A Response to Richard V Reeves’s Op-Ed in The Guardian

Just this morning, I read the article by Brookings Institution researcher Richard V Reeves on how elite university entrance is rigged, an op-ed written in light of the recent scandal with college prep fraudster William “Rick” Singer being caught for bribing and highly unethical activity to get children of the wealthy into prestigious universities.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/12/us-college-admissions-scandal-corruption-rigged
I am irate, as my alma mater of Stanford was one of the schools cited in “Operation Varsity Blues” (the FBI’s name for this bribing for admission scandal). Yesterday, the president of the Stanford Alumni Association sent out an email condemning what has happened:

Dear Stanford alum,

By now you may have seen news that the U.S. Justice Department has charged several dozen people around the country, including Stanford’s head sailing coach, as part of an alleged bribery scheme to try to win the admission of prospective students to a number of U.S. colleges and universities.

This behavior runs completely counter to Stanford’s core values. The university has consequently fired the head sailing coach, who later today pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering.

The university has issued a public statement here:https://news.stanford.edu/2019/03/12/stanford-statement/ and the President and Provost have published their own blogpost on this situation here: https://quadblog.stanford.edu/2019/03/12/the-sailing-case-and-our-resolve/

No evidence has been presented indicating that the conduct of the head sailing coach involves anyone else at Stanford or is associated with any other team at Stanford. However, we will be undertaking an investigation to confirm this.

As I hope you know, the integrity of our admissions process is absolutely central to the mission and purpose of our university. We will consequently continue working to actively address this situation so as to regain your trust in that process.

Sincerely,

Howard E. Wolf, ’80
Vice President for Alumni Affairs, Stanford University
President, Stanford Alumni Association

A necessary statement to assure is that the institution will not tolerate any sort of corrupt or unethical behavior.

I would like to comment on Mr. Reeves’s intelligent article. The key points he makes are that Singer’s behaviors were rightly caught and apprehended by the FBI, the whole system is corrupt and rigged in favor of the affluent, legacy children are admitted preferentially, as are the children of major donors, and that upper-middle-class families can afford to give their children tutoring, prep classes, and any sort of educational advantages possible. He also concludes by saying that these Ivy League and elite universities perpetuate socioeconomic inequality, and that the whole system is unfair. Mr. Reeves is British-educated, at the no-less-elite Oxford University (where I myself was an exchange student during my junior year, and which I would argue is even more unequal than any American Ivy League university), and holds a doctorate from the University of Warwick, a public research university. His body of work is quite impressive and is exactly the sort of highly-researched, intelligent, liberal writing that we need. He writes of his own background in a NY Times Op-Ed piece from two years ago:

which describes his own background, but again, makes some generalizations about American society. There were some things in The Guardian article that nettled me, a few sweeping generalizations again that seemed to ignore a more complex picture.

Both while at Stanford and after, I have sometimes felt that it is by and large an upper-middle-class institution, in terms of its ethos. The student body did seem to come from this socioeconomic stratum, and I have seen also how the upper-middle class is able to send their children to good private schools or live in wealthy areas where the school districts are very good but the housing costs are very high. The majority of my Indian-American peers were from well-to-do suburbs of big cities and from more prosperous families. I, in contrast, grew up in a very middle/lower-middle-class college town in the country in the Midwest, the daughter of Indian immigrants, and it was certainly a loving sacrifice for my parents to send me to a school like Stanford. I was fortunate that my parents valued education, that my father was a college professor, and that I got to visit a few campuses before applying for undergraduate admission. My public schooling was quite mediocre. My high school offered only one AP class, and I was able to take another AP exam on my own and do well enough to give me advanced standing in one subject in college. A number of students in my school did not go to college, or if so, they attended ordinary public institutions that were not at all selective. At Stanford, I often felt dazzled and bewildered, that I was truly on a different planet and with a very different social class of people. But the experience did indeed offer me mobility, as I had escaped my small town completely by my own efforts and volition. I also had other friends from the area in which I grew up who had a similar background, some of them children of immigrants, and some of them not. And some students who were quite bright were not able to apply to and attend private universities, so Reeves’s point does hold true in terms of economics playing a big part of one’s higher education.

But still, Mr. Reeves overlooks that quite a high number of students who attend the elite schools in America are children of immigrants, self-made, and whose parents made sacrifices to send their kids to top institutions of higher education. There are also a number of very ordinary middle-class and lower-middle-class students who attend elite universities (some of my closest college friends were from these backgrounds), and students who work during college in order to help support themselves. Also, the big schools’ large endowments mean that they offer loans and scholarships (if only Stanford’s generous package now offered existed when I was in college!), and the admissions are need-blind.

There is the issue of legacy students, but from what I have seen, the children are no less worthy of admission to Stanford than their parents and are highly accomplished in their own right. But I have indeed often questioned this system and felt it unfair, wondering if I did not get in to some universities because a legacy student who was equally or less qualified did. In terms of wealth, I had also wondered if I didn’t get into one of the Ivy League schools to which I applied because another girl with a similar profile came from a wealthy family. In the past couple of years, Harvard has come under fire and is being investigated for discriminating against Asian-Americans; having looked at some of the data from around the time of when I applied to college, I suspect I could be one of those who was not admitted due to this alleged racial bias. There is no question that children of donors and ultra-wealthy are being admitted and alarming fashion – Jared Kushner is indeed a prime, horrible example. At top public universities, there are also a number of very wealthy students who come from out-of-state and more and more, overseas. This has raised a lot of questions in places like California, where in-state residents have been protesting that they have been shut out due to wealthy internationals who pay more.

I can somewhat agree with Mr. Reeves’s point that these universities perpetuate elitism and inequality—but to a certain point and to a certain amount of the population. My feeling is that Mr. Reeves has commented on the recent scandal in a bit of a knee-jerk fashion, that he has overlooked the complexity of the picture of who attends Ivy League schools, that he does not see the subtleties of class mobility and class-crossing in the United States (would the son or daughter of an executive in Britain work at a pizzeria in the summer? I doubt that), and that he is overgeneralizing what is indeed true about the rich and upper-middle-class to all of the applicants to elite universities. Britain is an extremely class-conscious society, and though they acknowledge it openly unlike us here, there is a more ingrained sense of one’s place and perhaps even less mobility.

He fails to recognize that the top universities in the US also happen to draw the best minds and talents. If you are a physics genius, but happen to be the son or daughter of a doctor, are you admitted only because you are upper-middle-class? I think not. I recently have been involved with interviewing prospective Stanford students, and I have been impressed by the intelligence and ability and public service of these kids.

Stanford is very different from a Harvard which is very different from a Georgetown. This is very important to understand. Stanford is a younger university and an engineering school, and in any STEM-focused university, there is a no-BS atmosphere, due to the amount of work students must do.

In sum, does money contribute to and affect one’s higher education and class status? Absolutely. Is there inequality in the elite institutions? Yes, but not to the degree Mr. Reeves suggests, or at least not in the way he describes it. Do we need to do more as a society to work on reducing inequality? Absolutely yes, and it is dangerous how our society is becoming more and more class-stratified. Am I critical of Stanford University and other elite institutions? Yes. Am I a product of them? Yes, but I do think critically and don’t follow things blindly. And perhaps that is the first step toward reducing inequality and creating a more democratic society.

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Oscars 2019: My Two Cents

I found this year’s crop of Oscar nominees to be all very strong and enjoyable. Last year, though the premises of many of the films were good, I felt they didn’t deliver. Of course, there were certain films and performances I liked more than others. Let’s have a look at what I saw, and what I thought! In no particular order (SOME “SPOILER” INFO FOR SOME FILMS):

-Bohemian Rhapsody. Don’t mind what the critics say–this film was hugely enjoyable. Part of the difficulty may be that it has been billed as a film about Freddie Mercury, but if viewers perceive the film as a biopic about the entire band of Queen and it being a sort of musical biography, based around the songs, it makes a lot more sense. Queen fans and musicians will rejoice to see how various songs came about. That said, of all the members of the band, Freddie gets the most attention. Rami Malek deserves the best male actor Oscar. Not just for his musical performances and embodiment of Freddie Mercury, but also for the fact that his character has to cover a very wide range of emotions and scenes. He has to be shyly introverted, but also flamboyant, sexually avaricious, tender, and driven. Gwilym Lee as a dead-ringer for Brian May also does a wonderful rounded nuanced, subtle job, which should not go unnoticed. The film takes us right back into the 70s and 80s and the musical cultural that era. It’s what a great film should be–well done and very entertaining.

-Can You Ever Forgive Me? This is a gem of a film, well-crafted, well-acted, without a lot of flash, but so enjoyable from start to finish. Melissa McCarthy is absolutely terrific in this dramatic role, she creates a very rounded portrayal of Lee Israel, who is a most unlikable character. And it is no surprise that Richard E. Grant is nominated for an Oscar, because he absolutely steals the scenes playing the smooth-talking, gay English gentle(con)man. The on-screen chemistry between McCarthy and Grant is phenomenal, and this film should have been nominated for best picture, actress, and director.

-Roma. A stunner. This film deserves to go down not only in Oscar history, but in film history. It harkens back to the era of Italian neorealism films, and at the very least, it should be immortalized in the Criterion Collection ASAP. Visually, it is gorgeous to look at, and the emotion feels so close and real, thanks to the genius of Alfonso Cuarón (of whose films I am a fan). Certainly, Yalitza Aparicio does a marvelous job as a first-time actress and is a worthy contender for best actress. The simplicity of this film is deceptive, because it deals with a lot of complex subject matter, sophisticated themes, and issues of class and race. At times heartbreaking, at other times heartwarming. Note the symbolism of water associated with Aparicio’s Cleo. Marina de Tavira’s mother is certainly well done, but it is not extraordinary, and her part feels so minimal that I confess I’m surprised she was nominated for an Oscar.

-The Wife. I saw a slightly abridged version on an airplane, and I only wished for more. I confessed I was resistant, was afraid the theme was just clichéd. However, the film is the well-acted, and well-directed, that I was immediately hooked. It might remind viewers of an Ingmar Bergman film, which is not surprising considering that director Björn Runge is a Swede. Very tightly focused and intimate, both Jonathan Pryce and Glenn Close do a marvelous job as a longtime couple whose tensions come to the surface as they arrive in Stockholm for him to be honored with the Nobel Prize. Sometimes the story felt a bit thin, that it needed a little bit more to it, and Close’s scenes as Joan Castleman is a young woman were minimal, as were scenes about Pryce’s writing career. We truly feel what Joan feels; with a minimum of gestures, we see everything she’s experiencing through her facial expressions–we all know a Joan. The ending feels a bit odd and rushed (again, it may be due to the abridged version I saw). As above with Tavira, I think the role is well done, but not extraordinary.

-Green Book. This film drew out the most frustrated reactions from me. It is a very fascinating subject. Peter Farrelly has brought to the big screen a fascinating musical figure that even those of us were musicians have never heard of. And when he actually chooses to, he explores some complex topics related to race, especially in scenes between Tony and Don with good dialogue. Mahershala Ali is very well cast as the difficult, guarded Don Shirley, and brings a degree of nuance to the performance. Many people have commented that it is not entirely accurate, and Don Shirley’s family protested quite sharply. However, my problem with the film was that it was overall just very superficial. Farrelly could have dug deeper, gotten into more of the racial issues sooner–it was 2018/19 and we viewers know what has happened in history, so get us to the meat of the story ASAP! My other major problem with the film was Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip. Mortensen is always a strong and interesting actor, but here I feel his portrayal of a Bronx Italian man did not move beyond caricature. He is certainly affable, and an interesting character, but the accent and the choices did not convince me Mortensen was really inhabiting someone else. To me, this was a casting problem. Bobby Cannavale or another Italian-American actor could have been a better choice. But we have to give Farrelly an A for effort, as it was a sizable task to take on a film like this–it was brave and necessary at a time like this in American history, where black-white relations are still under negotiation.

-The Favourite. I knew what I was getting into when I saw it. I knew it was a Yorgos Lanthimos film, and having seen The Lobster, my suspicions were correct: it is bizarre. The tone is just as dark and odd, as is the lighting. And overall, the film just feels at times silly. We don’t know anything about the backstory or history; everything is on the surface, it feels like it is there more to serve the director’s vision. What is this film supposed to be? A dark comedy? An Art Film? What are the motivations and reasons for things, beyond what we can see in Emma Stone’s Abigail? While Stone did a surprisingly good job and convincing English accent, and the always-wonderful Rachel Weisz was deliciously scheming, I did not feel Olivia Colman was regal enough to play Queen Anne. In this film, we see the what and the how, but never the why. The art direction was indeed superb, as were the costumes. But this kind of trying to be artsy for the sake of it comes across as pompous and annoying.

-A Star is Born. Mixed reactions. A writer friend had warned me that the script was weak, and I concur. Bradley Cooper is certainly an excellent actor, but the cause and effect (especially with how Jack and Ally fall in love) just doesn’t add up. At times the story just feels ragged and we wonder how things got to where they are. It feels like a collection of scenes, without a really through-composed storyline: scenes in search of a movie. Lady Gaga is surprisingly very good and deserves her Oscar nomination. When she is stripped of her fuss and feathers as a performer in real life, she truly has a vulnerability and ordinary girl-persona that is truly believable. (I have always felt that she is a better interpreter than she is an original artist; everything she does of her own accord as a pop singer is always derivative of someone else). We don’t get enough of her in the film, as the film focuses more heavily on Jack. Sam Elliott is indeed reliable and strong as Jack’s brother, but again, I think it’s nothing extraordinary. Overall, I felt this film was overrated.

I have to give a shout out to Mary Poppins Returns. Though the story is weak and odd (do kids really want to hear about mortgage payments?), the movie is pure entertainment and absolutely drop-dead gorgeous on the big screen. With a cast of superb actors (including a cameo from Dick Van Dyke!) and wonderful music, it’s a treat for kids of all ages. My elderly father said he was transported back to childhood and left the theater with a huge grin. Lin-Manuel Miranda really deserved an Oscar nomination (my father is a new fan), as did director Rob Marshall, and everyone who worked on any visual and costume elements.

I’ll stop here – it’s time to have dinner and watch the Oscars!

MLK Day: A Belated Tribute to My Black Mentors

Greetings to my readers and Happy Belated New Year! My hiatus has a simple explanation: I was finishing all of my final work in order to graduate with my MFA on January 12. It’s been a challenging yet rewarding past two years in the Warren Wilson program, but I am grateful and have no regrets.

In a world where black people still face so much discrimination, where there is senseless shooting and violence against them, I would like to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by paying tribute to the black mentors I have had at almost every stage of my education. And even where black people are not facing violence, there is still subtle racism. I’m proud to say that I have had black mentors who dispel bad stereotypes and images.

In my undergraduate years, my departmental advisor in anthropology was Professor James Gibbs. I remember profoundly one of the most important pieces of advice he gave me was, “You must learn to develop a tolerance for ambiguity.” As an impatient 20 year old, it was a hard lesson to learn! His wife, Professor Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, herself an accomplished academic at Berkeley, was a guest lecturer in one of my classes. During my master’s degree program in higher education, I did not happen to have any black professors or advisors. However, what was significant and inspiring was the number of black students in my program who were in academia and doing graduate work in the field. During formal studies of music in musicology, I was very fortunate to have an advocate in a difficult time, Professor Naomi André, who had not only an impeccable pedigree and abilities, but also a tremendously classy and warm personality. I have been fortunate to study opera singing with Professor George Shirley, a legendary tenor, with whom I feel have only scratched the surface of all he knows as an artist. Rightly so, he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 2014 by President Obama.

More recently, in the Warren Wilson program, I had the young and brilliant Danielle Evans for an advisor my first semester, who is a first-rate intellectual and fellow Columbia lion! I was also fortunate to have a book discussion seminar just recently with T. Geronimo Johnson, who awed us all with his ability to be both didactic as well as inclusive with students’ feedback. I sincerely hope he writes a craft book for fiction writers. Also important to my writing training is auto-didact and encyclopedic-knowledged writer Keith Hood, a pillar of our local writing community.

I count myself fortunate in that I have had these great role models who are first and foremost artists and academics and teachers, beyond the label of “black.” I am fortunate that I have had so many great black role models, and only wish others could as well. That might help with alleviating some of the racism that still sadly pervades our society. Here is my gratitude to these women and men of letters, who just happen to be black.

Hamlet Redux

(This post is adapted from an analytical journal entry I wrote this semester for my MFA program.)

We know John Updike from his Rabbit series (Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, and the subsequent two novels and novella) and for his chronicling of suburban life. But one of his later works is a masterpiece, a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet called Gertrude and Claudius. At the intersection of historical fiction and a retelling, the novel gives us the backstory to the play, and puts a unique feminist spin on it.

A major concept I have hit upon in my analyses of retellings is the idea of a “hinge.” In all of the retellings I have looked at, there is some element that connects the old work to the new one, some sort of a hinge. Very frequently, it is plot points, and almost inevitably, characters. But sometimes there are other elements that connect the retelling and the classic. Sometimes it is language or phrases, the use of diction. The novel makes frequent use of that, and the author adopts a very old-fashioned tone that seems fitting for Shakespeare.

Gertrude and Claudius is a masterwork that stands on its own as a successful “retelling” of  Hamlet. Structured in three parts, the novel is a prequel to Shakespeare’s play. It focuses on the backstory of two crucial characters, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and his uncle-turned-stepfather Claudius. I have examined a number of retellings: how they function, how they are crafted, how they work. What strikes me so saliently about this novel is it is a retelling heavily built on character. Of course, this is only natural, given that it is a prequel; it cannot borrow the same plot as the original. But what the novel does so brilliantly is flesh out to key characters in Hamlet and show us their motivations for doing what they have done. This is not to say that there are not some overlapping plot points, especially at the ends of Part II and in Part III. But giving us the backstory of characters who have caused or triggered Hamlet’s grief makes the play so much more vivid. Showing us the actual murder scene with Claudius poisoning his brother is very satisfying, as we it learn only by hearsay in the play. Therefore, Hamlet is the aftermath of the novel, and it makes full sense when we know what evil machinations have happened before.

One of Updike’s motivations for writing the novel is to give the female character some agency. In general, Shakespeare’s plays heavily emphasize men; Hamlet is no exception. Gertrude is not a minor character, but she is not necessarily given her full due. In the play, she is a wife and mother. She is second to the men, and seems at times passive, an innocent victim, helpless in the sway of the powerful king, or too weak to stand up to her son. Gertrude and Claudius gives us the chance to see Gertrude as a key agent in her destiny and in the outcome that will happen in Hamlet. The title itself is a giveaway–she is included in the title and given top billing. Therefore, we can assume that Updike is taking a rather feminist angle upon retelling Hamlet. The presence of Ophelia also represents Updike’s woman-centered retelling.

Updike has essentially constructed the novel so that Parts I and II culminate in Part III, as any good novel should. Everything in the novel has been building up to the end. But what is especially brilliant is that Part III is building up to the play, so everything at the end of the novel will culminate in the actions of the play. “[Hamlet] was letting it be known that he resented his mother’s swift capitulation to his uncle’s suit.” Just before the end, we get the beginning of the play, where the watchmen see the ghost of the King. “It was rumored that battlement sentries on the midnight watch had been seeing an apparition in full armor.”

But the ending of the book belongs to Claudius: he has married his queen, he has been crowned, he has summoned Hamlet back to Denmark to train him to be the next King, and therefore has established his dynasty. Updike himself has lined up all the ducks, so to speak, in his novel, so that the play can shoot them all down. All of our expectations for a successful reign will be threatened by the vengeant Prince. The play is his story.

Foreshadowing is frequently used to hinge the two works: Updike is connecting us through the sense of doom. Also, there are frequent biblical allusions, especially to the Garden of Eden and snakes. The novel is also very much historical fiction, drawing on details of conquests and kingdoms. The sense of the past is palpable; we could truly imagine this love affair and murder happening as part of Danish royal history.

But none of these craft elements would matter, none of this analysis would hold any relevance if it were not for the fact that Gertrude and Claudius is just incredibly well written and a pleasure to read. We read the classics because they know they are time-tested and will please us. Hopefully the retellings should as well.

Nobel Laureate Frances H. Arnold’s Reply!

I wrote to Prof. Arnold and the other 2018 Nobel Laureate women to congratulate them and included a link to my last post:
On Oct 5, 2018, at 11:43 AM, Sonja Srinivasan
> wrote:

Dear ladies,
I was so inspired to read about your wins that I blogged on it! Hugest heartfelt congratulations, and thanks for being so inspiring to women around the world, even in different fields (I am an opera singer and writer).
https://thewomenofletters.com/2018/10/05/women-nobel-laureates-the-ultimate-women-of-letters/
Very best wishes,
Sonja Srinivasan

And here was her response. I feel so lucky, grateful, and am thrilled beyond belief!!

Frances H. Arnold
Wed, Nov 14, 7:39 PM (19 hours ago)
to Sonja

Dear Sonja,

Thank you. I am still stunned by it all. And digging through thousands of nice messages.
It’s a good year indeed for recognition of women.
Viva la evolución!
Frances

Frances H. Arnold
Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry
California Institute of Technology 210-41
Pasadena CA 91125 USA

2018 Women Nobel Laureates: The Ultimate Women of Letters

This week’s announcements of the 2018 winners of the Nobel Prize have been heartwarming and inspiring due to the three women who have been nominated. Groundbreaker Donna Strickland (one of only three women who have ever won the prize in physics), Renaissance woman Frances H. Arnold (one of only five women to win the prize in chemistry, and as much a hero in her personal life as she is in her career), and brave survivor-turned-activist Nadia Murad (one of the younger Nobel recipients at just age 25, mentored by another extraordinary woman, Amal Clooney). Evidently, the Nobel nomination committee is becoming more attuned to the aware of the dearth of talented women receiving prizes or even just receiving adequate acclaim for their work in general. Dr. Strickland was so generous as to compliment her male colleagues, saying that her co-recipients also deserved to win the prize – one can only wonder how many men would have done the same with their female colleagues. Consider this in light of physicist Alessandro Strumia’s comments at CERN. While I always try to look for a grain of truth in what the opposition says, and not immediately jump to a position, I do feel that his remarks and data were short-sighted, incomplete, foolish, poorly researched, and overall offensive to women and even the men who support us. Thankfully, CERN has suspended him. And sadly, he is not alone; there are numerous silent Alessandro Strumias out there, and cultures who subscribe to his viewpoint.

The other unfortunate occurrence, in my view, is the fact that the Nobel committee is not awarding a literature prize this year. This is due to the sexual assault scandal among the nominators. While I can understand there is turmoil on their end, this shortchanges writers who deserve to win the award. It shortchanges readers and literature-lovers all over the world who look up to the literary firmament to inspire them in their daily lives. It’s a shame when sexism has to get in the way of people getting their due credit, be it in physics or writing.

Let’s hope Monday’s announcement for the Nobel Prize in Economics includes a woman.

Celebrating 6 Years!!

Dear Readers,
That time of year has come (well, came!) to remember the origins of this blog and celebrate another anniversary. Begun as a pet project and as a way to converse with a scholarly friend, the blog has taken me in greater directions than I could have imagined. Thanks to you, dear readers and writers, for making this blog a worthwhile endeavor. And to anyone thinking of blogging—do it!
Best wishes,
Sonja