Sunday, February 28, 2010

Day 17: Closing Ceremonies (Part 2)

I am always rather melancholy when the Games come to an end. There is the intensity of the experience (at least for someone who watches them as consistently as I do) as well as, with this year, one or two events I would have much preferred seen the U.S. win. But these never quite explain the sadness I feel (because I always feel like I missed a lot of the Olympics once they are over anyway).

Generally, we can consider the two week event in and of itself. An intense experience that takes years to plan and build and prepare for. And, then, in an instant, they are gone. There is so much so quickly. The Olympics can be made to symbolize and represent much, but their brief intensity best represents our lives (if lived well?).

Beyond the event in and of itself, however we can consider how the Olympics intervene in our normal, everyday lives. I can speak here only for myself, and my instinct about myself, which could be wrong, is that the Olympics mark the passage of time on slightly larger scale than everyday life, but on a scale that is all too easy to mark. They happen every two years (did it affect me less when they were every four?), so when they end they remind me that it has been and will be two years between the games. Now, two years is not a huge amount of time, but it is not no amount of time either. It breaks up a life into just enough time to count as a lot, but just little enough to make it pass quickly. In two years I'll be out of high school. In two years I'll be graduating from college. In two years I'll have to have written a dissertation and have secured a job. In two years I'll need to have produced so many articles. In two years my son will be three years old (perhaps the most unbelievable, depressing, and exciting possibility). So much will have happened and will have to be done, but it will happen too damn fast. And thinking long enough in two year chunks can really start to eat a lifetime.

The Olympics, however, do a great deal with time. Host countries erect infrastructures for the games. Athletes work towards them through time and effort and practice. Fans commit incredible amounts of emotional energy in following and supporting the games and the athletes. The momentary status is no reason not to prepare and participate. So what I can take away from the Olympics and their momentous status is how they mark time and what they accomplish through it.

Day 17: Closing Ceremonies (Part 1)

Earlier in the week I posted this conversation about the medal count that I had with my German Friend. I would like, as part of my own closing ceremonies, to make a few remarks on the medal count.

The U.S. has won the total medal count with 37, followed by the Germans with 30 and the Canadians with 26. In terms of gold medals, the Canadians come out on top with 14, followed by the Germans with 10 and the U.S. with 9. Now, many favor the gold medal count as the preferred measure for Olympic success. And, I will not deny that this measure has merit. For instance, it acknowledges that silver and bronze medals are not the same as gold medals. It is not, however, the only one, and my reasons for problematizing it are not, strictly speaking, biased (at least in terms of patriotism). I would like to suggest a few other measures and offer reasons for their value over the "Gold only" measure.

  1. Total Medals. We should recall that until very recently both summer and winter games were contested in the same calendar year. I would thus argue that for total medals we should combine this year's Winter Olympics with the 2008 Summer Olympics (we could, or course, wait until the 2012 London Summer Games). Doing that we come up with the following totals:
    U.S.A.: 45 / 53 / 49 // 147
    China: 56 / 23 / 32 // 111
    Russia: 26 / 26 / 3 // 87
    Germany: 26 / 23 / 22 // 71
    South Korea: 19 / 16 / 10 // 45
    Canada: 17 / 16 / 11 // 44
    We see that China leads overall in gold medals, but the U.S.A has a clear lead in overall medals. I would also add that no other nation is as balanced in terms of representation in the medals for both the Summer and Winter games. Russia and Germany are close, but nowhere near as dominant in both Olympics.

  2. Total Points. Another measure, and one that gives full due to all medal winners, which the "Gold only" argument does not, is to award values to medals and combine those totals (i.e., 3 points for gold, two for silver, and one for bronze). For this year's Winter Olympics it works out this way:
    U.S.A.: 68 points
    Germany: 63 points
    Canada: 58 points

    For both the 2008 Summer and 2010 Winter Olympics we have the following totals
    U.S.A.: 290 points
    China: 246 points
    Russia: 165 points
    Germany: 146 points
    South Korea: 99 points
    Canada: 94 points

While, for personal reasons, I might prefer the total medal count translated into points, the larger point is that there are multiple ways of assessing the games. I prefer this last way of accounting because it counts silver and bronze medals without making them equal to gold medals, which addresses one of the reasons I feel the "Gold only" assessment method is preferred. It also highlights consistency and excellence across the entire Olympic spectrum. Clearly, one could use another measure when and where appropriate (e.g. if one wanted to make geographical claims). I make the following range of assessments available to suggest the need for alternatives and to contextualize these now completed 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

Cave symbols hint at 30,000-year-old origins of written communication

As the researcher says, "language maybe too strong a word," but two things here strike me as important:
  • concepts that cannot be drawn
  • social agreement on meaning
Still chewing on this one for now.

Here is the researcher's article in the New Scientist.

And here is another news story on the research.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Day 16: Curling Time

To explain why, over the last couple of Games, curling seems to attract some attention I would argue that it is because it is very much unlike the other Olympic sports, which are, we must admit, largely like each other. A majority of the sports from skiing to bobsled to speed skating are go-fast-and-be-timed-on-a-sheet-of-the-cold-stuff sports. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the Super G as much as the next casual viewer, but after awhile even I get bored watching the clock. This is not say that doing the sport is boring or that skiing isn't in many many important ways not the same as bobsled (or that I am always "bored" watching them). Again, I am talking about spectators.

Curling, in large part (there is a clock even here), takes place out of time, or, better said, in a different sort of time. There is no rush. A lot of it is, to be honest, four men or women standing around staring at and talking about a rock. And this is precisely what makes it interesting. Some have explained that fans like curling because it looks like something we could do. While there is merit to this argument, it seems far more likely that we like a lot of Olympic sports, particularly the go-fast-and-be-timed-on-a-sheet-of-the-cold-stuff sports, because they look precisely like things we would never ever do unless we were dared or otherwise tricked. The Winter Olympics, which have been very popular this time around, have a much higher percentage of utterly "insane" sports relative the Summer Games. So I don't see curling as the Everyman sport because we like the rest that surely are not for us.

Curling is attractive because it offers a rhythm different from the rest of the Games. We get to see the athletes' think about what they are doing because their thinking happens out loud and in public. For the opposite reason, however, I like things like speeding skating and skeleton because you watch the athletes' think through their bodies. For the casual viewer, as well, curling does not require constant engagement. I can miss a rock or an end (I may miss something cool, but I am not out of it completely). This level of commitment makes curling the Olympic sport designed for the long haul. I feel engaged in the games, interested in the spirit of competition, and the engagement, because of comprehensive television coverage, is nearly constant. It is the sport I know and love between and behind the sports that excite me through terror and time. In this way, the go-fast-and-be-timed-on-a-sheet-of-the-cold-stuff sports are not boring (or do not become boring) precisely because I have curling to watch in between them.

Curling, the sport that should be the "boring" one, serves the important function of keeping all the other sports from becoming so. Curling is evidence that "excitement," like "boredom," is relative, and that all kinds of things have value if only we find a way to experience them as valuable.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Day 15: The Crushing End

As the Olympics wind down (or wind up to a series of great gold medal finals), it seems fitting to recall how much disappointment is a part of the Olympics. In several important and productive ways, the Olympics are haunted by the specter of defeat, disappointment, and anguish. In fact, if the awarding of gold medals were not made so prominent, the whole thing would be too damn depressing. You wait for four years (and prepare for even longer), and then you stumble out of the starting block, slip on the ice, or crash your bobsled. The the small sliver of success that motivates an enterprise that will more often than not break your heart.

Which is probably why most of us don't even bother. To devote yourself utterly to something that will more likely result only in a certificate of participation does not seem worth it to people who would rather lead lives of quite desperation. I do not mean to downplay simply having competed in the games. Having participated in the Olympics is nowhere near analogous to the certificates of participation that litter my own sad scrapbooks (or what I assume would litter a scrapbook if, in fact, I had one). Having participated is itself reward for many athletes. However, earning their way to the Olympics most likely required a desire beyond simply wanting to be there. The risks are too many and the rewards too few to simply want to be there.

The risks, however, are what give the Olympics meaning and value. If they are haunted by defeat, disappointment, and anguish, then, the ghost we might imagine is Slimer from "The Ghostbusters." While disgusting, disruptive, and painful to look at, Slimer is ultimately a benevolent force in the universe of the Ghostbusters. He provides value for the order that the Ghostbusters create from spectral chaos by forever sliming those efforts. Slimer reminds us that not all demons can or should be exercised.

This is not to imagine Olympic "losers" covered in slim, but they are the ghosts that give meaning to the gold. And they should not be forgotten.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Day 14: A Wee Bit of American Exceptionalism

So what seems like weeks ago I posted on the Olympics as a necessary corrective to American Exceptionalism. Today, however, I wish to engage in just a little bit of such exceptionalism (and nurse my wounded pride in the process). The U.S Women's hockey team just lost the gold medal match to Canada 2-0. While it was a heartbreaking loss, the Canadians essentially dominated. They stuffed our power play, including two five on threes. We had our chances, but Canada was just consistently too good

That being said (and with all due credit to Canada), I feel that this Canadian win is partially a win for America. Let me explain. There are 22 women on the Canadian hockey team roster. Checking on their bios (available through, I find that 12 of the 22 attend or attended and play or played hockey for American universities and colleges.

Now, I mean no disrespect to Canadian universities; that is not the issue here. The issue here is that over half of the Canadian women's hockey team honed their skills in the United States. I mean to argue that U.S. institutions played some part in the success of this year's gold medal winning Canadian hockey team. I take is at point of pride (acknowledging the complex issues related to the place of international students in American universities) that these Canadian women found in American universities a chance to pursue their educational and athletic goals.

Give us your tired, your poor, your Olympic hockey hopefuls.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Day 13: If Students Were Olympians

Listening to Olympic athletes describe their failures compels me to confront my goals and expectations for my students. Many of the athletes I have heard in post-game interviews are quite frank about their failures. However, it is not their frankness itself which impresses me. What impresses me is their ability to breakdown their process: to the steps they took or didn't take, the moves they made or didn't made, and how the combined effect of those steps and missteps, moves and mistakes resulted in their "failure." For these athletes, failure is not absence (or presence) of one thing or another, but is, more often than not, a failure to execute specific actions. Rarely have I heard "I don't have the talent." You hear, instead, "I didn't do what I needed to do."

As I have already opined, there are many aspects of athletics I would import to the classroom. However, in many regards I am talking about what the space of athletics affords that the classroom may not.

I think students often suffer under the assumption that intelligence is a possession rather than an activity (although we do suffer under the notion of talent in athletics as well). And while there are certain baseline cognitive requirements for intelligence, cognition is highly plastic and largely cultivated through practice (I here draw on the work of Andy Clark). As many educators would attest to (I hope), student failure is often not because they lack something. Failure results from not executing specific actions in time. A failure to study in advance of the exam. A failure to develop study habits to effectively utilize study time. A failure to prepare a proper area in which to study. These are all activities that "result" in what we objectify as "intelligence." And as much as teachers focus on activity and the steps students much take, our societal assumptions about "intelligence" often make this an uphill battle.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Day 12: Cultures in Sports

As I mention in my Day 9 post (Bodies in Sport):
For reasons that will become clear, I appreciate the way NBC covers the Olympics: they frequently jump from sport to sport. [...] The reason I happen to like this, given my own research interests, is that we get to see the variety of bodies (body types) that participate in sports and, from this, the relationship between body and sport. Moving from the Bobsled [...] to speed skating [...] and then to short track speed skating [...] is an exercise in the varieties of human embodiment.
It is likewise interesting to the see the move from sport to sport in terms of nationality. That is, what nations excel at what sports? As I write, America and Germany go down the wire in Team Nordic Combined. A few channels over, Canada is destroying Germany in hockey.

I don't have much new to say here, as I have already been dealing with this issue tacitly throughout my Olympic posts. It does, however, corroborate my points about bodies. It would be silly to argue that Germany simply doesn't have inherently talented hockey players; that the genetics of Germans have not mixed in just the right way to produce hockey excellence. It probably isn't simply access to ice either. Germany does not suffer from tropical climes that might work against success at cold, winter sports. They are currently in second place in the overall medal count. And as my German friend has reminded me, because of Germany's population this is rather impressive medal production. It seems far more plausible that Germans, by and large, have simply not invested in hockey for whatever reason. A cultural "decision" has been made with respect to hockey, and that call means that tonight Germany went down to Canada 8-2.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Day 11: The Medal Count

So I had the following exchange with a German friend of mine:
Me: Have you noticed the Olympic medal count, my German friend? USA 20- Germany 13. Plus, two of your medals are for something called "Skeleton." That sounds made up. Anyway, U.S.A.! U.S.A!

The German: Hey buddy, did you notice that given that the USA has 3.8 times more inhabitants than Germany your 20 medals are quite lousy? The average German was so far on average 2.4 times more likely to win an Olympic medal than his hard-trying US equivalent. And now please do not start to blame your public health system…

Me: You make a good point [The German]. I should have know better than to challenge an Economist with numbers. Nevertheless, we are still ahead. And sports, like capitalism, is a zero-sum game.

The German: We seem to be closing the gap (I am now referring to your preferred absolute terms :-) ... USA: 24 vs. Germany: 19

Me: True enough [The German], but you are quickly running out of arcane European sports. You know, the ones were you ski around, shoot something, and then make cheese.
This has "international incident" written all over it.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Day 10: Olympic Assessment

As both U.S.A. curling teams flounder at the Vancouver Games, I feel obliged to briefly address assessment (athletic, pedagogical, or otherwise). According to curling legend and NBC commentator Don Duguid, the men's curling team was the forth ranked team in the United States when they won the U.S. Olympic trials. That is, over the previous season, there were three "better" teams in the U.S. However, because "better" is assessed in terms of Olympic trial tournaments, America is represented, in many sports, by those athletes that won the last tournament just prior to the Olympics.

I do not intend to dismiss this means of assessment out of hand. In many ways it is fair. I can imagine all sorts of problems that might emerge if a committee selected the representatives. Any assessment method necessarily selects its measures and deflects others. And assessment, in sports and beyond, is necessarily complex because no one measure accounts for everything. In the moment of decision and in order to decide at all we must pick one way of picking.

However, it is becoming clear, at least to me, that the U.S. curling team isn't just a unfortunate team on a cold streak; they seem genuinely out-matched by nearly all of their competitors. Sure, many of the matches have been tight, but I have seen no other team miss as many shots (and I have watched way too much curling at this point). And so we must reconsider, or should at least consider at all, how this particular squad of curlers has come to represent the U.S. of A.

And so here is my critique of the tournament-style assessment measure: it is predicated, in part, on a desire to have a undisputed representative. It is a way of choosing that appears the least like a choice. "Look, we lined everybody up and they ran to the finish line. The first one there was the winner. It's completely objective." Except, of course, it isn't. Choosing the tournament as the means to select an Olympic team is already a value. And, as a said earlier, it is a reasonable one. It is a value and a choice, however, that erases history and reputation and unduly reduces complexity. It rewards what one team has done in one tournament, and not what one team has done over a longer time frame (over more series of moments), which is, I'll admit, a trickier, a messier, and (most likely) a more contestable measure.

But in this moment it is safe to say that U.S.A. Curling couldn't have done much worse.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Day 9: Bodies in Sports

For reasons that will become clear, I appreciate the way NBC covers the Olympics: they frequently jump from sport to sport. I imagine this is to keep things moving and to allow the audience to see as many Americans compete as possible. The reason I happen to like this, given my own research interests, is that we get to see the variety of bodies (body types) that participate in sports and, from this, the relationship between body and sport. Moving from the Bobsled (where athletes are built like linebackers) to speed skating (where they look more like power forwards) and then to short track speed skating (where they are far more compact) is an exercise in the varieties of human embodiment.

The common way such variety is interpreted is that certain individuals are "made" or "built" for their sport. That is, sports naturally favor a particular and natural body type. This view, while parsimonious, begs more than a few questions and is predicated upon two tenuous assumptions. First, that sports are not human constructions with built-in preferences and, second, that human embodiment is pre-specified. Countering both these assumptions, we could argue that sports are human designs and human institutions that select and then work upon bodies. That is, the rules and "biases" of sports work to limit participation and participation itself shapes bodies for and within competition. This is an argument I introduced in my Day 1 post.

My favorite example is Usain Bolt. Bolt broke the world record in the 100m dash at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. What is amazing about this feat is that Bolt does not resemble other 100m runners in one crucial dimension: he is much taller. According to many in the sport, he should be too tall to be successful. These individuals make the argument that I outlined above: there is a natural body type that is required for success in the 100m. They are, in part, right. Obviously, if coaches believe one must be a certain height to succeed in an event, it should come as no surprise that we will see only individuals of that height excel at that event. But they succeed not because they are a "natural" fit, but because of the selection bias of the sport itself. Because of this bias, their height serves to gain them access to the training, practice, and competitions through which they then come to excel at that sport. Most runners as tall as Bolt never get a chance to seriously train for the 100m. Any given sport is not naturally obliged to privilege some bodies over others. Sports, in some way, "select" the bodies that will succeed, and this selection occurs through rules and rule changes, levels of access, and the predispositions of coaches, trainers, and managers.

However, it would likewise be a mistake to assume that Bolt was pre-specified to excel in the 100m dash, and that he was simply waiting for a chance to run in it. Access is important not because it alone allows bodies to succeed, but because access is the first step in a series of steps through which bodies are actively shaped (I actually prefer the word "cultivate" but that explanation is for another time) for success. The Bolt who enters into training for the 100m is not the same Bolt who emerges from it. His training included, for instance, working on his stride and gait. There are many such examples how participation in sports reworks bodies in meaningful ways.

This is not say that anyone and everyone can and should compete in any and all sports, or that sports should now consider reworking themselves to include anyone and everyone. It is to suggest, however, that we should not ignore the very important ways that "we" are responsible for the shape of both our bodies and our sports. The Bolt example, particularly when one considers the discourse surrounding sports, productively incorporates discussions race in the cultivation on bodies. Likewise, perceptions of gender are at work here is well (many feminist scholars have productively engaged biology in precisely the directions I outline here). Neither sports nor bodies are static objects; they are dynamic cultural and biological processes that have important physical and ethical manifestations: "who gets to do what?", which is also to ask, "Who gets to be what?"

Friday, February 19, 2010

Day 8: A Stat(e) of Time

The hour is late. I have put this off until now. Time is of the essence. And upon time and the statistical analysis of time I will briefly turn.


I am still on statistics in this post (as I was yesterday - UPDATE: John Shuster, skip of the US Curling Team, was benched).

I had a statistics professor (in psychology) who once used the Olympic sport of Luge to complicate the issue of statistics in research. In stats there is the concept of statistical significance. It is the way, for instance, that correlations are made. Is the number of times one thing correlates to another significant? Many things inevitably "correlate;" statistical significance is used to separate coincidences (things that happen by chance) from correlations (things are "actually" and consistently and predictably related).

Statistical significance, however, does not always manifest itself practically. In luge, for example, the differences in times between first and second and third and forth and fifth places rarely meet the conventions of statistical significance. Once you have to go out the thousandths of a second to determine the difference between first and second place, my professor would say, you are pushing statistical significance (of course there will be a difference in the times of each run, but are those differences significant?). That is, the differences between the times are not significant enough statistically to make any definite assertion about the relative excellence of individual lugers. To say it another way, a difference in race times that is one-one-thousandths of second doesn't "mean" anything statistically because it looks like simple chance. However, my professor continued half joking, it is the same damn German who wins every time. Statistically, the difference between first and second even third and forth and fifth shouldn't be significant - yet it invariably is, as we can point to dominant lugers who are always, on average, a few thousandths of a second faster than everyone else.

The point being, measurements are always choices made before the thing measured, and a good researcher, a good statistician, will be able to shift their measurement - to look around conventional statistical measures from time to time. I say this because too often, particularly in sports, stats are used as if they are argumentative trump cards. I do mean to say that stats are meaningless. Statistical significance is a positive boon in psychology, and it allows psychologists to accurately predict and describe (and thus positively impact) human behavior in many cases. Stats, however, are applied in order to certain achieve ends. Psychologists choose, based on convention, what level of significance is acceptable to reach a conclusion based on the results of a study. This does not make their results (or the choice) merely arbitrary, but it does mean that stats - far from settling arguments - are themselves arguments.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Day 7: On Streaks, Hot and Cold

In a brief aside in his The Invention Air, Steven Johnson argues (with respect to people who suddenly become exceptionally productive):
We are naturally inclined to see a hot hand here, some extra dose of inspiration that triggered the streak in the first place, but in fact the streak would just be an offshoot of that random distribution, no more magical than a repeated coin toss that every now and then turns up heads ten times in a row.
He builds on this with an example of statistical research in sports:
the fact that a player has just made a free throw makes him no more or less likely to sink the next one. (42)
I will grant Johnson his numbers. However, we could argue that made shots and the perception that made shots lead to more made shots must certainly affect other players (teammates and adversaries alike). I would like to know, for instance, that if the defense assumes a shooter is hot will they leave her teammates open for easy shots?

The "hot streak" is kin to the various superstitions one finds in sports, particularly baseball. I am sure that a wearing the same dirty socks for the entire playoffs itself does not affect the outcome (although I am sure that my standing with one foot in the kitchen and one foot in the living room won the Atlanta Brave the World Series in 1995 - and find a stat that disproves that, Mr. Johnson). However, I am also just as sure that washing those socks might vary well affect the performance of the superstitious player. That is, "real" effects can take various sometime unquantifiable forms (the placebo effect is invariably an effect).

This all (if you can believe it) leads me to John Shuster, the unfortunate skip of the American Curling Team who has now lost four straight matches on missed last shots. He is on one hell of an Olympic cold streak. And he is clearly shaken. Now, I don't know of any research on cold streaks (and I haven't looked that hard), but I assume, based on the Johnson's logic above, that missing a shot makes it no more likely one will miss the next one. But the cold streak strains the statistical argument against streaks even more. Whether it can be charted statistically, and what human behavior can be reliably charted statistically, things accumulate in the human mind. Statistics may have not have memories, but human beings certainly do. And those memories matter.

Shuster remembers each missed shot with each subsequent one, and those memories (emotional as they are) form a part of his decision-making process. He becomes like drivers who die in head on collisions after trying to steer back onto the road from the shoulder. This syncs up with arguments about high performing athletes who are said to be high performing precisely because they can forget previous mistakes (forgetting - repressing - isn't always a bad thing).

And we remember what other people have done. As I argue above, the perception of a hot streak could change defensive approaches. Anyone who watched downhill skier Lindsey Vonn win the gold could safely assume she benefited twice from the crash of the skier who followed her. The next competitor after the crash, who was the last and greatest threat to Vonn's gold medal, clearly played the mountain safer after a serious of crashes before her run.

The statistical argument downplays human memory and human frailty. However we describe the pattern after the fact, we must admit it only becomes a pattern after the fact. In the moment it is humans acting with bodies, memories, and the emotions they spawn. It isn't magic; it's human.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Day 6: On Liking the Olympics

As someone in rhetoric, I frequently confront the question of motive. Why do people do things? Why do people hold certain beliefs and act in particular ways. And also, why do people like what they like and how are they brought to like it? This is likewise a question outside of rhetoric as a discipline: in art, literature, psychology, sociology, and even biology. And each approaches it differently: formal conventions in the things themselves (we like it because of how it is structured), cultural predispositions (we like it because our culture inscribes the thing with value), biological predispositions (we are primed to like certain things and dislike others through the process of natural selection).

Being in a discipline historically seen as without its own body of knowledge (thanks, Plato), I am free to subscribe to any and all of these. And I buy them all, but with a caveat. I buy them all not as separate or even competing explanations, but as incomplete explanations that necessarily need the other. Because each, in and of itself, begs numerous questions. Why do it's formal qualities appeal to us, why has culture decided to value it, and why have certain likes been selected through time?

Speaking for myself (as one invested in investigated likes), one of my favorite things about the Olympics is watching myself come to like and invest in things I did not previously like or was not previously invested in (at least not in the last four years). Most of the year I take for granted both the things I like and my liking of them. I like this or that, but I don't explicitly or obviously come to like things. I'll find a new a band or watch new movie that I like, but those are often like other things that I like, and I already liked music and movies to begin with. Investments are typically enculturated, embodied and emplaced (and all simultaneously) and happen outside of our conscious gaze.

Now, I do like sports and so, in that regard, I come to the Olympics primed in that direction. However, because of the intensity of the experience and its momentariness, the process of being persuaded to like something is magnified. I can feel myself becoming invested in a way I do not think we normally can. And, no doubt, my liking of the Olympics is no less enculturated, embodied, and emplaced. It is just, for two or weeks or so, I get to become aware of (or feel) this process.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

(Re)Figured Skating UPDATE

I have updated my Day 2 post on figure skating. Check out the Dick Button addition here.

Day 5: Olympians and the Rest of Us

Part of my dissertation research examined the success of Usain Bolt in terms of his cultural context. Mainly, that because one can earn a significant reputation as a track star in Jamaica, it makes it more likely that more individuals will embark on such a career and stick with it. This is confirmed by research in the sociology of sport, which shows that one of the defining features of athletic success is an athlete's social network. Christopher L. Stevenson argues that athletes become athletes through "processes of entanglements, commitments, and reputations and identities." Stevenson examines how athletes are recruited into the sports and by whom. He then describes how, through a series of deepening entanglements and commitments, the athlete’s identity becomes bound-up in the sport through these relationships and through the reputation he or she earns.
These webs of relationship entanglements drew the athlete into the sporting activity, and the athlete allowed him/herself to be drawn in because of the value he or she place those relationships.
I argued that Bolt comes from a country whose national attitude means reputation for track athletes. Jamaican journalist Colin Channer offers a distinctly non-biological explanation for the strength of Jamaica’s sprinters. He traces the focus on sprinting to elements of Jamaican culture and history. While he admits that the love for speed “seems at odds with its hard-nose commitment to nonchalance,” “to be Jamaican means to move.” The Jamaican-born Channer argues that the love of sprinting “is rooted in the notion of flight, in the notion of defiance and aspiration expressed in the grammar of the body." The Jamaican track phenomenon is not directly traceable to either its geography or to the “unique biology” of its inhabitants; Jamaicans share both with countries with far less success in sprinting. Channer further argues that “sprinting is the physical argot for the runaway slave. For a slave, escape was act of defiance, a loosely punctuated treatise, with commas and no full stops, on the topic of being free.” Running as an act of defiance reflects the deeply rooted narrative of the maroons, resistance groups constituted by runaway slaves who fought the British from 1655 to 1796. So while Channer argues that Bolt “has been fast ever since we’ve known him,” he is from a place culturally committed to cultivating speed.

What I make of this is that athletic and, thus, Olympic success depends, in part, on a culture that cultivates it. Having access to mountains and snow is certainly important, but there must likewise be a cultural climate that values and rewards it. That is, Olympians need other people interested in their sport to make excelling in that sport rewarding in terms of reputation and identity. They likewise need cultural pressure to do the same (the cultural risks inherent in failure). This becomes important in acknowledging and explaining the absence of success in a sport and how policies around sports matter. This is particularly relevant when sports are discussed in terms of gender and race. Do we as a society make it worthwhile for individuals to choose to compete in certain sports? This connects to my earlier post about the IOC's decision to excise softball. If there is no chance of Olympic gold, what "entanglements, commitments, and reputations and identities" will exist to cultivate athletic excellence?

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Warm Welcome Heats Up

My distinguished colleague at Both Wearing Black Masks asked me to blog in response to the following question:
shouldn't a sophist defer to a physician on matters of health, and to an economist when it comes to economic matters, and to a guru when it comes to guruing, etc.? And if so, then when would a person ever "use" (or "seek out") a sophist?

With apologies, I still find Socrates' argument persuasive in the Gorgias, even if "Gorgias" in that dialog is Plato's invention.
As I already posted my planned, daily Olympics post, I will oblige him here:

To answer your question, I need to make an important distinction between rhetorica docens and rhetorica utens or between a rhetorician and a rhetor: namely, the difference between the study of rhetoric and the practice of rhetoric. I am someone who professionally studies the art and practice of rhetoric: most of my work falls under rhetorica docens. As a student of rhetoric, I see it operating in many places. As a scholar, teacher, a parent and a citizen, however, I frequently engage in rhetorica utens: I make choices and arguments.

So, in answer to your question, it is not that whether the physician or the rhetor should defer to one another, but that the physician is not not a rhetor (or is always already practicing rhetoric). That is, when Santos and I talk about rhetors and sophists (as practioners) we are not talking about a discrete activity that sometimes we are doing and sometime we are not. So we have rhetoric as a practice and rhetoric as a study of the practice. And with this distinction in mind (rather than Plato's Socrates'), I see the doctor as a rhetor him or herself.

Or in yet other words, this is the trick of Socrates' question: he treats rhetoric as he treats medicine: as two separate fields or disciplines that are somehow in competition. If that is indeed the case then, yes, I would want to the doctor to take precedent. But rhetoric can be treated like psychology or biology in this instance. Psychologists study psychology and biologists study biology, but everyone enacts psychology and biology in their daily lives. In other words, as always, Socrates' question to Gorgias is a loaded one - the distinction he makes having already answered the question ahead of time.

I trust doctors for medical opinions, scientists for scientific opinions, historians for historical opinions, but I would also argue that all of these professions make choices and those choices are value laden, and it is with/through rhetoric that such decisions are implicitly and explicitly made.

And I and my ilk should be used to investigate how such decisions are made.

A Most Warm Welcome

I have been publicly accepted by a far more accomplished blogger than I. Although, not without some nuance.

Day 4: The Trouble with the IOC

I have had resentment brewing about the IOC since they decided, in their infinite wisdom, to remove softball (as well as baseball) from the Olympic docket. And as I watched the Canadien (see, I am cosmopolitan) women’s hockey team score eighteen goals against Slovakia, I begin to ferment resentment yet again.

Sports dominated by non-European teams have had a tough time as of late. And sports with large or growing European followings are poised to compete for newly minted gold medals in future games. As of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, softball and baseball are no longer Olympic sports, while at the same time the IOC considers including gold and rugby the next time around.
Baseball and softball are out of the Olympics as of 2012, in a vote that surprised even longtime International Olympic Committee members. (Source)
With respect to baseball, the list of reasons offered is slightly respectable (the absence of Major Leaguers when the NBA sends its stars and the reputation of major league baseball in terms of drug testing are two such reasonable “objections”). However, none of these is applicable in the case of softball, where the best players always compete in the Olympics. In short, it seems pretty clear that softball was removed because North American and Asian teams dominate it. This map represents (in blue) the countries that participated in softball at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.

The New York Times reported in July of 2005 (I said this had been brewing for a while):
Softball had no such consolation. [That is, a list of reasonable "objections."] The sport worked for 30 years to become part of the Olympics. Since 1996, the United States team has produced some of the biggest stars of the Games and helped increase women's participation in the Olympics, also one of the I.O.C.'s goals.

The main criticism was that the United States team was so dominant. It went undefeated in the 2004 Games but has received strong competition from Australia and China.
In fact, the United States lost to Japan in the Gold Medal game at the Beijing games: several commentators remarked that this lost was (unintentionally) U.S. softball's greatest contribution to mainting softball as an Olympic sport. In addition to this "timely" loss and the larger, 30 year effort for Olympic inclusion, U.S. softball made efforts to promote the sport internationally, including sending equipment and inviting international competition.

Even the complaint about the lack of competition rings hollow when compared to similar dominance in other Olympic events. In basketball, the U.S. typically (since 1992) dominates (with the exception of the Athens' games in 2004). The big difference in this case is that basketball is hugely popular in Europe. It isn't just dominance; it is dominance relative to interest (and thus immediate potential).

The ultimate irony in all of this is best captured by famed female golfer Annika Sorenstam of Sweden:
[She] said inclusion in the Olympics would trigger golf's growth worldwide. "The amount of golfers in the last 10 years really hasn't increased," she said. In the long-term, it would attract "new players from different countries. It would be fabulous." (Source)
If the complaint is a lack of competition, it makes little sense to cancel it, particularly when non-European countries have become increasingly competitive in sports historically dominated by Europeans. For instance, this year’s compelling performance by the U.S. Nordic Combined team, which one the first ever medal for the U.S. in this sport. This success, then, informs my response to the exclusion of softball. As does this:
Ron Radigonda, the executive director of USA Softball, said the number of nations playing softball had jumped to 127, ranking softball 14th on the list of 28 sports. (Source)
If you include it, they will come.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Day 3: Whither America?

I have been enjoying and appreciating the efforts of our neighbors up North. The games look great (I really like the color scheme of the games, for instance), and they are valiantly struggling against uncooperative weather. I have likewise enjoyed the outpouring of Canadian nationalism. In contrast to their typical modesty, Canadians’ have responded to their Prime Minister’s call to arms.

I like this outpouring, because, as an American, I think I am almost too close to Canada to understand how it is not America. I keep hearing Mike Meyer’s joke about “eating Canadian” tonight. Their geography is quite different from ours and their system of government is distinct (they still have a queen, for instance). Beyond that, however, I am embarrassingly ignorant.

Of course, I suspect my enjoyment has nothing in particular to do with Canadians being really excited about being Canadian. I think what I like is seeing countries other than America being excited about themselves. The Olympics are an important and necessary antidote to American exceptionalism.

The Olympics (even through our National media – which necessarily covers the games from our perspective, as I assume other nations’ media do) celebrate all nations, big and small, ally or not. It’s politically messy (heck, I’ll be complaining about this tomorrow when the IOC feels my wrath), but this messiness draws attention to the present-ness of other countries, their needs, values, and expectations. Sometimes North and South Korea compete together; sometimes they do not. Ireland proves a necessary opening ceremony buffer between Iran and Israel. At these moments we must (as in should) think about how these places see each other and themselves independent of us. I guess I am saying I like the Olympics for the same reason we like literature and drugs: it is another chance to not be trapped by ourselves in ourselves.

Perhaps ironically, what makes the Olympics additionally interesting is that despite this balm for the rash of American exceptionalism, I find myself particularly patriotic during the Olympics. I’ll celebrate athletic excellence in and of itself as much as the next cosmopolitan fellow, but I’m watching the medal count like a patriotic scoundrel.
Combining these two instincts (a rejection of exceptionalism and a performance of patriotism), I can root for my country not as an exception but as an equal participant in an international community event: because I'd like to be a patriot in a country that is uniquely my own, but which must responsibly share the stage with other countries unique in their own right.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Day 2: (Re)Figured Skating UPDATED

UPDATE: The Dick Button (during NPR interview posted today) agrees with me (basically). Although my point about deductions may be off base, my discussion of the results of the scoring system seem to be on point (if you'll pardon the pun):
"We have to remember that this is a judging system based on points," Button said. "It's the point value that counts [for] each of the individual moves."

The biggest point values come with high-scoring jumps, Button says, so skaters don't take the time for lingering and fluid grace on the ice. Thus, Button predicts, they are unlikely to inspire the kind of innovation he brought to skating.

"They're doing the same moves over and over and over because that's what they get the points for," Button says. "And there isn't enough emphasis put on ... the performance level, the [elegance] level, the music, the interpretation."
Much thanks to my dad for pointing me to this. Hear the complete interview here and read excerpts here.

I want to state up front that I do not much care for figure skating. That being said, I want to carefully chart my opposition lest readers attribute ungenerous or false motives. In so charting my opposition, I implicitly say a few things about rhetoric.

First, I find figure skaters to be amazing, well-trained, dedicated, and athletic bodily artists.

Second, my opposition is not predicated upon some knee-jerk, macho reaction against sequins. For instance, I think this is awesome.

My opposition has to do with the how the sport is cultivated by its judging system. In short, the event has become the Olympic equivalent of the educational phenomenon of “teaching to the test.” And, in Olympic figure skating, it is the worse kind of test. As I understand it (note the caveat), the scoring is predicated, in large part, upon deductions. While this may certainly misrepresent the full nuance and complexity of the scoring system, I am ultimately talking about how it strikes me as a casual viewer. Skaters are punished for mistakes rather than rewarded for successes. Because of this scoring system, and the narratives it spawns on the part of commentators, figure skating becomes about not making mistakes: every jump is appreciated in terms of “stuck landings.”

This is further compounded by another aspect of the scoring system: it is highly rationalized, and it tellingly involves instant replay. The judges can review the particular aspects of each component at an amazing level of detail: “The technical specialist uses instant replay video to verify things that distinguish different elements; e.g. the exact foot position at take-off and landing of a jump.” This is all fine and good for a system designed to be objective and to curb abuses of this sort. It is, however, a terrible system for praising and blaming an artistic performance. When judges can explicitly divorce the technicality of a move from the fluid context of that move (to make the dynamic static), then the performance, as art, must necessarily suffer.* This is likewise true, for me, of gymnastics. I am sure that the balance beam is the perfect stage for artistic enactments of bodies; however, I watch primed to spot wobbles and shaky landings.

I do not claim that figure skating lacks artistry or artistic merit. I assume that most in and around the sport would defend it against the “charges” I here level. I would say, however, that the emphasis on objectivity and technicality must necessarily cultivate the performances and the performers themselves, in addition to mediating how viewers experience the event. Rules are not merely added on to sports; rules cultivate sports and the athletes who compete in them. For instance, this. In conclusion, I feel that in figure skating this cultivation errs on the side of the static and the technical at the risk of erasing the performance as dynamic and artistic.

*I recognize the problem of decisively separating the artistic from the technical. Art is itself a function of technique. I am focused here on the issue of ecology and balance. How carefully tuned are audiences to both aspects of the performance and when are they moved too far in one direction? Back

Friday, February 12, 2010

Day 1: Olympic Rhetorics

The Olympics start tonight. Well, they have already begun, in a sense, with the tragic death of an athlete during a practice session. The Olympics are always ambiguously positioned in terms of their relationship to politics: that is, the Olympics are seen as apolitical in as much as they are attempts at international politics. It’s the oldest political tactic in the book: claim your politics are not political. Hence the ridiculousness of this argument about the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing:

Bush himself and other senior U.S. officials have said on several occasions that the president will attend the Beijing Olympics and believed the Olympics is not a political event but a chance for athletes to compete at the top of their class. ("Bush to attend," emphasis added)
Of particular interest to me, however, is the politics of sports (read “rhetoric of sports”). That is, not only do the Olympics as an international event enact a politics, sport is itself shot through with politics (with choices, with policies, with values, with power). And by the “rhetoric of sports” I do not just mean “talk about sports.” Rhetoric is certainly discursive, but rhetorical action operates across bodies and environments as well. For instance, I have an entire dissertation chapter devoted to the cultivation of Usain Bolt. I argued there that Bolt’s physical excellence is not innate or inborn but is an emergent phenomenon cultivated rhetorically across attitudes, commitments, techniques, the preferences of coaches (if a coach thinks you are too tall to the run 100m he or she won't let you train for it) as well as cultural and racial assumptions. The bodies of athletes are themselves political, as the example of Bolt works to illustrate. Athletes emerge from within a complex matrix of bodies, cultures, technologies and environments. What sports are available, what bodies are preferred, and how bodies are shaped by participation in sports are a just a few of ways rhetoric is embodied and enworlded and how bodies are cultivated rhetorically. This is why I really like the above logo for this year's games. The figure in the logo is constituted by the various human habitats represented by the colors of the Olympic rings: bodies are independent from neither politics nor environment.

Finally, excellence in sports (who is good and why) is likewise difficult to finally determine. There is no one reason why someone wins the gold medal and others do not. However, as we start the Winter Olympics we should be on the look out for narratives that attempt just that: hard work and talent are particular favorites, but neither packs much explanatory punch. From the dissertation:

Daniel F. Chambliss, a sociologists specializing in sports, argues that athletic excellence, and, by extrapolation, all excellence, is not “a product of socially deviant personalities,” it does “not result from quantitative changes in behavior,” and it “does not result from special inner quality of the athlete” (72, emphasis in original). Based on his longitudinal study of Olympic swimmers, Chambliss concludes that “athletic excellence is widely attainable, if usually unsought” (78). Rather than assuming, as most do, that Olympic champions simply work harder or that they have innate talent and gifts, Chambliss argues that they simply and mundanely “do things differently” ("The Mundanity of Excellence" 73). “Their strokes are different, their attitudes are different, their group of friends are different; their parents treat the sport differently, the swimmers prepare differently for their races, and they enter different kinds of meets and events” (73). This qualitative distinction is manifested across three dimensions: technique, discipline, and attitude. A case could be made that Chambliss is essentially suggesting that the rhetoric of Olympic athletes is different. In persuasively arguing that individuals are not born champions, Chambliss posits that an Olympic swimmer is persuaded into becoming.
Chambliss argues that we use "talent" to objectify what is actually a complex series of behaviors and attitudes. Athletic excellence is something somebody does rather than something somebody has.

This is, in other words, why and how I watch the Olympics. To return to the start of this year's games, which began with the tragic death of an athlete enacting excellence, it is important to remember what is at stake in the politics of sports: bodies, their cultivation, and, at times, their destruction.

Children of Rhetoricians

I am reading Debra Hawhee's Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language and listening to Will in the tub a room over. His "talk" drives home a crucial point about rhetorical action. Far from simply labeling and naming things, which is what we, as parents, often want or think children to be doing, Will is trying to do things in, with, and to the world. He is expressing an attitude, his body's
"emotive energy and purposive action" (113).
We watch Will—as an infant becoming a toddler—at the edges of language. He knows now what we all too soon forget: we are bodies (that learn language) moving in the world.

"Paper Day" Redux

A brief pedagogical note by way of justifying (inviting feedback) a "new" classroom practice. I have asked my graduate students if they would want to podcast or otherwise share their "Paper Day" presentations (both the document and their performance of it). In the spirit of dissoi logoi, I see such a practice as both raising and lowering the stakes of graduate student work.

In making their performances additionally public (to what extent, who knows), I am making the performance riskier for them - raising the stakes in terms of both judgment and reputation. If their performances were to be posted to the course blog other faculty and students across the university might hear/read them. Anyone Googleling "Alternative Rhetorics" might come across them as well. More judges means more ways to gain or lose reputation.

However, it also feels like the move lowers the stakes. In stressing sharing, this practice removes from panicking pupils the pressure to privately perfect ideas. Sharing works in progress makes the practice, the activity of cultivating ideas valuable in and of itself. Why not watch the sausage get made? Intellectual life is about living, doing, and becoming, and not just about the end product. To make this point we need to do a better job of celebrating and rewarding the activity of scholarship and not solely the scholarship itself.

Something like the above sentiments is one way I think the conversation about such a practice for graduate education should proceed. What are the stakes of such sharing and what values does such an activity challenge or reinforce for academics under construction?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Teacher as Coach

My friend over a Insignificant Wranglings writes this in defense of a classroom workshop that involved him publically assessing the first sentences of his students' writing:
But I am calling Lanham to my defense--don't I, as a writing instructor--have to blame as well as praise? Doesn't my honest assessment lend more value to my feedback? Because I can say that, after the workshop, the amended first sentences I saw displayed far more sophistication. (Here again I nod to my own personal pedagogical narrative, my ties to Dr. David Zern's emphasis on disequilibrium culled from Freudian psychoanalysis-- although this time I am clearly back in the mode of making my students uncomfortable).
He concluded with:
On another note, more and more watching Project Runway influences my teaching persona.

Here was my response: With respect to your concluding remark on Project Runway. I feel the same influence, and, quite related, I often feel jealous of coaches for the liberties they can take in "teaching" athletes. They are able, it seems to me, to be more aggressive and count under their purview issues of effort. I could never circle my class up and tell them to "pull their heads out of their asses" as I once told as a high school athlete.

I think this has to do with how "we" view both intellect and athletic ability. Athletic ability is easier to tie to issues of effort, commitment and habit. We see sport as activity and practice, so it is more like to be a failure in activity and practice that leads to a failure on the field. Intellect ("smarts") are seen as a possession rather than an activity. I refer here to an earlier blog of yours. Most teachers would, of course, that some students work harder than others, but to make a part of their pedagogy would be a bridge too far.

It is no doubt the classroom setting as well that prevents us from treating students as athletes, but there seems to be sometime else at work. Maybe, also that sports are more social (at least team sports) and academics are seen as more personal. To tell a running back that their blocking sucks maybe not be as personal as telling a student their first sentence is terrible.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Local News is Local News is Local News

Under the barrage of heavy, wet snow and near constant news coverage of the "Super Storm 2010," I have some observations about local news affiliates. In brief, I observe that local news somewhere is local news everywhere. Moving from WLFI (Lafayette) to WUSA (D.C.) was not a huge transition. The toys are better, there is slightly less screen-awkwardness, but the heart and the approach is the same.

There is, in general, a strange and incongruous mix of helpful and detailed information (the stuff national news can't or won't cover) and then huge helpings of the inane and goofy. Want to know how the roads are, what the snow is like to drive on, the emergency numbers for various utilities, warnings about snow emergency routes, warnings to stay off the roads for the benefit of snow plow drivers and power company trucks, and a good sense of how neighbors are handling and responding to the storm, I find the local news comforting and informative and intimate. The woman on the t.v. knows where I live.

And then, of course, there are the goofy graphics, the on the scene reporter using a plastic toy car to describe road conditions, another reporting banging his ice scraper with his snow shovel to show how thick the ice is, that other reporter wearing the ski goggles for some reason, and that other one driving around with a web cam attached to his dashboard streaming back piss-poor video via Skype. There is also that super cute reporter jetting around Dupont Circle on snow skies getting super excited about seeing another guy on skies and then complimenting him on his nice skies.

Of course, as I write this second list, I really start to like even these things, and I am pretty sure that they contribute as much to my liking the local news as the rest. I guess, to borrow from Garrison Keillor's treatment of State Fairs, I like liking it despite itself and, importantly, despite myself.

I do live here. I am no better or worse than here and those around me. This is something it is, perhaps, good to believe every now and then, and the local news, wherever it is, does this act of believing for me. Let it do the same for you.