Friday, May 27, 2016

On standardized exams

British Columbia's Ministry of Education has decided to eliminate Provincial Exams as of the upcoming school year, according to this recent news article. The change is not exactly made clear in the piece, so I thought that it might be useful to explain the change as I understand it, as well as to give my reaction to the changes as a high school teacher who had significant experience with exams in British Columbia. I was not taught or trained in BC's education system, so my only experience with provincial exams in BC was as a teacher of courses that featured provincial exams: English 10; Social Studies 11; and English 12.

BC has been reworking their curriculum for several years, and the latest aspect of that revision is the elimination of subject- or course-based provincial exams as a method of evaluation. The Graduation Program will require students wanting to earn a "Dogwood" Diploma - a regular high school diploma, as opposed to the "Evergreen" that is awarded to students who were on Individualized Education Plans because they could not meet the requirements of the Dogwood due to various learning disabilities, health reasons, or behavioural requirements - to write provincially mandated exams in Math and Literacy. It seems, in effect, that these are exit exams for those two basic skills that, at first glance, do not have connection to a course grade; they are similar to the current requirement that students have to submit a "Graduation Portfolio" that proves that they are ready to graduate that is not marked other than being completed.

The BC Teachers' Federation is in favour of the change, as they see that Provincial Exams have detracted from students' learning, though they are skeptical of the timeline and the budget for the change, as well as the ability of teachers to implement the new curriculum without changes to class size, class composition, and support for students with special needs. Before I give my opinion on the change, let's take a step back and understand how provincial exams worked in BC before this recent shift in philosophy and practice.

A short history of provincial exams in BC


BC has had provincially mandated exams as part of their Secondary Graduation Program (Grade 10 to 12) requirements since 2004. Students had to write three exams in Grade 10: English 10, Science 10, and Math 10 (for either stream - Apprenticeship, the workplace-oriented stream, or Foundations, the academically-oriented stream). Students then had to write a provincial exam for their Grade 11 Social Science class - usually Social Studies 11, but Civic Studies 11 also counted - and their English 12 (or the "workplace" equivalent Communications 12), for a total of five provincially examinable subjects in their three years in the Graduation Program.

Each of the Grade 10 and 11 exams were worth 20 % of a student's final grade, and the English 12 exam was worth 40 % of the grade for the course. The Ministry provided  a significant amount of material to prepare students and teachers for the exams: they provided exemplars and answer keys for all previous exams on the Ministry of Education website; they provided lists of terms to know for each exam; and they encouraged schools to engage in professional development to help teachers know how to administer and grade exams.

Until August 2011, Grade 12 students also had the option of writing provincial exams for any subject in Grade 12; the primary purpose for writing these exams was that universities looked at those exam marks for entrance requirement. The participation rate for those exams was accordingly and predictably very low, as well under 20 % of students who took the courses - essentially the same percentage who were considering post-secondary as an immediate option - wrote the exams. The government decided - rightfully so - that the expense associated with running those exams was not worth the investment, so they eliminated them as an option.

Of course, the change was announced shortly before the beginning of the school year without any advance notice or grandfathering the results for students who had already started in the Graduation Program, so any students who might have been looking toward using those exams to bolster or buffer their grades either in Grade 12 or from previous grades (as Grade 10 exam results were looked at by prospective schools) were out of luck; granted, it likely did not affect many students, and even those who were affected were likely more relieved in not having to write an exam in their subject, but the Ministry's actions demonstrated a general lack of care for the students and the process.

My experience with provincial exams


My first teaching job in BC was my first real job in my subject areas of English and Social Studies, and I was understandably nervous in structuring my courses to fit the requirements of the exams. I was told that the Ministry investigated any significant discrepancies between course grades and exam grades, so I had to make sure that my grades were fair and accurate not only by my standards, but according to the students' provincial exam grades as well. I worked diligently not only to ensure that all concepts on the exam were included in the material studied in class, but also to ensure that the exams that I used to assess student progress during the course reflected the types of questions that students would encounter on their provincial exam.

As it turned out, I did not have to worry about my performance with provincial exams as a teacher. In my first exam, all of my students were well within the expected range, and very few students even saw their letter grade change between course work and the exam. I managed to keep that consistency over the three years I taught courses with provincial exams in BC, with a few notable exceptions from students who tried to make up for a semester's worth of slacking and not completing assignments by trying hard on the final exam; math, apparently, was not their strong suit either. 

I had one student in particular whose grades were lower on the exam than the course, but her exam marks from the course lined up with her grade on the provincial exam, so I felt that I was justified in her grades. But perhaps I was proudest of another student who required special accommodations to complete English 10. She took the course material one year without being graded before then retaking the course for credit the following year; her grades in the course and on the final were exactly the same at 65 %. As you might expect, I was proud of how I was able to adapt my teaching methods to work within that system, and I remain proud of my success in doing so to this day.


The problems with provincial exams


There were, of course, issues with the administration of provincial exams in BC (apart from the possible differences in pedagogical philosophy and practice, which I will discuss later). After having no provincial exams until Grade 10, students suddenly had three exams to write in their first academically demanding year; though students were given some standardized evaluations to complete in Grade 4 and 7, they had no impact on grades until those first three in Grade 10, so the experience was relatively new and overwhelming for students that had not been significantly challenged in that way throughout their middle school years.

There were other concerns with provincial exams. The times at which the exams could be written were inflexible, so student needs could not be accommodated as easily. There were ways in which students with special needs could receive support - extra time, a scribe, or a reader, for example - but the requirements were fairly diligent on the part of schools to ensure that students had the necessary support. There is also the fact that the nature of the assessment as an exam puts students who experience (test) anxiety at a further disadvantage.

The nature of the exams was more unforgiving, so students who may have had a teacher who was not as diligent in teaching the full curriculum were at an automatic disadvantage. Many teachers complained that having a provincial exam interfered with their autonomy, which seemed to be code for not wanting to teach everything in the curriculum. It was admittedly difficult to fit everything into the allotted time, particularly if your class were more reticent learners, but it was doable with the right planning and execution. 

The benefits of provincial exams


There were also benefits to the provincial exams for the students and for the teachers. I greatly appreciated having an external guideline to help me shape my courses and to ensure that I stayed on track with the concepts required for exams. As a teacher in my early years, it was useful to have an exam that could justify the grades that I had given to students as an external standard. And it game a shape and organization to courses (ie. English) that could have otherwise been somewhat amorphous and difficult to organize at times.

Students do benefit from exams as well. They gain experience in a more serious exam context, which will be useful in future educational contexts, as the majority of students will go on to some form of post-secondary education. Provincial exams (at least in theory) mitigate the influence of a teacher who does not pay attention to curriculum, as any teachers who are deviating from the established guidelines should (again, in theory) be discovered. 

Exams were carefully designed by a team of professionals, so the questions included should be more fair and equitable than those that one particular teacher might ask. Furthermore, the rubric for grading exams was standardized, and exams were often graded by multiple teachers with experience, so the evaluation that a student received was more likely to be reliable as a result.

There were also benefits for the education system, particularly in a province such as BC that has a fairly diverse cultural and linguistic composition in its school system, as some schools and school divisions have a high number of immigrant non-English-speaking students. Provincial exams ensured that teachers had a reliable method of gauging the progress of a varied student population, and post-secondary institutions could (theoretically) be more confident of the skills of the students entering their system.

Social Studies and English exams


To make these issues and benefits a bit more clear, I can speak specifically to the specific benefits and problems in the exams for the subjects I taught: Social Studies 11, English 10, and English 12. The Social Studies exam was, as you might expect, significantly content-based, whereas the English exams were skill-based. Many of the problems of the Social Studies 11 exam came from the demanding nature of the course, whereas many of the benefits of the English exams came from the freedoms afforded in each course.

The Social Studies 11 exam was particularly problematic, as the course itself was quite heavy. In 120 course hours (which included the hours of writing the exam), teachers had to cover the content of what amounted to three subjects. The first was 20th Century Canadian History, which would not have been as difficult had the students had any previous experience with 20th Century World History; since they had had very little, the understanding of Canada's place in events such as World War I, World War II, and the Cold War necessitated the teaching of the broader worldwide events, even in a limited fashion. 

The second was Canadian Government, which is a topic that is large enough to consume an entire course on its own, and the third was a unit on Human Geography that covered Canada's place in the world in terms of issues such as poverty, the environment, and demography, which is again enough for an entire course. It was quite difficult to include all of the necessary content in both the depth and breadth required for understanding, and it made the course and the subsequent exam very taxing on the students. 

The exam featured over forty multiple choice questions - which can be problematic as a method of evaluation for several reasons -  taken from all of those three required areas of study, as well as two essays that required students to integrate knowledge from throughout the course into a mutli-paragraph composition on a given topic of interest in 20th Century Canadian History - say, the rise of women as a political power or Canada's place as a military power. 

The final exam was a behemoth with hundreds of terms to know, including some rather obscure events of which neither I nor two friends who had studied Canadian history at an Honours or Masters level in university (one of whom taught several years of Grade 12 Canadian History in Saskatchewan) were aware before seeing it on a previous year's exam. In another case, a question asked about Canadian astronauts without having indicated that such knowledge would be required on the documentation from the Ministry; it seemed that questions of that ilk were primarily present to create the appropriately-shaped bell curve rather than to accurately reflect students' knowledge of the subject they had studied. 

Unlike the Social Studies 11 exam, the English 10 and 12 exams were skill-based. The government did not tell English teachers what pieces to study throughout the course, but rather what concepts to cover through those pieces (literary devices, poetic devices, genres, etc.). The exam featured content of different forms (fiction, non-fiction, poetry) that was thematically interlinked and all new to the students, which removed the pressure from teachers to have to teach certain content for the exam other than the concepts of which students needed to demonstrate understanding.

I still use this model of exams in my English classes now, as I am far more interested in a student's ability to apply their learned skills to a new piece of literature rather than merely reciting what they remember from what they have read (I, after all, have trouble doing that at times, especially several months after the fact, so I do not consider it to be fair to expect students to do something that I could not do.)

My opinion on provincial exams


Although it might seem at first glance that I am opposed to standardized tests as a method of evaluation by the number and scope of the problems I saw in the implementation of provincial exams in BC as opposed to the benefits, I am actually mostly in favour of standardizing exams. Most of the issues I observed were to do with the way in which BC chose to implement the exams, not in the philosophy of having the exams themselves. 

I think that skill-based exams make a lot more sense for students and teachers than content-based exams because content-based exams are more difficult to make fair without significantly reducing the testable content. I really appreciated the English 10 and 12 exams in that regard, though I thought that the Social Studies 11 exam was very unfair to the teacher and to the students because of the sheer scope of material that was required from both parties in order to succeed on the exam. I think that Social Studies 11 could have been a much more effective course and exam had there been a reduction of course content and more focus on skill-building such as critical thinking as opposed to content knowledge.

I also think that the fact that students had three exams in their first year of provincial exams was excessively stressful and unnecessary. I would support having fewer exams early on - say, Math and English - with more exams at the Grade 12 level when there is more differentiation of students according to academic inclinations.

I do see some benefits in removing provincial exams from the course grade, though I am disappointed to see that BC chose to remove them altogether rather than trying to fix some of the issues in the system. With that said, their decision no longer affects me directly, so my main concern is with the wider question of standardized exams in my current teaching context in Saskatchewan.


On standardization in Saskatchewan


Saskatchewan, the province in which I was taught and trained to teach and in which I am now teaching, only has provincial "departmental" exams for Grade 12 students under one condition: the teacher of the course is not accredited in the subject to write and administer her own exams. Saskatchewan, as I was told at my Accreditation Seminar last summer, is the only province to use this system, which I think begs the question as to why that is and whether it is, in fact, an effective and pedagogically sound system if we are the only province to still be using it. 

To be accredited in their subject, teachers in Math, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, and English must have a minimum of two years of teaching experience in their subject, have taken a minimum of university courses in that area, and attend a Seminar every five years to renew their accreditation.
(Each subject area determines the need for accreditation on its own, as I understand it, which is why only certain subjects require Accreditation; History does not, as per the decision of that subject area.) A teacher also needs to be employed by a school board to finalize their accreditation, which is why my accreditation in English remains as "Pending."

I found it interesting, though not surprising, that there was significant dissension amongst the teachers in attendance at the seminar when the topic of standardized tests came up in an exercise. Several teachers were firmly against any imposition of standardized testing, often making the argument that it challenged their autonomy and that what worked for students in one small town would not work for the next.

Saskatchewan, it should be noted, is mostly homogeneous in terms of educational demographic aside from two factors that divide students. The first, and far less pedagogically significant as I see it, is the difference between rural and urban schools, which amounts mainly to the difference in learning style and class composition; it is, in my opinion, easily solved, and not a significant reason to avoid implementing more standardized tests. Many rural schools already incorporate provincial departmental exams into their school life because they have not hired teachers who are accredited, and I don't see the rural/urban divide being that significant in terms of preventing standardization.

The far more significant factor as I see it is the experience of First Nations students, who have statistically much lower graduation rates and struggle much more within the traditional system of education, as compared to non-First Nations students. There has been a real struggle to encourage First Nations students to remain in school, and the Ministry of Education has instituted a goal of a graduation rate of 100 % for all students in Saskatchewan. It is an admirable goal, and judging from my limited experience in the public system this year, a necessary one, though there are some issues with that goal that transcend the racial composition of the student population.

The main problem with the goal of a 100 % graduation rate is that it puts the pressure on the teachers to have to find ways to help the students graduate, rather than on the students to have to graduate, as there is no change in intrinsic or extrinsic motivation for the students to change their performance. Although there are outcomes given in the curriculum that students are supposed to meet (or outdated objectives in our Grade 10-12 History curricula, which have not been updated in over two decades), the outcomes are worded in such a way (especially in English) so as to allow for a vague variety of interpretations as to how they can be met, and there is little standardization of those outcomes; in effect, not every Grade 12 diploma is equal, and a diploma from some schools is worth less than the same diploma from others.

The lack of standardized exams means that, in order to bend the application of outcomes so that students can meet them and graduate, the contents of certain courses are being compromised - particularly the required Grade 12 courses of History 30 (Canadian History), English Language Arts A30 (Canadian Literature), and English Language Arts B30 (World Literature), which happen to be my subject specialties. The Science and Math courses tend not to experience the same problems (from what I can tell), as there is a perception that those subjects are more rigorous in terms of the necessary content; also, the Grade 12 level courses in those subjects are not directly required for graduation, so students who do not want to do the work of those courses can simply avoid taking them.

The implementation of standardized exams would, in theory, make sure that teachers had to ensure that certain skills were taught and practiced, as well as providing an external source of justification for giving certain grades. It would help ensure a more standardized level of understanding for students entering post-secondary - which, according to friends of mine who work in English academia, is a very serious problem for them. It would help teachers structure courses, and it would help students know what they need to know and demonstrate in terms of the outcomes of the course.

I do acknowledge that there are some inherent issues in standardized testing, including the possibility of cultural biases, but I believe that we as teachers can be wise in how we implement these kinds of evaluations. They should be used as tools to assist teachers, and certainly not to rate their performance, and I think that putting limited standardized tests into place would be beneficial for all parties involved in education. 

I am not convinced that Saskatchewan's current system of accreditation is effective enough on its own, and I would like to see us moving toward incorporating at least one provincial exam in our English curriculum in addition to continuing to require teachers to be accredited in the subject in order to evaluate Grade 12 courses (perhaps they would be allowed to mark provincial exams on their own if they were accredited, or teach the Grade 12 English course that does not include an exam).

As for the History curriculum, I would like to see Saskatchewan adopt some method of accreditation or standardization for the required Grade 12 Canadian History course, though I acknowledge that such an endeavour would take a lot of effort. Maybe I will have to turn this into a project to complete for a Masters in Curriculum Studies someday. But before I get to that point, the first step will be to update the entire History curriculum so that it does not effectively end with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, because nothing has happened in the world at all in the past twenty-five years. I mean, it's not like the internet has changed anything, right?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Professional Questions

I did something today that I have been meaning to do for years: I updated my LinkedIn profile. I know what some of you are thinking - "that is soooo 2012" - which is probably when I started my profile on the site. It was not a difficult process by any means - it took well under an hour to bring my personal profile up-to-date - which is why I find it interesting that it took me several years to get to the point at which I finally just did it, and I realized that I might have something more to unpack about the process.

I think, that in some ways, that my reticence in updating my profile on LinkedIn has been in part because I have had difficulty in seeing myself as a professional, which has meant that I have had difficulty presenting myself that way, despite the fact that I have been a teacher for ten years (including my internship). As I have spent much of the past few weeks working through my personal branding, I have been considering what it means to be a professional and a teacher and how that particular career, along with other emerging possibilities, are part of my past, present, and future.

My Past


When I was originally determining where I wanted to go with my life when I was a teenager, I wanted to be a journalist - the next Ron McLean. I went to school with the intent of going into journalism, but by the time I was going to apply for the School of Journalism, I had enough experience in the student press to know that I did not want to go into journalism as a career. I realized that I did not want to do all of the work involved with the career, and since the world of the internet was just opening up possibilities for me as writer, I decided not to apply to the J-School. After a short period of self-searching, I decided to reorient myself and to enter the world of Education.

The first time I had considered being a teacher was when I had to do a career research project in Computer Applications 9 when I chose to look into being a math teacher. In the intervening years, I pursued English and Social Sciences with much more zeal, as I found them to be far more interesting than Math or Science. By the time I switched streams into Education, I was oriented toward Language Arts and Social Studies - not necessarily the wisest career choice for getting a job, but certainly a choice that reflected my own interests and skills as they were developing.

When I applied for Education, my friends in Education pointed out the fact that I was now working toward a degree I had openly mocked for several years; to my credit, however, I still wholeheartedly acknowledge the Mickey Mouse nature of a B.Ed and Ed classes to this day - though teaching itself is still an incredibly demanding career. I earned my degree after delaying its completion for two years while finishing my B.A., and although it took a couple of months to find a position, I started my first teaching job as a fresh-faced graduate the following fall in small-town Saskatchewan.

I got that position well into August, about a week before the school year started, and it was certainly a doozy of a teaching load; I taught English, Christian Ethics, Computers, Design, Graphic Design, Drama, Music, and French, and I constantly felt like I was way in over my head. I was relieved when my contract ended at the end of April, and I had my first (and certainly not my last) stint as a substitute teacher for May and June, during which time I was coordinating my next teaching adventure: teaching high school Social Studies and English in a small independent school in BC that was expanding its Graduation Program. I worked there for two years before numbers inexplicably retracted, and my job went with it - as did much of my professional confidence.

For the past several years, starting with 2010, April has been a difficult month. Other than that initial incident (receiving a layoff notice from my first "permanent" job), it's somewhat hard in some of those cases to pinpoint the exact events that have made April difficult. There was often a minor event each year that seemed to set me off, but the general pattern I observed has been that each event, and indeed the month itself, brought up some suppressed emotions about the state of my professional career. April is the month in which, in the wake of Easter, schools start focusing on the end of the year and the transition into the next, and that has proven to be difficult for me.

In my decade-long professional career as a teacher, I have had one year (2009) in which I knew at the beginning of June where I would be teaching in the fall. Although it would seem to be second nature by now given the normalcy of that process, I still find it difficult to be in this place yet again entering June in a week with no prospective employment for the fall, as I have found myself asking a lot of the same questions about whether this is really what I want to do as a profession.

My Present


After working for a year in yet another school that did not have a position for me for the following year, I took the month of September off to gather myself and my thoughts after the tumultuous events of the previous year. I found, however, that my temporary sabbatical caused me to ask more questions than it provided answers. I resumed substitute teaching in October, which similarly has raised more questions than it has provided answers, namely: is this - teaching, that is - still what I want to do as a career?

I have been observing ways in which teaching has changed over the past decade, and how students are different are of a different generation now, and I am finding myself in a space in which I am having to ask whether this is still a career in which I want to engage. I am having to continue evaluating whether it is worth it to undergo the possible further years of substitute teaching and temporary contracts before I can get something resembling a career as a teacher.

I was having a conversation with a friend about a month ago in which we were talking about my travails in finding a job. He asked me what I would do if I did not have to worry about money for a year, and I was unexpectedly somewhat stymied. I stammered out an answer about maybe writing, teaching, speaking, networking, church planting, and board game design. His response, somewhat predictably, was that I should figure out what I want to do and just do it - so that's what I have tried to do this year.

I have done my best to make the most of my opportunities as a substitute teacher, introducing myself to as many colleagues as possible and collecting resources along the way, but I readily admit that it is difficult to do so when you're constantly trying to figure out where you're supposed to be and the names of staff and students and when you are given little more to do than the equivalent of glorified babysitting. I do get paid well, but it is far from personally or professionally satisfying.

Subbing has, however, allowed me to explore some other possible avenues in other areas of personal and professional interest. I have done some networking within church circles and had a few interesting discussions about different possibilities in ministry, including maybe starting a new faith community. I have written more blog posts of more weight and significance in the past eight months (seventy and counting) than I had in several years. And I have spent time and energy over the past few months refining my initial game design and preparing it for submission for the 2016 Canadian Game Design Award.

Through this journey over the past year, I feel as though I am getting a much better sense of who I am and where I want to be as a professional even though I still feel as though I am a long way from any kind of final goal in any of those fields - namely education, ministry, writing, or my hobby of game design. I do, however, feel much more confident in my pursuit of education as my continuing primary professional interest, and that the other interests are sorting themselves out in terms of how professionally significant they will be, at least in the near future.

My Future


If I have realized one thing through this year of self-reflection and angst-ridden agonizing, it is that I still do want to be a teacher and that I am not yet done with this field. I still greatly enjoy teaching, and the fact that I do not get to do it very often, even as a substitute teacher, is difficult, to say the least. I thought at one point this year that I might be done with teaching, but then I realize that when I am thinking about the possibility of having my own classroom that I am reactivated, and I know deep down that I have more to do as a teacher before I move on to something else.

At the same time, I still do feel as though there are pulls, both personal and professional, to some of those other three fields I have considered, and I am continuing to hold those in the balance as I weight out my options. The challenge I am finding is keeping them all in balance right now and finding the rhythm in the midst of this season of personal exploration, particularly in combination with my the status of my wife's career and the future of our family.

I still feel as though I have more questions than answers in terms of my immediate and long-term future as far as being a professional is concerned. I would love to have something more definite as a teacher that would serve as an anchor for exploring some of the other areas in which I have professed personal and professional interest, and I am learning to be content with the idea that substitute teaching might be that anchor - at least financially - for now.

I am still exploring my the intersection of my three primary vocational fields - education, communications, and ministry - as well as game design as a hobby on the side, and I am looking forward to seeing how these different professional and personal interests continue to intertwine in my life and where they will lead me. So I guess I do have some answers, at least, even if there are still a lot of questions that I am asking.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Branded

A funny moment happened in the early midst of Bill Simmons' recent podcast with Michael Rapaport, the New York actor-cum-incendiary podcaster. As they were discussing Rapaport's number of appearances on Simmons' podcast (this was his third), Rapaport expressed his sincere bewilderment about which podcast he was appearing on, since Simmons had five or six podcasts at the top of iTunes. Simmons reassured Rapaport that he was on Simmons' main podcast, but Rapaport's confusion was valid given the amount of content that Simmons has overseen in the past six months.

I wrote about my history following Simmons six months ago directly after his previous venture, the website Grantland - which was owned by ESPN - was unceremoniously shuttered shortly after Simmons was dismissed as Editor-in-Chief (presumably because of his comments against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, though Simmons has not yet made the exact reasons from ESPN clear). Shortly after his release from Grantland, Simmons announced that he would be producing content for HBO in addition to starting his own media empire (in his words) - the "Bill Simmons Podcast Network" (or BSPN in a cheeky abbreviation that refers to his erstwhile employer).

Simmons now has his own podcast as well as several others, including podcasts that are associated with his new internet venture, The Ringer, in addition to an upcoming HBO show entitled Any Given Wednesday with Bill Simmons that premieres June 22. After several months of launching products, it seems as though Simmons and company have finally landed on some effective branding, and despite the early confusion that they are finding success with their new ventures.

Part of what I found really interesting about Rapaport's outburst was that Simmons made reference to his guest from the previous episode, Chris Sacca, who is a venture capitalist who cut his teeth with Google before starting on his own. Sacca, who is now a Shark on Shark Tank, made some very interesting observations about the idea of branding particularly as it related to online companies such as Twitter. So, in the wake of those podcasts, as well as the discussion that occurred in the wake of Donald Trump becoming the presumptive Republican presidential nominee about the effectiveness of Trump's branding, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of branding, particularly as it relates to my life and online identity.

Educational variety


I suppose I should begin with what I am referring to when I talk about "branding" in a personal sense, since it is slightly different from the business or marketing meaning of the word, which tends to focus on things like logoes, market share, and external perception. In my context, I am referring to having and presenting a consistent vision for my life, which I would say has been muddled, to put it mildly, over the past decade, as a result of a combination internal turmoil and external factors such as inconsistency in employment.

But it's not just over the past decade that my life brand has been diverse; I have always had the capacity and interest for a wide variety of subjects and activities. I was involved with many different activities in high school, and I was one of those students who not only took almost every academic course available but who was able to excel in all of them. I was fortunate enough to have been able to choose from almost any academic path that did not involve physical movement, so I chose one - Arts - that would allow me to experience a wide variety of subjects.

When I took classes in university, I wanted to try out many different disciplines, so I took classes from a wide variety of subjects; in addition to the required electives (a language, a science, a fine arts appreciation), I took multiple courses in English, History, Religious Studies, Linguistics, Ancient Greek, Calculus, and Political Studies, as well as single courses in subjects such as Logic, Economics, and Social Studies (though, oddly enough, never a course in Psychology, Sociology, or Anthropology).

Of course, even within the disciplines I pursued, I had a lot of variation, particularly in English (my major in my BA), History, and Religious Studies (my minors), and I did not really ever have to or choose to narrow my field of expertise to earn my degree. Some students figure out early what they want to do and zero in on it; I just kept my options open perpetually, and eventually I had enough credits to get a degree.

My variety of educational experiences has served me well as a teacher (more on that later), but it has also meant that, unlike many others I know, I did not settle on a particular brand during my educational career. Even now, as I consider possible future educational aspirations, I could conceivably see myself pursuing multiple graduate level studies in at least four distinct fields: English; Communications; Education; and/or Theology. It seems entirely possible that my brand, as it were, will not be defined by my education, but rather the other way around (ie. that my brand will define my education).

Online


I have used the Life of Turner branding online for a dozen years, but as I have reflected on my online presence in general, I have realized that my branding, such as it stands, is kind of a mess. In a sense, my branding is on point, as this blog has always been intended to be about the things that are going on in my life, which it is. The issue is that there are a lot of different things going on in my life that interest me, so this blog has covered a wide variety of topics: pop culture and politics; movies and music; sports and Survivor; nerd culture and board games; education and economics; current events and Canadian culture; Christianity and the church; theology and thrifting; and much more.

I have used various side projects over the years to channel some of those interests in a more concerted fashion at various points over the past decade, but this is the only forum that has lasted - mostly because I keep posting here - and I have incorporated everything here because it's just a lot easier than diffracting my various interests into disparate fora. The resulting "brand", as it were, is an amalgam of those many interests, with little focus on any particular area; call it "buckshot branding", if you will.

Social media has only magnified the muddledness of my branding rather than clarifying it, in part because I have never taken the time to really learn how to invest effectively in each platform. I have a significant presence on most of the major social media platforms, but my involvement has been somewhat sporadic and inconsistent at times across the board, and I feel that I have been able to use very few of the tools of social media well. I have mostly used them for broadcasting my thoughts, rather than interacting with others, and they mostly reflect the same kind of mixed branding that I find in this blog, as I discovered in my recent delving into my archives.

A Deep Dive into Life of Turner


When I started going down the rabbit trail of looking at my life and online branding over the past twelve years, it was only natural that I would make my way to where it all started: with a deep dive into the archives of my blog. In the wake of these thoughts and my recent post about blogging, I decided to do something I had been meaning to do for years: go through all of my old posts and do some much needed tagging and editing. I have known it needed to be done for a long time, but I just did not want to face the awkwardness of reading all of those posts, especially from the first couple of years of blogging. So, I took a deep breath and started on a deep dive that took me several days to complete.

I have to say that I cringed a lot at my early twenties angstiness. I winced at my desperate pleas for love in the midst of emotional pain. I was chagrined and embarrassed at my declarations and my pop culture lists and my random collections of thoughts and the kinds of things that I thought when I was 21 or 25 or 30. I was genuinely surprised at some of the things that I had published, whether because of the amount of information divulged, the raw emotion featured, the odd tone, the awkward use of third person narrative in the early years, or the lack of composition in the writing of many of those posts.

Though I recognized that I was the person who wrote those posts - and in some cases, I could even remember the circumstances under which I wrote them - it felt like I was reading things that were written by someone else, and I would make the argument that in some ways, I was. I am not the same angsty student I was in my early twenties, or the same person I was in my young adulthood in the early years of my career and marriage. The ways in which I worked through issues of life and faith - often with a very Christianese lens and filter - are not the same as they are now, and neither is the way in which I communicate my methods of processing to the world.

Although I found it intensely emotionally draining to go through that process, I did also find that it was rewarding in some respects, as I began to see ways in which who I was in my early twenties has shaped who I am now and I do see the personal growth that I have made over the years. It's more than a little awkward realizing how public I was with so much of my life, but I also was heartened to see comments from so many different people throughout those years, many of whom have continued to encourage and support me on this journey.

Furthermore, it was interesting to see that some elements of who I am have continued right from the start of Life of Turner. I have posts dating back to my first month of blogging about music and movies, and some of the annual rhythms I have adopted - Year in Review, Oscar picks, Stanley Cup predictions - had their roots in my first year of blogging. Despite all of the emotion and awkward composition, there is still a sense of "Turner-ness" that permeates the entirety of this blog. There are, of course, interesting questions that my journey raised about how to carry those early posts into the future of whatever Life of Turner will become, but at least now I know which questions to ask, even if I don't have the answers.


On Branding and Vocation


I find it interesting that there are elements of my "brand" that are coming across clearly in spite of what I feel as muddled presentation. I had several people contact me before Christmas because they wanted to buy board games for presents, and they knew that I would probably be able to help them. People routinely post random things on my Facebook page that they know will interest me, and many of those links and comments come from our shared history and the understanding of the kinds of things that seem like I should be interacting with - the kinds of things that would be "on brand" for me, some of which are embarrassingly absent from my experience to that point.

Perhaps my favourite incidence of my personal life and online branding in action was at a games night last summer. I sat down to play a game - The Manhattan Project, if you are interested in such things - and, before he said anything else, a friend who I had just added on Facebook, without any prompting or even saying "hey", asked "so, are you a pastor?" I stammered for a second before explaining that, although I was not a pastor that I had worked in Christian education and in ministry, so his guess was pretty close. His response was that he could tell from my Facebook page, which I found interesting because I rarely post overtly faith-based links and generally try to avoid sounding too "Christianese" online - sometimes a little too much so, as I have had a tendency of avoiding topics of faith entirely because of the issues with being branded in that fashion.

Many of the issues that I have had with branding are related to those ideas of education and ministry, as I have written about many times throughout the history of Life of Turner. I have continually struggled with what to share and how much to share because of the social expectations of those fields. I acknowledge that some of those expectations may only be perceived on my part, but I have seen and heard enough stories of people who have been trapped in something they posted online that I have been overly cautious about what I say online.

The intersection of those two vocational fields - education and ministry, I mean - has also furthered my overzealous pursuit of caution, as I spent the first eight years of my teaching career primarily in Christian education in schools with many different traditions - Evangelical, Anglican, Reformed, small town Saskatchewan, Seventh Day Adventist - and I was always hypervigilant about the fact that I did not want to post anything that could be seen as incendiary, so I rarely posted anything about my faith other than limited anecdotes of personal experience.

I broke that silence once last year, and I received more accolades for that post - "The Church Always Reforming" - which was about my initial struggles in returning to the Evangelical church back in Saskatchewan - than I have for almost any other post I have written, especially in recent memory. The positive feedback from that experience has inspired and propelled me to write much more biographically over the past year, and although I have not directly discussed issues of faith, theology, or ecclesiology as often as I would have liked in that time, I do feel as though I have made progress in being open in how I discuss those things in a way that still acknowledges those external vocational limitations.


Forge Camps


As I was considering my current branding, particularly in terms of vocation, I was thinking about times in which I was able to execute the process of branding effectively. My attention turned to my time with Forge Camps, the summer urban day camp program at our church in Victoria. I came on as the Director for Forge Camps in the summer of 2012 after the program, despite a seven-year history in the community, was coming off of a lean year in terms of numbers and profits. I was part of the Leadership Team that was making the decision of whether to continue with the venture or whether to take a temporary or permanent break from the ministry; after some deliberation, we decided to hire a more experienced Director, and I realized soon thereafter that I could take that position and help rebuild the program.

I knew that there was a challenge ahead of me, despite the fact that there were some existing relationships and partnerships with previous campers, and that the Camps would have to build their branding from the beginning. I was privileged to have two very strong marketing minds guiding me through the process, and we worked hard to rebrand the program in the months leading up to the starting week in early July. We streamlined and refined our name, our web and social media presence, our logos, our program, and our visual and practical theme - "Play and Create" - which we also decided to carry over into our Sunday gatherings for that summer.

But, despite all of our hard work, we had only one camper registered just two weeks before camp was supposed to start, and we had to ask some hard questions about whether we were going to continue to move forward with Camps that summer. We decided to continue on with the camps, and we were glad we did, as we ended up having a great summer with 125 kids that paved the way for the next two years. We kept the branding consistent, including maintaining the programming and further refining the name, and by the time I ended my third year as Director, we had attendance of a hundred and fifty campers that summer and a hundred and fifty families in the community over the three years I directed the camps.

I was not only successful in establishing the brand of Forge Camps; I was also successful in establishing the brand of me as the Forge Camps Director. I had never occupied a role like that before, but I found it easy and natural to step into the position and to assume the duties therein, and it quickly became an essential part of my involvement in that community as well as a rhythm of life. When I was in the greater community, I often encountered people (children or parents) with whom I had connected through Forge Camps, and I found it quite easy to continue to function with that branding even when I was not directly in that role (ie. during the school year).

When I think of why that particular branding of Forge Camps was successful, I come back to the fact that it took four years of work before I came in, as well as three years before that, to work through a lot of the issues associated with creating a successful program and brand. I was fortunate enough to come at a point that I could use what had been done and to move forward from that point, but it would not have been possible to do without all of the years of work that came before me. There was initiation on my part, to be sure, but there had also been revelation that had some through lived experience in a community.

Revelation of vision


A huge part of establishing branding effectively is having a clear, unified vision for a product. In the history of commercial branding, there are instances in which companies have had a very clear vision from the start, but there are many circumstances in which companies discovered the market or branding for their product in the process of marketing it (I think particularly of Dr. Pepper's move from medicinal application to soft drink or Sprite's integration in the hip-hop community in the 90s). Often, there is a combination of intention and revelation that accompanies the understanding and application of vision.

When I was in leadership with the Forge, the first retreat I attended after joining ended up being a five-hour conversation about creating a vision statement. I remember that I came up with a wording in the first ten minutes that ended up as our final statement with a couple of minor amendments - so why did it take so long? We had to take the time to sort through what it meant to have a vision statement and whether we needed one before parsing the individual pieces of the statement - which we did - before we could settle on the final statement.

But the vision there was not complete, by any means, and it took another five years before we as a community were able to expand on that short initial statement with further core values and missional priorities that could help guide the community in the future. I was able to help establish those documents within the community before I left leadership, and now the Forge is thriving with a clear sense of purpose and meaning.

I believe that their current success is directly due to the fact that we spent five years discerning the vision for that community and establishing the branding for how the community was going to function; I do not take personal credit for their success, other than acknowledging that I did what I was called to do in my time there and that I merely labored as I could to make the community better before I left.

Personal vision and prophetic identity


I mention the journey of the Forge not only because of its formational role in helping me understand the process of determining vision and because of the influence of the people in that community in my own life, but also because I have similarly had both intention and revelation in my process of establishing vision in my life over the past several years, particularly as it has been tied into my journey into the prophetic wing of the Christian faith. Some of this terminology may be unfamiliar to some of you, so I will do my best to explain what I mean and to provide context as I go along here.

In the summer of 2010, my wife and I went to Bethel Church in Redding, California for a conference entitled "School of the Prophets", which is all about equipping people who have a sense of a prophetic call on their lives. Although the term "prophet" might initially invoke images of dudes with big bushy beards telling the rest of Israel why and how God is judging them and just what fate will befall them if they don't turn from their wicked ways, it is much different from that in current church use.

The relatively recent revival of the prophetic in Christianity can be linked with the rise of Pentacostalism in the past century and is rightly associated with developing a culture in which the Holy Spirit is actively engaged by the community in an encouraging and supportive way. I recognize that there has been abuse of the prophetic in a lot of churches, but I still believe that it is an important part of the life of the church and that those abuses do not negate the entire enterprise.

Bethel is a community that has emerged as one of the leaders in Spirit-led engagement within North American Evangelicalism, and it has developed a culture in which people are encouraged to take risks and which embraces, rather than shies away from, mysterious aspects of faith such as the use of prophecy. We were traveling in the area at the time and we felt a pull to go to this conference, and through a variety of circumstances including having accommodations and fees being provided through relative strangers, we ended up being able to attend the conference.

One of the things that was taught at that conference was that we should spend time discerning a personal "prophetic identity" statement that could serve as a vision for how we interact with the world.. I was given a further personal word to spend some time investigating my last name because it held a key to my prophetic identity. So, of course, I put it on my "to do" list and didn't do it for six years - until two weeks ago.

I had a night on which I could not sleep, which is usually a clue that God has something to talk to me about. I got out of bed at midnight, grabbed my journal, and started writing, which is fairly typical for those kinds of nights, and I suddenly felt a pull to begin doing some research into my last name.

I knew that "Turner" was associated with lathe-workers who did intricate work, but I discovered some new aspects to my last name that were very informative. "Turner", according to one source, may have been associated with other aspects of "turn", including acting as a translator or interpreter. According to another source, "Turner" may have also come from an Old German name that meant a "guard for a tower". These meanings, in addition to the meanings of my given names - "leader" and "high or noble", helped immediately inspire me to compose a first draft of a personal prophetic identity:

"To guard and to guide as I lead with integrity in learning the language and practice of life and faith through communications, education, and ministry."

It is, admittedly, a bit of a mouthful, and it will probably need to be further refined in the future, but the point is that, after six years, I finally have something to work from through this recent revelation. I have had to live in the tension of discerning my vision and my brand for several years, so I am understandably excited to be making progress in this respect.

The idea is that this prophetic identity will be able to serve as a personal vision statement that will in turn work as a functional filter for future endeavours, and that any changes to my brand will ultimately be filtered through this vision statement (or whatever final version it ends up taking). I will use it, in combination with other tools, to help determine whether something is part of my "brand" or not, and I am excited to see how that process unfolds.

Roles


Reflecting on my time as Forge Camps Director has made me think about the roles that I take in life and how those play out in terms of branding. We all have many different roles in our lives in different areas: some of those roles that we have, of course, are relational - spouse, family, friends; some are vocational (even if they are not paid positions) - in my case, those are in the fields of education, communication, and ministry; and some are recreational - for me, that mainly includes board games and pop culture.

For my last three years in Victoria, being the Camp Director was one of my vocational roles, along with being a Teacher-on-Call and Moderator of our church. I had established relational roles within our community, as well as with my community in Saskatchewan, and I had recreational roles that were also well-understood within my community, such as my love for board games and video games.

I recently picked up Donald Miller's interactive life workbook Storyline 2.0, in which Miller purports to use methods of writing screenplays to help you understand and shape your personal narrative; he described how he learned this process in his own life in his memoir A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, and he subsequently created a company to help others to do it. Although I have not yet worked through the book, the concept that stood out in my initial scan of the contents was the idea of roles. In Miller's model, he states that a character should have at most five roles that they are occupying in order for their story to be effective; when I last counted in my own life, I was juggling three or four times as many.

I have had to re-establish and re-evaluate my roles in a new context, and that is part of what has been difficult in the process of re-branding myself, as it were, back in Saskatchewan. I have not had a community in which my roles are (consistently) understood, and that has caused me to have to open up a lot of questions in terms of my life branding that were resolved in Victoria, even only if for that particular season.

Part of the challenge in this season is determining which of the roles I have taken on as my brand are actually meant to continue, and which are meant to be left in the past. I am in a time of transition with my brand, such as it is, and I am going to have to make some deep cuts in order to move forward, particularly in light of the revelation of this new vision. And that means that I might have to even go "off brand'.

Off Brand


In the wake of all of this rumination about branding, I encountered an article entitled "Off Brand" by Sarah Bessey, one of my new favourite writers. Bessey, the author of Jesus Feminist, is, like me, a Western Canadian who has been blogging for twelve years; the difference, of course, is that she has made a career of writing and preaching and has become a leading inspirational voice in the post-modern North American dialogue, whereas I have not.

The post, which I highly encourage you to read after finishing this one, is about her experience having their fourth unexpected child and how she had to learn to go "off brand" and try things that she had not experienced with her first three children. She was faced with hard decisions about who she was and what it meant to go "off brand" and to do things differently with this child (in particular during the process of weaning her off of breastfeeding), and she ultimately arrives at the conclusion that she had chosen to stick to her brand over choosing what would have been best for her.

There are times in which my confusion in brand has manifested in choosing to stick to something I have associated with my brand in the past, whether it is currently a part of my life or not. Part of the issue that I have had is in chasing so many brands and roles over the years that I do still have confusion as to which ones need to stay and which ones can go, but the presence of these brands and roles has also obfuscated my ability to discern my current roles well - hence, the identity statement as filter.

I will explain by returning to an example from my time with Forge Camps when I went "off brand". I have spent most of my summers at some type of camp since I was ten years old, so I developed a robust repertoire of silly songs that I used throughout the week to engage kids. In my first summer as Forge Camps Director, I was responsible for leading the ForgeKids moment in our Sunday gathering, so I decided that it would be fun for the kids (many of whom had been at camp during the week) to lead everyone in one of their silly songs each week.

Of course, what made it more fun was that I gave no advance notice of my plans, and so we just started doing one of the silly songs. My pastors, both of whom are very dear friends, were incredulous, and I found out after the fact that they turned to one another and said "did you know he could do that? I didn't know he could do that." In the eyes of many people in the church, I was a preacher, an administrator, and a leader, but I wasn't the guy who would do the "funky chicken" or lead the "Tootsie Wootsie."

I think that part of the reason that I had such success with Forge Camps was that I felt the freedom to go off brand because I was in a safe space with people who knew me and who believed in me. I was not having to constantly think about my brand because people knew my character, and that meant that I could take risks. When I think about what made me especially successful in that setting in leadership and in directing camps, it is the fact that I knew that the people who were there with me knew me, loved me, and were willing to stand up for me even if it seemed like I was taking risks.

I recognize that I am not only having to determine my brand here, but also to determine what my brand might become, and that might mean going "off brand" and trying some new things. I had some success with that earlier in the school year as I explored the art of domesticity, and now I would consider baking to be something that I can do with a level of expectation of success. I am not sure how my brand will grow and change and develop, but I do know that I will have to take some risks and go "off brand" at times to see what sticks.


Conclusion


Like some of my other recent posts, this post is an amalgamation of several strains of thought that all combined to form a larger view of the topic at hand. As I continued to write out my thoughts, I found ways in which they connected even when they were not apparent at first, and although the post began to swell and grow with each new piece I included, I felt that it somehow all made sense together. I let it sit for over two weeks - something I do not often do with blog posts - and I still found that I felt the things that I was expressing, so I decided to keep it as is.

This post, then, is a synecdoche of my blog, which is in turn a synecdoche of my life (a synecdoche is a literary device in which a part represents the whole or the whole represents a part). In all three (post, blog, and life), I have had to work through my branding, including my vision, my roles, and the communities in which those things are coming to fruition. I am finding success lately in both my writing and my life, and I am continuing toward clarifying my brand in every area.

I am currently continuing to work through my online branding and what this space will look like in the near future. I am very aware (as I have been for years) that it does not entirely reflect my current reality, and that I need to rework my online presence so that it is more effective in presenting who I am to the world. The first step has been rejuvenating my flow of content, so now I feel as though I can spend more time and effort on the vision for Life of Turner and how it fits into the bigger picture, as that seems to be starting to clear up, too.

I also cannot shake the feeling that part of what I am learning here, beyond the lessons and life changes I am immediately processing, is how to be a writer, and I still cannot discount the possibility that I am already drafting material for a book someday. This post, and those like it, have a weightier feel than some of my fluffier posts, and I am excited for what has been unearthed in my life through this writing process.

I hope that my processing here has also helped you consider your branding and vision, and that I have been able to inspire you in some way through what I have written, no matter how insignificant it might seem. It seems that I do not often receive direct feedback and that I am writing in a vacuum, so consider this your open invitation to use whatever methods at your disposal (commenting on the post, Facebook comments, direct message, a phone call) to let me know how this post has affected you and for me to process your branding - or mine, for that matter - with you.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Thoughts on Captain America: Civil War

There was a time several years ago, in the wake of The Avengers, when I was on the verge of being out on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I enjoyed Iron Man 3 well enough, I mostly ignored Thor: The Dark World, and I mostly felt that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, although somewhat interesting, was a little too weighty for its own good. I loved Guardians of the Galaxy, which brought my interest in Marvel back, and although I had mixed thoughts on The Avengers: Age of Ultron last year, I knew that Captain America: Civil War would really be the deciding factor for whether I continued on with the MCU or not. Spoiler alert: Civil War did what it needed to do, and it restored my confidence in the MCU.

I had considered writing a full-fledged review of Civil War, but I think it makes more sense to run through the highlights and areas of concern from this thirteenth (!) installment in the MCU before delivering some of my thoughts in summary. I will begin with ten things that I think the movie did well - mostly individual characters - and then conclude with ten things that were problematic about the movie - mostly framing and plot.

Spoilers, of course, are abundant, so proceed at your own risk.

The positives


Iron Man - The big news for Civil War, of course, was the inclusion of Iron Man, as Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark remains the most interesting character in the MCU right now in terms of development and back story. Granted, he has had more movies (six, including this one) for that to happen, but Stark is, I think, a fundamentally more interesting character than any of the others. Downey again steals the show here, proving why he is the most important actor in the MCU. If I had to choose between Captain America and Iron Man, I'm still on #teamironman. But really, I'm on #teampanther.

Black Panther - New hero Black Panther is introduced without anyone knowing who he is (other than comic nerds, of course), and he steals the show. He is the most compelling character, and he forms the moral centre of the resolution of the film. I would argue that his storyline is one of the most interesting in the MCU right now, and I am very excited for the standalone movie directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed) in 2018.

Black Widow - Scarlett Johansson again proved her chops with yet another performance that belies a depth of character that her screen time does not necessarily indicate. She was strongand effective, I really believed her character's actions fit with her development, and it's about time that she got her own movie.

The Winter Soldier - I really appreciated the way in which this film continued to develop the Winter Soldier storyline and how it was resolved in the end. His character arc in this film and the previous Captain America are one of the highlights of this subseries, and I think that Bucky Barnes is much more interesting than Steve Rogers.

Spider-Man - It only took six tries over fifteen years, but we finally have the best cinematic Spider-Man. Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man was a little too doe-eyed in wonderment, and the original trilogy lost its way by the third installment. Andrew Garfield's Spidey was great in the original reboot, but he was a little too cynical and weighed down by the needs of building a franchise in its sequel. Tom Holland's Spidey is very young, energetic, comedic, and provides a much-needed levity to the proceedings. Some might argue that his presence was distracting or unnecessary, and I can see that argument, but I'm glad he was included nevertheless.

Ant-Man - I really enjoyed Ant-Man when I watched it recently, and Rudd does a great job lightening his scenes in this movie and providing a "normal" presence in the movie. He also balances out Spider-Man in terms of comic effect, and I just like the character.

Increasing diversity - I was pleased to see more diversity in this film than previously in the MCU. There were several minorities represented as well as more strong women, and it is apparent that Marvel is trying to diversify its roster of heroes. That said, it is still by far dominated by white dudes, and there is a lot of ground left to cover, but I was heartened to see some progress.

The big fight at Leipzig Airport - There is really only one big fight scene in Civil War, when the heroes go toe-to-toe , but it rivals any other major fight in the MCU (the Avengers in New York, the Avengers taking on Ultron, all of the Iron Man suits in Iron Man 3) in terms of spectacle and entertainment.

Real world integration - There is something to be said for the way in which the MCU is developing its timeline and geography in a way that genuinely evokes the real world and feels "lived in", despite the fantastical nature of much of the content therein. When Tony Stark comments on starting out eight years ago, it parallels the fact that the MCU started eight years ago with Iron Man, which helps ground the story (especially since it's about to get so much more ungrounded in the near future).

Conversion of the "Civil War" storyline - One of the things that was exciting about the lead-up to Civil War was wondering how the filmmakers would convert the heart of the "Civil War" storyline while eschewing much of the convolution and confusion of the comic series - much like in X-Men: Days of Future Past. I thought that the MCU version of the Civil War storyline captured the core of the conflict - Iron Man and Captain America disagreeing over the role of government in the operation of superheroes - and made it much more streamlined and accessible.

The problematic pieces


Shaky cam - It seemed that the Russo brothers were going for a mid-00s Mission: Impossible / Bourne feel with this movie (and to that end, they mostly succeeded), but, like the directors of those movies, they need to learn how to use a tripod. Shaky cam does not add to "realness" or make it feel "authentic"; it is a distraction and it is frustrating, especially when it is used at times when it need not be.

The complexity of the characters - Part of the problem of the MCU at this point is the sheer number of characters in both the "major" storyline (the Avengers) as well as each off-shoot. The main heroes are not that difficult to track; it is all of the assumed knowledge about more minor characters that drags down and distracts the viewer. It would have been easier had I rewatched Winter Soldier more recently than when it was released in theaters, but I found the first few minutes somewhat confusing trying to sort out who was who and what was going on. Marvel has stated that their goal is that each movie could be a "standalone" from the others, but this movie did not feel like it stood on its own.

Emotional resonance for all characters - With that many characters to juggle, there is also the issue of creating satisfying story arcs for all of the characters. Although, as I mentioned earlier, Black Panther and Black Widow were particularly satisfying, there were several characters that did not have meaningful arcs or for whom resolution seemed a little abbreviated or abrupt or for whom there was little to do. I suppose that's natural when there are so many characters, but it seemed a little overstuffed to me.

The pacing - I cannot imagine that it is easy to try to keep a movie with this many characters and this much exposition exciting, which is why I was not surprised that Civil War had some issues with pacing, especially in the sheer amount of exposition. There were some great action sequences, but I thought that the movie dragged in the first third before picking up momentum in the last third.

The Sokovia Accords - The key conflict of the movie concerns the signing of the Sokovia Accords, an agreement amongst 117 members of the United Nations that would limit the powers of superheroes to function under a supervisory UN committee. It's an intriguing idea and a way to further the "real world implications" of the MCU on a global scale, but there are a couple of issues that arise in the way the Accords are used in the movie.

First, that number of 117 represents only 60 % of the current membership of the United Nations - slightly less if the MCU states of Sokovia and Wakanda are added to the 193 current real-world members - which begs the question of what is happening in the other 40 % of member states that they are not signing. Second, I did not find that there was a satisfactory resolution of what happened with the Accords, which I'm assuming were signed, and there were a few questions that remained at the conclusion of the film, especially about how the Accords would be implemented in the MCU in the future, that perhaps one scene might have dispelled.

Captain America - Captain America himself is a bit of a problem, as his character arc is just not that compelling. The "fish out of water" story, is limited in its scope, and he's mostly the straight man to all of the big personalities in the MCU at this point. He has the whole "American values" thing going on, but I think it's a challenge to really go into any of the nuances that would make the character interesting because of the amount of attention that has to be paid to all of the other characters and the plot. One friend supposed that Cap might die in Infinity War, and I tend to think that analysis might be correct, since it would bring a new pathos to his character arc, as well as allowing for a new (more interesting) person to take over being Captain America - Sam Wilson, perhaps?

The resolution of Cap's storyline - I did not find the final resolution of the film to be very satisfying on several levels. I did not think that the conflict between Cap and Iron Man would have been solved so easily, and I do not think that there were enough consequences for Cap's actions. I know a lot of people were #teamcap for this movie, but I just saw his actions as irresponsible and ill-informed, and I was displeased that he was not held accountable for what he had done; in fact, his anti-authoritarian streak was lauded by the conclusion. After all of the discussion of the ethical ramifications of the actions of the Avengers, to have Cap not suffer at all for his actions seems to be short-sighted at best and narratively unresponsive at worst.

Hawkeye - Hawkeye suddenly appears halfway through, despite a mention of his retirement earlier in the movie. I heard one commenter state the problem that Hawkeye has a different character in each movie, and I don't entirely disagree with that analysis. It seems like the MCU does not know quite what to do with Hawkeye, and I don't think it was the right choice to bring him in here on Cap's side, especially because he has so much to lose with his family. Sure, it was easy to bring him in because his skill set and character are established in the minds of the viewers, but I think that his inclusion was the most awkward of all of the heroes.

African-American sidekicks - On the one hand, Marvel's commitment to increasing diversity is laudable, and Black Panther is a big step in the right direction. On the other hand, much of the African-American presence in the film is reduced to Falcon and War Machine, who are quippy sidekicks to Captain America and Iron Man, respectively. War Machine does receive attention with his storyline, but the issue that

The big bad (Zemo) - I suppose it was slightly inevitable that whichever bad guy organized the action behind the scenes would be underwhelming given all of the heroes fighting in the foreground, but I found myself a little surprised at how ineffective Helmut Zemo seemed as a character. He worked as a plot device to keep everything going, and I appreciated the final resolution and how he was a foil to other characters, but he just seemed a little on the weak side to me.

Overall review


As I consider all of my points in both categories, it might seem that I did not enjoy the movie, which is not true. I did enjoy the movie for what it was, and I would rank it as one of the better movies in the MCU (definitely top 5, probably top 3). It was a great popcorn flick, a fun superhero movie, and one that I will watch and enjoy again.

Civil War had a difficult task, and that I thought it did well in terms of developing the MCU. Civil War had more history to process than any previous MCU tentpoles, as it continues to expand on the storyline from Age of Ultron while adding in three new characters (Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and Black Panther) in addition to establishing the route that the MCU will take for the next four years in Phase Three, and I think its effectiveness in accomplishing that task is the movie's greatest strength.

At the same time, I felt that there was something askew about Civil War, and it felt (to me) that it did not quite all hang together as movie on its own. Most of the pieces were there for it to work, and it was close to cohesive, but there were enough things that didn't quite work that I came away with more questions than answers and I was not quite satisfied with the way the end product came together. Perhaps it is in part due to the fact that it is almost impossible to rate this movie on its own, but the combination of issues that I mentioned made the end result a little less than satisfactory as a movie.

I am willing to admit, however, that my somewhat dissatisfaction might just be my own hang-ups, and that I might ultimately be asking a Marvel movie to do something it can't do on its own. Maybe the fact that the MCU movies are all tied together is both a benefit and a challenge for each entry in the series, and it is really not that possible to evaluate each piece on its own any more than it is possible to separate individual episodes from a narrative seasonal arc. It seems possible that Civil War is as good as MCU mainline story movies get, and any further internal cohesion is just not possible considering all of the things that are being included in each of these movies.

The Strange Future of the MCU


The discussion that I find really interesting about Civil War beyond the movie itself is that it is the last piece before the crown jewel (pun intended) of the MCU, Infinity War, despite the many films that are yet to be released in the MCU. The main storyline of the MCU started with Iron Man, but it came to its initial fruition with the sequence that started with The Avengers, continued with The Winter SoldierAge of Ultron, and now Civil War, with Infinity War representing the culmination of the overall narrative.

The complexity of the MCU is increasing, and it's only going to get stranger (pun intended) over the next ten films in Phase Three, especially with the number of films being released each year increasing from two to three starting in 2017. Before The Avengers: Infinity War combines all of the strands of the MCU in a cosmically mystical mash-up in May 2018 and May 2019, there are five films set for release in the MCU: Doctor Strange (November 2016); Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (May 2017); Spider-Man: Homecoming (July 2017); Thor: Ragnarok (November 2017); and Black Panther (February 2018), with Ant-Man and the Wasp (July 2018) and Captain Marvel (March 2019) coming in the year between the two tentpoles.

With Civil War in the books, the speculation about Infinity War is only increasing, and with the Russos announcing that there will be 68 (!) characters returning, it is shaping up to be either a brilliant summation of well over a decade of creative planning or a gigantic mess, with little ground in between. There are some interesting possibilities about how the existing characters will come together and which new characters will be introduced (Adam Warlock?), but suffice to say that the internet has enough speculation out there that I do not feel the need to indulge.

What I find perhaps more interesting is the possibilities for Marvel beyond Phase Three, which seems funny to say since Phase Three has only barely begun. Nevertheless, Marvel has not yet announced anything beyond 2019, and though I cannot imagine that they would let this money-printing machine go, it is difficult to imagine how they might proceed after Infinity War without doing some retooling and rebooting.

By the end of the second Infinity War movie, many of the principal characters will have been active from anywhere between five and twelve years, and it is hard to imagine a number of the Phase One heroes (Thor, The Hulk, Captain America, and Iron Man, in particular) continuing on in any meaningful capacity beyond that point - to the point that it is not inconceivable that, as I mentioned earlier, some of them might find ways to pass their abilities and/or mantles onto new actors. (Besides a new Cap, I could see She-Hulk and She-Thor becoming realities at that point.)

There seem to be a few givens for Phase Four - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, a Black Widow solo spin-off, sequels to a number of the movies that will be released in the remainder of Phase Three, and likely one or two new characters along the way (Venom, Namor, or She-Hulk?), but at this point it seems as though Marvel would need to start doing some deep cuts to make the movies interesting, as they will have mined a lot of the most interesting characters in the previous decade. Still, they have managed to keep it going this long, so I would not bet against Marvel at this point.

The other question is where the overall arc of the MCU will go after Infinity War. It's not as though there is a shortage of material in the five-plus decades of Marvel's history, but there are not as many villains that would present the kind of large-scale concerns that Loki, Ultron, or Thanos do without going to a much more esoteric space. It seems like the best bet would be to try to rescue the rights to the Fantastic Four characters from Fox and introduce them, Dr. Doom, and Galactus to the MCU in Phase Four, but who knows if that will work, especially considering how Fox has now twice butchered a film version of the first family of Marvel.

There are other possibilities that could take place within the MCU - Inhumans, Secret Wars, the Kree/Skrull War, Kang the Conqueror, a more intense Baron Zemo, Korvac, Fear Itself, Secret Invasion, or The Ultimates, to name a few - but it seems as though there will have to be some narrative manipulation along the way to make some of those work within the established MCU. I do not doubt that they could make them happen, but that disconnection from the real world into the cosmos may prove to be problematic at some point; I suppose it all depends on how the Infinity War movies end up.

Civil War has demonstrated that, despite whatever minor issues may belie individual movies in the series, the creative team at Marvel does have a strong guiding hand over the entire series. At this point it still seems like we can trust them to take the MCU in the right direction and that those of us who are invested, even if it is only in discussions like this, have not misplaced our trust. All those #teamcap supporters, though, might need to rethink their position.

Friday, May 13, 2016

NBA and NHL 2016 Playoffs: Halfway Update

This is why the teams actually play the games.

If you had told me before the season that the Oklahoma City Thunder would beat the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the NBA Playoffs, I would have believed you, as both teams would have been ranked among the top five in the league (along with Golden State, Cleveland, and Houston, as the conventional wisdom held), and both teams have a recent history of success: OKC made it to the Finals in 2012, and San Antonio made it to the Finals in 2013 and 2014, winning in the latter.

Although the Thunder's best players - Durant and Westbrook - are better than the Spurs' best players - Leonard and Aldridge - which is usually the condition for winning a playoff series in the NBA, the rest of the Spurs seemed to be better than the rest of OKC, so I would imagine that a statistical simulation would split roughly evenly between the two teams, and it was easy to think that either team could win - at least at the beginning of the season.

If you had told me before the playoffs, however, that the Spurs, a 67-win team during the regular season (good enough for a tie for 7th all-time) would lose two of three games at home in the series after losing only one at home all season, and that they would be down by 24 points at halftime in a game in which they could be eliminated, I would have scoffed heartily. And now I would have to recant that scoff, because that's exactly what happened last night.

The Spurs are done for the year - and perhaps the dynasty. In the last few games of this series, their aging core - Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili - looked old and behind by a step or two, whereas the Thunder look like they will be able to steal two games from Golden State in the next round, which is actually quite an achievement, seeing as the Warriors have lost only eleven times through 92 games and only twice have had stretches in which they lost as many as two games out of six.

Recapping my NBA picks at the (near) halfway point


The Spurs' loss marked only the second series winner I have gotten incorrect in my picks for the NBA playoffs. So far, I have correctly picked the winners of nine of the eleven series that have been decided so far, although I stand to add one loss to those ranks if Toronto manages to win either Game 6 or 7 of their series with Miami, as I picked against the Raptors in the series (I just did not think they would pull through against Wade). The only other series I guess incorrectly was Clippers-Trail Blazers that was largely decided by an injury to the best player in the series (LA's Chris Paul) in Game 4.

Both of my NBA Finals picks - Golden State and Cleveland - are still alive and doing well, but that should not be much of a surprise. After all, the NBA playoffs tend to be fairly predictable every year aside from a series or two. Sure, every few years there is a huge surprise - say, like Dallas losing to Golden State in the first round in 2007, but part of the appeal of the NBA playoffs is how the intensity of the way in which the games are played tends to separate the best players and teams from the rest of the crowd.

There have been a few minor surprises this year - Cleveland going 8-0 in the first two rounds, Portland emerging as a competitive team, and OKC putting all of the pieces together - but nothing that seemed entirely out of left field. Now that Steph Curry's back, it seems like Golden State is back on track to continue their path to being considered one of the best teams of all time; I'm still not ready to put them over Michael Jordan's 1995-1996 Bulls despite that one extra win during the regular season.

That said, I am still interested to see what happens in the remainder of the NBA playoffs unfold and to see how certain questions are answered, despite the relative dearth of possible surprises, short of Cleveland beating Golden State for the title which would be a shocker of historical proportions. In the East, can Toronto make it to the Conference Finals and make it interesting against Cleveland, or will the Cavs sweep their way into the Finals for a third straight round? Will Lebron take over a few games in his sixth (!) consecutive Finals? Will Kyrie Irving come ready to play? And will the Cavaliers be one of the best playoff teams ever to not win the title?

In the West, will Durant and Westbrook be able to steal more than one game against Golden State? Will the Warriors match the 1995-1996 Bulls with only three playoff losses? (Not likely.) Will Golden State stay undefeated at home in the playoffs? Will Curry win the Finals MVP? I'm not sure how exactly everything will shake out, but it seems like it's going to be fun to see what happens over the next month, and I have to say that I'm enjoying these NBA playoffs a lot more now after the end of the first round.

An unpredictable Stanley Cup Playoffs


Contrast the comfort of the NBA playoffs with this year's Stanley Cup playoffs, which have been one of the more unpredictable postseasons of recent years in the way they have unfolded. Hockey is slightly unpredictable each year, but there are some years in which the way things happen is much more so, and this is one of those years. In fact, I would argue that there there has been only one season in the past nine - 2012, when the eighth-seeded Kings ran the table to dominate the postseason - that has been entirely unpredictable.

The previous very unpredictable postseason came directly after the lockout in 2006, when the eighth-seeded Oilers almost won the Cup against Carolina. That marked the end of a run of several unpredictable postseasons - Calgary in 2004, Anaheim and Minnesota in 2003, and Carolina in 2002 - a stretch that was preceded and succeeded by runs of mostly predictable postseasons.

I did not think that this year would be one of those unpredictable years; in fact, I thought it was going to be relatively predictable in a lot of ways, as did many prognosticators. Instead, the top seeds are all gone and there is guaranteed to be at least one team for which an appearance in the Finals will be historic. I would say that this year's Conference Finals match-ups are more fun, dare I say, than they have been in years (probably since 2010 or 2011), and I'm looking forward to the next couple of weeks. But first, let's recap my performance in the first two rounds.

Round 1 and 2 Recap


Here were my Round 1 picks and how they turned out:

Washington vs. Philadelphia - Washington in 5 (RIGHT team, WRONG number of games)
Pittsburgh vs. New York Rangers - Pittsburgh in 7 (RIGHT team, WRONG number of games)
Florida vs. New York Islanders - Florida in 6 (WRONG team, RIGHT number of games)
Tampa Bay vs. Detroit - Detroit in 7 (WRONG team, WRONG number of games)

Dallas vs. Minnesota - Dallas in 6 (RIGHT team, RIGHT number of games)
St. Louis vs. Chicago - St. Louis in 7 (RIGHT team, RIGHT number of games)
Anaheim vs. Nashville - Anaheim in 5 (WRONG team, WRONG number of games)
LA vs. San Jose - (WRONG team, WRONG number of games)

In my defense, the Panthers-Islanders series had the final two games decided in 2OT, and a lot of people who know much better than I do also got the Anaheim and LA picks wrong. But, no matter how you slice it, I still got only four out of eight series correct, and my pick to win the Cup - Anaheim - was already out.

I did better with my picks for the second round; I didn't publish my picks here, but I did make them somewhat public in a conversation online, but here they are at any rate.

Washington vs. Pittsburgh - Washington in 6 (WRONG team, RIGHT number of games)
Tampa Bay vs. New York Islanders - Tampa Bay in 6 (RIGHT team, WRONG number of games)

Dallas vs. St. Louis - St. Louis in 7 (RIGHT team, WRONG number of games)
San Jose vs. Nashville - San Jose in 5 (RIGHT team, WRONG number of games)

At least I got something right in each series; it's just too bad that the one team I got wrong - Washington - was the one I was thinking would go to the Finals before the playoffs started. I wanted to switch my pick to Pittsburgh after the way both teams played in the first round, and I should have, but I figured that I would stick with my original picks. In my defense, five of the six games were decided by one goal, with three games won in overtime, including two of the last three.

Although I did get most of my picks right for the second round, only one of my four original picks for the Conference Finals - St. Louis - is still alive, which means that I am having to rethink almost everything that I thought I knew before the playoffs started. But whoever wins and makes it to the Finals, I think it's going to be a fun month of hockey.


Predicting the Conference Finals


Eastern Conference: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

This is another case of the difference that a season makes: before the season, I would have expected this match-up, but coming into the playoffs, I did not think that it would happen. Both teams had some key injuries, including the Penguins' starting goalie, and despite the fact that both teams have played well in the second half of the season, I did not think they would be able to overcome the absences of key players. I picked against each of these two teams once, and yet here they are, playing for a spot in the Finals, and almost anything I think I think about each team has been disproven repeatedly over the first two rounds.

Tampa is making a somewhat surprise run despite appearing in the Finals last year, as they have been playing without their best forward (Stamkos) and one of their top two defensemen (Stralman). They have the experience from last year's loss, but they also have a lot of young players who have a lot left to learn. They easily have the edge in goaltending in the series, and it seems like they will probably be in the conversation of teams that could win the Cup for the next several years, regardless of whether Stamkos re-signs with the team. Both Stralman and Stamkos could return as early as this series, which could possibly turn the balance.

Pittsburgh is also making a somewhat surprise run, since a lot of people expected the Capitals to take the division. The Penguins have not been this far in three years, and they have not made the Finals since they won the Cup in 2009, which was fairly early in the Crosby era. It seems like there have always been injuries or a Tim Thomas or Henrik Lundqvist in the way, so things just have not come together since. Well, despite the absence of their starting goalie, they're doing just fine, and it seems like they are on a mission to dispel some personal demons this year.

I could easily see a future in which either team wins this series, so I think it's going to be very close. I think both teams will have future runs to the Cup, but in the end, I'm going to pick Pittsburgh based mainly on one player who I think will make the difference this year: Sidney Crosby. The pick is Pittsburgh in six.

Western Conference: St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks

Did anyone see this coming? I had the Blues finally breaking through this year - all they had to do was beat Chicago in the first round, really - but I did not see the Sharks as coming out of the Pacific. This is the all psych-out battle to overcome historical demons here, as one team will make history. The Blues have only made it this far twice in the past forty-five years - 1986 with Bernie Federko and Doug Gilmour and 2001 with Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis - and they have not made it to the Final since the NHL moved past its initial round of expansion teams in 1970.

The Sharks made it this far three times in somewhat recent memory: in 2004 only to lose to the Calgary Flames; in 2010, only to lose to the Chicago Blackhawks, who were about to begin their dynasty, and again in 2011, only to lose to the Vancouver Canucks, who would wait one more series to choke. Both teams have come off stretches of significant regular season success followed by more significant playoff disappointment, particularly over the past five years, so the fact that they are playing for the chance to make the Finals is in itself a huge reversal.

Both teams have a number of young stars, strong defense, and solid goaltending, and this series could also go either way. Like my pick in the East, I think this match-up is going to be very close, and that it will come down to a couple of players who can take the team over the hump. In this case, I think St. Louis will be heartbroken as San Jose finally makes it to the Stanley Cup Finals. San Jose in six.

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