenting alongside each other, would professors gang up, indulging in sexual innuendo and cyberbullying too?
Protective anonymity would be more difficult to maintain for the profs, of course, because there are so few of them compared to their students. If a prof dissed a student’s understanding of the poet John Keats’s concept of negative capability, it might hint at the identity of, obviously, a literature prof. (Or the prof could have been anybody, and “negative capability” was just meant to describe the student’s academic prowess.)
Would students react differently to anonymous online evaluations?
They might take them less seriously, but even if the evaluations refrained from bullying or outright shaming the evaluations would still be crucially public. Students do some assignments, such as in-class presentations, in public, but most assignments are remarkably private: intended for one reader (in addition, I hope, to the writer's future self). Private assignments are ideal vehicles for trial and error, hence the essay's link to the French verb essayer, "to try." If students were evaluated in public and anonymously, I think that students would be even more anxious about conforming, and education would be whole magnitudes more intimidating and miserable for them. We would lose many more of them to attrition. Many would not enroll at all. Many might also be justifiably concerned that public evaluations might be read by prospective employers. Whether this possibility would lead students to work more diligently is a question up in the air.
The anonymity of online feedback is probably less threatening than the threat of publicity, but it is also problematically less meaningful. I know that when I get anonymous feedback from 45 students and one of them has a negative comment, I sometimes dismiss it precisely because I have no way of knowing whether the claim is valid. When a student writes, “It’s impossible to get an A in his course,” I can point to (though the student can’t see) the fact that several students got As. But if a student were to write, “I worked really hard on that assignment and got hardly any help or feedback,” the comment is almost meaningless—to me—unless I know who wrote it and can put it in context. I would want to change my teaching if I realized in retrospect that I had misinterpreted a student as a slacker who was too shy to ask for help.
Sometimes knowing our students and their mitigating circumstances can help us to be fairer. Blind justice might not be so just. To generalize: Specificity is good. Generalization is bad.
And yet RateMyProfessor is so full of generalizations that an individual comment could often apply to almost anyone else on a bad day. Whew! So the site’s usefulness is not so much in its particulars as in the prof’s overall score.
Especially easiness. Frank Donoghue writes: “The ‘easiness’ category provides students with the perfect instrument for boosting their GPA. Simply choose the instructors with the highest ‘easiness’ ratings and your grades are bound to improve.”
In the United States, the grade that most college students get is already an A.
This is also the grade that most professors want and were accustomed to as students.
We profs should therefore be able to relate to our students, and I wish more students who post anonymous online evaluations would try to relate to us, too. Most of us, I hope, offer mainly task-based criticism so that students take it less personally: less ego inflation and less crushing of self-esteem. We have to try to be considerate. Our students know who we are—and quite possibly where we live.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "RateMyStudent.com." Publicly Interested. 4 Feb. 2016. Web. [date of access]
Update 2/16/2016: Partly in response to this blog, the manager of environmental sustainability in Air Canada's Environmental Affairs Department wrote to me two days ago to claim that, at 8 of 9 airports in Canada, the company does in fact separate and recycle its onboard waste. The exception is Toronto's Pearson International Airport, which follows rules enforced by the Canada Border Services Agency and set by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Preventing the spread of disease is their goal. The manager at Air Canada assures us that the company is trying to agree with the CBSA and the CFIA to expand their recycling, and she asks that we write to the CFIA to express our concerns about a systemic solution to the embarrassing destruction of recyclables. (Further update: Having pondered this awhile, I wrote this postscript.)
Dear World Leaders,
Last week in Paris (mid-December, 2015), leaders from around the world negotiated the first universal agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding catastrophic climate change. Today, I call on you as world leaders too—leaders of a globalizing industry—to let me help you do your part.
Once upon a time, and for a short time, I was in management, where we had the jargon of "the take away." As you know, it's the proposal that one might remember from a presentation or executive summary. I want to suggest that you remember this: airlines must do more to mitigate climate change—and I'll help! I volunteer to take away the recyclables (a sort of double take away) on airplanes on which I travel and actually recycle them, rather than destining them to a future of burial or incineration.
The world is burning up. 2015 will be the hottest year on record, and yet we continue (more literally than with the world) to burn things that contribute to global warming.
The jet fuel we burn while travelling with you has, at present, environmental consequences that are inevitable results of choosing to fly, but there are many that we can avoid. Every day, airlines use cups and cans numbering in the many millions, many of which are incinerated rather than recycled. In Scientific American not long ago, David Farley wrote that “[t]he U.S. airline industry discards enough aluminum cans every year to build nearly 58 Boeing 747s and enough paper to fill a football field–size hole 230 feet deep—that’s 4,250 tons of aluminum and 72,250 tons of paper.”
The Canadian industry is proportionally no better and is in some ways worse, because some major American airlines do recycle some of the stuff on their planes—but Air Canada and WestJet presently do not, at least on my recent flights to and from Toronto. Such enormous waste is unconscionable, and every time I forget my reusable water bottle at home I feel guilty if I need water on board. (I feel guilty about not buying carbon offsets these days too, but that's a slightly different issue.)
Although consumers have little control over jet fuel consumption except their choice not to fly, to fly less, or to fly with less baggage (a lighter load meaning less fuel consumption), we have plenty of choices on the airplane itself. We could boycott in-flight purchases that involve wasted recyclables, but, as we are taught to do when hiking in national parks, we could instead take away our recyclables into the airports, which do have infrastructure for recycling.
Shouldn't your employees be doing that? (And is a plane in the air anything like a national park?) But since they're not, or at least not consistently throughout your business, your customers could do it. Knowing it can start with one, I proposed to volunteer on my December business and pleasure flights to take all recyclables from the airplane to local recycling facilities, but the flight attendants said they had no resources (presumably enough staff and time) to separate the recyclables from garbage and to collect them. This is where we need your help. Flight attendants need their executives and managers to say that they should take time to separate the recyclables. It seems as simple as having one bag for recyclables and one for garbage—many bags of each, of course, and enough people to move them.
The responsibility is not only mine. You as world leaders are in a better position than me to make a systemic improvement, but I'm part of the system. Say the word, and I'll move the recyclables off the plane.
[Unsuccessful attempts were made to reach Klaus Goersch (the Air Canada Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer responsible for efficiency) with this suggestion, prior to my Christmas-related flights in 2015.]
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Open Letter to World Leaders at Airlines." Publicly Interested. 16 Dec. 2015. Web. [date of access]
Should there be ads on a blog called “Publicly Interested”? The question started to nag me as soon as I decided to start a blog. I can imagine how bpNichol or another concrete poet might begin to approach it, before doing something way more creative:
I mean this in different ways. Ads on the web are a nagging presence, and, of course, they add up—to big numbers of ads, to big potential revenue, and to big distraction. I want this blog to be not only readable, with the zen of print, but also commercially neutral (not that print is). Sadly, I assume that eventually the nice folks at my web-hosting service are going to ask me to pay them to keep this blog free of ads.
My questions are about the extent of my right or privilege to keep it free. Is this blog mine? It’s free of both ads and costs at the moment, so was it a gift? Or is it a loan? Is it public or private space? Let’s say for a moment that it’s mine, as some of my private property is—perhaps not something I paid for, but something I made: not something I made on campus, but perhaps a painting or, better yet, a diary.
A diary is the epitome of a private text, but, in Publics and Counterpublics, Michael Warner observes that it does address a "partial stranger" (125): the diarist's future self, a future public. Interpreting a scene of totalitarian surveillance of a diarist in George Orwell's 1984, Warner also suggests that, in an era of social media, our privacy will ultimately be policed (127). The concern for me is not as it is in 1984, where government surveillance is a major problem. Although Orwell remains compelling, I worry more about corporate surveillance and the link between profit and privacy.
In my book on stardom in poetry (if you can believe it—I want to quote that phrase again: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”), I remarked upon an admittedly obvious tendency of celebrities to relinquish their privacy for the sake of gaining and maintaining a public, as many of us now do on social media such as this blog—arguably part of a trend toward diminishing privacy and increasing publicity.
Or you can think of it as the total opposite: not a drift to publicity but to privacy, if privacy is inseparable from the idea of private property.
Your privacy includes your own self and your own space, and in a capitalistic society it competes with the private sector: wanting a house to be your private space, you have to offer more than another person or corporation offers for it. You can also profit from it. Let’s think of that diary. It’s not for profit, unless you’re Elizabeth Smart publishing what Dee Horne calls a “novel-journal.” With By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept in the 1940s, Smart effectively went public with her journal, which is what bloggers do today—but not necessarily with money involved.
Seemingly different from privacy, publicity is to some extent one’s publicness or condition of being public. In the sense of advertising, publicity is also the incursion of the private sector into public space, which is a space defined partly by its not-for-profit status. Ads on “my” not-for-profit blog would be publicity. As soon as we allow ourselves to talk about “privacy” and “the private sector” in the context of social media, privatization can overtake privacy. "My" privacy might be coterminous with someone else's profit.
An arising concern is that attempts to address and thereby create a public, which is the precondition that Warner explains in Publics and Counterpublics (82, 129), will become a privatized activity—very different from standing on a soapbox in a park (insofar as parks remain public), calling out to others with poems or slogans, or blogging. The difference is that the activity is, at least by proxy, selling something.
So I wonder if my web-hosting service would ever censor me for advising people not to look at or click on ads if this blog had them. Presumably the provider can take down a blog for any of the mutable reasons that it or its future parent company might dictate. In the future, “my” blog could be part of a sale, which suggests that my writing is a labour worth something to the provider, as it is to a publisher controlling a copyright.
The recognition of a "labour" involved is both a blessing and a curse. Its recognition as work or a work can be nice, but it means my writing is co-opted into a discourse in which we create property through labour, when I want it to be exist as something other than a commodity. Or, if it must, in addition to a commodity—there's the problem of the "add" again.
So, the fact that I wrote this blog is one explanation for why the provider gives or lends me this public-private space, free of ads. The content, however, is unimportant to the provider, because (in theory) the very fact of my writing is the advertisement. There's an emoticon for this: not knowing how to feel about it, but definitely not good.
Adding to this feeling, the commodity here, for you, as a public, is what Richard Posner calls the "credence good" (49) of informed opinion. A web-hosting service will care about that opinion only rarely, such as when it breaks a law or is somehow harmful to the company. Posner wouldn't care much either, partly because he thinks that this kind of public engagement lacks accountability (7) and quality control (2), in that I am my own editor and am basically just moonlighting from my job as a prof.
If this blog were mood lighting, it would be dark but not romantic.
The irony is that, as a prof, I am a professional writer, but at my publicly funded university (and at others) professors are increasingly expected to be publicly engaged beyond the public of the classroom—to help rationalize public funding of universities—and in so doing we might also engage in the private sector and thereby seem to justify Posner's market-based analysis of our own decline.
In effect, much of my work is also yours: your taxes (and tuition) help to fund my university, and my publications help the corporations that own presses and journals to make profit, very little of which comes to me directly. Whether I like it or not, this blog has a part in what is, in effect, the public-private partnership of today's university.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "No Ads on 'My' Blog." Publicly Interested. 25 Nov. 2015. Web. [date of access]
Dear Prime Minister,
Yes, young Trudeau, there is a Santa Claus. At the risk of being facetious, I want to draw attention to the big gift that you and the Liberals received when you won this 2015 election: a legitimacy not too different from that of the Conservatives when they had their “majority.”
My concern is how (even just “that”) our electoral system bequeaths a “majority” on parties that have less than 50% of the popular vote. You've been a teacher—so how would you manage a vote in the classroom on (say it like Gandalf) who shall not pass? Would 4 of 10 students be allowed to make the decision as if they were the majority?
The distortion of representation is an undeniable problem. You can be one of the rare prime ministers who legislates against his own short-term gain for long-term change. You can finally enable a system that recognizes the relatively small differences between some parties in the popular vote, such as 8% between the Liberals and Conservatives, and 12% between the Conservatives and the NDP. Recognition of the small margins would reduce the embarrassing “democratic deficit” in Canadian politics. Young people probably voted in bigger numbers this time because they think you'll represent them, even if they are not major players in the economy (yet).
I'm younger than you, too, but I have more than enough cynicism for politics to make the bad joke above about your age. Hoary old men really did give us a system.
Before your election, you committed to an end to it, the first past the post system—the system that allows a party with 38% of the popular vote to win a “sweeping majority” and claim a “strong mandate” to shift the direction of the entire country by appealing almost always to the economy and the spectre of job loss. Among the options of ranked ballots and proportional representation, the latter is more democratic. If democracy depends on representation of and by the people, and if it thrives when the people and their representatives debate, discuss, and—yes--compromise, proportional representation is the choice for me. And, I hope, you.
Proportional representation will lead to minority governments, which are much maligned by people who claim to want “effective” governments. In the past decade, however, I have been very concerned, as it were, rather than thankful for the effectiveness of the Harper government. I would prefer that no party could make massive changes to our country without a parallel majority or, as you have also suggested, a referendum that reveals voters’ preferences regardless of their political affiliation.
We could have referendums to let us act quickly on issues with broad public support, and slow and steady politics for all the issues that really need compromise. In the coming months, time will fly and proportional representation will need to be an immediate priority. But, after that, please relent a little so that democracy goes well (e.g., no omnibus bills). Remember that many of us want to turn back the clock to another historic election: that of 2006.
On the occasion of your first day in office, November 4, 2015, I wish you a Merry Christmas—and a happy new democracy before the next federal election.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Open(ing) Letter." Publicly Interested. 4 Nov. 2015. Web. [date of access]
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.