All posts by Benjamin

Profiles

A significant part of my work has involved writing profiles that establish thought leadership and brand value.  Three samples, of a student, an alumna, and a faculty member at Saybrook University, are below.

Keima Sheriff:  Organizational Systems PhD student

KeimaSheriff“There are things I need to make happen in my education,” says Keima Sheriff.

Keima owns her own consulting firm, and it has a mission: to teach businesses how to thrive by making their employees a priority.

It can be done, she says: it’s all about balance.

“A lot of the time consultants go in and try to fix an organization while ignoring its human parts,” she says. “So consultants will go in and create all kinds of systems and tools to deal with absenteeism or reduced productivity without ever noticing that the business is, say, primarily female and the women are also parents or caregivers who are struggling to create balance. We try to find what balance looks like for the individual and the organization and create a workable relationship between employees’ personal and professional lives. I’m trying to grow businesses while growing individuals.”

It’s a balance Keima has to deal with in her own life as a mother who’s devoted to both her career and her son. She needed a PhD to grow her own business: how could she add graduate school to the mix while staying personally balanced?

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The rise of Ms. Marvel and the fall of Spider-Man: superhero Comic Books are at once egalitarian and fascist

An essay in the New York Times about Comic Books and identity issues raises a point I’ve heard before: that the best quality of superheroes is that they are wholly egalitarian.

To quote Umapagan Ampikaipakan:

But for some of us non-Americans, the genre doesn’t need to apologize for itself, no matter how quintessentially American it is. The superhero comic is the American dream illustrated, and by definition the American dream must be accessible to all. However monochromatic its characters, the superhero comic’s message has always seemed universal.” … “I could never be Ganesh or Krishna; they were deities. Yet I could be Spider-Man, because I already was Peter Parker.“ … “After a bout with a radioactive spider or some Terrigen Mist, it could be you or it could be me.”

Comics do have the seeds of egalitarian heroism in their DNA:   their message is very much that when put in extraordinary circumstances, ordinary people can rise up to the occasion and be heroes.

But then what? What does being a superhero mean?

Just because a dream is theoretically open to anyone doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And superheroes very quickly turn from egalitarians into … something else …

… look, I like superheroes as much as the next guy, and probably more since I actually read capes & tights comics during my formative years.  But one of the biggest downsides to the huge popularity of the genre now is the fact that, at heart, it has fascist tendencies.

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Education in the technocratic age (notes from Voltaire’s Bastards)

Volatiar's BastardsThrough a strange set of circumstances involving Chicken John Rinaldi – and are there ever any other sorts of circumstances involving Chicken John? – I have tracked down the 1992 volume “Voltaire’s Bastards,” by John Saul, a book sadly both out of print and not available in ebook form.

It’s terrific reading so far:  intriguingly, Saul’s thesis about the rise of “Reason” and the technocrats feels both incredibly fresh and germane and completely out of touch with modern reality.  The internet would become a fact of life for elite America just five years after Voltaire’s Bastards was published, and 10 years after that it would be a nearly ubiquitous fact of life.  And we’re still 10 years past that, well into the world of Uber and Facebook.

This is a series of events which Saul’s thesis has everything to say about, but on which it is utterly silent owing to its year of publication.  Its silence on these critical issues is deeply frustrating:  to my mind Saul’s thesis is enhanced by the development of online technology, but the examples he actually uses are dated and almost quaint.  This matters in a way that it does not in a book like Walden or Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, because Voltaire’s Bastards is speaking to a very specific set of historical contingencies rather than to the timeless nature of the human self.

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What’s the matter with Poland? (And everywhere else …)

While the Republican Presidential Nomination is the obvious car wreck to watch, I find myself more compelled by

1)  The American student protest movement

2)  The South African student protest movement (which I have also written about in brief here)

and

3)  The trend towards autocracy in Poland. (Which you can also quickly read about here )

There may be a number of things that they have in common, but I think the common denominator for me psychologically is the way to which they all call into question – and rather terrifyingly – the assumptions on which we base our notions of progress.

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A bad Star Wars movie would have been better than a pointless one

Much in the way that the second Star Wars trilogy made the original worse, the seventh installment in the series makes episodes 1-3 look better.

The original Star Wars was undeniably – and admittedly – a pastiche of all the pulp genres that had come before it (cowboy, samurai, Flash Gordon/space opera) their content was wholly derivative but their mixing was novel, their aesthetic unheard of (nobody had ever presented a technologically advanced civilization with dirty second-hand tech in constant need of repair before) and the film style used to hold them together – the sharp fades and non-stop pace of the plot, the quick archetypal treating of characters otherwise held so tight they had no room to breath – was a genuine stylistic breakthrough. The original trilogy was so superb in no small part because the medium was the message, and it was a genuine advance.

The films that followed (episodes 1-3) were so disappointing to fans I no small part because they actually tried to do something different. This is not to excuse their many flaws in execution, which were significant and ultimately the real problem with the films, but those flaws have obscured one central fact from popular observation: rather than simply repeating his blockbuster formula (really “the” blockbuster formula), Lucas had a vision to create something new that would extend, deepen, and (had it gone right) enhance the original story he told.

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Closing the book on the “Crisis of the Humanities” means we finally have time to read more books

A great new article about college enrollment numbers strongly confirms a conclusion I’ve been coming to for a while now about the “crisis in the Humanities.”

1)  The Humanities are not in crisis;

2)  To the extent humanities enrollment is in decline, it is as a result of the Humanities’ key successes in opening supporting the ambitions of women and minorities to be accepted in roles where they previously were not;

3)  Any crisis of confidence within the humanities is entirely the result of self-inflicted wounds.

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The Revolution will not be humorous

bell hooksI can’t tell you how delighted I was to read this statement by bell hooks in a recent interview:

“We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humor. Every time we see the left or any group trying to move forward politically in a radical way, when they’re humorless, they fail. Humor is essential to the integrative balance that we need to deal with diversity and difference and the building of community.”

The value of humor is completely overlooked in both revolutionary pedagogy and critical theory – one suspects because revolutionaries and critical theorists don’t like to admit how funny they are. Another reason:  and revolutions are often pursued by the kind of people who like to think that if they just explain things hard enough everything will fall in line.  But humor is a pure demonstration of the fact that not all things in life are reducible to reason or amenable to politics – and that therefore revolution and theory have their limits.

 

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Is the study of Bullshit itself bullshit?

Bullshit may be the dominant form of expression in the early 21st century:  we’ve reached a point where it’s impossible to have any cultural literacy at all if bullshit isn’t your second language.

So I was one of the people who celebrated when Henry Frankfurt published “On Bullshit,” his philosophical study of the unique language characteristics of bullshit.  I’m not sure he really added anything to Orwell’s take on the subject, but, the more rigorous looks we have at bullshit, and why it’s a weed infesting our language and choking our culture, the better.

Except that a recent study out of the University of Waterloo (Canada) illustrates just how careful we have to be when interrogating this subject.  One of bullshit’s most dangerous characteristics is that it’s sticky – and if we get it on our hands we have a hard time not spreading it around.

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The Parallels of Polarized Discourse

What if the medium is the message is the zietgiest?

There may be no odder quirk of fate – or sign of the times – than the fact that both the Movement Conservatives on the right and the student activist movement on the left are demanding safe spaces in which they need not be confronted by opposing views.

This is not to conflate the two movements, or suggest they are fundamentally the same – but the trend of ideological polarization that demographers have been noting in America for decades (Blue States get bluer, Red States get redder, and people of identical incomes are increasingly clustered) is having an impact on the way debate is conceptualized in this country.

Given both increasing demographic segregation, and the increasing segmentation of the (social) media into targeted niches, should it really be a surprise that the nature of debate has gone from trying to win arguments to demanding freedom from the existence of opposing arguments?

 

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Woman Says She Was Attacked for Using Windows Phone at San Francisco Tech Bar

(This post originally appeared in the SF Weekly)

teachiephoneA woman was brutally attacked in a San Francisco techie bar when she attempted to make a call on a Windows phone, according to police reports.

Sarah Stiles, a San Francisco housing activist, described the incident to police, saying that she was at Rickhouse in the Financial District.

“I got a text from one of my allies in the domiciled community (an activist term for people with homes) and wanted to call back,” Stiles said. “But when I brought out my Nokia Lumia, the crowd turned ugly.”

According to the police report, two women and a man confronted her about the lack of a strong app ecosystem for the Windows platform, and made aggressive remarks about overall market penetration.

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