A Chance to be 49th

Mississippi doesn’t embrace many chances to avoid winning last place, but here’s an easy one: we’re one of the last two states to recognize “Confederate Memorial Day.” Alabama is the other one. Regardless of what one feels about our state flag–I think it’s hopelessly tone-deaf at best–it ought to be easy to avoid a state holiday that by definition will alienate a substantial portion of its citizens. How wonderful it would be to let Alabama serve the union as the last reminder of a state that legitimized slavery.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the river, New Orleans is removing four monuments to the confederacy. I have as many misgivings about this as I do about today’s state holiday. I prefer what’s happened to the confederate statue at Ole Miss–an idea that seems more respectful of all parties involved.

UPDATE: A tip of the hat to Terrence Johnson, an MSMS alumnus who shared Jarvis DeBerry’s strong argument against leaving the statues up. (DeBerry is an MSMS alumnus also–he spoke at last year’s graduation.)

Posted in Politics, Pop Culture, Race in Mississippi | 29 Comments

Contemporary Literature Possibilities

Greetings all. The list below constitutes possibilities for the contemporary literature course I will teach in the fall semester. I still need to trim about four titles; it’s possible, even now, to consider a replacement text. I want your input.

No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy*

Desperation Road, Michael F. Smith*

Salvage the Bones, Jessmyn Ward*

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas*

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi*

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini*

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz*

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Looking for Alaska, John Green

Wonder, RJ Palacio

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri*

Natchez Burning, Greg Iles*

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belford*

Flash Boys, Michael Lewis (non-fiction)*

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (non-fiction)*

Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance (non-fiction)

UPDATE: *denotes final selections.

Posted in Books, Uncategorized | 30 Comments

How to Teach

During a recent walk around campus, a colleague of mine mentioned a crisis in the classroom. “I’ve come to realize that our biggest problem with students isn’t that they don’t have an attention span,” the professor said. “It all has to do with content. They live in a world where they can have any question answered in a matter of seconds. So they see learning content as something of a waste of time, yet there’s no way for me to assess what they know until I can see that they’ve mastered the content. It’s a kid of impasse.”

Content in the humanities, of course, involves a different skill set than those required upstairs. Yet I admit I am vaguely horrified by the notion that students may believe that all they need to know about William Faulkner or Lorraine Hansberry can be learned from Sparknotes. If content is merely paraphrase, then we are all damned to a world without nuance.

My colleague has expressed a legitimate fear. If Google and Khan Academy can deliver content for free, why waste money on teachers? On brick-and-mortar schools? On going to Vanderbilt instead of East Armpit Tech?

However, it also seems to me that the breadth of content available makes the work we do as students and teachers even more important. Information without context cannot lead to wisdom–heck, it can’t even lead to productivity. I cannot promise what the classrooms of the future will look like, but I hope they look like the ones we have at MSMS.

Posted in Education | 31 Comments

The Internet and Privacy

Earlier this week, Congress sent to Pres. Trump a bill that would allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to sell data regarding users’ searches and browsing history to third-party advertisers. This made me wonder, once again, what expectations computer users should have regarding privacy. (I’m not sure that I have such expectations; do you? Would you be incensed if, for instance, an employer called you on the carpet for posting on social media while you were supposed to be working?)

On a more comic note: I’ve noticed people bringing their smartphones with them everywhere: doctors’ offices, churches, bathrooms, restaurants–everywhere. Smartphones are the new cigarettes: we reach for them as soon as we wake up, enjoy them after a meal, use them as a means of introduction. We are as addicted to them as we once were to nicotine.

Or so I think.

For people your age, I wonder: is there a place or a circumstance so sacred that smartphones are not invited? Are there times when you were shocked that you saw people using their phones?

Posted in National Politics, Pop Culture, Social Media | 38 Comments

More Cyber espionage

Wikileaks recently released information about the ways the government collects information for (alleged) security purposes. The “Vault 7” papers are hardly surprising. Anyone who’s posted anything anywhere should be aware that there’s no erasing a digital footprint.

Yet I must admit that I find Wikileaks perplexing. I’m not thrilled by government surveillance. Nor do I like the way Wikileaks can destabilize our already precarious political environment. What do y’all think about Wikileaks and groups like it?

Posted in National Politics, Science | 31 Comments

So, while we’re talking about essential services. . .

Education (35%) and health care (25%) rate as the two largest items within our $6 billion state budget. Those percentage are likely to remain the same until our income outpaces the rate of inflation. (Currently, our economy has grown at -.5% for 2017–if one can call that growth.)

I’m not interested in placing the blame for these problems at anyone’s feet. But the only ways to reduce the percentage of our budget dedicated to education and health are to cut schools and services, or to figure out ways to stimulate the economy, so that the amounts dedicated to education and health stay flat, but their percentage of the budget falls. The Republican answer to stimulating the economy is to cut taxes. The success of this tactic is debatable. What alternatives do you see?

Posted in Education, Politics | 24 Comments

Make sense of the numbers

Mississippi has a terrible budget conundrum:  allocations have increased by about $700 million since 2012, but income has increased by only about $600 million. The federal government will not ride to our rescue. There is not enough political willpower to raise taxes; there is not enough willpower to cut programs. Our legislators don’t seem to mind pontificating on the evils of waste in various agencies, and seem to assume that mid-year budget cuts–there have been five during this fiscal year–will inspire agency heads to trim the fat they must.

And the hits keep coming:

So far, the only “serious” efforts to bridge the gaps between what we have and what we want are an internet sales tax, which is not guaranteed to pass, and a lottery, which may not pass (and which is unlikely to generate more than $50 million a year).

I’m tired of driving on bad roads. I’m tired of worrying about how safe my water is. I’m tired of wondering when my school will receive the renovations (and other general funding) that it deserves.

Fixing these problems need not be a back-breaking affair. If we increased taxes on every man, woman, and child in this state by just $100 a year–less than many people spend per month on their smart phones and data plans–then we could generate almost $300 million. Quickly.

ADDENDUM: Geoff Pender at The Clarion-Ledger has been asking similar questions. Here’s another reason the state’s income has plummeted.

Posted in Politics | 17 Comments

Help me help us

So. . .I’m curious. . .if you all could redesign the MSMS website, what would you want it to look like? How could you make sure that the site’s content remains strong? Are there school websites that you think are exemplary?

Posted in Education, Social Media | 30 Comments

On Federalism and Sanctuary Cities

If you’ve wondered how sanctuary cities work–and how Pres. Trump’s recent executive orders may affect them–here’s a great breakdown from The Washington Post. The article begs some important questions, among them the degree to which federal law must supersede local law. All Mississippians should know how often that’s the case.


Citizens in sanctuary cities may be sympathetic to the plight of immigrants. Immigration laws are convoluted. Families get torn apart. People who are willing to work for under-the-table wages get exploited. Better laws must be written and passed at the federal level. However, local laws cannot be followed to the exclusion of federal law. When that happens, local prejudices can have terrible effects. I suspect that those protesting Trump’s executive order have their hearts in the right place. But their anger may be more accurately directed towards Congress for having failed to develop reasonable immigration policies than at the White House.

Posted in Politics | 17 Comments

Arts in Mississippi

Legislators in both houses are currently considering a bill that would abolish the Mississippi Arts Commission and transfer its responsibilities to the Mississippi Development Authority. Sponsors of the bill see it as a way to streamline the relationship between Mississippi’s arts scene and its tourism industry. It’s true that small-town museums and festivals across the state compete for visitors and resources, and that there are probably ways for them to work together more efficiently. It’s also true that the MDA could promote relationships between arts and businesses that are mutually beneficial.

However, there’s a cynical way to view this bill. First, the budget for the Arts Commission is only $1.7 million, which suggests that the urge to save money by consolidating agencies is, in this case, an over-reach. It also seems apparent that success in the arts and success in developing businesses involve fairly different standards. Good art does not necessarily have anything to do with efficiency or business elan. Finally, a goodly number of artists lean to the left politically; in Mississippi, many of those artists are women and people of color. Could legislation like this be a way for our conservative leaders to exercise greater control over the political content or art, or an effort to tamp down “liberal” influences in favor of those that involve business?

Update: This bill died.

Posted in Arts, Politics | 21 Comments