Category Archives: Culture

PAIRasite

 

SPOILER ALERT:  If you have not seen the Academy Award winning best picture Parasite, the following post contains references to specific scenes although I have made every attempt not to reveal the ending or major twists in the story.

Image result for parasite scenesWhen my wife and I went to see Parasite on a Valentine’s Day date, we knew the film centered on the disparity between rich and poor in modern day South Korea.  How could we not?  The flood of media attention has positioned the film as “Upstairs/Downstairs or Downton Abbey with subtitles,” exploring the relationship between two families from the polar opposites of society.

Most reviews (a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes) heaped praise on director and screenwriter Bong Joon-ho’s depiction of life at both ends of the income scale.  And it is well deserved.  The script is intelligent.  The actors melt into their roles without becoming caricatures.  The visual contrast between the Kim family’s “semi-basement” apartment (literally downstairs) and the Park family’s architectural showplace (the upstairs) reeks of economic injustice.  Introduction to these previously unknown trappings of wealth take the Kims on a fantasy tour of a better life even while they continue to serve the Parks.

As well as Bong presents his vision of Seoul’s dual society, I walked out of the theater unsatisfied.  This morning, as often is the case, my search for a counter-intuitive interpretation kicked in.  What if the narrative was not just an indictment of wealth disparity and the hopelessness of those on the lowest rungs of humanity’s ladder?  What if it was about the manner in which people respond to opportunity?

I was immediately reminded of a discussion we had during my imagination class at Miami University.  I had asked each student to think of something he or she thought was impossible.  One student, concerned he never had enough time to do everything he needed or wanted to do, suggested his problem would be solved if only he had a 25-hour day.  After exploring how one might creatively do that, I asked him, “And what would you do with that extra hour?”  His reply?  “Probably, nothing different,” proving the issue was not the amount of time but how you manage it.

The situation in which the Kim family has a chance to experience life on the other side of the tracks occurs when the Parks go on a weekend camping trip.  Left alone to partake of the accouterments of affluence and leisure, do they use this opportunity to listen to music or read books and newspapers?  Do they wander the house as if it is a museum observing the many paintings and statues the Parks have amassed?

No. Despite the availability of all this space, they huddle together around one couch and coffee table.  And they over-indulge in their employer’s liquor supply, trash the house and fight among themselves.  They might as well have been back in their semi-basement abode.  Like my student, the Kims do not use their 48 hours free of need or want to examine how they would carry on their lives if the situation was reversed, if Mr. Kim was “Lord Crawley” and the Parks were the butler and servants.

Which brings me to the other “fairy tale” which was nominated for best picture this year, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.”  Re-imagine the above scene.  The Kims, sitting around that coffee table, reflect on how they felt watching Mr. Kim shower his family with presents while people like themselves live in squalor and lack necessities.  “If only we had their money, we would not waste it on more decadent possessions for outselves.  We would create a world where there would be no need for parasites, like us.”

But just as we know there was no handsome stuntman who ensures Sharon Tate and her unborn child live happily ever after, we know it is more than likely the Kims would become more like the Parks than the other way around.  I doubt that is the morale of the story Bong wished to convey.  But intentional or not, Bong’s cinematic triumph is a tale of two tragedies.  The first being economic injustice. The second being the disconnect between aspirations and actions.  Both lessons are powerful and go hand-in-hand.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

Not Who, Why?

Related imageCharles Kettering (1876-1958), an inventor with 186 patents including the electrical starting motor, once said, “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.”  Kettering’s words provided the basis for much of my research and teaching related to creativity and remain an inspiration for this blog, a search not only for answers, but for better questions.

Tonight, the 2020 election begins in earnest with the Iowa caucuses.  And much has been made of polls designed to gauge popular sentiment about the multiple candidates for the Democratic nomination.  If not already, many of you may be approached by political, media or academic research entities for your opinion as the primary schedule brings your respective states into focus. Even if we are not part of a statistical sample, choosing among options is part of the process each of us go through as we consider how to mark our own ballots on primary day.

A module in my “Imagination and Entrepreneurship” class at Miami University was titled, “Why Do You Ask So Few Questions?”  It was a play on the oft voiced frustration of parents when their children seem to have a question for everything. “Why do you have to ask so many questions?”  And I would point out the obvious irony.  Parents’ irritation with their children’s curiosity is communicated in the form of (drum roll) a question.  Touché!

However, there are many different ways to ask a question.  A journalism student, trained to report facts, is told to cover the following in the lead paragraph of a story:  WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE and HOW.  Because those are the most immediately known elements of the narrative.  Only later does the writer get to the WHY, the motivation behind what happened, and often initial reporting on motive is speculative and based on circumstantial evidence.  Yet, truly understanding the story depends on the answer to this least obvious question, WHY.

The advantage each of us has when making a personal decision is we get to decide the WHY, the motivation behind our actions.  In no case is that more true than, when it comes to elections, we gravitate toward a particular candidate.  Therefore, as Kettering suggests, make sure you articulate the problem before seeking a solution.

As I have stated on multiple occasions, I have not made up my mind among the candidates most likely to still be in the race by March 17, the date of the Florida primary.  But I will share some of the questions on which I plan to eventually make that decision.

  • Why do I believe Donald Trump needs to be replaced?  Policies?  Character? Demeanor?  All of the above?
  • Why do I have Trump fatigue?  Is it what he says?  How he says it?  Where he says it?
  • Why do I feel such animosity toward people who voted for Donald Trump?
  • Why should I care how a candidate finances his or her campaign?
  • Why am I lukewarm to some candidates and enthusiastic about others?
  • Why does age or experience matter to me?
  • Why do I nod my head when one candidate says something and shake my head when another speaks?
  • Why should I care who wins the nomination?

Sorting through these questions is not easy. What do I do if I think grassroots financial support is important but the candidate who does that best advocates policies with which I disagree?  Welcome to life.  As we used to joke at the Kauffman Foundation each time we drafted a job description for a new hire, “Who are we looking for, Jesus of Brush Creek?” (NOTE:  The foundation’s headquarters in Kansas City overlooked Brush Creek.  You know, Kansas City, the home of the Super Bowl champion Chiefs, who are not based in Kansas.  Maybe Mike Pompeo should give Trump a map of the United States without names and ask him to point out Missouri.)

There is no perfect candidate.  This is about priorities.  And the only thing I wish for on election day is, when I cast my ballot, I am comfortable with my choice and know why I made it.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

Donny Come Lately

 

It started with a Donald J. Trump Tweet on January 4.

….targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!

There is a lot to consider about his orangeness’ latest knee-jerk reaction.  My first question being, “What if the 53rd target is the one that puts the most Americans in danger?”  Certainly, one of “his generals” told him a military strategy should be based on a desired outcome like eliminating any threat of American casualties or to U.S. assets, not because it is symmetrical to a 40 year old grievance.

The media, however, focused on the potential violation of international rules of engagement which prohibit the targeting of cultural assets.  Even Trump’s own Secretary of State and Defense Department reminded him of this inconvenient truth. Still, the ignorer-in-chief doubled down, telling reporters aboard Air Force One returning from his holiday stay at Mar-a-Lago:

They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way.

Never mind this threat and the killing of General Soleimani signaled an admission the use of economic sanctions had failed to bring the Iranians to their knees.   In an effort to up the ante, Trump, in effect, was saying I’ll do something no one else has every been willing to do to achieve my objectives.

But Donny Boy, as much as you wish you were a pioneer in the field of cultural expunging, you are far behind the learning curve.  All you have to do is travel or watch television to see the gradual transformation of cultural assets from icons of history or the arts to commercial props.  During my recent trip to Milan, I did a double take upon spotting a Calvin Klein advertisement, at least 20 feet high, on the scaffolding surrounding the Duomo.  (Maybe CK is considering a new fragrance by that name.) Or the location of a Starbucks Roastery Reserve in a historic building which had served as the city’s main post office for over a century.  (What is it about post offices?  Did Starbucks get the idea from Trump’s conversion of the old D.C. post office into a hotel and watering hole for Rudy, Lev and Igor?)

And how about the appropriation of music to promote products?  It started with the California Raisins and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”  How much is lost when we associate Donovan’s “Catch the Wind” with GE rather than the summer of love or the first date with a future spouse?  Or what is so enchanting about shopping at Kohl’s just because their holiday commercial included The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic” in the background?

Image result for mausoleum of Imam RezaSo Donald, maybe you should think twice about targeting Iran’s most celebrated antiquities.  If, for example, you demolish the mausoleum of Imam Reza, among the most frequented tourist attraction in Iran, that would foreclose the possibility of eventually converting it into the Trump Tower Mashhad.  So, please think twice before launching drone strikes on Iranian cultural sites.  It’s not in your own self-interests.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

EUGENEics

 

Campaigns generally end because they run out of money. Candidates fail to garner support and donations for a variety of reasons. But I seem to recall that last summer, when the debates began, Democratic Party pooh-bahs congratulated themselves on how the rainbow array of candidates reflected the racial and ethnic diversity of the party’s base. The debate scheduled for Jan. 14 in Des Moines, however, promises to be an all-white affair.

~Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, January 2, 2020

Image result for eugene robinson

Far be it from me to question the perspective of a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, but when I read Robinson’s op-ed titled, “Democrats are starting to look like a ‘Whites only’ party,” I could not believe he had joined the circular firing squad by which Democrats seem to do everything they can to pull defeat from the jaws of victory in November.  And I understand one of the nation’s preeminent African-American journalists thinks the party should take a second look at the rules which determine who participates in each debate and who does not.  But the issue is much bigger than debate rules.

Let me start by reminding readers, I think presidential debates, by their very nature, are a disservice to voters.  They are not part of a chief executive’s job description.  As I have said before, I would prefer the equivalent of moot court.  Provide each candidate a situation likely to arise during his/her administration.  Then give each 10 minutes to both explain the issue and propose a course of action a la a presidential address to the nation.  Being president is not improvisation; it is about well thought out and articulated actions.

But if you are going to have debates, equating the ethnic makeup of the last five Democratic contenders to qualify for the January event as backtracking on diversity seems a stretch.  At risk of opening some old wounds in the the struggle for civil rights and social justice, Robinson’s words remind me a lot of the debate over quotas versus affirmative action.  I hope he is not suggesting the Democratic Party is not committed to diversity unless it requires a person of color be a finalist for its nomination for president.  Even he admits that the first debates included several non-Caucasian aspirants.  These entrants in the presidential sweepstakes had the opportunity to make their cases.  However,  for whatever reason, none appear to have “garnered the support and donations” to sustain their viability prior to primary season.  There is a difference between a chance and a guarantee.

Yet, I am more bothered by Robinson’s implicit definition of diversity.  The final five include a self-proclaimed socialist, a progressive and three centrists.  There are two women and three males.  There is a gay man.  They all have different life narratives.  And while they may share overarching policy goals, they have presented diverse options by which to achieve the desired ends.

Likewise, assessing commitment to diversity based solely on one person, the president, overlooks what might be a more relevant factor.  I doubt Robinson would be satisfied with an African-American or Hispanic chief executive whose cabinet and White House staff consisted mostly of white males (you know, like the one we have now).  What if the initial 20-person debate stage was a platform for identifying potential cabinet members and policy advisors?  For me, a commitment to diversity means replacing Bill Barr with someone like Kamala Harris (although color is not the only thing that would change).  Or Stephen Miller with Julian Castro.

If you believe, as I do, what used to be the Republican Party is now a cult dependent on the whims of one person, Robinson may be right.  However, if the goal is a presidency that is representative of the country as a whole the color, gender or sexual orientation of the person at the top becomes less important than the team he or she assembles to govern the nation.  The only other option to satisfy everyone is a sexually fluid individual of multiple ethnic origin. Good luck finding one.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

Academic Malpractice

During my time as a professor at Miami University, lunch with my colleagues was often spent sharing stories about students’ less than admirable exploits both inside and outside the classroom.  The student’s name was never revealed and was always referred to as the newest “Harvey.” (I think we picked that moniker because none of us could recall having an actual student with that name.)  You might call it an example of reverse-whistleblower protection, shielding the perpetrator instead of the informant.  At the end of each saga, one or more of those present would remind the group, “Don’t forget.  They are still adults in training.”  And our role as mentors and advisors was to turn the event into a teaching moment.  Or as one of my mentors used to remind me, “The best teaching moments are often outside the classroom.”

Those lunches remain among my fondest memories of academic life as this December marks the eighth anniversary since my departure from Oxford, Ohio for Amelia Island.  They were also a reminder that colleges and universities are not only venues to learn about science, the humanities or business (in my case).  They are a student’s last stop on the road to life as an independent member of society.  It is as much about testing, sometimes by trial and error, the principles of personal responsibility and the consequences when one’s performance or behavior falls outside the norms of academic or personal conduct.  Besides preparing attendees for careers based on technical skills, higher education is akin to military training.  It deserves more credit than it is given for preparing young men and women for the battlefield of adulthood, by letting them practice before they face “live ammunition.”

The American system of higher education has its flaws, but having just spent four weeks as an adjunct professor at an Italian university, I have a new appreciation for the standards imposed upon students in most colleges and universities in the United States.  In contrast, the Italian system, based on both nationally mandated rules and policies of each institution, can only only be described as overly student-centric where the inmates run the asylum.

Image result for university of the sacred heart milanI will share just a few of the most obvious examples.  Upon arriving in Milan, I learned 53 students had registered for my graduate business course titled, “Design Thinking and Startup Launch.”  My immediate concern was how to effectively engage so many students in a class that involved case discussions and team projects.  Such classes at Miami University were often limited to 25 to 30 registrants.  However, I soon learned that 14 of the students had elected the “non-attending” option.  This meant they would never attend classes and their grade would be 100 percent dependent on one exam based on readings assigned by the professor.

Maybe you are asking the same question I posed to the coordinator of the graduate business program.  “Are you telling me a student can get credit for a class based on experiential learning without ever having the experience?”  Without hesitation, she nodded and explained this was based on national policies.  Just so you understand how absurd this is.  Some students would have to prepare analyses of business cases, then write and present a business plan while others would receive the same credit for a three and a half hour written exam.  I’ll come back to this later.

Well, at least I would have a more familiar experience with the “attending” students and prepared the syllabus and lesson plans accordingly.  On the first day of class, I received the second major surprise.  University policy allowed students to schedule their internships at the same time they were taking classes.  Even students who opted for the class-based alternative assumed it was an excused absence from class if their intern host asked them to work during the scheduled class period.  For the record, most graduate business programs in the USA set aside a semester for internships during which students are not required to take classes.

My third example involves deference to students who are not pleased with their grades.  A “non-attending” student can take their exam up to five times (I am not making this up).  To give you a sense of how ludicrous this is, I will share my experience with my first Italian “Harvey.” But first I need to tell you Italian students, by national policy, are graded on a scale of zero to 30.  Again, maybe you might ask the same question I did.  “Why would a nation which measures everything on the base-10 metric system, even the temperature, use a non-metric scale for scoring student performance?”  Chalk it up to one of the sweet mysteries of life as no one I queried had an answer.

Harvey #1, with whom I had no contact or correspondence over the four weeks I was in Milan, took the open-book exam on November 20.  The instructions clearly stated “answers must be supported by specific references or examples from the readings, cases and other material available on BlackBoard.”  For the same credit as an attending student, Harvey #1 submitted a two-page document with just two references to course material, one of which was entirely mis-interpreted.  Giving Harvey #1 the benefit of the doubt, I scored the exam as a 6/30.  Eighteen is a passing grade.  To Harvey #1’s credit, the student did not challenge my assessment and asked for guidance how to better prepare to retake the exam during the next testing cycle.

Which brings me to the last example.  One of the attending students (Harvey #2) missed three of the eight sessions, did not participate in class discussions when he did attend, and a peer review by his project team members indicated he had not made a significant contribution to the team effort.  As is often the case, he was the first student to challenge his grade when they were posted last night.  Which brings me to the final reason why I titled this post “Academic Malpractice.”  The student informed me he would refuse to accept the grade and would take the “non-attending” exam to get credit for the class.  In other words, his performance to date vanished into the ether with no consequences.  Not a great life lesson for an adult in training.

In addition to class participation on the team project, each attending student had a final assignment which included three essay questions.  The last question was, “What do you consider to be the most important traits of a successful entrepreneur?  Based on your answer, how would you assess your own potential to start and run your own business?”  In every article and case covered during the class, a recurring theme was the paradox of freedom versus responsibility.  Entrepreneurs are the masters of their own fate which also means they are accountable for their own actions.  Harvey #2 did not include this in his response to the question yet concluded his essay by saying, “I have all the typical characteristics of an entrepreneur.”

Based on this experience, I believe, Italian educators should be asking themselves the following critical question which addresses the impact of a culture which treats students like children as opposed to responsible adults.  Is Harvey #2 an anomaly or is he a product of a system where students who under-perform or do not commit to their studies are told, in the words of Gilda Radner’s Emily Latella, “Never mind!”

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP