Saturday, October 10, 2009

peace prize

I think a lot of Americans are puzzled by the Nobel Peace Prize for Obama. The typical interaction was "Really? What for?" I think it's nice our President got it and things do seem to be moving into a better direction than in the past, at least internationally. My gut tells me it will probably not be helpful to Obama's efforts here in the US on a range of matters and it will assuredly be used against him whenever diplomacy fails, peace does not break out in the Middle East, and so forth. I'll be interested to see what my foreign policy students make of it. As for me, I've decided to take it rather like Obama took it--a bit of encouragement to all Americans to remember our better selves so that all of us can have a bit more peace, security, and well-being.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fall semester begins

Today is the start of orientation at Michigan Tech. I've taken on advising most of our majors in Social Sciences. We have a "meet the department" event this morning. Classes begin on Aug. 31. I have a first year seminar (required of all Tech students in what we call General Education). It's with our Honors students and my topic is Thucydides. Then there's US Foreign Policy. I also have two one-hour courses: Orientation to the Social Sciences for the new students and Senior Assessment for those who expect to graduate in the coming academic year. [Assessment in the US is not related to getting a grade, but rather to seeing what they have learned in general and getting them help in job/grad school hunting, and making sure they have completed all their requirements to graduate.

Two Tech students are trying for major scholarships (Rhodes and Marshall), so I'll be seeing them this week, too!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Obama and health care

I'm feeling perplexed by my country. We desperately need to reform our health care system, but I fear all that will happen before Congress goes into recess is some small thing. Some issues seem not clear to folks...maybe because they aren't. We should not charge by the procedure, for example. That is a money generator, leads to excessive treatment (and probably deaths). But it is also prompted by our equally dangerous rules on medical malpractice. Doctors do more than they should (a violation of their oath in my view) partly to avoid lawsuits.

Perhaps 7-14,000 people are losing health insurance every day due to the Great Recession. As a result, ur capacity for economic innovation, for small businesses, and for job creation is hurt. People lose their homes and what little fortunes they have to make family choices (ex: a home v health; food v insurance) inconceivable in Malta or in most other "advanced" (post)industrial states. Our capacity and often genuine desire to assist each other seems thwarted somehow.

We worry about the cost of the change, but not enough about the costs right now. Congress decides it is too extreme to add a bit of tax to those earning $300,000 and up and move the tax point 1 Million (and are they talking salary or wealth or both?). It's absurd. Our income inequality is starting to look positively third world, vastly different from how it looked in the 1950s and '60s. Even so, I'd be for everyone getting a tiny tax--rich and poor--a citizenship duty to protect each other tax.

I'm teaching about health care a bit in my summer US govt class, but in a distant, poli sci sort of way--how things get on the agenda, alternatives, get decided. I talk about how, probably, only some small change will be passed before Congress heads out and then, as everyone knows, the 2010 elections will mean inaction. I can show them this pattern going back decades and so on and so forth. But, I've gotta tell you, my heart is just breaking on this one. We surprised ourselves by voting for Obama another step on the road to heal an ancient wound. But now, in the world of public policy, we are too scared to keep trying to rebuild and rejuvenate our country. We are going to walk away from the single most important thing we need to do for ourselves and our future.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

study in Malta, Michigan Tech students

Hey Michigan Tech students (and, well, OK...other students, too!).

I had the two Tech students studying in Malta over for dinner to see what their experience was. I'm wild about Malta, but wanted to make sure actual students found the stay worthwhile before I started urging everyone I see to go.

Anyway, they were both quite happy with their experience. In fact, it seemed that all the US students I talked with were enjoying the experience. It was sunny all winter, there was zero snow, the University Residence has a nice international community at the, it was "different. It was colder than they expected in Jan and Feb (do bring a jacket). They both took a course, Contemporary History of the Mediterranean, that they found extremely interesting. Not everything was perfect, of course, but both were glad they came. If you can manage Tech, you will do just fine managing Malta.

Better aid/scholarships still held while abroad. The in-state student said it had proved LESS EXPENSIVE to study a semester in Malta than at Tech, and that included the airfare over.

So, Tech students...get an international experience, study in English (though there is very good instruction in various languages at the U), meet lots of people, AND save money on school. Of course you won't actually save money, because you'll end up zipping off to other parts of Europe on breaks. But, that, of course, is not a bad thing.

Dust off the passport--or go get your first one. You can do this, really.

A surprise walk at the Malta University Residence

I noticed that the University Residence had a jogging track, but never taken it. What a surprise! Lija, where the Residence is, was once a very large garden. The track goes through the remains of part of the garden. It's a "lot of green" as a Michigan Tech student studying in Malta put it. The very showy purple and white flower is a caper (like what you put in salads, but it's a little bud then). Capers were in flower--particularly amazing at Dingli Cliffs (no pictures).

If you've followed this blog, you know I'm a sucker for flowers.

Farmhouse at Malta

I was back in Malta recently. The university puts me up at the University Residence, which is filled with students from all around the world. It has a nice community--I saw students leaving at the end of the exams and they were sent off by 15 other students. Lots of hugs and even tears at the goodbye.

Normally I stay in the main residence, but this time I was put in the "Farmhouse." It's about 200 years old, lacks internet and air conditioning, but has charm and great views. It's pretty minimalist, but I came to really like it. It is a lot quieter without all the students, which is good for someone my age. I'd come to the lobby of the Residence for internet and the fans were fine, at least when I was there, to keep me cool. There's a small pool (not the larger one of the main Residence).

Some of the farmhouse has regular, year-round residents. One family has small children and they put up the cutest little tree house.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

"I have a list"

Recently, a review of the FBI found that it left about 24,000 people on their terror watch list improperly--AND left off those who actually posed a threat. After 9/11 their watch list grew to an astounding 1 million of various people American and not. If there is one very dangerous thing for a government that wants to be democratic to do, it's to start imagining that its own citizens are enemies.

It has happened, to ill effect, in the past and will happen again in the US. We seem to have an extremely short memory, at least when someone seems to threaten us from the outside. But, I think the real danger in the US, and maybe elsewhere, is in over zealous fear of each other fanned by a media that seems to repeat every word the Executive branch gives them. It took an election to provide a corrective.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Flu and teaching

A former University of Malta student of mine asked if I would do more political commentary on this blog—or start a new blog. I’ve left this one mostly “friendly” and not too political, but maybe it would be OK for me to add a few more items, along with miscellaneous news and photos. I’d rather not have a lot of separate blogs. At my age just remembering the password would be a challenge.
I’m not too inspired, but here is a little thing on the flu, followed by a discussion of what I’ve been teaching.

Flu Blues?
People up here in my part of Lake Superior area seem to be taking the flu near-pandemic calmly yet seriously. We’re all hoping our flights around the world won’t be cancelled on account of this problem and that it mostly makes people sick, but doesn’t kill often. The rising number of cases adds a new level of unease and uncertainty about the future, but all one can do is hope for the best and wash one’s hands conscientiously. A colleague of mine in Biology, who taught human health, pointed out to me yesterday that around 35,000 people die every year around the globe of some version of the flu. So, it’s important to pay close attention, but it might make sense not to go crazy at this point. But, she also noted that there are special concerns with this one. Not only did it hop from animal to human, but now humans have infected other humans. As I understand it, these features, along with number of locations in which human-to-human spread happens, strongly influence guidance from the World Health Organization. Also, this one has features of flu from more than one animal, for example bird and swine. Another friend thought it was interesting to watch evolution in progress (now, there’s a word hard to use in the US). The virus changed into a new strain (it evolved) and, depending on how it interacts with humans , it can “select” us for particular characteristics, thus slightly shaping how we evolve. I’m no expert on evolution, but I suppose its effect on humans depends on whether it is fatal for some and not for others. But, that is confounded by access to health care and the like. The virus will continue to change as it operates in humans, too.

As a person in international relations I am quite interested in how the World Health Organization is managing this and how nations are updating plans. It seems a very good response, all in all, when you consider the enormity of the task. How do you balance panic against urging useful precaution; economic and social losses against the prospects for serious death and illness? We’ll see lots more of these and will need to think on the problem repeatedly.

Spring Teaching
For the first time in a number of years I taught Michigan Tech undergrads this spring (we are in exam week—I don’t have a final exam, but they have turned in their final projects, moot court memorials, etc). What a great pleasure! I’ve always enjoyed my students, but I was really impressed by how interested they are in world affairs. A number of them want careers in foreign affairs, some wanted to know how to prepare for becoming a diplomat. They are also getting really good at making presentations.

In foreign policy I used a small group project as the “main event” in the grade. The aim was to do a short policy paper on how to advance democratization efforts in other countries. The students developed a list of potential countries and we voted in the following: N. Korea, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Sudan. It was a very interesting mix of countries, from the very powerful China (who, as a measure of that power, showed up in each of the country cases one way or another). The big learning for me was that I was talking about China in a way I never, ever had in all my teaching years. I’m doing the foreign policy course again in the fall and will be doing more on China, though I’ve yet to add a book. It’s very cool to see this rising power, a power with millennia of experience in ruling itself and others. I was happy to see that, in the end, my students realized it was mighty darn difficult to find ways to help these radically different countries become more “democratic.”

International law, as always, was a blast. They write their brains out (and I do a whole lot of grading). Every single week there are problems. I even took pity on them and cut the second exam I was planning—they did so well on the first one that a second one would simply have been make-work. This group somehow knew how to be supportive of each other and competitive at the same time. They raised the bar for each other…and then helped each other get over that bar. I literally had an award winning class—lots of scholarship and award winners. I also had a very interesting graduate student doing a business/forestry degree. He has a very successful international business and wanted to get a different perspective on what he saw as he engaged in his international work. I mention this because the only other grad student I ever had in the class was one of my own Master’s students, who had a law degree from Israel. I now secretly (well, not so secret anymore if it is on this blog) hope to see more grad students. Any way, the mix of the engineering, psychology , computer science, social sciences, humanities, and business majors was great. I had been contacted in the fall by some of my former Maltese public international law students who were participating in the Telders Moot court. I liked the Telders case so well (a law of the sea problem) that I used that one, along with the Jessup case on a possible humanitarian intervention, for the moot court. My moot court is a very much shorter version of the one the Maltese students did. Anyway, we just had the best time with the oral arguments. We even had visitors sit in, including a man I met who was just visiting Tech because his son was considering coming here. Turned out he was an engineer/lawyer.

Summer Teaching
This summer I’m teaching two classes: American Govt and World Affairs. In both classes I want to talk about change and adaptation. In American I’m going to use Larry Sabato’s, A More Perfect Constitution; Ellis, Founding Brothers; and Kingdon’s Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policy. I’ve used Ellis a number of times. It’s about how the revolutionary generation (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, etc) moved from opposition to Britain and war, to writing our current constitution, to actually attempting to govern with that constitution. I find it helps American students understand that politics has always been with us and that creative problem solving is crucial to effective governing. Of course, some of the problems (example: what do with debt and growing the new American economy) are with us today, albeit in different guises. I read Sabato a few months ago. He says maybe the US needs a new constitutional convention to make a number of changes in the constitution. Now, if Americans have a secular religion, our Constitution, written by the Framers (really…capital letters and all), has to be it; it’s been adumbrated by the Supreme Court. As a good American, I am naturally reluctant to change much of anything in the document. But it’s still worth discussing and, as Sabato says, just attempting to talk about this over a decade or so would do wonders for civic knowledge. Kingdon’s book is pretty classic on how ideas get on the public agenda and sometimes turned into policy. We can always go that route rather than a constitutional one. With all the changes slowly coming on the American scene with the arrival of President Obama, I thought that might interest students. The main project for my students will be to build a dynamic model of one of the processes in the constitution—or a proposed change to a process. By dynamic I mean it has to move literally or on a computer way. They’ll have a couple of exams mid way and do a short paper explaining their model. I plan to have an “open to the public” presentation of the models. Maybe some of them will be good enough to use for our Constitution Day efforts around Sept 17.

The World Affairs course was almost removed from our books, but I decided to use the course number to explore the concepts of international flows and human adaptation to them. In this, my Malta experience plays a continuing role. It was so much easier in Malta to see money, trade, shipping, climate change, environmental change, political change via the EU, migration, multicultural student flows, and the like there. I’m not at all sure I have the right books, but I also have yet to complete my syllabus. I decided to use one fun book: Foer:, How Soccer [football] Explains the World. Serious football fans have noted factual errors in the book, but I like how it explores the global nature of the sport, how it moves people around, creates identities, touches organized crime sometimes, and so forth. We’ll see. The current flu situation will appear in the course, too—talk about flows of non-human and human entities at work. I hope to use the flows theme specifically to consider adaptation to serious changes in our environment. There’s another Malta connection. I went to a climate change conference where I heard Mr. Cutajar talk (who is chairing the post-Bali climate change talks). He said they had to spend more time on adaptation. I’ll have my students, in addition to a couple of exams, start a “flows notebook” where they keep asking questions , doing research and answering their questions. Sometimes this can lead students to remarkably sophisticated work.

Fall teaching will be US foreign policy again and our first year seminar, called Perspectives. Each section of Perspectives has a different topic, what connects them are the writing and speaking requirements. I’ve got an Honors section and my topic, as always, will be Thucydides. That “hobby” of mine was yet another reason I went to Malta. I got to visit two key places in Greece (Pylos and Sparta) and stare at the harbor and landscape of Syracuse, Sicily. Also, just observing some the winter storms in the Med was informative! I’ve assigned Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War; Kagan’s relatively new one-volume history, The Peloponnesian War; and Connor, Thucydides, which is a rhetorical analysis of what Thucydides wrote. I’m thinking of having a mock trial of Socrates to end that course. I did a mock trial of Socrates while on a Cornell Adult University trip to Greece and we had a really fun and deeply educational experience. I was active on the prosecution and we got him convicted again….better beware of an academic who can say that. We did not, however, request the death penalty for him. We asked for much worse: We chose to forbid him to talk to anyone under 25.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Yet more snow

Arggh. After a lovely 70F (22C) degree day on Friday we returned to 32F/0C. It is snowing, nasty wet snow at that.

I'm putting on an international law dinner for my public international law students. I need to pick up a few more items, but those roads look nasty. I hope my students come!

I'm looking forward to being back in Malta in late May. It will probably be too hot for me given the slow good-bye from this interminable winter.

My crocuses look very brave, even defiant, I must say. They are peeping out from under the snow and showing off their blues and yellows.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama inauguration

I've watched a number of inaugurations on TV. I can't say that I absolutely felt I had to watch them, but I did because, like voting itself, the American inauguration is a good-feeling day. It means we managed to transition power peacefully once again. It's "America's Day" as a Republican friend of mine--who just personally attended his 8th inauguration--put it.

But, in the past, I never felt the need to watch it with others. This one was different, and, apparently, I wasn't alone in feeling the need to be with others yesterday. I was in the library around 11:30 and students were already filtering in to watch some big screens there. The students were quiet, but attentive, expectant. I joined the group in our student union ballroom, a huge room. It had young and old, men and women, all races, international students. We watched the big TVs set up for the event together. Again, it was quiet. When he actually took the oath there were a few cheers, some stood up, some (like me) just motioned "yes!", everyone approached it his or her own way. It felt both individual and collective. I thought, this is how Obama would want it: not some 'rah-rah' event, not some sort of lock step set of reactions, no needless pressure to respond in a specific way. All we needed was to respond truthfully and respectfully as individuals in the company of each other. That's how free people should act, I think.

Rather like the crowd in the DC mall, we were not too talkative during his inaugural speech. A few up front cheered at points, but mostly it was a reflective time. So much is wrong, so much needs to be done, we all share in the failures of our country in recent years. A great many Americans took action last November to try to fix things--that's what elections are for, after all. Today was the result of those actions.

I think the restoration of respect for the rule of law, as Obama said, is the first step, having used our respect for elections. We have walked away from a belief in the rule of law with respect to our Constitution, we walked away from it in international affairs. Now, I see that Obama, within hours of becoming President, asked for a delay of military trials for people held in Guatanamo. I was impressed by that. It's not that all of them should go free, but they need fair trials and they need to be released after all these years if they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Great power requires great restraint, and we have to remember this every day.

So, we watched the inauguration with each other-- amazed into an uncharacteristic, for Americans, quietness. It was good. I don't know if we can actually find our best selves and show it to each other and the world, but at least we know what it looks like when we see it.