Friday, September 4, 2009

Myron Uhlberg and Gallaudet's Common Reading

*cracks open one eye*

Is it Friday yet?

Needless to say, it's been a tremendously busy week; I thought last week was hectic enough, but this one's been nuts. I started working here right at the tail end of Fall 2008, and things seemed manageable. Still, the other librarians did a good job of warning me -- I thought Spring semester was wild enough, but Fall has turned out to be everything my colleagues have said and more. I'm ready for my three-day weekend now!

Now, let's prioritize -- first things first! I finished Everything Bad is Good for You this week. This was mostly thanks to Patrick Oberholtzer's recommendation after he found out I'd read The Dumbest Generation (reviewed here) and that I wasn't too crazy about the overwhelmingly negative things it said about my age group. Patrick's studied a lot of history, and he said The Dumbest Generation seems fairly typical of an older generation struggling to come to terms with a world that usually changes a lot in the interval between childhood and middle age, and suggested Everything Bad as an antidote.

It worked, big time. Everything Bad takes a look at the newer media that have emerged in the past 50 years or so (mostly so the author can include television) and concludes that it isn't making us dumber -- in fact, it's been making us smarter. For instance, take an episode of, say, Hill Street Blues (considered one of the most cerebral shows of its time) and compare it to an episode of Lost or The Sopranos. You'll see pretty quickly that the newer show is much, much more narratively complex (5-10 separate plotlines in a single episode) than the older one (one main plot and one throwaway subplot), and he says this sort of thing has become typical of most entertainment media today. Same with video games from Tetris (which has recently been shown to improve certain types of cognition) to Grand Theft Auto, which requires complex problem-solving skills for success. He calls all of this the "Sleeper Curve" -- a steady upward trend in human intelligence that's been hidden from statistical analysis for some time, mostly because of the annual renormalization of most intelligence assessments, like the IQ test, which periodically resets the "average" at 100 and thus shows no improvement. The truth is, several analyses (including a famous one by a fellow named James Flynn) have indicated that the actual level of intelligence generally considered to be "average" has actually risen by about three points per decade. The interesting part is that most of this increase has come from the lower end of the scale, suggesting that as a society, we're catching up to the smart kids.

The author admits that this doesn't apply to all forms of intelligence; in terms of, for example, knowing historical dates or understanding the process of catalysis, we aren't much better off than before. Still, we are a problem-solving species, and that's exactly the fundamental type of cognition we're showing a great deal of improvement in. It's a great feel-good read, both well-argued and deeply satisfying on a personal level.

Now, let's talk about another book.

Most of the folks reading this blog may know that Gallaudet has a Common Reading program that's part of the First Year Experience -- all new students get to read the same book and discuss it in their FYS classes. There are also events and visits from the author of the book; the idea is to engender discussion about various topics and provide some commonality among all first-year students. This year, the Common Reading is Hands of my Father: A Hearing Boy, his Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love by Myron Uhlberg.

This is a great choice! The book itself is a good read -- not only is it the story of a CODA, which has a special flavor all its own, but it also relates the story of a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 1940s, a very different time and place. The usual deaf-parents-hearing-kid story is strongly colored by the atmosphere of the time, and a lot of the best anecdotes couldn't have happened today.

For example, Myron came to visit for a talk last Spring and related a hilarious story about the Fight of the Century: Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling. This was actually a rematch -- Louis and Schmeling had fought before, but Louis had lost, a sore disappointment to his American fans. He was -- and still is -- considered one of the greatest boxers in history and a representative of the American fighting spirit, while Schmeling was an imposing German. Bearing in mind that this fight took place in the mid-1930s, right when Hitler was getting very aggressive in Central Europe and catching the attention of the United States, this fight was heavily freighted with meaning and promised to be a terrific spectacle besides. Now, Myron's father also happened to be a huge boxing fan and tried to get tickets, but the fight was sold out, with over 70,000 people filling the stands. He had to be one of the millions of people listening to the fight on the radio, which was being broadcast all over the world in four different languages. Unfortunately, he was deaf. Fortunately, he had an interpreter: his five-year-old son!

This confronted Myron with a quandary. How does a five-year-old interpret one of the greatest fights of all time, based on the excited spluttering of an announcer over an ancient radio? He came up with a terrific solution: Listen to the announcer and act out the fight himself! So the fight began, and Myron immediately began pantomiming punches being thrown, bodies falling to the floor, running and jumping and jabbing and dropping while his father watched, laughing and absorbed in what was happening. The bout lasted only two minutes; Schmeling threw two punches and hit the ground three times; so did Myron. The apartment suddenly erupted in shouting and pounding -- the neighbors could hear him banging around through the thin walls and were yelling at him to be quiet!

Still, the fight was done. Joe Louis, and through him, the United States, was victorious. Schmeling was on the ground for the third and final time. And his father had seen it all.

Hands of my Father is full of memories like this. Deaf club meetings at Coney Island, old friends from long ago (including Robert Davila's parents!), and life as a child of deaf adults. There is much that seems familiar regardless of the era. There is also much that is very different, offering a peek into what is, for many younger people, an alien world.

Myron's also written several terrific children's books:
  • Dad, Jackie, and Me - How a deaf man and his son encountered and overcame discrimination in the time of the first African-American baseball player.
  • The Printer - The story of a deaf man working at a printer and what happens when a fire breaks out and he's the only one who can warn the others. Loosely based on Myron's father, who worked at a newspaper printing plant, this book includes some fun instructions on how to make your own printer's hat!
  • Mad Dog McGraw - A sweet little tale of a mean dog, a scared kid, and how kindness can overcome even the most intimidating barriers.
  • Lemuel, the Fool - The hilarious story of a foolish fisherman who tries to sail to a magical city over the horizon, but encounters a village that looks mighty similar to his own.
  • Flying over Brooklyn - A young boy in the midst of the Great Blizzard of 1947 dreams of flying through the falling snow and seeing the city laid out below him. Wonderful art, and an enjoyable tale.

All of his books (except Hands of my Father, which is understandably in high demand right now) are on display on the table by the West entrance (facing Peet). We've also thrown in other books by and about CODAs, most of which are autobiographical, as well as some films. They're all worth taking home to read or watch!

I'm short on blog posts this week because I'm long on work, so we're done for the week. In honor of Labor Day and its message of rest and recreation for all the nation's workers (including me!), no Question of the Week. Instead, enjoy your three days of freedom and (hopefully) beautiful weather!

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