The College Education: Effort Invested

Many students approach their college education with a whole range of mixed feelings.  There's the excitement of a new level of learning along with more freedom and socializing.  Others see it as one more roadblock until they can finally "do something" with their lives (though, that do something usually is some variation on the "make money; buy things" scheme.

But the American Enterprise Institute recently published a study revealing that while students may be getting excited about college; they aren't necessarily getting prepared for college.  That is, they may have the right levels of intelligence for college, but they are not scheduling significant time for college.

Since the 1960s, there has been a significant drop in studying and work that students put into their education.  What used to be upwards of 25-30 hours a week of work is now drifting down to 15 hours of work for school.  In fact, many students are amazed/disturbed to discover that for college, their proportion of work outside the class to inside the class should be something like 2:1 or 3:1.  Meaning for every 1 hour the student spends in the class, they should be spending 2-3 hours of work outside the class.  If the class meets 3 hours a week; that's 6-9 hours of work...just for 1 class.  Therefore, if you are a full time student (12-16 credits a semester), that should turn into an additional 24-48 hours of school work; that is, you should be working at being a student, full time.

Time and again, students find this outrageous and are not happy with instructors (like myself) who aim for this level of work.  They argue that they have jobs to work; social obligations to make; or even that this class has nothing to do with their lives and therefore, should not have to put so much time and effort into it.   I understand their plight for I too had many of the same demands when I was in college.  But I still put in the work...mostly.

Reconsidering the Study and College

More importantly, the drop indicates several things that students should be keeping in mind as they continue their college education.

1.  If this study is correct; then the implication is that the quality of college is going down.  That is, no study has yielded results (as far as I know) that student intelligence across the board has gone up in the last 50 years (some studies say it has gone down; but I'm inclined to disbelieve those for a variety of reasons:  possibly for another post sometime).  If intelligence isn't going up, but the amount of work the student is doing (and expected to do) is decreasing, then that would mean the overall quality of the education is lacking.

2.  This decrease goes hand-in-hand with the business-approach to school philosophy which views students into consumers and looks to offer them better and better deals.  That is, they lower their demands (price or time investment) to get more customers.  They push students into full time programs that they can do in shorter times; they provide options like summer classes or accelerated classes which any instructor knows, that a decent amount of things must be tossed out the window due to the condensed time.  For instance, how much reading can you genuinely assign for a literature course during a 6 week program and actually expect the students to do?  (After all, students purposely save summer courses for classes they don’t like; so they don’t have to do as much).     But it also gets tricky here.  Because on one level, schools, particular community colleges and state universities should aim to make themselves accessible to as many people as possible through schedules, money, time demands, etc.  But does that mean demanding less work of them because they have full-time lives?  That's a slippery slope to be treading and many schools don't do well with this.  They promise and push students through degrees as fast as possible, therein lowering the students' full quality education and as well as threatening the integrity of their own reputation and college degrees as a whole.

3.  Thus, the proliferation of people with degrees has also resulted in the overall devaluing of the college diploma.  In the 1960s, a college diploma was almost a guarantee of success.  Today, it doesn't guarantee much and often, the pay vs the investment doesn't yield much to be desired.

4.  Students need to be more than just average.  They need to stand out.  They stand out by investing time in their education and doing well in all classes.  Incidentally, this also means that the student gets the most out their education; since after all, they are paying to learn and that requires efforts on both sides of the desk.  Again, student’s don’t often think or reflect on the fact that if they get through a course by the skin of their teeth and are just glad “it’s done!” but have nothing to say for the course except some luke-warm grade; they really did just waste their time and money.

Given the demands that we fill out lives with, it’s undoubtedly hard for students to fully realize how much time they should dedicate to their education.  In this day and age, of instant gratification, a semester seems like forever (nevermind 4 years).  Consistently putting in the time and effort to the full array of courses (even the ones you don’t like) seems awfully draconian.  And yet, one has to contend with what they are looking to get out of their education.  While just being in college opens up students’ opportunities and possibilities, it’s the effort (and the process of understanding how they work and why they work on the subjects that they do), that can make the significant difference. 

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Author on My Radar: Steven Niles

Since the demise of E.C. Comics, horror comics in the US have always been something in the background; left untouched, unacknowledged, or held tenuously at arms’ length by the publishers.  Sure there was Eerie, Creepie, Dracula Lives and a slew of others that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s; along with works such as Deadworld and the like (In fact, horror comics can be found throughout comics consistently since the late 1940s as showed by The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics edited by Peter Normanton).  Despite this, when I think about horror comics today; Steven Niles seems to be a major modern voice on the horror-comic landscape.  There are others and in fact, I think it’s hard to divorce him from his regular collaborator, Ben Templesmith (an Author on My Radar for a later date) and Robert Kirkman (yet another one for a later date; I should probably get cracking on these things!).  However, I think Niles as a horror comic writer has helped the genre become more solid, marketable, and at times, more mature or sophisticated by rebuilding classic motifs (freakshows, mad scientists, vampires, and walking dead) with interesting twists and a strong use of modern day realistic settings and character approaches/reactions.  It shows that he’s well read in the genre, and can pay tribute to his predecessors.  
Book cover to The Mammoth Book of Horror Comics edited by Peter Normanton

His ability to work with the genre conventions, particularly reoccurring characters (vampires, other undead, mad-scientists, demon gods, etc) and make them real on their own while also providing also sorts of nods and winks to readers familiar with the characters.  His graphic novel, Wake the Dead includes a college-age scientist named Victor, determined to reanimate a corpse with his friends' help...even if it means his friends become a central part of his work.

My first encounter with Steve Niles' work as Remains; which remains by far, my favorite of his writings.  The story is the classic Zombie-apocalypse, we're all waiting to come true some day.  But Niles seeing the emerging trend within modern zombie films, pits not just humans against humans but zombies against zombies.  The story contains the slow-shambling mindless zombie, made famous with George A. Romero's films as well as the fast-paced, high octane and over-achieving zombie, seen in more contemporary films like 28 Days Later (of which he also does a comic of) and the Dawn of the Dead remake.  At the time, I was doing research on zombie films, so of course, it was love at first bite...ahem, sight.

His most famous series that people are most likely familiar with is 30 Days of Night, a story about a group a vampires taking over a town in Barrow, Alaska since it is emerged in darkness for 30 days.  The original mini-series has spawned (ironically) numerous sequel mini-series since its release and of course, a movie.  The concept is unique and certainly, Niles tells a compelling story, but that’s not what made it a success.  For readers of the series, the movie felt shallow and lacking by and large because it wasn’t just story (Niles) but presentation (Templesmith) that made it such a dark, compelling, and horrifying experience.  Templesmith’s art made the book.
Book cover to Steven Niles' Remains
He moves back and forth among highly original materials into clearly intertextual pieces and pieces existing in specific continuities.  For instance, Aleister Arcane explores a horror TV show host who is put out to retirement but enacts a vicious revenge on the town reminiscent of the Pied Piper but also invoking the nostalgia of monster-movie marathons on television of the middle to late 20th century.  By contrast, he also worked on several series that blended noir and horror such as Criminal Macabre and Dead, She Said.  He’s also worked on series related to 28 Days Later, Night of the Living Dead, and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythology.

Niles has had minimum exposure in the major publishers DC & Marvel.  He has written regularly for a few series in DC (including Simon Dark), but nothing major.  His work has increasingly been published Image Comics and IDW Publishing (the latter being a major icon of horror-publishing within comics).  I don’t tend to think this is a “failing” as some would presume but it make senses given his desire to get real deep into the dark realms of the human psyche.  It’s not exactly where Marvel and DC really like to explore as directly as people like Niles do.  They do horror; but not often to the degree that Niles takes it.

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The Orphan, Or Lessons on How Films Code Our Fears

Recently, I sat down to watch “The Orphan” and while in many ways it is a movie that is all together forgettable; it did stick in my mind for the next day or two.  Initially, I didn’t know why.  I wasn’t giving it a close viewing and wanted to watch it, if only to have in hovering somewhere in my mental library should I ever need it.  But by the next day, I found myself returning to think about the film and what it seemed to offer up.

The basic plot of the film is that a family adopts a young sweet-appearing girl from an orphanage who eventually turns out to be evil, trying to kill the family and others.  Basic horror fare, no doubt.  But there were particulars that spoke to the cultural anxieties and battlegrounds.  In particular, this film is loaded with meanings that suggest and reinforce the fear/anxiety/disgust with the place of young girls in our culture.   Keep in mind, there are lots of spoilers from here on in.

The most evident and complex is the orphan herself, Esther.   Esther is an orphan, supposedly from an orphanage from Eastern Europe.  However, when the mother searches for this orphanage; they have no record of Esther.  

Lesson 1:  By the fact that Esther has no actual origin, she is becomes an “every-girl”; no origin, but just existing.

Eventually, the mother discovers that Esther actually belonged to a mental institute because she had some strange and rare illness that caused her to not age.  

Lesson 2:  Girls in mental institutions are just deranged women trapped in young girls’ bodies.

Poster for the film, Orphan
As Esther’s truer nature reveals itself to the mother, she tries to do everything she can to stop the child but it becomes completely evident, she has no control over Esther.  

Lesson 3:  Parents let their children run wild and are essentially powerless to stop them

 While her mother is powerless, Esther plays the innocent and sweet child to her adopted father. 

Lesson 4:  These girls wrap men around their fingers from the time they embody “Daddy’s little girl” up through “adulthood.”  

And eventually, Esther dawns her mother’s dress, puts on make-up, and attempts to seduce her adopted father. 

Lesson 5:  Girls have a “Daddy complex” and are hypersexualized beings who seduce of older men.   

When she can’t get what she wants, she targets the person and either kills them outright or threatens them into silence; through fear and intimidation.  

Lesson 6:  Girls have mean streak about them that is sociopathic.

Beyond Esther, we see other elements that also explain or hint at what’s wrong with our culture.  Both the mother and father are presented as having significant faults.  The mother had a stillborn baby and is a recovering alcoholic and the father had an extramarital affair (elements of both are blamed on each other).  

Lesson 7:  The reason girls are bad is bad parents.  Reinforcing this point is that the parents are impotent; unable to produce a “healthy” baby.

They are not capable of producing a good child (this also taps into Lesson 3 since their impotence translates into lacking the power to control Esther).  By contrast, the good daughter in this film is Max, the deaf child is friendly yet passive who tries to befriend and please everyone.  

Lesson  8:  Girls are meant to be pleasant and seen; not heard.

Even the brother, Daniel plays his cultural role; interested in video games and fitting in with his friends, he resists accepting Esther into the family out of jealousy, and publically humiliates her at school.  He starts to piece things together about Esther, but is too late and undone by Esther.  

Lesson 9:  The boys of today (men of tomorrow) are slackers and can’t even handle girls.

When taken to the “professional,” a therapist, Esther is considered to be absolutely normal with nothing wrong with her.  

Lesson 10:  Therapeutic approaches to children is clearly part of the problem.

In the climax of the battle, Esther and the mother battle on the ice pond, the same site that we learn she previously failed at performing her maternal duties in protecting Max when she was drunk.  The battle ends by the mother declaring to Esther that, “I am not your fucking mother!” and kicking her hard enough in the face that her neck snaps and she sinks into the hole in the ice.  

Lesson 11:  Some kids real do deserve to be beaten/killed.

And that’s just a preliminary reading; there’s a lot more I could connect and develop if I looked at it further (but given the vitriolic content; I’d rather not).  Granted the above is not a perfect or completely developed analysis, but the elements are there to piece together something that could be further developed.


What other themes or elements of The Orphan did you pick up on if you saw it?

What other films attempt to demonize youth in such manners?  How do they go about doing it?

Where else in culture do we see the coding of children as bad/evil/monstrous?

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Economies and Superheroes: Or Why Spider-Man Might Be a Socialist

This entry from Christopher Robichaud at Big Questions Online represents some of the major discussions that academics and others have when considering what superhero narratives have to give us. Spider-Man, like other characters, is prime material for philosophical debate and indeed, colleagues of mine, Rob Weiner and Alec Hosterman have postulated characters such as these exist in a hyper-realistic state.
Cover of Spider-Man #50

Robichaud contemplates what is the best choice for Peter Parker to make. Imbued with super-human powers, Parker must decide what will affect the greatest amount of "good" for society: to be Spider-Man or to be himself, student/scientist/dorky boyfriend to Mary Jane. It's a circular conversation the character has had with himself time and again over the years and really, a central element to his character.

For those unfamiliar, Spider-Man is really formed in the center of the moral quandary so many of us face at some point: Use my potential or waste it. Shortly after Parker gains his spider-like abilities, he enters into wrestling; he wins a match but the manager stiffs him on the pay. When the money is stolen by a criminal, Peter Parker does nothing. The same criminal during his escape goes on to kill his Uncle Ben (the man who delivers the classic line to Peter Parker, "With great power, comes great responsibility"). And with Ben's murder, Peter Parker beomes Spider-Man.

There are other means of looking at Parker's quandary as well. Parker becoming a wrestler could be seen as him acting as a self-interested capitalist. He's specialized in something particular and seeks to use that to his economic advantage. When the money is stolen, and he doesn't act, it is in part, revenge on the manager, but it's also a clear act of non-motivation; the "not my problem" syndrome. That is, to some degree, Parker up to this point, is a mercenary, pimping out his powers for his direct benefit. But Ben's death turns him into an altruist; risking his life and limb (and others) to protect humankind without evident gain. He's not directly gaining from his efforts and continually negatively affected by it through his lost of loved ones (Gwen Stacy) and the repeated threats towards his family. In fact, he's putting his energy and resources into something that has no direct benefit, but rather benefits society at large. He protects strangers he and provides an overall sense of safety in New York. That’s right; that red he wears pegs Spider-Man as a socialist!

When we talk about characters like Spider-Man and others, who have been writ large across our cultural landscape, we realize that they tap into a great deal of our cultural discussion. We consumer them in a many great different forms: comics, video games, movies, cartoons, as cereal (literal consumption), on underwear and a myriad other ways. They provide a means of representing inner-battles in larger-than-life ways.

By contrast, we have the Tony Stark/Iron Man dialogue. In this discussion, Stark as capitalist continues to benefit financially from the technology he develops for his Iron Man suit. In this serpentine loop, Iron Man is Stark's body guard; so Stark pays Iron Man (himself) in essence with money gained by the technology, which Stark also uses upon himself (as Iron Man). Thus, Iron Man becomes more improved and so does Stark’s business interests. He becomes the embodiment of perpetuated self-interest. Every win as Iron Man brings Stark profits by proxy since it continues to show off the technology.


What other super-heroes offer insights into this discussion? There’s much to be said about superheroes and their explicit ideology; but what about their implicit ideology? By their approach to being superheroes what kind of dialogues about the nature, use, and abuse of power do we see represented?

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