Author: Scott Johnson

HONYs appeal to sentiment masks true issues

In January, the very popular Humans of New York often abbreviated as HONY came under serious scrutiny. Humans of New York was started in 2010 by a blog which has expanded and is published on Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and is now even available in a print format. Even St. Olaf has a Facebook page entitled Humans of St. Olaf that was inspired by HONY. Humans of New York is a collection of photos of people found on the streets of New York City, accompanied by short snippets of interviews with the subject of the photograph or some commentary. Photographer Brandon Stanton, the founder of HONY, takes all of the pictures and writes the commentaries himself. An editorial by Melissa Smyth, an associate editor for, set forth several grievances with regard to Stanton’s blog.

Smyth mainly criticized HONY for making a superficial appeal to the reader’s sentiment instead of addressing any substantive problems on subjects like racism and sexism. Smyth cites examples of photos featuring interracial interactions that bring a “fuzzy feeling” to the reader instead of a realistic representation of the diverse challenges faced in human existence. The project also received criticism from Smyth due to Stanton’s operation of the project. Stanton takes all photos and conducts all interviews, thus HONY is all seen through Stanton’s lens. The only people that Stanton photographs are those who he deems approachable, and therefore, the process is not truly random.

There is a disparity in Smyth’s expectations and Stanton’s aims. What Smyth wants is a cultural medium through which problems like racism and income inequality can be addressed through productive sorts of empathy. With the HONY project, Stanton seems to share no such aspirations in either current or past interviews. Stanton sees HONY as a collection of photos documenting people of interest and giving small vignettes of the human experience. There is a place for art that isn’t serious commentary, and Smyth does not acknowledge it. Smyth criticizes HONY as a form of escapism for people who want to ignore Ferguson and ISIS. While permanent ignorance and isolation from contemporary issues is not good, the occasional consumption of media that isn’t a serious dialogue or video of some wartime atrocity is necessary.

However, Stanton’s willingness to censor commentary about his own work is a valid concern to critics. According to Smyth, Stanton had also removed critiques of certain blog entries. Although the critique of his blog may be incorrect in Stanton’s eyes, he surely shouldn’t be censoring it.

It is important for Stanton to do several things. Perhaps he could more clearly define what HONY’s purpose is and admit some of his own biases. Smyth’s argument against his selection bias of photographic subjects, while interesting, seems not really to detract from the art. Escapism is not necessarily irresponsible; people go to see action movies where the heroes always win, listen to uplifting songs and sometimes go to HONY to get some quick relief from the CNN headlines about ISIS and plane crashes.

Scott Johnson ’18 is from Gladstone, Mo. He majors in economics.

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Mental health needs funding at St. Olaf

Further investment in the mental well-being of students at St. Olaf could possibly pay dividends. Diagnoses of mental health issues have spiked in the last half century, and an article published by Psychology Today in 2010 claims that high school and college-aged students were five to eight times more likely to meet the criteria for depression than their counterparts of 50 years ago. This trend shows little sign of reversal. More recent findings in sources like the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry corroborate the findings of Psychology Today, with the increase in anxiety being especially marked in women. It is true that as society has advanced, its view of mental disorders has progressed in leaps and bounds.

To name a famous example, in 1943 the famous general George S. Patton slapped a soldier suffering from battle fatigue, known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD. Although Patton came under criticism, he was not removed from his command in World War II. Actions like these would be seen as completely abhorrent in the present day. Perhaps mental disorders have become more frequently diagnosed as they’ve lost some of their stigma, but the studies and statistics on the issues still remain alarming.

With all the current discussion over mental health, many companies, colleges and schools have been making an effort to offer help. St. Olaf, like most post-secondary educational institutions across the country, has several resources and organizations in place to address the need for assistance with coping and treating mental disorders and illnesses. Among these is the counseling center, Boe House, which offers group programs as well as individual counseling for students by licensed psychologists and a psychiatrist.

Due to the non-physical nature of mental illness, its debilitating effects can often be lost on those who have not experienced it. This type of illness is seen as more fictive than a strictly physical disease, such as mononucleosis more commonly just called mono, but it is perhaps just as debilitating. Unfortunately, some do see professing mental illness as false pretense for obtaining a Xanax prescription or a sign of poor character. GOOD magazine published an article on mental health that will even appeal to such people. In this article, the author cites a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that estimates that as much as four percent of a nation’s Gross Domestic Product GDP can be lost due to the mental health issues. These losses usually come in the form of reduced productivity of workers and other indirect costs that can be hard to quantify.

These GDP losses are exacerbated in poorer countries where, for economic and often cultural reasons, the development of psychological issues is more likely to occur and less likely to be treated. However, this certainly does not mean that more developed countries are immune to the same problems. A study by the Australian Mental Health Commission claimed as high as a $2.30 yield in increased productivity return for every dollar spent on creating a mentally healthy workforce.

One can only imagine how much more academic progress could be made if fewer students had personal problems to deal with or the monetary savings for the college if it spent less on issues relating to drug and alcohol abuse, such as property damage or medical liabilities.

Although St. Olaf is not a profit-making venture, it could be beneficial to further invest in the mental health of Oles, not only for the students, but also for the college itself.

Scott Johnson ’18 is from Gladstone, Mo. He majors in history.

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Sarah Thomas makes history for women in the NFL

On April 3, Mississippi native Sarah Thomas made history by becoming the first female full-time official to be hired by the National Football League NFL. Thomas is among eight new officials this year.

Thomas isn’t the first female to officiate a game in the NFL – that honor belongs to Shannon Eastin, who served as an official during the 2012 season when many referees were locked out due to contract negotiations. Thomas developed her interest in football when she and her brother attended a meeting about calling football games.

Thomas currently works as a pharmaceutical representative when she is not officiating for football games, and she is also the mother of three children. Thomas has claimed that although she is grateful and proud to be the first full-time female officiator, she is just focused on being the best official she can be.

Thomas discussed her feelings on the situation in a USA Today article entitled “Trailblazer Sarah Thomas may be first of many female NFL officials,” published on April 8.

“I’m just doing this because I truly love it…the guys don’t think of me as a female, they see me as just another official,” Thomas said.

Thomas isn’t just a gimmick or a novelty in the NFL; there is also another female official, Maia Chaka. She is in the NFL’s advanced developmental program for referees – a group of 21 that is likely to be tapped for promotion to the highest levels of refereeing. Although Thomas wasn’t the only woman, almost all professional sports remain dominated by men in the roles of refereeing.

The NFL faces pressure to be seen in a positive light when it comes to its treatment of women, especially in light of the controversy of Ray Rice, who assaulted his fiancée in a an elevator last year. The league came under criticism when the commissioner Roger Goodell had lightly punished Rice and then admitted to having done so, which resulted in Rice’s indefinite suspension.

Beyond officiating, other women have been appointed as the first chief health and medical adviser and vice president of social responsibility. The NFL hasn’t been the only athletic institution to have few women in its officiating cohorts. To put it into perspective with other sports, the NBA has only three female officials, the first of which joined in 1997. The MLB has only used female umpires in spring training games and the minor leagues and has yet to have a full-time female umpire at the highest levels. The NFL also does not bar women or transgender people from participating in the NFL, but has no female players.

These steps to integrate women into mainstream sports are also important due to the historic roots of discouraging women from entering athletics, through both the rules of the governing bodies and through societal and cultural pressures that advantage men over women in athletic organizations.

So, while perhaps few rules remain in effect that explicitly prohibit women from athletics, there still exist many pressures that keep women underrepresented. The introduction of more and more women like Sarah Thomas into professional sports should help to mitigate these pressures.


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American education system geared toward female ability, deters male

The New York Times published an editorial last week written by Sean Krull, who claimed that the American educational system is preferential for women and often steers boys away from the humanities and toward natural sciences and math. I think this is absolutely the case, and ultimately serves to limit men, although there may be some external factors that aren’t completely detrimental.

The article puts forth several perceived problems with the current education system, many of which hinge on women’s greater ability to retain information and perform at school in adolescence, as well as societal expectations of men to pursue certain interests.

The article said there are 2.8 million more women enrolled in post-secondary education than there are men. To see this, one need not look any further than Manitou Heights. At St. Olaf, the gender breakdown is 56 percent female to 44 percent male according to U.S. News and World Report, while neighboring Carleton College is 53 percent female to 47 percent male. This trend is a complete 180-degree flip from when women’s access to education was very limited; formerly, almost any institution of higher learning would have been disproportionately representative of men.

In fact, some of the only post-secondary educational institutions that do have more men than women are engineering or science schools such as Iowa State University in Ames and Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, MO. The student population of both of these universities is more than 55 percent male. Evidence like this helps corroborate not only perhaps women’s discouragement from the sciences, but also the undue pressure on men to pursue them.

Pushing boys to study natural sciences and mathematics isn’t the only way in which boys are limited. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder ADHD is a prime example of a way in traditional education that boys are disadvantaged. According to a study by Mayo Clinic in 2002, done in Olmsted County, Minn., boys are at three times the risk for suffering from ADHD than their female counterparts. Although it is not the only reason, being male is the largest risk factor for the disorder.

I think it is unfortunate that due to women’s historical discrimination and limitation that men in all cases are perpetually seen as a privileged group. Men are put on the back burner when it comes to initiatives of breaking down stigma of certain areas of studies. While a simple Google search returns plenty of recommendations, reports and foundations for the encouragement of women in science and math in big publications such as The Guardian as well as the government, there is a telling lack of equivalents for male encouragement in the social sciences or humanities.

One reason that the disparity of post-secondary education gender ratios is not entirely a bad thing is that it empowers women. Society has traditionally marginalized women, and to some extent, still does. The current 77 cents to the dollar ratio of women’s wages to men’s is a testament to this and has been given attention recently. Perhaps the leg-up for women in education would help to alleviate these problems.

With all this being said I think equality between the genders ought to be striven for, regardless of any externalities. I didn’t necessarily agree with some of the recommendations set forth in the New York Times editorial, such as the idea of creating more single-sex schools and decreased suspension rates for boys. I think increased introspection and physical activity for boys could be of great help to alleviating the tragedy in education of social expectation dictating passions and pursuits.

Scott Johnson ’18 is from Gladstone, Mo. He majors in history.

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Indie film fest stops at St. Olaf

On Tuesday, Feb. 24 and Wednesday, Feb. 25, films from the 52nd Ann Arbor Film Festival were shown in Viking Theater.

Founded in 1963 by University of Michigan professor George Manupelli, the Ann Arbor Film Festival is the oldest experimental film festival in North America. Many of the film industry’s most famous directors and cinematographers have had their works featured at the festival, including Andy Warhol and George Lucas.

The event that came to St. Olaf was a stop on the festival’s annual tour that brings that year’s best films to over 35 locations, including small cinemas, museums and universities. The stop was organized by Linda Mokdad, Associate Professor of English and Film Studies. Mokdad is a graduate of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and worked as a staff member of the film fest for a time.

As with all stops on the tour, the event was split into two evenings. The first night, or “Part A,” lasted 81 minutes, and “Part B” on the second night lasted 86 minutes.

Though all were short films, entries varied in length. The longest film was Jim Finn’s 21-minute 1990s-style communist self-help video, “Encounters With Your Inner Trotsky Child.” The shortest film, “Division” by Johan Rijpma, ran for only one minute.

The festival featured filmmakers of many different nationalities and covered a variety of subject matter. Some were intensely personal, such as Wojciech Bakowski’s abstract confessional “Dry Standpipe.” Others were more politically minded, such as “Broken Tongue” by Mónica Savirón, which features poet Tracie Morris reciting her poem, “Afrika.”

As experimental films, many of the entries pushed the boundries of conventional filmmaking. Rather than following a protagonist, Lois Patiño’s “Mountain In Shadow” highlights the insignificance of humans as they ski down dark, snow-covered mountains. In “Misterio,” Chema García Ibarra depicts a long line of middle-aged women attempting to hear the voice of the Virgin Mary coming from the back of a young man’s neck. However, not every film shown was as bizarre or surreal. Kevin Jerome Everson blurred the lines between experimental and documentary film while following illegal work in a poor area of Cleveland in “Fe26.”

A major highlight from the festival was the film “Cut,” by German filmmakers Matthias Müller and Christopher Giradet. A compilation of lacerations, incisions and surgeries from popular films and television programs, the film was visually enamoring but horrifying in the same instance. The film was a compilation of lacerations, incisions and surgeries from popular films and television programs. According to the event’s program, Müller and Giradet decribe their film as “a body as a wound that never heals.”

Another eye-catching film was “Lagos Island,” which won the 52nd AAFF Ken Burns Award for Best of the Festival. That film used the perspective from a handmade laborer’s carts to document migrants’ homes on the island’s coast. The Lagos government is currently in the process of destroying these homes in an effort to “clean up the city.”

The 53rd Ann Arbor Film Festival will take place on March 24 through March 29 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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