Politics and Social Science

I was invited early on in the week to guest teach in a Politics and Social Science class. While I readily agreed to teach the class, I have to admit that I was a bit apprehensive considering the small disaster my last guest lecture was. This time, I consulted with my main co-teacher at Byåsen and was told that the students I would be working with would have a pretty good grasp of English. Still, just to be safe, I made sure my lecture was on the simpler side, which I think helped make the lesson a success.

I was asked to teach about voting in the United States and started out by covering some very basic voting qualifications:

  • Be a US citizen (in Norway if you are allowed to vote in regional elections, municipal elections, and stand as a municipal candidate as long as you have been a legal resident for at least three years)
  • At least 18 years of age on election day (the same policy applies in Norway)
  • A resident of the state in which you register (not applicable)
  • Not currently serving a prison term (felons are allowed to vote in Norway)
  • Not currently on parole or other post-release supervision (felons are allowed to vote in Norway)

After covering these basics, I explained that in the United States you need to register to vote–something that is not required in Norway.

Then I went on to explain the political parties. Again, my students thought that the Republicans were a bit strange and had a much easier time understanding the Democrats.

From there I talked a bit about what Americans vote on in elections. I didn’t get too involved when explaining presidential voting since I was pretty sure explaining the electoral college would get too confusing for the students. Next, I talked a bit about what sorts of issues Americans vote on. In order to engage my students a bit more I showed them a commercial for this November’s midterm elections. Most of the students that I’ve worked with are very very quiet so I was hoping that showing these students a celebrity studded commercial might make them a bit more talkative:

Thankfully my strategy worked! They liked watching Lil Jon transform his hit song “Turn Down for What” into a song about voting, and they had fun identifying some of the other people that appeared in the video. The video also gave them a really good idea of ballot issues. The commercial is almost overwhelming in the number of topics that it raises, and from a teaching perspective it meant that none of my students had a problem raising their hands to answer my question “What are some of the things Americans vote on?”

After that I talked a bit about how despite star laden commercials and encouragement to “Rock the Vote,” the United States experienced its lowest voter turnout in 72 years this past midterm election. The number is pretty grim at 36.6%. Because I didn’t want to leave my students with the idea that most Americans are wholly indifferent to politics, I spent some time explaining some theories on why voting rates in the United States are low. Some of the most popular theories are:

  • Voter Registration. The United States is one of the few democracies that requires voter registration in order to vote.
  • Tuesday Voting. Voting on Tuesday made a lot more sense when America was a predominantly agricultural society. Because people lived so far apart most voters would travel into town from long distances. This meant that having voting on Tuesday allowed eligible voters to spend Monday traveling into town before voting on Tuesday. Weekend voting wasn’t a practical option at the time because citizens were going to church on Sunday. Clearly the  Tuesday voting system doesn’t make much sense in a modern day context, but we have yet to catch up with the times.
  • Felon Voting. Again, the United States is one of the few democracies that does not allow current (and in some cases former) prisoners to vote, disenfranchising a significant number of the population.

If you look at the first two reasons you can see that they have a lot to do with convenience. In fact, studies on this last midterm election show that states that allow for mail in voting or early voting have high voter participation rates. But making voting easier won’t necessarily solve America’s participation problem. In fact, even though some states have made it more convenient for their residents to vote, no state had a voter participation rate higher than 60% in this year’s midterms.

After this I talked very briefly about how the United States has implemented different types of voting restrictions over time. I decided to show them part of another video, this time one showing current Harvard students taking and failing Louisiana’s 1964 literacy test. Literacy tests were designed to disenfranchise different groups of people because they were almost impossible to pass:

If you want to learn a bit more about the test you can go to the YouTube page and read more under the video’s description.

I then wrapped up by talking about modern day voting restrictions. Currently many people in the United States are talking about photo identification laws. These laws require photo ID in order to vote in certain states, and they currently disenfranchise an estimated 23 million voting aged Americans (approximately 11% of Americans).

After that I was done lecturing and it was time for an activity. I provided my students with a list of potential 2016 presidential candidates and groups of two were supposed to report on a candidate to the rest of the class. Unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden were the first candidates that my students wanted to present on. I did however stop them from only reporting on Democratic candidates and made some of them look up Republicans. While not all of the students were enthused about their candidates (none of them liked the Republicans) it was fun walking around and helping them understand what these candidates believed in and explaining political terms such as “polling” and “pro-choice”.

Visit From a Rover

Now it would be utterly remiss of me not to mention that one of the Roving Scholars, Heather, recently came to Trondheim. The Roving Scholars program is probably the coolest thing that the Fulbright Commission offers in Norway. The Rovers travel from school to school and have a series of workshops that they teach throughout Norway for the duration of the school year. If you’re interested in learning more, information can be found here. Anyways, the Roving Scholars are all amazing and well established teachers and I was really excited to see Heather and to see one of her workshops.

Heather dropped by my International English class early on Friday morning and really managed to engage with my students. The topic of her workshop was the makeup of the United States and American universities. Before this workshop, I got the impression that my students tended to view the United States as one united country. They seemed a bit surprised to learn that there are some pretty significant regional differences across the United States and that these differences range from things like accents to personality traits.

One of my favorite parts of the workshop was when Heather showed my students the infographic below. Having already given my students some background information on different areas in the United States, Heather asked them to look at the infographic and tell her what area of the country they would go to if they had a free plane ticket.

US Personality Map YouGov-01

Considering the adjectives, it came as no surprise that no one wanted to go to the East Coast. Sorry New York. A few students wanted to go to the South, more wanted to go to the Midwest, and the majority wanted to go to the West Coast. As a Californian, I am proud to say that even Norwegians know that the West Coast really is the best coast.

I also enjoyed watching my students learn more about American universities. I think the thing that they found most shocking was the cost of higher education. In Norway, higher education is free, so the price tag for an American university seems like pure insanity. We calculated out the price in NOK for attending a four year $40,000/year institution and the students were a bit stunned to learn that a bachelors degree costs some Americans around 1.2 million NOK. We did put in a good word for financial aid, but that didn’t stop my students from being taken aback at the initial price.

Overall, I think that my students learned a lot and had a good time. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing Heather again later in the school year, and I hope that I’ll get the chance to see more of the other Rovers in the spring.

National Museum of Contemporary Art

Before I had to rush off to Trondheim I had just enough time to drop by the National Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum is currently undergoing some external renovations but otherwise seems to be fine. Again this is another small art museum in Oslo. It only has two floors and I was given the impression that the ground floor is used for temporary exhibits while the second floor contains more permanent pieces of artwork. It took me about an hour to work my way through the whole museum.

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I admit that this was the first time I had ever tried using any sort of gramophone so I had fun playing around with it.

Most of the modern art on the ground floor was a bit beyond my comprehension, but I enjoyed a number of the works on the top floor. Some of the artists on display included Karl Holmqvist, Tomory Dodge, Kerry James Marshall, and Marlene Dumas. I think that I would have appreciated the museum a bit more if there was a tour that I could have taken, but at the price of 30 NOK I was still pretty happy with my visit.

IMG_1769  IMG_1765  IMG_1770 Overall I had a really fabulous time in Oslo and look forward to the next time I get to visit. Believe it or not there are still some Oslo museums on my bucket list.

Nobel Peace Prize

Now for a little background as to how I ended up in Oslo in the first place. The Fulbright Office gets a set of tickets to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony that it lotteries away every year; however, I have never had any luck with lotteries and didn’t manage to win a ticket. But, not all hope was lost. During the Fulbright orientation one of the Fulbright alumni talked about how she managed to get two tickets to last year’s ceremony from the Nobel Institute. I decided to try and follow in her footsteps and see if I could also get tickets to this year’s ceremony. So, after emailing around I was told that once the winners of the peace prize were announced I should email the Nobel Institute a compelling reason as to why I should attend. I patiently waited for October 10th to roll around and with it the announcement of this year’s winners. Then I had my hopes plummet. Considering the popularity of Malala, I assumed that there was no way I would be able to get tickets. Sure enough, after emailing in my reasons for attending, I got this email:

Once the standard invitations (from our regular list) and the invitations to the guests of the laureates have gone out, we have to wait until the latter half of November to see whether we have seats available. Only then can we look at requests from around the world and possibly grant invitations to some of these (we prioritise those that show a keen interest in this particular year’s laureates). I will add your name to the list of requests and get back to you when we know more.

I figured my request was doomed. As expected, I got an email in November thanking me for my interest but telling me that the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony was completely full. BUT to my very great surprise I was told that I could still have a ticket to this year’s CNN interview with the laureates. Considering that I was going to have a light teaching schedule that week, I immediately emailed back saying that I would love to have a ticket to the interview.

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Which is how I found myself in Oslo this week. After my tour of the Munch Museum I decided against going to the City Hall area, where the Nobel ceremony is held, and instead opted to go back to Lud’s house to watch the ceremony from the comfort of a couch. While Susan and I enjoyed watching the ceremony on television, we also kept our eyes peeled for Lud and Kyle, two of the Fulbrighters who had won the peace prize tickets. Just when we had given up all hope of seeing them, we spotted them in the last row as the laureates walked out after the ceremony. Overall the ceremony was really something worth watching, and both Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai gave great speeches that I’d recommend either reading or watching.

After the ceremony ended I made my way over to City Hall for the CNN interview. Getting into City Hall was similar to going through airport security, but overall it wasn’t too bad.

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My early bird impulses and fast walk earned me a seat in the eighth row of the audience. One great thing about the interview is that it took place in the same room where the laureates received their prizes. Even though I wasn’t able to go to the ceremony it was still nice to be in the room afterwards and see the laureates up close. The interview itself was really well done, though unfortunately this is the only YouTube video CNN has released so far:

In it, Malala talks a bit about how her family has supported her, her funny attempts to stop fighting with her brothers, and more. And while Malala has rightfully received a good amount of attention over the Nobel Peace Prize, I would also really recommend looking into Kailash Satyarthi a bit more if you haven’t already. He has also done some incredible things even if they have not received as much attention in the media.

IMG_1660  IMG_1696  IMG_1708 IMG_1682Later in the evening, Kyle and I went to the Grand Hotel on Karl Johans Gate to see the lauretes one last time and to meet with Alyssa. Here the Nobel laureates traditionally appear on the balcony at 7 pm to greet and receive a standing ovation from the crowd. Kyle and I duly paid our respects to the laureates and then headed off with Alyssa to catch up a bit more and to unwind. Needless to say, the day ended up being a truly breathtaking experience.

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Munch Museum

I have to say that one of the coolest parts about being a Fulbrighter is getting to meet other Fulbrighters. One of the current Norwegian Fulbrighters, Alyssa, happens to be the only conservation scientist in Norway and works at the Munch Museum. Alyssa graciously agreed to take me and another visiting Fulbrighter, Kyle, on a tour of the Munch museum and show us what she’s been working on. I have to say that I never really considered myself a Munch fan, so while I was not particularly excited to go through the museum, I was very excited to catch up with Alyssa and learn more about her work.

Once Kyle and I checked into the museum’s staff entrance, Alyssa came out and brought us to her workspace. I have to say her office is probably the most exhilarating and terrifying places I’ve ever been. There were about a dozen Munchs that the conservationists were working on, and it’s probably the closest I’ll ever be to that many priceless paintings with no security in the immediate area. Needless to say, Kyle and I spent the whole time terrified that we’d end up accidentally damaging one of these paintings. Luckily we managed to be accident free.

I learned a ton from Alyssa about conservation and came away from her office pretty awed. For her Fulbright project, Alyssa is working on identifying what exactly went into the paint that Munch used, something that is very important from a conservation standpoint since it helps researchers better understand why and how Munch’s paintings are deteriorating. First, Alyssa told us a bit about some of their non-destructive methods for examining the paintings:

  • Sight: I was pretty impressed listening to Alyssa talk about how much you could tell by just looking at a painting. I for example could not quite see the difference between say cerulean blue and prussian blue, but am now impressed by those who can.
  • Lighting: Putting the paintings under UV or infrared light can give conservationists an idea of what metals or other elements are in the paint, helping them guess at what specific paints were used.
  • Other Instruments: We didn’t get to see this in action, but Alyssa says there are instruments they can use to can analyze the chemical composition of the paint without actually scraping any of the paint off.

As for destructive methods, this involves taking minuscule pieces of paint off of the painting and them analyzing them directly. Alyssa told us that overall it’s much easier to analyze paintings that don’t have flat surfaces and don’t have a matte finishes since it’s easier to get samples.

Alyssa also told us that Munch is a bit of a hassle to work with from a conservation standpoint, and that Munch provides them with a lot of interesting ethical questions. Munch believed in subjecting many of his painting to a “Kill or Cure” treatment, or leaving his paintings outdoors for a few years. If the paintings survived, Munch figured that they would last forever. But because these paintings underwent such harsh treatment, it leaves conservationists with the question of whether or not paintings should be restored to their original form, or left in their dilapidated post “Kill or Cure” state. There is even debate as to whether the bird droppings that have been left on these paintings are now part of the art or are something that should be removed.

Munch is also a finicky artist in other ways. Some of his paintings have been left looking unfinished, which calls into question whether or not the unfinished paintings are in fact finished, or whether they are actually works in progress. Additionally Munch loved experimenting with different types of materials. One of the paintings we saw is in a truly sorry state, partially because Munch painted the picture on cardboard. From Alyssa’s standpoint, Munch’s experimentation makes it much harder to figure out what exactly he put in his paint. Not only did Munch mix different ingredients into his paint, apparently the paint tubes that he used don’t always have accurate ingredients labels.

Things are also made more difficult for the conservationists because the museum often loans out Munch’s works. While sending Munch’s paintings out on tours helps generate money for the museum, it can be hard on the paintings since they can suffer damage when they are constantly moved about and put on display. In case you’re wondering why you aren’t allowed to take flash photography in museums, Alyssa told me that it’s because older paint tends to contain unstable chemicals. This means that they are reactive to light, so your flash photo is actually changing the color of the painting, and causing it damage.

Additionally, conservationists still don’t have a complete grasp on all the things that can damage a painting. Alyssa told us that she used to work with someone who has been working for almost eight years on why cadmium yellow occasionally darkens over time.

Alyssa also told us a bit about conservation philosophy and how it functions in Norway. Everything that conservationists do should be both reversible and visible. Things don’t necessarily have to be visible to the naked eye, but they should show up under UV light. Alyssa even showed us one of the paintings to demonstrate. To the naked eye the painting looked completely normal, but once it was put under UV light it was clear that a great section of the painting had been damaged and restored (unfortunately Kyle and I weren’t allowed to take pictures in Alyssa’s workspace so you’ll have to use your imagination for this). Furthermore, in Norway conservationists believe that paintings should not be restored. Conservationists simply try to prevent paintings from deteriorating further and try to preserve their current state.

As for what Alyssa does, she is working a lot with Munch’s old paint tubes. Munch left everything he owned to the city of Oslo, even his hats, and that included approximately 1200 paint tubes. While many of these are from the brand Windsor Newton, their ingredients labeling isn’t always accurate. Alyssa analyzes these paint tubes as well as bits from Munch’s paintings and uses special instruments to determine what exactly went into his paint. The picture below is some of modern day paint that Alyssa occasionally uses as a baseline sample in her work.

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After patiently answering all of our questions, Alyssa showed us around other parts of the building. Unfortunately, Alyssa doesn’t have access to the museum’s vault of Munch paintings, but Kyle and I were pretty happy just to stand in awe outside of the vault door and stare at the retinal scan. She also showed us a hidden exhibit of Munch’s printing stones. Apparently the exhibit isn’t on display (and can’t be photographed) because of their reproducible quality. Since the stones are meant to mass produce Munch’s work, it would be incredibly easy for someone to take a picture of them and do just that–in short they present a copyright issue that the museum would like to avoid.

Afterwards, we went to the museum itself. The museum currently has an exhibition of Munch’s work in conjunction with a natural history exhibit. The connection between the two wasn’t really well explained but I suppose it was still nice to see the two all at once. The museum itself is pretty small and took us less than an hour to go through, but I’m definitely glad that I went. Not only did I find Alyssa’s work pretty amazing but it was nice to get a better idea of what Munch’s work is like beyond The Scream.

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Ekeberg Park and Other Small Adventures

Unfortunately, my next day in Oslo was gloomy and overcast. This normally wouldn’t have been a big deal, but it did prevent me from catching a nice view of the harbor when I went to Ekeberg Park. Ekeberg Park lies just beyond the Oslo Opera House up on a hill, and Susan told me that the view of the harbor is just gorgeous on a clear day.

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So while my view of the city was the gray mess above, the park was definitely still worth a visit. Ekeberg park is notable for the statues that it has scattered throughout the grounds. Many of these sculptures are done by renowned artists such as Salvador Dali, Renoir, and Rodin (more information on the park and statues here).

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Ekeberg Park also has an interesting World War II history. Because of its high position and sprawling views, German occupying forces often used it for ceremonial occasions. In 1940, the park even held a German cemetery. The war remains were later moved to Alfaset. According to the park’s website, the Germans also planted over 5000 mines in the park from 1940 to 1945. Apparently if you look closely at some of the tree trunks you can see markings indicating where some of the mine fields were.

After our jaunt through the park, Susan helped me look for a Norwegian sweater. Unfortunately, our efforts at the two biggest secondhand shops, UFF and Fretex, were in vain, but it was still good to be out and about town. Oslo is still a beautiful city even in winter.

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Afterwards we went to Hausmanns Gate, one of the more diverse areas of the city. Our destination: the ethnic supermarkets. While Trondheim has a handful of these markets, none of them has quite the diversity or the scale that I saw in Oslo. However, not even these markets had kimchi, something that I’ve kept an eye out for since I’ve started craving spicy food. I’ve always had easy access to spicy food, namely good Mexican food, so it’s been strange not having it as readily available in Norway.

Return to Oslo

This week I took a short trip back to Oslo for what is arguably one of the most important Norwegian events of the year: the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony. Unfortunately I like to work through my blog chronologically, so you’ll have to wait a post or two before I talk about that. Sorry!

So, starting from beginning, I took the train down to Oslo from Trondheim and it was yet again another lovely experience. There was however one key difference between this time and the last time: the amount of sunshine I was exposed to. Because of the decreasing amount of daylight and the fact that I was moving North (where we have less daylight) to South (where they have more daylight) I effectively had a longer day with a very long sunrise and sunset. Unlike my last trip, I was able to witness the start and the close of the day all from the train. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed chasing the sun and basking in the extra two hours or so of daylight. Oh, and it helped that the scenery still remains breathtaking.

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Lud, one of the Roving Scholars, and his wife Susan were my hosts in Oslo and they helped me pick out a few new spots to explore in the city. Once I got settled in, Susan and I went to one of Oslo’s bigger Christmas markets, or julemarked, on Karl Johans Gate (Oslo’s main street). While I abstained from buying things, it was wonderful to walk around and soak in the sights and smells. There was of course knitwear (hats, gloves, scarfs, sweaters, etc.) for sale but there were also animal pelts, tourist trinkets, and food. I adore food and was excited to see the caramelized nuts, baked goods, chocolate, reindeer, cheese, and even moose burgers on display. While I was tempted to try the moose burgers I ended up deciding against it due to the excellent meal that Susan had already fed me.

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