The Clan of the Cave Bear

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

This book, first of a series, is about a prehistoric human child who gets adopted into a tribe of Neanderthals. There are lots of detailed descriptions of Ice Age hunter-gatherer lifestyles, tools, and superstitions. Sometimes the narrative got kind of bogged down in these descriptions, to the point where I thought about how well this text would work as a supplement to history or anthropology textbooks.

The gender politics and sexual practices of the clan create the main conflict, a rivalry between Ayla, the main character, the adopted human, and egotistical Broud, next-in-line to be tribe leader. This prehistoric tribe’s customs are incredibly misogynistic, and I believe readers are meant to be kind of disgusted by them. Women of the clan are always supposed to be obedient to men, waiting on them, being submissive and subservient. Ayla struggles to live within the narrow bounds given to clan women, inciting Broud to discipline her. She eventually breaks or stretches some of these customs, and these instances of rebellion are treated as small triumphs.

The people of the clan are all sexually promiscuous, and have no taboos about nudity or watching others have sex or children playing at having sex. When they have sex, a man signals to a woman that he wants intercourse, and the woman assumes the position. She has no choice in the matter and must submit. It is discussed that women usually like sex, though, and sometimes try to provoke a man to initiate. Sex is almost always discussed in terms of men “relieving their needs,” a concept related to rape culture. I can believe that the prehistoric tribe may have thought of sex that way, but I would have liked to have seen the narrator or Ayla questioning that idea or holding it up to scrutiny.

This sexual practice creates the conditions for the hardest part of the book to read. Broud spends most of the novel vainly trying to assert his dominance over Ayla, and once she becomes sexually mature, he decides to use sex to dominate her as well. Her reaction makes it clear that using sex this way is not common among men of the tribe. She can’t understand why he’d want to have sex with her when he doesn’t find her attractive. She resists, he beats her until she submits, and then he really enjoys raping her. Since women are supposed to submit sexually, she says he beat her for being disobedient, and submits when he gives her the signal again and again later on. He likes it because he knows she hates it. He only stops when she becomes pregnant and her excitement about having a baby makes her hatred of Broud feel insignificant to her, and thus the act is less enjoyable for him.

The clan has no concept of fatherhood or understanding of the connection between sex and reproduction, explaining pregnancy through spiritual legends about the woman’s “totem” being defeated. (One problem with this belief is incest. The clan does have an incest taboo, but only concerning children of the same mother. People could be sleeping with their half-siblings all the time since no one knows who their fathers are.) Their superstition allows the promiscuity to coexist with a custom of mating and pair bonding that is similar to patriarchal marriage, in which a man provides food and resources to a woman and her children. This is unlike traditional marriage because no one feels any jealousy when either men or women have sex outside the mate relationship.

I’m not sure whether I believe these two customs–promiscuity and pair bonding–can coexist this way or not; it seems more likely to have one or the other. When men invest in children, they want to know the child is theirs, and so marriage restricts the sexual activity of women. When there is promiscuity and no concept of fatherhood, children are raised communally, with no particular investment from any men unrelated to the mother. For men to give so much time and resources for children that they believe they had no part in concieving is an almost unbelievable act of supreme altruism and community spirit. I sometimes wondered if these two different types of sexual customs were pasted together by the author to accomodate her plot. She needed casual sex to create the rape plotline, and she needed patriarchal marriage with paternal investment to explain why Broud was heir-apparent. Erasing the concept of fatherhood provides just enough cover for the two opposed sexual arrangements to hang together, if you squint a little and don’t look too closely.

Another disturbing thing about the clan is that their short lifespans and early maturation meant that 8-year-olds were being treated as full-fledged adults, having sex and making babies. Gross.

This was an interesting read, if a bit pedantic. It was an interesting discussion of ancient superstitions and customs, and portrayed a kind of a nightmare vision of sexual relations. It was fun to see Ayla breaking the original glass ceiling, even if she did have to save about 15 babies to do it. I’ll continue reading the series to see what comes next for her.

Posts from TOR part 2

Yesterday I wrote about some of the things I learned from participating in a discussion forum about The Wise Man’s Fear. There are some really smart people on this TOR thread, and they know how to take apart an argument. Their responses to my writing led us to uncover the roots of our disagreements. I ended up making a long statement about my critical theory, which I thought should probably make its way back here, because the underlying assumptions I carry when I analyze books should be public on my blog.
In the entire discussion, I think the most dangerous thing that was said was this: “you can’t judge a fantasy book the same way you’d judge ‘proper literature’. the whole ‘fantasy’ element indicates that it will explore areas of the human psyche that lead to politically incorrect territory, the sex-god or sex-demon trope, etc.”* The idea that a certain type of book or cultural product is immune to criticism is alarming and ridiculous. Of course we should use the same critical tools to judge all books, movies, shows, etc. All cultural products could potentially carry insidious messages, and thus should be scrutinized. This isn’t about being “politically correct,” but about being allowed to name what we see when we find sexism, racism, etc in our culture.
Several readers felt that my criticisms of characters and societies in WMF were too harsh because I was biased, or because I wasn’t allowing the Adem and 4 Corners societies to make their own rules and exist independent of the norms of our world. They were saying my arguments were invalid or inadmissible for these reasons, which indicated a deeper-rooted disagreement than simple differences in interpretation. It seemed like these readers might have been misunderstanding my theory, or reading using a different theory. So I explained my theory, the ideas that underpin why I thought it was acceptable to make the arguments I did. It mostly relates to fantasy books, but applies to almost all literature:**

We all have multiple critical lenses we can use to view any book or movie, and we can take them off and put them on like glasses. Sometimes I want to simply enjoy a book, and I put on my popcorn-and-soda lens. But when I come across something that alienates me as a woman or that I find racist or something, I feel like that set of glasses just got knocked off my head. I’m forced to put on my critical feminist glasses and articulate why I’m offended before I can move on and put the funtime lenses back on. [However,] I [do not claim] that either the popcorn lens or the critical lens [a]re objective. Both of those lenses are colored by the fact that I’m the one looking through them. We always read through the lens of our experiences and identities, which we can never fully escape. … I can read for pleasure, then switch to reading more critically when I get offended, and all the time be myself reading, with my personal beliefs coloring all I read. …

Reader response criticism teaches that we are all always embedded in our own point of view, which we can never fully escape. It encourages us to become aware of and acknowledge where we’re coming from as readers, including our own limitations. … [It would be] impossible [for me] to forget everything I’ve ever known and read in order to have fresh, virgin eyes for this book, to accept what I read without having any reaction that is informed by what I know of this world. Indeed, if I were able to do that, the bigger problem would be making any sense of the book at all, since there is a lot of assumed knowledge that an earth reader has that allows her/him to make sense of the 4C world. Since we can’t ever be truly objective, the next best thing is to acknowledge the biases that we do inevitably have. … Being a responsible critic means being self-aware of these things … [This] is the closest we flawed humans can come to objectivity. … Admitting my biases isn’t saying “I’m right because these are my biases and they’re true.” It’s saying, “This is one of the reasons why I’m coming to the conclusion I am. These biases may be coloring the way I see this issue, so I’m going to put that on the table and see if it makes things any clearer for all of us.” My admission of my biases is not an invitation to completely dismiss my point of view.

[Just as we can’t escape our points of view,]… this book can’t escape the fact that it’s on earth, written by an earth author for an earth readership. That imposes certain constraints on the reactions that people will have to it. It also means that the book has to be responsible for the way it relates to earth society.

Fantasy worlds are in dialog with our world. They are defined in terms of how they’re different from our world, and we understand them in relation with our world. Sometimes the relationship between the story-world and our world is obvious and the author is blatantly using it to make a point about our world. Examples of this might be The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Left Hand of Darkness. In some of these books, it’s pretty clear that the author is trying to say something specific about a troubling trend he/she sees in our world; they wear their politics on their sleeves. With books like this, it’s clear that they’re in dialog with our society because they’re yelling their message so loud. (I don’t mean any of that as criticisms of those particular books, which I enjoy.) Other times, like with KKC, the relationship between our world and the story-world is more vague and subtle. The author doesn’t have a particular ax to grind and may be just exploring new ideas. Nonetheless, even these authors have perspectives that are formed in relation to everything they know in our world, and create their worlds in response to their experiences in this world.

Readers are also constantly making comparisons with our world as they learn about fantasy worlds. Sometimes the fantasy world makes our world look like a great place to live in comparison, and sometimes it makes our world look worse. Readers get ideas and attitudes from books and take them into this world, no matter how fantastical the book-world is. Sometimes it’s clear that the ideas don’t translate to our world at all because they relate to things that don’t exist in our world, like the Jedi mind trick. And sometimes an idea presented in a fantasy world is totally acceptable in the bounds of the fantasy world, but in the dialog with our world it creates problems and issues. I don’t simply mean someone trying to physically do something they read about, like ‘monkey see, monkey do,’ but attitudes and subtle values that are insidious. In its dialog with our world, the fantasy world may say something that in its own language is inoffensive, but sounds a lot like a string of curses in our language. It’s hard to tell if the fantasy world meant to cuss us out or not. And to some extent intent is irrelevant (death of the author, etc). It sounded to us like we got cussed out, and we react accordingly. That reaction is fair because the fantasy world always knew that it was in dialog with this world and it knew what the cuss-like language would sound like to us. (Language is an imperfect metaphor here, but I hope this analogy makes sense otherwise.)

… It seems like generally, the criticisms I’m getting are rooted in the idea that I’m not taking the Adem or the entire KKC on their own terms and am imposing my terms upon them. … [But] a story written in our world, even though it’s set in another world, doesn’t get to have “its own terms” because it can never fully escape the terms of this world, just as we can never fully escape our own perspectives. I know that a good part of the appeal of fantasy is escapism, so this idea is a bit of a turn-off because in some way it seems to deny the promise of fantasy to do something entirely new and different. Fantasy can still say some really interesting and fascinating things in the dialog it’s always having with our world, but it can’t pretend not to have a relationship with our world, and it can’t pretend this dialog isn’t happening.

* This quote can be found in @142 on the discussion thread.

**This argument is quoted from the discussion thread. For unity and ease of reading here, I’ve edited together a few separate posts, @126, @131 @141 and @165. Places where I have omitted sentences or phrases are marked with ellipses, and places where I have added text are marked with brackets.

Posts from TOR

Over a month ago, a reader linked to my posts on sexism in The Wise Man’s Fear in a forum discussing the book. I joined in the discussion the readers on that thread were having, and learned a lot from the debate, which got kind of contentious for a while. Elaborating and defending my ideas for a skeptical audience really sharpened my thinking in some ways and showed me some errors in others. I wanted to post here some of what I learned, to clarify my current positions on the book and share some new insights. (I should have done this earlier, but got distracted by some other good books and a debate about motherhood.) I’ll only post summaries and excerpts here because the debate was quite long, but the whole thing can be found here.

Most of the discussion centered around my interpretation of the Adem society. I got criticism for not being sex-positive enough, and even for stigmatizing single mothers, which was certainly not intended. Responders pointed out that the Adem seem to have plenty of social support for mothers and families, so my concern that their women are stuck raising children without help was unfounded. I refined my views on sex in Ademrae to say that I now think the most important reason that the level of casual sex there is not in women’s best interests because they do not seem to have birth control. Since the stakes in sex are higher for women because they’re the ones bearing children, it’s in their best interests to take sex seriously, carefully considering their choices in partner and timing, unless they have birth control to help them manage this risk. Since the Adem don’t seem to worry about birth control, the sexual practices of the society are problematic for me. There was also a discussion about communication as it relates to casual sex. This is my stance:

The problem with many instances of casual sex is that there is not enough communication between partners. Increasing communication would ensure mutual consent and increase pleasure, but people are often too lazy to talk to someone they aren’t emotionally invested in, so they’re selfish in bed and don’t care as much as they should about the other person’s pleasure, and sometimes not even their consent. This lack of communication sets up the sexual encounter to favor the man, and so women are wise to try to avoid these kinds of encounters when they can’t be sure they’ll be treated fairly and respectfully. (This is the main problem I have with casual sex as it works in reality, as opposed to theory. I don’t think bringing this up and talking this way is slut-shaming. This isn’t the same as blaming a woman for what happens to her.) 

There is no evidence in WMF that the Adem have especially bad communication about sex, but their language is such that an emphasis on more explicit communication might be warranted:

good Adem speakers try to pack as many meanings into a single sentence as possible. I tried to imagine what it would be like to flirt in a language like that and realized how easy it might be to be misunderstood. A speaker could say something that means yes and no at the same time (isn’t that the essence of flirting?), and a listener could choose to hear whichever meaning he or she wants to hear (isn’t that how date rapists justify to themselves that what they’re doing isn’t rape?). … With a language like Adem, the need for explicit communication might even be increased.

If there is clear communication around consent and mutual pleasure, and women can choose to when to get pregnant, then a society that encourages casual sex could be a positive place for women to live. The Adem are not as far from reaching these ideals as I thought they were at my first reading, but on the evidence in the book I’m still not convinced that they (and by extension, Rothfuss) have created a society that is good for women.

The Adem concept of “anger” was discussed in detail on the thread.In addition to the passage I quoted in the original post, participants in the discussion pointed out other relevant passages which both complicated and clarified the concept. Pushed in my thinking, I thought of another possible translation for “anger”:

Maybe “ambition” would be closer? It’s definitely possible to have too much ambition, and for it to become poisonous in excess, so it fits the quote… Taking “ambition” as a new working hypothesis for the translation of “anger,” I still find it sexist. If one sex has more ambition than the other, it’s because they’re socialized to, and the other sex is told they’re not capable, so they become less ambitious. Even if this situation works against the men because they have more ambition than they can handle, that situation could still be sexist. Just as our present construction of masculinity is limiting and destructive to men at the same time as it grants men power over women, so an Adem society that appears to favor women may create corresponding limitations for its men. That’s still sexism. And if the women have more that they can do with their ambition, then maybe that’s because they have too much to do and they’re overworked. That’s not necessarily a good situation for the women either. 

In a later post on TOR, Jo Walton interviewed Rothfuss with fan questions, and my question about this concept was included. He basically refused to explain what “anger” means, comparing it to complex and ephemeral ideas like justice, and saying he’d already explained it in the book. Absent a clearer answer from him, readers are free to try their best to make sense of it, in the same way we try to make sense of “courage” and “The Force.” He affirmed that “anger” is the English translation, so I can’t really call for an alternative translation. However, my thoughts about how “ambition” could be related to the concept, and my explanation for why the gender disparity in “anger” is evidence of a sexist society, are still valid as a way to come closer to understanding this difficult idea.

One reader, defending Kvothe the character from charges of sexism and misogyny related to his relationship with Felurian the sex fairy, believed that it was important for Kvothe to lose his virginity in order to come into his full power and become a man. Seeing this reader’s response made me realize that WMF contained a whole new type of sexism that I hadn’t noticed in my first read, related to male virgins:

I still don’t see why it was necessary in the story for Kvothe to go from “virgin to irresistible/virile/Austin Powers, envy of men and desired by women etc.” Can’t he be just as great a hero without having women fall all over him? I don’t see why his development and growth as a character and a powerful arcanist had to include his sexual initiation. A guy losing his virginity doesn’t gain any mystical power; seeing male virgins as necessarily immature is sexist. Presenting losing his virginity as a vital step in Kvothe’s becoming a man is problematic. It makes the sex all about him, with the woman a mere vehicle for his growth. This is the male version of the virgin/whore dichotomy that’s so sexist when we apply it to women. It says that a male virgin is naive, clueless, inept, and once he’s had sex he instantly becomes worldly, sophisticated, a stud. If Kvothe’s going to have sex, that’s fine, but it doesn’t have to be part of this big narrative of him growing up and taking control of his world. He can have sex without playing into this sexist trope of the clueless male virgin making discoveries about the world and himself through sex and becoming all worldly.

Tomorrow, my underlying theory of reading


Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris

Deadlocked is the latest in the Southern Vampire Mysteries series, also known as the Sookie Stackhouse books. The HBO series True Blood is based on these books, and that’s how I first got interested in them. I started watching the show, then picked up the books and played catch-up. There are many differences between the show and the books, of course, and I mostly favor the show. Since the people at HBO chose to adapt each novel into a full season of TV, there is a lot of extra space for extra scenes and character development. The side characters have become more well-rounded and complex because of moving from a first-person narrative to TV’s more objective perspective. I especially like the way Tara, Jason, and Lafayette have developed.

My favorite thing by far about the series, book and show, is just the character of Sookie. She’s sweet and optimistic, with Southern charm and manners, a well-formed but pragmatic conscience, and a heart of gold. At the same time, she’s tough, down-to-earth, resilient, and refuses to pity herself for longer than five minutes. She’s resourceful and intelligent enough that she’s a power broker in a complex community of supernatural beings much more powerful than she is. She’s an everywoman: she’s described in the book as a bit plump, though she’s not portrayed that way on TV of course, and she’s a waitress who’s never been to college–one of very few working-class heroines in pop culture. Her capacity for forgiveness, for bouncing back, for just going with the flow, is just as supernatural as her telepathy. Her inner monologues are by far the best part of the books. Watching her talk herself into feeling ok after trauma, and into making moral decisions when she doesn’t feel like doing the right thing, is a delight, and it almost makes me feel like I could be a better person by following her example.

The series has many weaknesses though. Like most series that go on and on, a book a year (or more), without a specific end in mind from the beginning, the plot has become sort of like a soap opera. Sookie kind of has to make her rounds and spend some time as each major male character’s girlfriend, just to give her something to do, because if she’s too happy for too long, that’s boring. New supernatural creatures have to be added to the world to make things happen. The cast of characters grows until readers can’t remember them all, and recaps are needed to remind them who these people are. Previously established rules have to bend to allow new plots to develop. Plot machinations become increasingly complex and character motivation becomes murky. I see these things happening to the Sookie books starting in Dead as a Doornail, the fifth book, which in the one that True Blood is supposed to adapt next. I’ve heard the show is moving away from the books somewhat this season, and that’s probably a good thing at this point.

The weaknesses in Deadlocked are just specific iterations of, or necessary results of, the flaw in the series I described above. Faerie was supposed to be closed after Dead and Gone, but it’s open in this book, until it closes for realz at the end. There were so many side characters I had lost track of: Mustapha, Warren, Jannalynn, Jason’s new fiance. The explanation for why the baddies did what they did didn’t make much sense, or at least was pretty farfetched.

Sookie’s relationship with Eric seems to be ending, which I’m ok with, as hot as it was. She seems to be moving toward dating Sam now, a guy who she insists has always been just a friend. This seems convenient, since every woman she knows is pregnant and she’s feeling a bit of baby fever. The vampires certainly won’t make her a mother, but Sam could. If I were going to make a prediction about the next book, that would be it.

For me, all of the series’ bad points are outweighed by the amazing heroine that is Sookie Stackhouse. I think I’m going to keep reading these books and watching this show no matter how ridiculous they get just because I care about Sookie. And that’s the mark of a great character: they make you willing to endure anything just to spend some time in their head.

Why We Broke Up

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, Art by Maira Kalman

Why We Broke Up is written in the form of a letter from a teenage girl to her ex-boyfriend, delivered to him with a box of things that she’s returning to him to give her closure for the end of the relationship. The book is illustrated with pictures of the things in the box, each of which marks an event in the relationship. The author also wrote the Lemony Snicket books, which shows he’s really a master of voice, since he’s pitch-perfect with two completely opposite characters and tones. The language and voice of this character was one of my favorite parts of the book, reminding me of verbose, witty high school friends and the deep conversations and relationships I had at that age.

Min is a member of an offbeat “arty” group in her high school, a cinema geek who is always referring to obscure films. Ed is co-captain of the basketball team, and in their small town that’s a big deal. Min opens Ed up to all kinds of new experiences, and this change and growth, along with revelations of sweetness and innocence, make Min fall for him too.  They’re an unconventional couple, and both their friends fail to understand their attraction, which causes most of the book’s drama. One of the book’s weak points is a reliance on stereotypes about jock types and drama types as complete opposites in high school society.

The book is unusual among YA lit because it portrays teen sex, and not really in a “cautionary tale” way. I think it’s realistic to show teens having sex that is full of humor, chemistry, fun, and a bit of awkwardness, and to show that it doesn’t always mean the end of the world in the form of STDs and pregnancy. Rather, the book shows how sex raises the stakes in a relationship, and can potentially lead to heartbreak, or worsen a heartbreak that was always inevitable. That’s much more thoughtful and useful to teens than the doom-and-gloom messages that teens usually get from sex ed and parents.

I was a little disappointed when I found out why the couple broke up, the mystery of the book, because it seemed to discredit everything they had shared, and make it less meaningful. It made it more painful for both of them, for sure, but less complex for the reader, the breakup less of a difficult decision. I felt sorry for both Min and Ed, Min because she’d wasted such love on a jerk, and Ed, because the letter really shows what he lost. Min is the wronged party and the one who triumphs, who seems more likely to find deep lasting happiness, while the letter seems to doom Ed to well-deserved endless self-recrimination, or rationalization and repression of all complex yearnings. It was sad to see a character squander such potential for the sake of remaining comfortable and feeding his ego. Even more sad is that I believed it, that it made sense.

Ten Miles Past Normal

Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O’Roark Dowell

Ten Miles Past Normal is a nice enough YA book. It’s sweet and not too complicated and the stakes are pretty low, though they feel high to the 14-year-old protagonist, of course. She’s just started freshman year, and she feels lost and alone in her new school. She’s “different” because she lives on a farm and has been made fun of a few times for bringing the farm to school with her–hay in her hair, goat shit on her shoe, etc. The book is about how she comes to terms with being different, through trying some new things, meeting new people, and getting a fresh perspective on old friends and her community. Specifically, she learns to play bass guitar, joins a “jam band” club at school and completes a project on civil rights history. There’s a hint of love interest, but it’s as chaste as can be. Of course, in the end she discovers that “different” is actually way better than “normal.”

This novel is short, easy, innoffensive, simple. I can see how it might be quite therapeutic to an outsider 11-15-year-old girl not unlike the one I once was. It’s not quite complex enough to be as interesting for adult audiences as it would be for the teens it’s intended for, though. But then, every YA novel doesn’t have to appeal to adults as well as teens. It’s nice when they do, but they don’t have to. This book does the job it was supposed to do, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Drive and Education

I picked up Drive (reviewed yesterday here) hoping to learn something about how to motivate my students and myself. However, there didn’t seem to be much that was new to me. The section at the end on how teachers can motivate students was full of suggestions I’d heard before: make homework purposeful, offer specific feedback, praise effort instead of intelligence.

What surprised me as I read was that the book’s arguments struck me as much more relevant to my own situation as an employee. I thought more about Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system and the rhetoric surrounding education reform and incentives for teachers than about my students and their motivation.

Here’s a fun video that explains the main points in Drive in a way that’s quick, easy to understand, and best of all, visual.

All efforts to motivate teachers using rewards are resting on faulty assumptions about teachers, teaching, and human psychology, and Pink makes some of those assumptions clear. He cites studies that show that monetary performance rewards only work for rote, routine work that employees have no intrinsic desire to perform, like stuffing envelopes. But it’s absurd to call teaching routine work and teachers devoid of intrinsic motivation. The problem is that rewards inhibit creativity and insult altruists. Since teachers need to be creative, and are usually already intrinsically motivated by love for their students and the desire to improve their lives, rewards are counter-productive and unnecessary. Far better, as seen in the video, is to “take money off the table,” by paying everyone enough that they don’t have to worry about money. MNPS’s current proposed budget, which raises the floor on salaries to $40k, is a step in the right direction, but probably insufficient. Pink also says that organizations hoping for motivated workers should pay more than average, and MNPS also does this, paying more than surrounding districts.

Tennessee’s new teacher evaluation system, which involves using student test scores, as well as observations, is a performance metric that determines tenure. Here is what Pink says about performance metrics: they should be “wide-ranging, relevant, and hard to game.” I don’t think the current system fits that description. It’s not particularly wide-ranging because it’s focused so closely on the state-mandated standardized test.  It encourages teachers to teach only on what is on the test, and doesn’t incentivize them not to give up when it’s over, with a month left of school to go. It’s only as relevant as the test itself is. Test security determines whether the tests can be gamed. And the observations are not that hard to game, because teachers usually have a general idea about when to expect even surprise visits from principals. Pink also says the gain for reaching the metric’s goals should not be too big, because that would encourage cheating, so that is an argument against pay-for-performance plans, which would reward teachers whose students do especially well.

Pink doesn’t talk a lot about penalties and punishments, but it stands to reason that they’re even more demotivating than rewards, since human psychology feels losses more keenly than gains. Teachers under threat of non-renewal or fresh-starting are bound to feel creatively inhibited, stressed, and manipulated. They probably are even more likely to cheat than those tempted by big bonuses.

The one suggestion of Pink’s that might have potential to increase teachers’ already-high motivation is increasing autonomy. Pink says that workers should have control over their task, time, technique, and team. It’s not easy to imagine how teachers could enjoy all of these types of autonomy in some school environments. But we can try.

  • To increase task autonomy, teachers could have more input into teaching assignments, like which grade level and subjects they teach. Principals could also stop demanding lesson plans and other documentation from teachers.
  • It’s hardest for schools to give teachers flexibility over time. Schools have a consistent start time and end time each day, so teachers can’t work like telecommuters on their own time. But there could still be more freedom within the bounds imposed by school schedules. Teachers could decide when their free period is, instead of the master schedule, and those who choose the beginning or end of the day could be allowed to come in late or leave early. School districts could offer job-sharing and other part-time work arrangements; in a female-dominated profession, there is likely to be high demand for jobs that allow mothers to spend more time with young children.
  • The easiest way to give teachers freedom is to grant them autonomy on technique: let them teach the way they want to teach. Stop micro-managing them. Pink quotes a business leader who counsels: “Hire good people and leave them alone.”
  • Having control over your team is choosing who you work with. Teachers should sometimes be able to select their students, and always be able to freely choose which teaching teams and faculty committees to join, rather than being assigned.

How Micromanaging Educators Stifles Reform This article makes some of the same points I’ve made here: teachers need autonomy and control over the process of educating students. I’m not 100% on board with charter schools and don’t see them as the panacea that everyone pretends they are, but generally it’s great to hear how giving teachers more freedom has been working well for everyone.


Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink

The main idea in Drive is about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Basically, intrinsic is better, and we’d all be better off if we ordered society in a way that allowed people to be led by our normal urges to learn, create, and achieve, rather than by the need to make money by spinning like a hamster in a wheel. Pink’s audience is primarily business leaders, who might actually have the ability to put some of these ideas into practice through making changes in the workplaces they manage. He does a good job of arguing that this would not only improve their employees’ job satisfaction, but thier company’s bottom line. It’s easy to agree with everything he writes.

I think the book would have been even more interesting if Pink had questioned why bosses and others in power try so hard to use extrinsic rewards to “motivate” people, in spite of evidence that it doesn’t really work. It’s really about power. It comes from distrust of and contempt for workers. Bosses don’t trust employees to work hard without a carrot or stick because they see them as inferior. So they try to use the power of the purse strings to make those who depend on that purse do what they want. On the other hand, their use of financial rewards is also an acknowlegement of their lack of power. Bosses rely on money to motivate because they have given up on having any impact on employees’ minds and hearts. They want to throw money at the problem of motivation because they feel that’s all they can do. The fact that external rewards don’t motivate us comes from our innate desire to resist when others try to blatantly exert power over us. I would have felt more satisfied if I saw this explanation in the book, but considering its intended audience, Pink probably feared to offend.

The style of this book’s writing suffers from gimmicky business-speak that’s not to my personal taste. There’s a created vocabulary that’s not really necessary, full of acronyms, trendy 1.0 versus 2.0 versus 3.0 distinctions, and concepts abbreviated for convenience, all repeated frequently so that the bored business traveler will better remember the ideas. When Pink is telling stories and quoting stats, he has a decent, clear nonfiction style, but the contrived invented vocabulary got annoying to me after a while.

Tomorrow, I’m going to write about the implications of this motivation research on teacher pay and evaluations.

Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

I enjoyed Ender’s Game when I read it last year, so I was excited about the sequel. In the author’s talkback at the end of the recording I listened to, Card said that this was the book he really wanted to write, and Ender’s Game was kind of just a set-up for this. Speaker for the Dead is more hopeful, taking the second half of Ender’s Game to its logical conclusion. In some ways it’s a more adult book, and has a larger scope.

It’s 3,000 years after the end of Ender’s Game, but Ender has only aged to about 34, thanks to light-speed travel. He travels to Lusitania, a small human colony on a planet inhabited by an intelligent alien race called the “piggies.” He’s a speaker for the dead, which is like a funeral director whose job is to tell the truth about the dead person, and he comes to honor two scientists who were killed by the piggies and to understand why they died. The xenologers studying the piggies have been restricted by an overzealous IRB, but have begun to break the rules, and the consequences could be dire for both sentient species on Lusitania.

This book is a great example of science fiction fulfilling its greatest potential. It imagines a full, complicated world with problems not unlike what we’ve encountered in our own, and solves them in creative ways that have implications for our life on earth. It creates conditions for psychologically interesting conflicts within characters, as well as complex problems for characters to solve in creative ways, and these are intriguing conditions and problems that could not exist in realistic fiction. Basically, this book tackles colonialism and the ethics of contact with new cultures. It emphasizes the imperative not to do harm, but also points out that refusal to share one’s own culture with a less technologically advanced race means denying its humanity/personhood. It’s hard to imagine the way that a whole different species would see their world(s), and even harder to express that understandably, but Card manages it for three alien species. That becomes a strong argument for empathy.

Card balances these philosophical issues with strong characters, brisk plot development, and world-building information dumps. He builds suspense by describing the complicated life cycle of an invented species and ecosystem piece by piece, as the scientist characters slowly understand them, and withholding the answer to the mystery of why the seemingly peaceful piggies killed the xenologers. The sentence-level writing was purposeful, often mournful in tone, with forceful, expressive dialogue. It was a pleasure to read, to learn about this strange new planet, and to wonder about the ethics of interacting with foreigners of all kinds.

I also picked up a graphic novelization of this book that I was really impressed with. It’s from Marvel, and the chief artists were Aaron Johnston, Pop Mhan, and Veronica Gandini. It cuts a lot of detail, of course, but it’s a strong adaptation with compelling artwork. I liked its cover better than the one on my audiobook, so that’s the one you see above.

The Secret History

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History is about a group of students who commit a crime, what they do to get away with it, and how it affects them. They’re mostly rich and privileged, and kind of set apart from all the other students on campus, taking all their classes from one eccentric professor, so elitism and entitlement are issues. They’re advanced Greek students, so there’s a lot of interesting info on that language and philosophy and history. The group’s dynamics, personality conflicts, secret motivations, and power shifts drive the plot once it gets going, and they’re fascinating.

The book is incredibly suspenseful, with two or three surprising twists that I’m afraid of spoiling. It was really fun to read, full of tension and mystery. The first-person narrator is a newcomer to the group, an inside-outsider who gets just enough information to make a kind of sense of what’s going on, but not enough to fully understand until it’s too late. It’s a long book, but it’s full of dialogue and dramatic scenes, so it moves quickly. I always like learning when I read, and this book taught me a good deal about Greek philosophy. In some ways the novel is a speculation into what it would be like to try to live out Greek philosophy in today’s world. Hint: it wouldn’t go so well, especially the Dionysian stuff.

One of my favorite things about the book is that the victim is so deliciously annoying, that I almost wanted him to die as much as the characters did, and that kind of made me complicit in the crime. It made it seem permissible, even right, when you know it shouldn’t. You realize that the only thing keeping you from cheering on a murder is a purely intellectual opinion that it’s wrong; you realize how flimsy and weak your moral mind is compared with your gut feeling that this irritating guy just needs to die. That’s pretty powerful stuff. It takes a great writer to involve readers like that and make them understand things about their own flaws.