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A Blog and Novel by S. M. Duke. Writing discussion, genre fiction, reviews, tips, and more!
Blog Added: September 11, 2007 05:19:13 AM
Audience Rating: General Audience
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Blog Country: United-States   United-States
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Compliments Matter (or, Tell Someone You Value Their Work)

In the past two months, I’ve twice met the same former student in my gym. Each time, we have aRead more »

In the past two months, I’ve twice met the same former student in my gym. Each time, we have a wonderful conversation about what he’s reading, his newfound love of writing, his dreams for the future, and so on. Each time, he reminds me just how much one of my classes influenced him to be a voracious reader and a deeper thinker. These are the kinds of interactions that truly make a week of exhaustion worth it. And they’re a reminder of just how important compliments can be.

You may have noticed on Twitter that there have been a few “tell an author their work matters” tweets making the rounds. The idea is pretty simple:  it’s not an imposition to tell an author how much you love their work; if anything, it’s exactly the kind of thing many authors wish they had more of. I submit that this idea applies to almost everyone. To writers, filmmakers, artists, and musicians. To fast food and construction workers. To janitors and teachers. To just about everyone who creates something that helps the world become a better place. And given that we’re about to have Thanksgiving here in the United States, I think we should really do more to let those folks know how much we appreciate them.

For myself, I can tell you that being a teacher is really tough. I know we may seem like we have it easy, since we don’t work 9-to-5 like most people (sorta), but there’s something deeply taxing about being a teacher in any profession, especially English. Some of that is our own fault — the product of the profession we’ve created by choice or by proxy. Some of it isn’t — bad work conditions, bad pay, or even the occasional bad student. And so often, the work we do gets crapped on by the public at large or outright ignored. We’re responsible for the decline in education, for bad student outcomes, and so on, or we’re not really that important in the grand scheme of the country or the world. True, some of us are actually bad teachers, and some of us really shouldn’t be in the profession anymore, but there’s so much negativity centered around the teaching profession that simply telling a teacher how much they matter can turn a bad week around in an instant.

And that’s what happened to me when I met up with that student for the second time. I got a reminder that what I do is worthwhile, that I contribute something that matters, that I can make an impact on people’s lives. Just hearing that once in a while can change my mood so much. Because it’s those moments that I go through all this struggle for. It’s what a lot of teachers struggle for.

So, if you can, maybe let someone know how much their work means to you this week. You might make someone’s day. Hell, you never know when something like that might even save someone’s life. Cause life is tough right now for a lot of people. For a lot of creative types, who have a tendency to be more acutely empathetic than most, the world of “now” can sometimes seem hopeless. But knowing that what you do matters can make all that darkness seem a little less daunting.

And I think that matters more than some of us may realize. So, go thank someone for their work. Make someone’s day.



I’m a Millennial, and I’m Not Interested in the Lie Anymore

In a recent article on Millennials and their perceived lack of effort in the job market, Brett Cenkus argues thatRead more »

In a recent article on Millennials and their perceived lack of effort in the job market, Brett Cenkus argues that our generation is not so much lazy as disinterested in the way things used to be. Abusive job environments, low pay, low stimulation — these are all reasons he cites for this change in perspective. It’s an interesting article, though I think Cenkus is a bit optimistic about how employers can change this dynamic. Why?

For one, I think the roots of Millennial apathy go deeper than Cenkus suggests. Since 1979, the relative value of our wages has stagnated, in part due to the decrease in pay for some professions and the devaluing of college degrees. One study found that only 16% of jobs can keep up with inflation, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that nearly 44% of college graduates are underemployed (i.e., in a job that doesn’t require their degree). We’ve also systematically devalued labor to such an extent that otherwise decent jobs in customer service industries are routinely insulted. You hear stories about the pride people once had in working any job. “I got a job. Yay me.” Now, what we hear is, “Oh, you work there? Well, that sucks.” Couple that with corporations that rake in unimaginable quantities of money while their employees languish in poverty with no real prospects of change, and you’ve got a perfect environment for employment apathy.

Is it any surprise that Millennials aren’t interested in working hard at some of their jobs? Why would you give everything you’ve got for a job that provides no real chance for advancement? That pays too little? That regularly gets shit on by other people? That doesn’t offer good benefits? What incentive do you have to work hard for little real benefit for yourself while some guy who doesn’t even know your name makes millions off your hard work? Are you remotely surprised that so many Americans have little loyalty to the companies they work for? I can’t speak for all Millennials, but I can speak for myself as a member of that group. And from my perspective, it’s not really that surprising that many Millennials have little interest in working themselves to the bone for anything that isn’t their passion. And it doesn’t surprise me that the people who would benefit most from Millennial labor would be so quick to assume that this is the result of laziness.

It’s not that Millennials are lazy. It’s more accurate to say that Millennials don’t see much value in work for the sake of work anymore. Cenkus is right to point out that Millennials aren’t all that compelled by traditional work culture, and that to fix that, companies have to create a more inclusive environment (cross training, more value for employee contributions, etc.). I think that has to do with the idea that in the past, you worked hard because you thought that was what you needed to do; earlier still, you worked hard because you knew it would lead to higher salary, career advancement, etc. Today, that just isn’t as true as it used to be, and I think my generation has caught on to that fact. Now, work is a means to an end, not a source of pride.

I also think it’s worth noting that my generation (and the generation after us) has been instrumental in the creation of entirely new self-employing professions. Many of us have YouTube or Twitch channels. We freelance or start small businesses or do any number of things that don’t pay particularly well but are at least “what we want to do.” And a lot of us will put every last ounce of effort into those things because we’re passionate about them. That passion generally doesn’t always translate to work because so often all we’re doing is working to pay the bills. and if you’re not truly benefiting from your effort, even on some personal level, it’s almost insane to ask anyone to put in extra hours after work or give every last ounce of energy to a job. For me, that translates to my passion projects:  podcasting and writing. I don’t make money off The Skiffy and Fanty Show; every dime we make goes to pay for expenses. Hopefully, that will change some day. But I will certainly put a lot more of my time into the things I do for that show than I will into a lot of other things that actually pay my rent. Much of that comes down to passion:  I simply care more about what I do for the podcast than I do for some of the aspects of my other jobs. And I’m of the mind that there’s nothing wrong with only using the energy you need to do a job and saving the rest for everything else.

Frankly, I think we should be more surprised that more Americans haven’t calculated exactly how much money they’d need to survive, figured out a way to make that money on their own steam, and then moved off to some rural Colorado town to live the rest of their lives making just the right amount to qualify for public health insurance, doing little else to contribute to the economy. I’m actually surprised that our birthrates haven’t fallen more dramatically, because so many of us are in such precarious financial situations that having children seems almost irresponsible. My guess is we’ll continue to see the decline in birthrates so long as our economy services the wealthy and not everyone. We seem to be having the opposite problem from Europe:  many European countries are seeing declines because of general prosperity, whereas we may be seeing declines because of economic stagnation.

There’s also a darker side to this:  a small portion of Millennials are just fucking done with it all. They don’t believe in the American Dream anymore, because more and more, they see that it is a lie. They don’t see wages increasing. They don’t see people moving out of their social class. They don’t see their labor valued by society. They don’t see things getting better for most of America. What they see are the wealthy getting wealthier, the poor getting poorer, and the middle class getting gutted. They see millions of young Americans entering a dead-end job market with mountains of student debt, despite doing everything society told them to do. They see politicians talk about tax cuts as though those will significantly improve life with a low-wage job, even as the ultra wealthy get to keep more money than most of us will ever see in a lifetime. They see people dedicating their lives to public service getting shit on left and right, their benefits being destroyed, they’re security threatened. They see healthcare bankrupting people by the thousands and no real political will to fix it.

We should be very concerned by that point of view even if we’re not going to bother lamenting the total devaluation of labor in this country. That level of apathy and distrust in society has serious ramifications for the future of our labor market and for the economy. You can make jobs more welcoming and make employees feel more valued; sure, it’s a seemingly impossible task, since it requires us to change corporate culture entirely. But it’s doable. I don’t know how you convince entire chunks of people to come back to the labor market when they feel so utterly betrayed by their own culture that cutting themselves out of the equation as much as possible seems like the best route. That’s the kind of deep hurt you don’t fix just by changing society. You have to reach those people and convince them they won’t get an ass bite again. That’s a generations-long project.

But maybe there ways to fix those problems. Maybe it’s not too late for Millennials to change things or for other generations to catch up with the world offered up by Elon Musk or Google — corporations with a very different concept of work ethic indeed.

Point is this:  Millennials are just different. We don’t value the same things our parents valued — or our grandparents, for that matter. We expect more in a climate that offers too little, and we’re told over and over that this makes us entitled, lazy, and bratty. Really, it makes us realistic:  this is the dream we were promised, and some of us just aren’t willing to settle for the craptastic reality on offer.

At least, that’s my view. But what do I know? I’m just a disgruntled Millennial.



Graduate Studies, Taxes, and the Gift of 2017 (Updated)

2017:  the gift that keeps on giving. Yesterday, the United States House of Representatives voted to approve the Republican budgetRead more »

2017:  the gift that keeps on giving.

Yesterday, the United States House of Representatives voted to approve the Republican budget for 2018 and beyond. There are all manner of terrible things in this bill, and you would do well to read about them and call your Senators in hopes we can shut this thing down before it screws a lot of people over. Today, I’d like to talk about the one feature of this bill that, if it passes the Senate, will end my graduate studies for good:  the proposal to tax tuition waivers as income.

Here’s roughly how a lot of graduate-level studies works in this United States:  for many (not all) graduate students, you are allowed to attend a university virtually “free” in exchange for a stipend / paid work as a research or teaching assistant in my case, as a graduate instructor). Tuition waivers are effectively a formality, since we know based on our signed contract that we aren’t required to actually pay tuition. Still, paperwork is filled out, and I suppose in a way these waivers operate as a kind of non-taxable income even though I never actually see the money in question. It just appears, wipes out what I owe to the university (mostly) and that’s it. I never see a cent of this money.

The House bill changes all of that. It would treat those tuition waivers as taxable income. That means I would be taxed as though I were making much more than I actually am and would be required to pay the additional tax out of pocket via any income I make as a teacher or in another line of work.1 This sounds bad, but let me put it down into rough numbers so you understand just how totally fucked this whole tax proposal is.

I currently teach slightly more than full time — as a graduate instructor at my university and as an adjunct as a local state college. Combined, I can make about $30,000 a year (roughly $11-13K as a graduate instructor and the rest elsewhere). This number actually varies depending on the classes I teach, whether I teach during the summer, etc., but for the sake of simplicity, let’s stick with that nice round number. Since I am still registered as an out-of-state student, my annual tuition at the University of Florida is roughly $30,000. Currently, I am taxed on that first $30k at around $3-4k (I get a deduction for contributions to retirement).2 If the Senate passes the House bill, I will be taxed as though I make $60k, raising my total tax on income to about $10k (give or take). In other words, the same amount of work I do now to make $26-27k after taxes would drop down to $20k, nearly cutting my total income by a third. It gets worse. For those that literally cannot work outside of the university (or who choose to focus on their graduate studies alone), such as foreign students, they would be taxed on $42k (actual income + the waiver); assuming they put the same amount of money into a retirement account as I do, they’d end up paying nearly $7,000 in taxes, reducing their income from $11k actual to $4k.

Update:  Now that we have more calculators to show the real impact of both the House and Senate plans, here’s a more accurate picture. Assume I still make roughly $30,000 and still get a fee waiver for roughly $30,000 at UF.

In the new calculations (see here), I would still see a tax increase even with the higher standard deduction of $12,000. In 2017, I actually paid about $2,700 in total taxes due to some extra deductions I took. If the tuition-waiver-as-income remains in the final tax plan, I would see an increase of taxes to roughly $6,100 to $6,500. That’s obviously much lower than my original calculations, which I blame on the fact that I’m not an accountant or tax ninja and thus had to rely on things that didn’t actually account for the things in the proposed plan. However, that’s still an increase of $3,500 or so in taxes. For many grad students, that’s an additional $17,500 in total costs for education ($3,500 x 5 years), which would have to be covered by income sources other than a stipend. It doesn’t really matter if it’s $3,500 or $7,000 in extra taxes. All of this will be a disaster if the tuition-waiver-as-income is kept in the final tax plan. Part of what makes U.S. graduate studies appealing is the fact that you can defray the costs of education by working at a university (this also adds experience to your CV). But this new tax plan could very well make all graduate studies in this country more expensive than the same study elsewhere in the world. I can see a lot of my colleagues encouraging undergraduates to take their academic interests abroad…

(Note:  in-state students will still see a tax increase. Using the baseline calculators provided above, an in-state student pays about $880 in tax under the current tax plan. With the new tax plan, they’d be responsible for $1,900 to $2,100 in taxes. That assumes their only income is a stipend and there are no other deductions they can take. Sure, that’s not a lot of extra money, but grad students are some of the most vulnerable hard workers in the country, and they’re enormously important both for education and for the intellectual growth of this country. The tax plan could very well add to their already considerable burden, all so some rich guy with a car elevator can buy another car elevator.)

This will completely destroy graduate-level studies as something anyone but the wealthy can reasonably pursue. If you’re already poor, you’ve likely made it to an M.A. or Ph.D program on a sinking boat of student loans. Now you’re looking at adding even more debt on top of that in a job market that increasingly looks less promising for almost everyone. We’re not talking small amounts of debt, either. According to UF’s Student Financial Affairs website, it’s recommended that you have roughly $30,000 in income per school year; this number assumes you’ll pay for your own tuition out of pocket (for in-state), so if we subtract $12.7k from that number, you get $17.3k. For many graduate students who cannot or won’t work outside of the university, they’ll need to pull at least $5k extra every year just for living expenses. These are UF’s very conservative estimates and assume you have no medical conditions, no children, no sudden expenses (an accident, etc.), or can reasonably live below the poverty line.3 Unfortunately, in my 7 years of experience living here, this is not actually reasonable. I’d estimate that you’d need at least $10k more every year to reach any semblance of comfort. Either way, for an average Ph.D student, that’s between $25k to $50k of added loan debt, most of which will likely fall into the unsubsidized category (it accrues interest from the moment you accept it).

Many graduate students might bite the bullet, live extremely frugal and miserable lives for a few years, and finish their degrees. This will do nothing to improve the mental well being of graduate students, who are already being systematically exploited and whose mental health is often ignored by the university. But some of them will still do it anyway. For a lot of other people, this just isn’t an option, leading some to seek other avenues towards success — or to seek paths to survival that don’t actually lead anywhere but “the basics.”

For me, this would be the end of my graduate studies. I cannot justified taking another $5,000 of student loan debt for a degree that offers no guarantee of a decent job.4 I’m certainly not willing to continue working 60 hours a week to make significantly less than I already do. This would be the nail in the coffin for me:  not only would I have to leave graduate school, but I’d likely be forced out of the teaching field entirely because I would need to find other ways to improve my economic situation.

This might not seem like such a bad thing to some people. After all, life intervenes in our plans all the time, right? Except this isn’t a normal thing. There’s no argument that can defend this new tax policy. It is immoral on its face and harms an entire segment of the American population for no real benefit. It will not improve the economy or reduce the deficit. Rather, it’ll do the exact opposite by putting more highly educated people deeper into debt and reducing how much disposable income they have to spend during and after graduate school.

This isn’t normal. This is what happens when you hand the reins to a political party bought by and in the service of the wealthy. Those without will get screwed over while those with far more than any single human being deserves to have will get more for no real gain to anyone else.

This is 2017 in a nutshell. Sadly, financial ruin is the thing 60 million Americans voted for…


 



Adventures in Teaching: The Aliens That We Are, or Roleplaying the World

Let’s talk aliens, ethics, and mock United Nations debates, shall we? Since 2011, I have run an experimental debate sessionRead more »

Let’s talk aliens, ethics, and mock United Nations debates, shall we?

Since 2011, I have run an experimental debate session with my students at least once per year. In this debate, they are asked to roleplay as one of two alien species (or as members of an Intergalactic United Nations security council) who have been in a multi-century conflict reminiscent of the current Israel-Palestine conflict — albeit, in a reductive and allegorical sense. One group wishes to be recognized as a planet (i.e., member state) in the IUN, while the other does not. A panel of students ultimately decides whether planethood (i.e., becoming a member state) will be granted; this decision is based on the strength of the presented arguments. If you’re curious about the scenario, I’ve provided the full slideshow below:

The object of this debate is to have a conversation with my students about the ethics of prolonged conflict AND the influence of history and social constructs on our perceptions of right or wrong. These conversations don’t always go as expected, and so the lessons we learn often shift.

This year, I ran this debate for three different classes, and each came up with wildly different interpretations of facts or unique debate strategies. The following sections provide quick snapshots of what happened. Each contains two images (the “Y” on the left and the “X” on the right) broken into sections to account for their first three debate rounds (opening statements, first rebuttals, and second rebuttals); some will have a fourth section (closing arguments).

Class #1

This first class is an example of what often occurs in the experiment:  Group X (The Astronauts) often throws itself into a trap by doing precisely what Group X is supposed to do — be the imperialistic aggressor.

After opening statements, you’ll note that “they’re savages” shows up in the first round of rebuttals (X went first in this round). In response, Group Y (the Cuban Human Aliens) blamed X for their “savageness” — a defense, in a sense, of their history of terrorism.

This is actually fairly mild compared to the sort of thing that has been said in previous renditions, but it is a prime example of my contention that our biases, even ones we’re merely “playing,” impact our behavior in remarkable ways. Keep in mind that these debates are often “funny,” in the sense that people will say things they wouldn’t normally say a la playing a card in Cards Against Humanity even though you know the intended joke is grossly offensive. Yet, the laughter we experience when one group calls the other “savages” is almost always a kind of nervous laughter.

Typically, these debates are somewhat one-sided. Group Y almost always opts for the more compassionate argument, which they do here in the final rebuttals. Group X, thus, almost comes off as aggressive and dismissive of human rights; they’re the bullies. Here, Group Y simply ran with the “savage” claims and used it to throw shade at Group X. In the end, it almost worked, but the “we are what you made us” line ultimately led to Group X’s victory on the grounds that Group Y did not seem prepared to offer assurance that its past would not proceed to the present or the future.

Class #2

The second class did not fall into any of the traps built into the exercise. Nobody dehumanized (or de-alienized, I guess) the other to justify the past (or present). Instead, Group Y (The Nightfall) chose a measured yet emotionally-charged appeal to reason; Group X (The Na’vi), however, shifted the responsibility for the past to the IUN or Group Y, never quite addressing the skeleton in the room:  alleged human rights abuses.

Frankly, Group Y went for the jugular in this debate. They admitted their faults and provided a justification for the past by way of an anti-imperialistic critique of their opponent. Group X has little in the way of a response to this. They could have defended their actions on the basis of Group Y’s past behavior, which has been done before and can work. They also could have provided more force behind the idea that “you cannot justify loss by taking from others.” Instead, they opted to claim that Group Y could not govern itself (an imperialistic attitude), shifted blame solely to Group Y or the IUN, and rejected Group Y’s claim that their past actions might have been justified.

In the end, Group Y took this debate.

Class #3

The final class was a pleasant surprise. Group Y (The Russian Dukes) went for a similar argument as Class #2, while Group X (The American Eagles) chose instead to hinge their argument on the issue of trust.

Both groups delved into the actual history, citing specific events in their arguments against the opposition. For Group Y, so much hinged on the question:  What did you think would happen? After all, you can hardly expect any large body of people to have their territory partitioned / annexed by a foreign party and simply shrug. That sort of thing rarely happens in the real world, so it’s actually a simplistic and useful strategy to deploy when trying to show how the past is a consequence of actions that neither party necessarily wanted.

The result was a fairly close debate between one group trying to explain the past while moving beyond it and another trying to acquire assurance that the past was indeed dead. Ultimately, it came down to Group X in part because Group Y never provided the assurance either the IUN or Group X would need. But it was by no means an easy decision.

What’s Next?

I’m actually considering ways to expand this project to include a lot more detail. For one, the simplicity of the history tends to result in semi-shallow debates, and I think writing more extended histories with additional documentation (fictional news stories, etc.) could make for an in-depth discussion about power. I also want to add more roleplay elements to the whole thing, such as “in real time” reporting, breaking news provided on a fictional news feed, and more. This will add more elements to the debate that could change student interactions.

So there you go. Another semester of alien roleplaying down!

What would you like to see added to this experiment? Let me know in the comments!



Mastodon and My Happy “Project”

I just joined Mastodon. I’m also on the wandering.shop “instance,” too. Yup, you can follow me in two places. SoRead more »

I just joined Mastodon. I’m also on the wandering.shop “instance,” too. Yup, you can follow me in two places.

So what the heck is Mastodon? It’s sort of like Twitter, but it allows people to create their own “instances” (or sub-communities) with their own guidelines, etc., effectively making it an answer to the hellhole of infinity that is Twitter. From what I can tell, a lot of creative types, especially from marginalized communities, have joined to escape Twitter’s endlessly disappointing reaction to rampant abuse and bigotry on its platform. Whether they’re leaving permanently or just taking more of their energy elsewhere, the vibe seems pretty clear:  it’s kind of a joyful zone.

For me, that will be by design. I don’t know if Mastodon will stick around like its predecessors, but my intent for the time being will be to use Mastodon and its instances solely for sharing happy things. No politics. No rage. No talking about controversy or things that annoy me or arguing with people or whatever. All happy. All the time. Make happy always.

There’s a reason for that:  I find Twitter exhausting. Since the election, I’ve actually left the main Twitter platform for Tweetdeck solely so I can better control what I see in my feed. It’s been almost nonstop politics on there since November 2016, and that makes for an environment that is almost stifling. Tweetdeck lets me mute a lot of that stuff so I have a feed that is more manageable. But it’s still a nightmare. A year of trolls, bigotry, and other forms of evil running rampant on the platform have led me to change my policies with regards to blocking people. Muting isn’t enough anymore, because the determined can get around it through their followers, requiring you to mute more people. Blocking doesn’t solve that either, but it makes things a little more difficult for the trolls, and it just feels better to know they’re gone gone gone. So my new policy is to block anyone I don’t have the energy to deal with, because I’m on this Earth for one lifetime and can’t be bothered to waste what little energy I have left on people who I wouldn’t interact with in real life anyway.

Mastodon is going to be a completely different experience. Because my intent is clear:  I’m making happy. That’s it. If you show up to poop on the parade, you get blocked. I won’t follow anyone who posts tons of negative things, either. I want to create an environment full of joy, and I want to share joy with as many people as I can there. So I’ll talk about creative things I love, share cat pictures or art, talk about my writer friends and their work, or just general joyful stuff, sf/f-nal or otherwise.

And if you’d like to join me, just head on over and become a member (of either “instance” or “both”). Hope to see you there!



A Gallery of Puerto Rican Lizards

As you may recall, I went to Puerto Rico earlier this year for NASFiC. This was a big deal forRead more »

As you may recall, I went to Puerto Rico earlier this year for NASFiC. This was a big deal for me. I’ve never been to the Caribbean, let alone to a Spanish-speaking country; it also preceded the horrible devastation that befell the island not long ago (please donate to the Hispanic Federation if you can). Yup. Caribbean SF scholar. Never been to the Caribbean…until 2017. Go figure.

While I was there, I made a trip to El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the United States. The intent? Do some hiking (boy did I hike…) and get some reptile pictures. And so, here I am sharing a few pictures of some of the four-legged, scaled critters I saw. I’ve been unable to ID all of these due to unfamiliarity with PR’s species and being short on time. For sure, there’s one common Puerto Rican amieva (Ameiva exsul; also known as the Puerto Rican ground lizard) and one or two pictures of a Puerto Rican crested anole (Anolis cristatellus cristatellus). If you know any of the others, please let me know in the comments!

Enjoy the gallery!

Click to view slideshow.



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