Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Your Inner Light Has Already Burned Out

There's been a mild kerfuffle* in the wake of Ed Dante's essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on his career as a paper-writer for college and graduate students. Most of us in academe are naturally dismayed at Dante's reminder of the vast extent of plagiarism among our students, and I was also surprised to learn how many divinity, education, and nursing students made it to their graduate degrees with the help of a ghostwriter. (How did they afford those $2,000 thesis chapters, I wonder?**) What particularly struck me, though, was the author's confidence that he had somehow kept his own inner purity and righteousness throughout the experience. It was not his own choice, Dante argues, but a corrupt academic system that valued grades over actual competency that drove him into his morally questionable career. He is merely a product of the "desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created." Despite working for ten years as a hired liar for plagiarizing students, he believes that he retains the soul of an honest artist. This is implicit in Dante's statement that he plans to retire from the racket and do something more worthwhile with the rest of his life. Hogwash. Dante obviously gets a charge from the life he leads - the full professional dance card, the tight deadlines, the thrill of deceiving burnt-out professors, the bittersweet satisfaction of helping desperate, subliterate students - and he almost certainly wouldn't be able to obtain equivalent satisfaction from doing something else. Moreover, a decade of doing intentionally rushed and subpar work for others cannot have left Dante well-prepared to do his own writing, something that will require creativity and contemplation. These are two talents he has either crushed or allowed to wither. I suspect he'll be back at his old racket, or one very similar to it, soon enough. As a certain twentieth-century English essayist wrote, "Once a whore, always a whore***."

* The story has, as of this writing, generated over 500 comments on the Chronicle's website.
** Though if you're spending $10,000+ a year to earn a graduate degree, an extra $2,000 to finish that degree probably doesn't seem like a big additional expense, particularly if you'll recoup the "investment" later in a higher salary.
***Apologies to my readers who are actually legitimate sex workers. I mean no offense.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Chaco Choco

I had long assumed that chocolate, while indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, was unknown north of the Rio Grande until European colonists introduced it in the 17th century. Recently, however, University of New Mexico archaeologist Patricia Crown determined that the Anasazi culture of pre-Columbian New Mexico had access to cacao beans, which they obtained in trade - along with silver ornaments and scarlet macaws - from Mesoamerica. Examining a store of cylindrical pottery jars that Neil Judd and others found at the Anasazi city of Pueblo Bonito, in Chaco Canyon, Professor Crown realized they were similar to jars the Mayans had used to store cacao, and sent potsherds from these jars to W. Jeffrey Hurst at the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition. Hurst found that the shards contained traces of theobromine, a caffeine-like alkaloid found in only one Mesoamerican cultivar: cacao. Similar tests had found evidence of cacao throughout Central America, including the site of Pueblo Escondido (western Honduras), where University of Pennsylvania archaeologists found theobromine on a pottery bottle spout dated to 1150 BCE. The Chaco Canyon cacao evidence, dated to sometime after 1000 CE, extends the range for chocolate consumption and trading 1,200 miles north of the bean's cultivation limit. Crown believes cacao was an elite commodity in Pueblo Bonito, given that the jars which held it were concentrated in a few caches, and speculates that access to Mesoamerican "prestige goods" like chocolate and silver might have accounted for Pueblo Bonito's growth into a major social and political center. (Blake Edgar, "The Power of Chocolate," Archaeology, November/December 2010, pp. 20-25.) Life is usually more interesting when one's old assumptions are proven wrong.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

We Have a Werewolf Congress

Of yesterday's Democratic debacle*, I can only repeat what H.L. Mencken wrote of the American way of government many decades ago: "Democracy is the theory that the common man knows what he wants and deserves to get it good and hard."

My views are otherwise similar to those of Lee Papa, whose commentary can be found at his website.

* I believe more U.S. House seats changed parties in this election than any other since 1948.