The West Wing on Netflix

I have had my fair share of free time the past month: no work plus no school equals a ridiculous obsession with Netflix. Add on top of that moving out of the belly of the beast, better known as Washington, D.C. So to cope with my withdrawal in not being in one of the most powerful cities in the world, I turned to the best television-depiction of it: The West Wing. The show has been in my queue for months, and I was resisting seeing that I knew once I began it, I would have a great difficulty in resisting watching. Now, I have no excuse (and in saying that, I did do the math and watching the whole series is quite a dedication).

The West Wing begins with the first few months of President Bartlet’s first year in office and takes the viewer through all eight years of his presidency. From shootings to keeping the President’s MS a secret to kidnapped daughter to close nuclear wars, the show traversed these crises alongside United States-only crises such as legislation and how the White House approaches legislative bodies (and a glimpse into Supreme Court justices, too). The show wouldn’t be the great show it was without its cast of President Bartlet, Leo McGarry, Josh Lyman, Toby Ziegler, or CJ Cregg. It’s very interesting to think of the show as focused on the depiction of a setting and not of a main character or group of characters. I think its one of the most unique parts of the West Wing for it’s the only place that I could think of that has a constant evolution of characters in real life.

Anyway, you don’t need me to tell you that the show is historic and a great piece of television to watch. The best part has to be the writing; the dialogue between characters is fast-paced and incredibly detailed that you have to stay focused on the subject matter otherwise you will be lost. I really also love President Bartlet as the professor in most episodes that discusses the historic premise behind most of the overarching themes of the episode. I don’t even want to begin to think how much research and consulting was put into the writing. Moreover, for me, the sets were also some of the most intriguing. The oval office and residence were true renditions of the real rooms. The cast also often filmed on-site at the White House or Kennedy Center. This took a lot of coordination and really added a tremendous amount to the show. This is probably the biggest contributor to the show’s success: it’s reality. As a viewer, you felt like you were a fly on the wall in the Oval Office or on Air Force One. Not many shows make the audience feel like that, and I think that’s a definite contributor to the shows historic success.

In my opinion, the West Wing’s pros surely outweigh its cons, but noting them are important. Characters seemed to come and go relatively easy, and without any explanation. All of a sudden a character would be gone and there would be no explanation as to where they went. They’d also be mentioned in future episodes, sometimes, but not often. This detracted from the show for I would be watching and think: “Wait, where did Ainsley go?” I felt a little unfulfilled, as if I missed something (and when you watch 4 episodes at a time, it’s hard to miss something like that, so I don’t even want to know how watching the show traditionally would have felt like). Another item that detracted from the show was the complexity of the arguments. I understand that this is perhaps how highly qualified, intellectuals speak to one another in government, but to be understood by the average American, I’m sure made the show hard for them to digest. This goes hand in hand with how the show lost its momentum in the final two seasons. The dialogue got tired, the acting was tremendous, but the plots were a bit unbelievable. Everything that could go wrong during an election did, which is preposterous. I must have thought to myself: “stop being over-dramatic now.”

Obviously, I enjoyed watching all of the main cast, even those that had crazy eccentricities that I thought were over the top. However, my favorite cast member had to be Dr./Mrs. Abbey Bartlet: Stockard Channing. Every scene Abbey is in, she steals. From my perspective as an audience member, it really was a joy to watch that every single character that encountered Mrs. Bartlet was afraid of her. She was a force of nature: intelligent, shrewd, and driven. No one wanted to go against her for they didn’t stand a chance. Some of my favorite scenes are between Stockard and Martin Sheen for while they spared (and oh boy, they did) they also respected and loved one another. Apart from the political dialogue, those were my favorites (especially when Abbey calls Jed a Jackass, in reality, the only person who could get away with it). If anything watch for her.

My last comments are on the reality that a select few in the West Wing hold much of the power of the United States, which surprises me. It almost seems like the main characters (less CJ Cregg as press secretary) did much of the policy-making and sifted through what were important aspects/events of the Bartlet Administration. These individuals were not elected, but hand selected by President Bartlet, and while the onus falls on him for their work, it still is a bit uncomfortable to me to think these select few make many decisions for the country. With how much research went into the show, this premise probably is fact.

I’m not quite sure how much longer The West Wing will be on Netflix, but I hope many of you will watch it (at leas the first 5 seasons). The characters are upstanding American citizens who left high paying jobs to pursue a few years in the service of their country. This really is something to admire in them and appreciate as Americans.

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The Witches, Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff

Two weeks ago I traveled to Salem, MA and walked the same routes that the accused of the Salem Witch Trials walked over 300 years ago. As such, the experience was amazing, however, I didn’t feel as though I could have gotten all I did by just going. If you do go, you need to do quite a bit of research to really understand what the trials were all about and how they became such a phenom three centuries later.

As such, a few months ago the non-fictional author, Stacy Schiff, who wrote Cleopatra released her newest work entitled The Witches, Salem 1692. The book was met with much hype and even more rave reviews. I would have to say it was one of the first of its kind; an accurate, complete, and non-academic attempt at explaining the timeline and entire plot of the Salem Witch Trials. Thus, in seeing the sites and going on an exceptional tour, I wanted to know all of the details of the “dark” time period in our country that many would like to forget.

Altogether, Schiff’s novel is 417 pages of annotated chapters. I’ve read War and Peace and Gone With the Wind, so 417 doesn’t scare me, but annotated with a 30-plus page bibliography is a bit daunting. Surprisingly, this isn’t my only complete about the work (please proceed to the next paragraph for those, haha). As noted, Schiff excellently portrays the discussion of all topics that occurred during the time period in question; all of the who, what, why (to some extent), when, and how’s are all answered through her thorough discussion of characters and timelines. I give her as many props as I can spare on the details, for there are so few sources that remain to this day. Moreover, many of them are firsthand sources, written in penmanship that’s sub-par and even worse, English that is untranslatable at times. For this, Schiff does an amazing job of delving into the material with as much information as she can and does the trials (and all of the happenings pre- and post-1692) as well as she could.

Unfortunately, this book was one of the most tedious non-fiction I have read in a long time (if not the most convoluted, ever). I’m a huge Robert K. Massie and Carolly Erickson who keep their biographies or non-fictional tales to short, crisp sentences. Schiff’s sentence structure, on the other hand, is like reading a run-on of a person who takes themselves way too seriously. If anything, this work was a textbook, which greatly took away to my main premise of reading the work: for fun! I wanted to learn, not be bored to death. Not only was Schiff’s prose tedious, it was also organized in a quasi-timeline manner, jumping around a lot especially between the timeline of the events of the witch trials and the world events or cultural norms of the time. It would have made more sense to set the scene (i.e. during this time, women did not get that much attention because the men were out fighting the Indians and trying to bring food home to the family), sacrificing the first few chapters for the reader to fully understand what it was like to live in 17th Century MA. This made reading this book really hard to follow. The only chapter that seemed well-placed was the last one which delved into, and only into, the societal repercussions and full discussions of why the witch trials occurred in the first place. In a novel such as this, if you don’t have a clear and concise way of delivering the historic details to your audience the entire purpose of the work is negated. As a reader, you don’t want to be talked at, you want to take on the presence of being enveloped in the world you’re reading about. For this reason along, Schiff’s work is way too hard to read (And I’ve read my fair share of science textbooks, and they were EASY in comparison).

Now, I didn’t quite grasp historical premise of the Salem Witch Trials before or during my trip. Considering I know much more now that I’ve read this work, I want to make a few general comments that really struck me. First off, if you do read this novel, prepare to be annoyed with the timeline of events. It’s really disturbing that I have to say this but the timeline is very deja vu, in the fact that history keeps repeating itself: accuser accuses a “witch”, judges prosecute the “witch,” and the “witch” is sentenced to death. This repeatedly happens over and over to so many people. It’s astounding that this was real life and unfortunately, the monotony of the tale takes away from each individual’s story. This is just a general comment that I had about half way through Schiff’s book.

As noted, Schiff does do an outstanding job in outlining all of the places and people that are to blame for the Witch Trials. I’ve done a little analysis in attributing the blame to three main reasons: Accusers, Judges, and Society. Many of the accusers were women, and Schiff attributed much of their drive to find “witches” to come from seeking attention. During this time, women, especially those who did not come from wealthy families, were in constant shadows of their husband. Their husband would go and fight Indians, die, and they were supposed to continue feeding their children, protecting the house, and find a new spouse. Colonists would also have large families, since only 50% (exact statistic, I’m not sure, but close to half) would survive. Thus, between eight siblings, one had to do something to be the only one with attention, especially the girls, who really had nothing to live for except marry and have more Puritan children. The second grouping I attribute the Witch Trials were the judges who clearly took their jobs way too seriously and too such a dark place that their actions were condemned by the King of England. The Judges (and yes, there was a panel of them) believed the accusers without asking any real challenging questions, asked leading questions of the accused (How do you answer: show me how you are not a witch?), and then jailing those individuals for months in disgusting jails. Seriously, if I went without nail polish for a week you could get me to say pretty much anything, let alone no heat, plumbing, or food/water. No wonder our system is no Innocent until proven Guilty; the assumption of guilt is troubling when innocence is something harder to prove. The third idea that I have to blame for the trials must be society. How could neighbor turn against neighbor, if not for land and monetary gain? Salem, while it’s not too far from Boston, in the 17th Century was far enough away that it was a civilization of its own, especially during the winter. Being cutoff from others will cause individuals to seek attention and do things they would not normally do if in an all-inclusive society or one greater than a couple hundred. At one time there were 700 accused “witches” in Salem. That is an astounding number, especially for that era. The greed of the townspeople of Salem, must be one of the most intriguing sociological studies to date. No wonder Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible” about it to represent McCarthyism. Daughter turned against Mother, neighbor against neighbor, it really sends chills down my spine that humans have that amount of evil in them, especially when you think that they believed this was all because of the Devil. If anything, the “witches” were the accusers and the judges doing the malicious and heinous acts of accusing innocent victims.

Anyway, returning back to subject: if you have the time and the effort to read Schiff’s work, I would highly suggest it. But get your fine-toothed comb out for some serious reading. I could manage about 30 pages at a time, which was quite a bit. It’s dense, full of details, and will get you frustrated whether it be the monotony or the characters, be prepared. This was a blemish in American History, but mind you, America wasn’t the only place that hunted Witches under false pretenses. Many countries had similar instances, I think we just capitalized on it the best (which could be good for drawing attention to the events, or bad for capitalizing such a national tragedy). 300 years, and now we memorialize those who died, the most we can do that many centuries later.

Salem, MA

By my recent posts, it’s fairly obvious I took a roadtrip from CT to MA, specifically: Salem, MA. I never have made a bucket list, but if I did, Salem would be on it. Everyone knows Salem and the Salem Witch Trials, but not many have been to the village/city that hosted one of America’s darkest periods in history. Through this post I want to comment on the history, the town, and the culture that has enveloped the city. As well as some of the sites I saw that were awesome!

Salem, MA is 30 minutes north of Boston; you can get there by ferry or by car. There’s quite a few hotels to stay at, but I stayed at a conference hotel outside of town (in Beverley MA) and it was lovely. The Wylie Inn is hidden in a suburban neighborhood and was affordable with its own private beach. I would highly recommend it.

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There’s quite a few things to see in Salem, and it’s interesting how they are separated by type: historical versus cultural. Clearly, the entire purpose of traveling to the town is based on the 17th Century witch trials, so there are quite a few museums. Unfortunately, many of them are tour-led, meaning a docent guides you through the museum. You are thus on their time-table, covering topics that they are introducing, and spending time where they want you to spend time. I like to think I am a smart person, so when I approach a museum, I enjoy to think about what I want to see, what information I want to gather, and what I want to learn more about. I hate when people talk AT me. Thus, I am not a huge fan of museums that are dependent on docents, such as the “Salem Witch Museum.” Keep this in mind if and when you go.

Speaking of being toured around, one of the most fulfilling things I could have done in Salem was to take a tour of the historic area. “Bewitched After Dark Walking Tour” was rated the top tour in the Salem area on TripAdvisor, so I bought a ticket for $20. There was about 40 of us ranging in ages from babies to senior citizens. Our guide had a tremendous amount of knowledge on the area and really focused his discussion to the Salem Cemetery and Salem Witch Memorial, which really provided a myopic view of the historical facts of the time period. This is probably the wisest $20 I could have spent in the city. The memorial is extremely touching, and even though the tour spent about 45-60 minutes in the memorial, I went back during the day to walk through it again. The memorial has 20 stones that look like benches, each with an inscribed name of an accused witch, the date of execution, and how they were executed. This is a very touching memorial, and really drives the point home, since the memorial looks directly upon the cemetery of the accusers.

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Now on to the cultural aspects of Salem. Witches draw the most interesting crowds. I could clearly see this in the Salem Walking Mall that’s a small shopping district filled with shops of eclectic material and products. Interesting too is that some shops have tarot card readers and “spirit rooms” where seances can be done. This brings some interesting people to the city ranging from hippies to ghost marauders seeking conversations with their relatives. This may be “fun” for some but it is odd for those of us who want to enjoy the history of the city.

The other thing that you HAVE to do while in Salem is go to the House of Seven Gables. You must pay $13 to gain access to the grounds which includes a variety of historic homes, a tour of the House of 7 Gables, and a quaint garden. The tour of the house is well-worth the cost of the tour, and it only takes 35 minutes, which is not bad. The House was built by cousins of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The tour guide walks through all rooms of the house, how they are decorated, and what historically happened in each room. You also gain access to a secret staircase that was installed after Hawthorne wrote his book; this was to incorporate fictional pieces into the actual house. Very cool!! The garden of the grounds is beautiful and sits on the harbor, so on a bright sunny day is a lovely place to sit and have lunch. The grounds also contain Hawthorne’s birthplace, which was relocated from another part of Salem. The grounds are a bit off the beaten path, but just google it and find its place, it’s super lovely.

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All in all, it was a good trip and I really enjoyed all the eclectic aspects of the town. Now that I’ve seen it, I have invested in the current novel by Pulitzer winner Stacy Schiff entitled The Witches. This describes the history, in full detail, of the Witch trials. I will follow up with a blog post about this book. The town is lovely, I went on bright sunny days, and I bought a few memorabilia. Anyway, go if you get a chance; you could probably see everything that is worthwhile in a full day. There’s not that many things to see in more than 36 hours, but go if you are in the New England area!

Sturbridge Village, MA

On my roadtrip from CT to Salem, MA I wanted to see as much of New England as I could. Thus, I took one route up north then east (I-91 to the Mass Pike), and another south then west (through Rhode Island). The latter route is chronicle in my post about Mystic Seaport, a bit longer but I saw a lot more scenery. My first route went directly north to Sturbridge, MA in central MA. I stopped at the historic village called Sturbridge Village to cut my trip in two equal pieces.

Sturbridge Village, similar to the Mystic Seaport, is compared to Colonial Williamsburg because it is the self-guided village of New England. It has farms, animals, houses, and meeting centers that were restored from the time of the American Revolution up until the Civil War.  I was very lucky to go on a day that was bright and sunny but wasn’t too hot, which made the experience really enjoyable. The town is quite large with a huge green in the center of town, pictured below:

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The Village also is set along the coast of a river and spans a sort of forest. If you go, wear comfortable and hiking-suitable shoes. The roads around the houses and buildings are 100% rock, and some of the village is up a hill through dirt and routes with embedded tree roots. Each house has a designated tour guide, and even though everything is self-guided, the tour guides are very knowledgeable. All houses are opened to the public and you can access most corners of each building. The house below that was built in the 17th century, allowed you to go throughout the first AND second floor, with each room decorated in period pieces. It was really lovely.

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The village also had live renditions of a soldier shooting his rifle (it was SO loud). There was also a huge museum of clocks, anywhere from large grandfather clocks to small wall clocks. The entire collection was quite impressive, too bad they wouldn’t allow photography. I could have spent a few more hours on the grounds, but because I was in a hurry to continue my road-trip I had to cut my visit short. If I was younger, I would have loved visiting this place. It’s off the beaten path, and not too easy to get to, but neither is Colonial Williamsburg, so if you’re in the neighborhood, I would definitely go.

Mystic Seaport, CT

In my travels returning from Salem, MA to CT I thought I would stop by the little town of Mystic, CT. It’s right over the border from RI (again, coming back from MA) so it was a rather quick drive (about 1hr from New Haven, CT).

Mystic, CT, is known for its Aquarium, its seaport, and the film “Mystic Pizza,” you know, the one that made Julia Roberts a star. Anyway, returning to the city: it’s off the beaten path. You exit I-95 into a forest, drive past a gas station, a little more forest, then the coastline. About 5 minutes away is the Mystic Seaport which is one of the main selling points for the city.

Mystic Seaport is compared to Sturbridge Village and Colonial Williamsburg. There’s a rather large charge to gain access to the facility ($26), but it is rather large with a lot of property and places to visit. I think the neatest aspect of the seaport in comparison to the other two sites almost everyone compares it to, is that it IS right on the coast so you can have access to ships. Ships such as this one:

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Fortunately, I went on a beautiful clear day (as you can see in the photo). I can’t imagine this place in the cold, or even worse, in the blistering heat. There’s not very many places to sit and shading to enjoy outside without scalding. Another downside, is that in the comparison to Williamsburg and Sturbridge, the seaport doesn’t have as many activities for families and things to see as the other places. I went to the Drugstore and spoke to the representative there, and that was really enjoyable and she was quite knowledgeable on the material, however, that’s the only thing I was interested in. There’s also only three places to eat, one for “quick food” and that didn’t have the best selection. I DID eat BOMB New Enlgand Clam Chowder here that was made in house and it was amazing! The other two places were sit-down, which for a family or a single person is not optimal.

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If you are taking the I-95 from NYC to Boston (even though I would partly not recommend this route for that trip), I think mystic is a quaint place to stop. I want to go back and enjoy the Mystic Village for its shopping is supposed to be eclectic. Also the Mystic Aquarium is supposed to be very cool (even though I’m not a huge fan of aquariums). Anyway, if you are in the neighborhood, stop on by!

The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig

I’ve read quite a few of Lauren Willig’s novels, in particular her series about the French spy network beginning with the Pink Carnation. Her novels are a mix of romance and 007-esque themes based in the period of 18th Century. Willig has an excellent style of writing, in that it is simplistic and well-organized. She has done her research thoroughly of the time period that she is writing about and it’s really a pleasure to read those (highly suggest them!). The novel, herein, is not a classic Willig novel, which made me think “maybe I won’t like it as much as her others.” Well, it was unique in itself!

The Ashford Affair takes place in two eras, with three different main characters. Clementine is a modern-day lawyer living in New York City. She is the granddaughter of Addie who celebrates her 99th birthday in 1999. The other era of the novel took place in the time span of early 1900s to 1929 during Addie’s childhood to early adulthood. The third main character was Bea, Addie’s cousin. The Ashford Affair alludes to the truth behind how Addie became Clementine’s grandmother.

Willig does an excellent job of jumping from modern day Clementine to Addie growing up in the Ashford manor in England with Bea. Addie was an orphan; the only daughter of Bea’s father’s younger brother. Both of Addie’s parents were bookworms and well-educated who liked quiet places and disliked high society, things that Addie reflected in her personality. Bea, on the other hand, was raised in a large estate and loved attention. The difference between these two characters and their relationship, in my mind, is what drove the novel’s main theme of friendship, relationship (romantic or familial), and blood is thicker than water, but only some instances.

The crux of the “Ashford Affair” is Bea having an affair on her husband with Addie’s best friend, Frederick, and gets pregnant by him. They end up getting married, Bea and Frederick, and move to Kenya. In Kenya, is where the story gets very interesting. I’m not going to say what exactly happens, even though I alluded to it earlier. This is the only part of the novel that not only confused me but wasn’t well-ended. Willig is usually a gifted story-teller, who completes a story in full detail. But, in this novel, the ending is rushed and it feels as if she says “they fall in love and she goes away, the end.” It’s a bit odd, and not representative of the previous 320+ pages.

As always, Willig is a stellar novelist, and for a change of her usual novel, this story did not disappoint. It was an interesting story that kept me reading and entertained. The ending was anti-climactic, but hey, you can’t have everything you desire. Anyway, pick this read up if you’re in the mood for a historical/modern fictional story.

Academic protection

I read a recent article in The New Yorker magazine that discussed liberal arts colleges and how they are tackling the fight for/against safe spaces, trigger warnings, and the fights that females have against misogynistic faculty members. The entire piece was well-written, and gave numerous examples of what was going on at the front lines of Oberlin College, a liberal arts school that is bowing more and more to student demands.

While, the piece was insightful I had two major complaints and one large comment. First, my complaints: there was a massive lack of information on how schools are combating this massive issue and that students see schools as a microcosm of the “real world,” when in all reality college is not the real world. Both topics go hand in hand, yet I will try to separate and tweeze both apart.

Lets tackle the first issue.  Students have a right to protest; they have a right to their own “safe space.” In my mind, this is their dorm room, that’s an easy answer, no? Why should there be a separate designated space on campus that serves only one type of student? Isn’t that bigotry? Isn’t that being partial to Caucasian heterosexuals, if there is a safe space devoted ONLY to the LGBT community? Isn’t that argument the exact same argument that Harvard has against fraternities and sororities? Both organizations only take those students who want to be a part of the organization and who choose them; it’s a mutual desire by both parties. According to Harvard, these groups, which provide, in all reality, for their members to have a safe space among their peers, that this is a direct issue with Harvard’s mission statement of inclusiveness. Where do we draw the line? This fact, is one major flaw that I saw with this article. The author did not provide any insight as to how to approach this epidemic; it’s almost as if they painted a picture of this problem being rampant and out of control, never to actually be addressed. I don’t quite know what the answer is, if any, but I would have liked for a little more elaboration on how school’s such as Oberlin, are addressing the issues that rear their ugly head. Or major instead of addressing the issues, they are just bowing to student’s needs to take their tuition money?

My second complaint is on the crux of most students assuming that college is a representation of the real world. I went to a small liberal arts college for undergraduate (5 years), a large yet still small well-known graduate school (4.5 years), and worked in both academia and the private sector. Students: college is NOT the real world. Where can you work M-Th without coming to work before noon and ending by 5pm? That’s, by my calculations, is part-time work (20 hrs/wk). You cannot afford a house, family, or any technology (ahem, Netflix account) on that employment salary. Moreover, when I worked in the private sector, I shared an office with two other ladies. We had to always keeps mindful of our conversations, making sure we did not take personal conversations during work hours and if we did we did not disturb our fellow office-mates. To broaden this, millennials enjoy open office areas, in which no one has a cubicle, but everyone works at table-tops, so there is no hiding what one is doing. By inspection, there are no safe spaces in these areas. College is not the real world, and it was never designed to be the real world. If it was, its structure would not be what it is. College was also not designed to be a consumer-driven service. Yes, you pay an exorbitant fees in college tuition, but it’s not like a cell phone bill with a contract. Take “The Great Courses” if that’s what your aim is for attending college, but don’t attend a liberal arts school thinking that you are the driver and it’s a pay-for service.

Now, onto the next topic which incited me. The author told a story about a female student who waged a complaint against her professor for she thought he was being a misogynist. She went to the department chair, who then called the professor in and made him sign a formal complaint. The Dept. Chair, would not allow the professor to provide evidence in his defense, and said that the girl provided enough evidence for a Title IX complaint of a hostile work environment. My comment is not whether the professor was harassing the student, but how easy it was for her to wage a formal complaint against a professor with “he said, she said”-like proof. This paints a very poor picture of the issues that plague females in academia, for it down-plays the real situations that are VALID Title IX disputes. From personal experience, a stack of written evidence was provided to Deans and a formal Title IX complaint was never offered. In fact, a mediation had to be done, in order to even conclude if a pursuit of Title IX injustice was found. It’s one thing to have a disagreement with a professor, it’s another to be harassed because you are a female. My biochem professor from undergrad hated me; I know he did, I had proof. However, it wasn’t because I was a Caucasian female. It was just me. He loved other Caucasian females and thought the world of them, but was disgusted with me. I got over it, and saw it as what it was: him being a donkey (insert alternative simile here). I wasn’t about to file a complaint against him. It would downplay the real situations that entitle those students to the assistance they deserve. In other words, slight complaints should not be awarded with formal recognition by a university. The real world IS where your boss doesn’t see eye to eye with you, but it’s not because you’re a female, but because they have a different outlook.

Anyway, the article is definitely a worthwhile read. I have left out the title until now: “The New Activism of Campus Life” by Nathan Heller. It’s very interesting, but it’s also a little disturbing that this is what a liberal arts education will get you. Don’t even get me started on the career prospects of those with a “Gender and Women’s Studies” major. That’s a topic for another day.