Archive for March, 2013

‘Union’ is Not a Four Letter Word

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on March 20, 2013 by davehurwitz
Blue Sky & Palm Trees

Beautiful Southwestern College

I have made history, of a sort.  As of this week, I am the very first member to be profiled on the brand new website for the SCEA, my faculty union.  I’m honored.  Hopefully other profiles will follow, and it won’t be just me hanging out there by myself.  In the mean time, here are some thoughts on the predicament of unions today and why I became a union member in the first place.

Several semesters back, one of my students came up during break holding a pay stub from Henry’s.  This was her first paycheck from her first ever job, and she wanted to know where all the “missing money” had gone.  I can never resist explaining anything to anybody, so I was happy to help.  Taxes she understood perfectly well.  She had at least heard of Social Security, so that was another easy one.  But when I said that the last deduction paid her union dues, she gave me blank look and asked, “What’s a union?”

I will admit to being a little stunned.  I remembered learning a great deal about U.S. labor movements and unionism in a junior high school political science class.  Yet here was a grown woman, a high school graduate, who didn’t know what a union was.  Shocking.  After a longish pause, I launched into a very abbreviated explanation of collective bargaining and the good things it has brought us over the decades: the forty hour work week, overtime pay, child labor laws, safety regulations, workman’s compensation, whistle-blower protection.  By the time I needed to resume class, I think she understood.  Still, I remained befuddled.  Part of me just couldn’t believe that it had been necessary to even have that conversation.

These days, I look back at my reaction as naive.  With collective bargaining under legislative assault in a number of states and anti-union, anti-public employee rhetoric trotted out by local political hopefuls in every election cycle, I’ve realized that this is a conversation that I–that all union workers–should be having with a lot more people.

Not that I’m in any position to throw stones.  When I started working for SWC, I did not join the faculty union.  This was back in the days when non-members paid no dues, but got representation anyway, so I saved a few dollars every paycheck.  I needed the money, and I didn’t feel any guilt about it.  That changed when I needed the union’s help.  I had been denied an interview for a full time faculty position despite a clause in our contract that guarantees a first round interview to all adjuncts with three or more semesters under their belts, a clause the SCEA negotiated, by the way.  I sent an email to the grievance chair, and a couple days later I was back on the interview list.  I didn’t even need to file a formal complaint.  At that point, I decided to pay up and support the union that had supported me.

This makes for a good story, but now I can’t help but see my reason for joining as little selfish, a little shortsighted.  The union is always working for me, whether or not it is solving a specific problem on my behalf.  Recently, the SCEA helped to elect a more labor friendly governing board for my college.  Even now, the union is engaged in some very fraught negotiations with the administration over the next faculty contract.  These things might not seem like such a big deal, especially to freeway flying adjuncts who work multiple campuses, but all of us will feel the impact soon enough, in our workloads and in our paychecks.  I for one am counting on our union officials and negotiators to stand tall.

Why am I pro-union?  Why do I belong to the SCEA?  Because the least I can do is stand behind them.

D. Hurwitz

‘Ask a Silly Queston’ by Donald E. Westlake

Posted in Book Review, Parker with tags , , , , , , on March 16, 2013 by davehurwitz

I’ve exercised my obsession with Caitlin R. Kiernan a great deal in the last few weeks.  The other author I can’t stop going on about is Richard Stark, creator of Parker, crime fiction’s toughest professional thief.  Stark’s appeal has always been something of a puzzle to me, as he depicts a society devoid of morality, populated by the weak and the venal.  Against this grimy backdrop, a near sociopath like Parker seems virtuous, if only in contrast.  Richard Stark is the most prolific pseudonym of Mystery Writers of America grandmaster Donald E. Westlake, a fact that seems unlikely to those who have read “both” authors. While Stark is the ultimate nihilist, much of Westlake’s work is gently humorous, even cosy.

Westlake’s antidote for Parker is John Dortmunder, a New York City thief who never seems to catch a break.  In movie adaptations, Dortmunder has been played by actors a various as George C. Scott, Robert Redford, and even Martin Lawrence, but I always picture him looking a bit like Fred Ward (who has not played Dortmunder, but has played Hoke Moseley), a perpetually aggrieved schlub.  Along with a cast of regular cronies, Dortmunder specializes in easy-seeming scores that invariably go sideways.  Dortmunder confronts these setbacks, not with the brutality of Parker, but with an outside-the-box cleverness all his own.  Of the fourteen Dormunder novels Westlake worte before his death, I have read the most recent five.  All of them were entertaining, light and funny in way Richard Stark never is.

A Charm Bracelet 'O Crime!Originally published in Playboy Magazine, “Ask a Silly Question” has a more permanent home in Thieves’ Dozen, a collection of Dortmunder stories that seems unlikely to ever go out of print.  (Westlake is a mainstay of public library mystery shelves as well.)  In this particular story, Dortmunder is on his way to a planning session at the O.J. Bar and Grill when he is kidnapped by a very polite, very wealthy, older man.  This unnamed individual has a problem, and he’s willing to pay Dortmunder to help him solve it.  In his younger years, the elegant man purchased a genuine Rodin bronze.  A recent divorce gave ownership to his ex-wife.  Unable to part with this treasure, the elegant man commissioned a fake, made by taking a mold of the original.  So far so good, but now the ex-wife is donating the fake to museum, an act which will certainly expose the fraud.  Now the elegant man wants to steal the fake while his ex-wife is abroad.  There’s just one problem.  The bronze statue weights more than five-hundred pounds.  Can Dortmunder pull off this heist without giving himself a hernia?  Will he actually get paid?  Will he ever make it to the backroom at the O.J.?  There’s only one way to find out.

Blurbs frequently describe the Dortmunder novels as “Runyonesque,” an adjective that is all but meaningless to me.  (Evidently it refers to Damon Runyon, who wrote humorous stories about NYC underworld characters in the days of Prohibition.)  If forced to pick a single adjective, I would choose something simple, like “fun.”  Though the Dortmunder novels and stories utilize the structure of grittier heist fiction, they contain a lot less violence and lot more dry humor and absurd situations.  I’ve always enjoyed bad ass action, but in recent years, the straight stuff has become a little hard to take.  I’m sure I’ll always be a Parker fan, but I’m becoming increasingly fond of Dortmunder.

Dave Hurwitz

Why Are College Textbooks So Expensive?

Posted in Book Review, Education, Random Weirdness with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2013 by davehurwitz

I get asked this question a lot, usually by frustrated students who’ve had to plunk down a serious chunk of change for a book they don’t really want to read in the first place.  By way of example, the required text for one of my English classes, Evergreen: A Guide to Writing with Readings, has a list price of $132.95.  Textbooks for hard science subjects like Physics or Chemistry can run twice that much.  Publisher’s reps, when I ask them this same question, invariably give the same tired old answers.  They say that textbooks are a niche market, with smaller print runs than popular novels, which drives up the per unit printing cost.  They also say that they must often pay royalties to not only the editor of a textbook, but to the authors of various essays reprinted within the book, which adds to the cost.

Strangely, the jacket art is white, not green.Both of these excuses–for they are excuses, not reasons–are transparent bullshit.  I buy fiction titles from niche presses all them time.  These are books with severely limited print runs, often no more than 500 copies.  Sure, the per unit cost is higher, but I’ve never paid $133 dollars for one of these titles.  The most expensive work of fiction I own cost $60, and was bound by hand with sewn in signatures.  Besides, with 89% of U.S. high school graduates enrolling in colleges and universities, how small is the textbook market, really?  The second excuse is equally bogus.  I’m sure you’ve all seen multiple-author story anthologies at your local bookstore.  All those writers had to be paid individually, too, but those books don’t cost any more than single-author titles of the same size.

Textbooks are overpriced because textbook publishers cling to outmoded notions of how their books should be produced and sold.  Having worked both as a small press publisher and as a college instructor, I naturally have a few ideas about how this situation can be improved.

Print Textbooks in Standard Trim Sizes on Cheap Paper:

They say this book jacket can't pay the rent...Let’s face it, college textbooks are a disposable item.  Most students can’t wait to get rid of them when the semester is over.  If they cling to them at all, it’s because they want to sell them carefully in order recoup as much of the cover price as possible.  Given these truths, there’s no reason not to print cheap books that can just be tossed in the recycling bin after finals week.  As an example, let’s look at another book I use, They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.  This is a small, short, softbound book, with no color printing, but a new copy will still set you back $25.  Why?  Because it’s printed on slick paper with it’s own unique trim size.  There’s simply no excuse for this.  A mass market publisher like Angry Robot could knock out newsprint copies for $8 each and still turn a profit.  That’s less than a third of what my students are asked to pay.  Mass market style textbooks would also mean more new book sales for publishers, since an $8 paperback is scarcely worth reselling.

Stop Printing in Color Unless Absolutely Necessary:

English Composition is not a subject that requires a lot of charts and graphs, yet most of the textbooks I see are printed in color, and styled like commercial websites.  This not only requires a more expensive printing process, but necessitates a higher quality of paper than simple black and white.  So why use color in an English book?  The main reason seems to be that it adds ‘visual interest,’ eye candy intended to lure students into reading the presumably uninviting content.  I’m not against this in theory, but in practice, a lot the ‘visual interest’ items seem pointless or even counter-productive.  Going back to Evergreen for an example, right smack in the middle of a chapter on sentence fragments, there is a half-page full color reproduction of an ad for Tommy Hilfiger clothing.  Yes, it is visually arresting.  Yes, it could reasonably generate a discussion on the psychology of advertising.  But what is it doing in a chapter about basic sentence errors?  Nothing, except distracting my students from the matter at hand, and possibly selling some yachting outfits.  Frankly, I’d rather have plain old black and white, especially if it brings the price of the book down.  In cases that absolutely require full color figures–hard science textbooks again–I suggest the solution adopted long ago by the publishers of true crime books and movie star biographies, print most of the book in black and white, with a signature or two of color in the middle where all the nice photos go.

Ditch the Enhancements:

In the Fall of 2010, a video made the rounds on YouTube in which Management Professor Richard A. Quinn of the University of Central Florida accused most of his class of cheating on a midterm exam.  The test in question had been assembled from a database of potential questions provided by the publisher of his textbook.  Though Quinn seemed sincerely outraged, I was shocked by his naivete.  Really, what did he expect to happen?  Any sizable student population is bound contain a few individuals with Mad Hacker Skillz.  It’s a given that this not-terribly-secure database would be cracked by someone who would then pass on the the questions and their answers, either for profit or out of a misplaced sense of altruism.  No professor worth his tenure–especially one with multiple grad students to use as slave labor–uses canned test questions for precisely this reason.  Yet, this is exactly the sort of ‘bonus content’ that publishers waste time and money producing.  Other typical ‘enhancements’ include publisher hosted blogs and social media sites keyed to specific textbooks.  These too become fertile fields for cheaters and short-cut artists, this time in the form of term papers plagiarized from other students who have posted their legitimate work to these sites.  Frankly, I’ve even grow leery of using textbooks batched with readings.  Once they’ve been in circulation a while, corresponding essays start to appear on the internet, either posted to personal sites by proud students, or for sale as ‘research tools.’  Either way, these present even more opportunities for plagiarism.  Publishers should stop providing these crutches for lazy professors.  They increase the cost of textbooks without improving their intrinsic qualities, and ultimately cause more classroom problems than they solve.

Embrace Student-Friendly Technologies and Sales Points:

There are hopeful signs in this area.  The webpage of Cengage, the publisher of Evergreen, offers an electronic version of the book for $46.49.  This is a rental, a bit like a library ebook, which will vanish from students’ computers at the end of the semester.  Weirdly, it’s actually cheaper to rent the physical book, which comes with a postage paid return.  Clearly, Cengage isn’t pushing its electronic content very hard, despite the obvious cost savings.  But how many students will even find this page without assistance?  Over at Amazon, where most ebook purchasers wash up, a Kindle-ready copy of Evergreen will set you back $92.49.  Hardly an alluring price tag, especially when you consider that you can buy a used copy for half that much from These Sellers.  Evergreen isn’t even for sale at Smashwords, where all the cool kids hang out.  This situation is fairly typical for electronic textbooks.  They’re often too expensive relative to the cost of the print book.  Students and even instructors may be unaware of them because they’re not sold in the usual places, and campus bookstores have an obvious motive to deny their very existence.  But these problems can be overcome.  Publishers can strike deals with popular ebook providers, or at least promote their own sales points more effectively.  A sane and consistent pricing policy, one that bears in mind the easy availability of used print books, can be found.  After all, publishers earn nothing from used book sales, a clear reason to make electronic books cheaper.  In the end, both textbook publishers and their customers–the students–will benefit.  Isn’t that what good business is all about?

Dave Hurwitz

‘Houses Under the Sea’ by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , , on March 4, 2013 by davehurwitz

UndescribableThis is another story from Two Worlds and in Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, Volume One by way of Thrillers 2.  It’s also the last story I needed to read from Two Worlds.  After this, I promise to move on to something a little less obscure and a bit more cheerful.  Like our previous Kiernan story, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ became a point of inspiration for a more readily available novel.  This story, along with ‘The Road of Pins,’ forms the backbone of Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl.  If this review intrigues you, the novel covers similar territory in much the same style.

Like many classic horror stories, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ is framed as a found document.  The nameless, genderless, first person narrator is a reporter, ostensibly writing an insider’s account of his or her involvement with a cult calling itself The Open Door of Night and it’s leader, a disgraced academic named Jacova Angevine.  Public interest in the cult, and the obvious slipping of the narrator’s sanity, began with the mass suicide of the entire membership.  Jacova Angevine led them into the sea, out toward the deep-water canyons of Monterey Bay, to drown themselves.

The Novel by Caitlin Kiernan‘Houses Under the Sea’ consists of eight numbered sections, or scenes.  Within theses sections, the narrator is apt to bounce backward and forward from the past to the present in a way that suggests a disordered mind.  Despite that impression, this really a tightly crafted piece of writing, revealing just enough in any given scene to build both anticipation and unease.  My favorite bit is a scene in which the narrator watches a video cassette of raw footage from a camera mounted on an ROV piloted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) along the bay floor.  The narrator has watched this footage a number of times, and is clearly terrified by it.  Eventually, the ROV is sideswiped by something unseen and knocked into a deep trench.  Miles beneath the sea, far below the depth of human survivability, the malfunctioning camera glimpses what can only be a symbol carved into a giant rock.  All of which may sound a bit silly in summary, but when combined with the narrator’s sweaty nail-biting, it comes across as quite sinister.

If you’re seeing shades of H.P. Lovecraft here, you’re not wrong.  Other aspects of the story make this connection even more apparent.  Kiernan’s genius lies in giving an HPL premise a more modern scientific backdrop and a contemporary seeming cult.  Keirnan herself was trained as a vertebrate paleontologist, and she knows how to give her fiction an academic veneer.  Other sections of the story discuss popular and scholarly books published about The Open Door of Night as well as hack novels written by Angevine’s father, complete with citation information, and all of them just as fictional as the story itself.

Like a Lovecraft story, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ suggests much more than it reveals.  If you prefer definitive endings, let me again suggest The Drowning Girl, which offers more in the way of traditional closure.  As for ‘Houses,’ even the fate of its narrator is left open to interpretation.  All of its carefully constructed scenes lead the reader toward an unsettling truth, but once that truth has been realized, both narrator and reader are left with nowhere to go.  We know too much, and we are out of options.  To me at least, this is the very essence of horror.

Dave Hurwitz