Grading the MOOC University – NYTimes.com

I read an interesting piece recently in The New York Times by A.J. Jacobs, a writer for Esquire magazine. It’s on the Time’s website under the title, Grading the MOOC University. Jacobs describes his experience taking several open online courses from such providers as Coursera, Udacity, and Edx.

I found the following excerpt intriguing: Continue reading “Grading the MOOC University – NYTimes.com”

Happy 2012!

Well, Joe and Amy, my two older children, are finally quiet in bed after staying up to welcome in the new year. My younger son Josh gave out around 10, and my youngest, Lauryn, made it to 11. Of course, the four dogs zonked out as soon as the food stopped flowing.

I’ve taken a hiatus from blogging during a really busy fall semester–lots of work projects going on in addition to my regular teaching load, and the kids had a busy fall school schedule with homework, projects, and performances. We stuck around town this year for Christmas, and I’ve been slowly “rediscovering” our house, getting caught up on laundry and clearing out the clutter that accumulates over a semester. There have been a lot of topics I’ve wanted to write about, but just haven’t had the time. I’m hoping to get back into a regular shedule of posting in 2012.

For a quick snapshot, here’s what I’m watching and reading:

Book–The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. A wonderfully written first novel, sort of about baseball, mostly about life. Funny and poignant.

Movies–I’m on a Martin Scorcese kick these days. Watched The Aviator and Gangs of New York on DVD and saw Hugo over Thanksgiving. Love his eye–the guy just knows how to tell a story in pure cinematic language. Saw Hugo with the kids and was impressed with how riveted they were to the Harold Lloyd sequences: good film doesn’t have to have lots of special effects; intelligent humor will grab an audience every time. I also just watched Midnight in Paris and Beginners and liked both.

TV–I finally decided to sample Downton Abbey on Netflix and ended up watching all seven episodes of Season One in a single day. The multi-layered plot involving multiple social levels hooked me immediately. I also got interested because I’m not as well-versed in the years leading up to World War I as I’d like to be. The series begins the day after the sinking of the Titanic and ends with Britain declaring war on Germany. Season Two starts up this month and covers the war years.

Oh, and I’ve been playing on the Wii a lot in the past few days with the kids–getting creamed mostly but having fun.

Men, Women, Movies

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve posted some entries about movies, and I guess because the summer is always a big moviegoing season, it makes sense that there would be a lot in the media about summer movies.

The Hangover 2Because a lot of summer movies tend to be in the blockbuster category, I’ve found it interesting that Mahnola Dargis and A.O. Scott have written two pieces about movie audiences–specifically about men and women as two distinct audiences.  Dargis’s article is titled “Few Summer Movies Aimed at Women,” and Scott’s is “Bridesmaids Allows Women to be Funny.”  The implicit, or explicit, argument is that men and women don’t like the same kind of movies and–in the case of comedies–don’t laugh at the same things.  This also has implications in casting, since the belief is that a movie with male leads will do better at the box office than a “chick flick.”

I wonder how much truth is in that premise.  While there’s no denying the box office draw of the Hangover and X-Men franchises, why is it surprising to studios that films like Bridesmaids or Mamma Mia do as well as they do?  Is it because they think women don’t go to movies as much as men or because they think no men will go to see these movies–that the audience is solely female?  Likewise, do the studios assume that the only women going to action movies are on a date and have no say-so in the movie choice?

Even though I’ve brought up at least two separate issues here, I thought I’d try a simple poll regarding comedy.  Is comedy as gender-specific as studios seem to think it is?  You decide.

Manohla Dargis, A.O. Scott, and Boring Movies

Michelle Williams and Shirley Henderson in Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff.”

On June 3,  Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, chief film critics for The New York Times co-wrote a piece titled “In Defense of the Slow and Boring,” in which they argue that not all film need be escapist entertainment, that there is room for movies in which not much happens but in which much is meant.

I found it provocative for a couple of reasons.  For one, it takes me back a few decades when I was in charge of picking the video (it was the 80s) a group of us was going to watch.  At the store, I deliberated long and hard between a film I’d seen recently and thought was great and a “sure-thing” blockbuster.  I couldn’t decide, so I rented both, figuring if they hated my first choice, I had a back-up.  Ten minutes into Babette’s Feast, my friend Mick turned to me and said, “Is anybody going to do anything other than make soup from dried fish?”  I knew I’d lost them and popped in Die Hard.

Dargis and Scott’s column also reminds me of a conversation I once had with my dad, who came in the room when I was home on break from college and asked what I was reading.  I think it was Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.  If you’re familiar with it, you know it’s a novel in what what happens is not nearly as important as what the central character thinks about what is happening to her.  After trying in vain to make it sound “interesting” to him, I added that I was reading it for the second time.  “Why would you read a book twice?  Don’t you remember what happened the first time?”  The conversation went downhill from there.

Truth be told, not every art film appeals to me, and I do enjoy movies where things blow up on ten-minute intervals.  But the films that have stayed in my memory the longest have always been those that attempted something fresh, either in a narrative or in a visual sense.  So I find I have an odd assortment of favorite movies: Blade Runner, Star Wars, Adam’s Rib, The Dead, Rear Window, Little Miss Sunshine, and, yes, Die Hard (a thinking man’s action movie), just to name a few.

All of them entertained me and made me think.

Movies for Grown-ups 2

I know, and you probably do, too,  that the box office is currently being burned up by The Hangover Part 2, X-Men: First Class, Pirates of the Carribean, and Bridesmaids.  I will probably get around to seeing some of them, along with the second installment of The Deathly Hallows, this summer.  I am intrigued, however, by three films I’ve heard a good bit about but haven’t yet seen.

The first is Beginners (click on the title for The New York Times review of the film), a semi-autobiographical film by Mike Mills that recounts the story of a 75-year-old man (Christopher Plummer) who comes out as gay to his son (Ewan McGregor) after the death of his wife of 47 years.  The film chronicles the attempt by the son to understand a father he realizes he never really knew, as well as the attempt by the father to reinvent his life in his last few years, before dying of cancer.  I’m a fan of both Plummer and McGregor, and the interviews I’ve heard with Mills have piqued my interest.

The second is Midnight in Paris, the latest film by Woody Allen.  Owen Wilson stars as a Hollywood screenwriter in Paris with his fiancée, played by Rachel McAdams.  Longing for the Paris of the 1920s, Wilson’s character finds himself one rainy night picked up by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.  The rest is history—literally the history of the Moderns.  Everyone from Hemingway to Dali to Gertrude Stein walks across the screen.  The film is an homage to Paris, a tongue-in-cheek time travel à la The Purple Rose of Cairo, and a meditation on the power and dangers of nostalgia.  I haven’t seen an Allen film in years, but this one may break my fast.

The third film on my “to-see” list is The Tree of Life, directed by Terence Malick and starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.  It won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—audiences both cheered and booed it.  In his typically strong visual style, Malick tells both the story of a difficult childhood in Texas by Penn’s character and speculates on the origins of life itself.

As far as I know, there are no car chases in any of these, nor do any buildings blow up.  But when you get tired of watching drunk men trying to remember the night before the morning after, or sailing to the ends of the earth with Jack Sparrow, you may be ready for a few films where the story still matters.

The Day the Movies Died

Another interesting article is by Mark Harris in GQ magazine, titled “The Day the Movies Died.”  In it, he describes the moment when the scale finally tipped toward marketing as the arbiter of what gets made and what doesn’t.  Here’s the link to the full article: The Day the Movies Died Movies + TV: GQ.com.  If you’d like to hear him talk about the same subject, he did an interview for NPR yesterday.  The link to that piece is “Moviegoers in a Perpetual State of Deja Vu.”

By the way, he decides the tipping point came in the mid-eighties with a small, arthouse indie called Top Gun.  You know, that one with that guy in it who looks familiar but you can never remember his name.