On Smart Phones, Freedom, and Alephs

Aleph

When people ask me what makes something “literary,” I typically say something about how literature reads you even as you read it. Literary art provides an opportunity to think.

The moments at which my job is most satisfying are those in which the stories and poems I’ve assigned point an accusing finger at me and draw back the curtain between the mystical and the “real” in my life. I love it when the book I’m reading seems to know me, and I really love it when it tells me I’m not OK.

I have, like many others, brought my smart phone into numerous aspects of my life. It is communication, entertainment, work, and study; so much of what makes me human has been given over to the machine. There is a certain liberty in this. I am now able to find answers and questions anywhere I am. Wherever I am, the universe is before me in all its complexity, its strangeness, and its dullness. So remarkable is the device, I never stop to ask whether it is me or the phone that’s the tool.

I’ve thought of instruments like my Samsung as a kind of power so liberating I’ve even encouraged my students to wield it, but I wonder if I’ve been living a free life within a prison.

The Aleph (short story collection)

The Aleph (short story collection) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, I taught Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Aleph.” The story is landmark of magical realism, and therefore asks the reader to not only question the distinction between magic and real, but to look for the magic in the real.

The story’s narrator, Borges, has an irritating acquaintance, Carlos Argentino, who is the cousin of Borges’s late love interest, Beatriz Viterbo. Carlos Argentino is a bad poet who, as it turns out, has access to a magical point in the universe in which all other points in the universe can be seen. This is the Aleph, and it gives Argentino direct visual access to all the objects, landscapes, and people about which he writes his terrible poetry.

The story is awe-inspiring as a work of literary art, and the paragraphs in which Borges describes what he finally sees in the Aleph are particularly mesmerizing. In addition, it is an extremely funny story, with Borges’s subtle digs at Carlos Argentino’s ineptness and inflated ego providing the narrative spine of the story. I was therefore a little disappointed that it proved to be a little alienating and difficult for my students to enthusiastically embrace.

To combat moments moments like this, I’ve developed a little bag of teaching tricks, and I pulled one of them out during our discussion of “The Aleph.” The internet has given us tools for live polling via text messaging and Tweeting. When I have difficulty getting students to pose questions or make observations in class, I will from time to time project one of these live polling environments to the screen in our class. Often, this will jump-start conversation by providing students with a concrete statement or question to respond to.

In this particular case, however, our retractable white screen was as silent as my students. This was slightly disappointing, but I was mostly irritated by the fact that the vast majority of the class were clearly typing things into their smartphones. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but even I could deduce that I was merely providing them cover while they mentally exited my classroom and entered the intoxicating liberation of cyberspace.

Eventually, I squeezed a little water from stone and we had a decent conversation about the story. One moment in particular seemed to draw some interest. After Borges has experienced the majestic, God-like view the Aleph offers, he stumbles into the street and makes the following observation:

In the street, on the Constitución stairs, in the subway, all the faces struck me as familiar. I feared that not a single thing was left to cause me surprise; I was afraid I would never be quit of the impression that I had ‘returned.’ Happily, at the end of a few nights of insomnia, forgetfulness worked in me again.

This puzzling moment was productive for us. It raised questions about the value of mystery, wonder, and imagination. Carlos Argentino had endless, literal access to everything in the universe and his poetry suffered for it (though he ironically garners acclaim from the publishing industry – another hilarious cultural critique Borges offers). His direct, instant access reduced his poetry to pale, mimetic description. His poetry was strangled by the brutish hands of fact and the oxygen of imagination was cut off.

The fear that Borges experiences then is a powerful one, and the relief his forgetfulness brings is tangible. The overwhelming clarity of the Aleph threatened to sap the very joy from life, which lies in encountering the unknown and struggling to make sense of it.

After class, I wandered back to my office and noticed just how readily and enthusiastically students slip into the black mirrors of their smartphones at any opportunity. Like Carlos Argentino scurrying under his basement steps to submit to the easy immediacy of the Aleph, we compulsively reach for our devices to connect us to our digitized universe. And this is by no means exclusive to the young. At playgrounds, restaurants, and school assemblies all over the industrialized world, people of all ages, myself included, shun the profound, magical surprise of the street, the stairs, and the subway for the pale titillation of the virtual.

What to ultimately do about this new reality is unclear to me. Until I figure it out, I will leave my phone in the car when I go out to eat with my family. Perhaps the answer lies in the unexpected things children say.

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Teaching with the Alien

alien secret service

In previous posts, I’ve confessed to a weakness for “speculative documentaries.” You know, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, U.F.O’s, and all their friends in the crypto-zoologicaspere (I should copyright that term!).

One program holds a special place in my heart, however: Ancient Aliens.

As I’ve shared previously, this program performs a dizzying array of death-defying rhetorical shenanigans, and is so utterly removed from the logic that binds the rest of us to reality that I thoroughly enjoy watching it.

At its heart though, I think my love of the show’s antics is a love of rhetoric. I watch the crimes that Mr. Giorgio and company rhetorically perform against humanity and, like Superman, my argumentative mind springs into action. “This would be great to show my students!” I think aloud.

Uh oh. I think you see where this is going.

Unlike a lot of literature types out there, I personally don’t mind teaching freshman composition because, to me, the construction and expression of arguments are a vital part of what makes us beautifully and insufferably human – I believe rhet/comp to be central to any liberal arts education. With those lofty goals, the argumentative gymnastics of a conspiracy-ridden mind are gold, Jerry. Gold!

I give you the following video, for which I must thank my friend, Stephen:

Step One: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

I showed this video to my classes today, after confessing my love for conspiratorial narratives. I told them about the all-encompassing grand narrative of the Ancient Alien types – how the Annunaki supposedly came down and created human beings to mine Gold for them et cetera. (Here I should point out that this video is not connected to the program Ancient Aliens – it simply shares the same mythos). Then basically anything that ever happened after that is part of the alien conspiracy. The whole bit. I admitted some shame in knowing as much as I do about the “theory,” then I asked them to watch the above video and take note of some of its particulars to specifically argue against. The key phrase was “specific.” I stressed that they were to identify concrete formal and rhetorical structures that they could then analyze for their function and overall effect.

The conversations we had were excellent. Several students pointed out the problems with zooms that pushed beyond what pixel limits of the original video would allow. Still others argued that the abundance of rhetorical questions simply plants ideas in the views head and tempts them into making false assumptions. Others pointed out that the computer generated narrator-voice makes attribution impossible and that the script could have been written by a ten-year-old boy and we would never know.

One canny student observed that the application of a video filter that resembles a heat-sensing camera falsely suggests that the poor secret service agent is a reptilian. She noted that the heat sensor would have had to have been a part of the original video for that gimmick to work.

The Importance of Being Specific

I was proud of my rhetoricians in training. They noticed many things that I did not, and we had a series of terrific conversations about writing. Most importantly, I tried to stress that when they are engaged in argumentative writing, it really helps to have something to, you know, write about. By not simply relying on their initial, general impressions – “Are these people serious?” “Don’t they know that they sound crazy?” – they made it possible to have a productive conversation. In short, identifying concrete things that present problems gives the writer something to write about. I then urged them to take the same approach with their current research projects.

My Personal Response to the Video: Aliens? Maybe. Anti-Semitism? Yep.

Before moving on to the next topic of the day, I offered my own response to the video, re-enforcing the fact that my response was only really possible after identifying specific, problematic elements in the video’s argument. Now I’ll share it with the internet.

This video is a raging, syphilitic case of anti-Semitism.

First of all, whenever I hear the term “Zionist cabal,” my Jew-hater radar detector springs into action. Check.  Second, after laying down its “Zionist cabal” card, the video ever so un-subtly offers the following image of Lee Rosenberg, President of AIPAC:

Lee Rosenberg

I have no doubt that the video’s authors found Mr. Rosenberg’s most awkward moment so they could juxtapose it directly against the image that immediately follows; that of their “shapeshifting alien.”

Supposed Alien

The argument is clear. The video exploits its deceptive rhetorical tricks to suggest (without actually saying outright) that not only is there a Jewish conspiracy, but the Jews themselves are more closely aligned with the aliens than with the humans. This, of course, goes back to anti-Semitic rhetoric that spans the ages. The oft-debunked Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a model for this type of deception and, incredibly, there are still people who believe in its truthfulness, as I’m sure there are people who believe the claims of this 3 minute video.

This video is not simply mindless stupidity, it is ugly hate speech packaged for weak-minded conspiracy theorists. It is dangerous if we don’t pay attention to how it makes its arguments.

Oh, and in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, look at this.

Same as it ever was.

At any rate, I used this as an example of the importance of paying attention. Passive consumers of information are prey to dangerous minds, and may become dangerous themselves. Active readers have the benefit of an insight that is not only advantageous, but also a moral obligation.

English class may not always be thrilling, but the lessons we’re trying to teach you are important.

Unless, of course, I too am one of the Annunaki, sent here to confuse my students and keep my race in power.

I am bald, you know.

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Tweaching Ethics

thinkerRethought-04

The Thinker, blown-up and under construction (photo courtesy of Clevelandart.org)

This past week, I continued my classroom-Twitter-alchemy-experiments. It led to some interesting results, so I thought I’d share, since many of my readers have expressed interest in the process I began blogging about here.

Using the hashtag #EthicsInComp, my classes threw their conceptions of plagiarism and academic integrity into the Twittersphere and we used those responses to open our discussion.

As always, there were a range of responses, from descriptive (what plagiarism is) to general philosophies about personal character and integrity. As each response appeared on the screen in front of us (pictured above – thanks to one of my students for the photo!), we elaborated and had a fairly productive discussion. There was also the humorous moment when one student, unable to contribute anything original, simply re-tweeted his neighbor’s submission. We had a laugh about this, but I quickly noted that what the student had, in fact, done was to provide a direct quote (with citation!). A few light bulbs seemed to flash and I was satisfied.

In all, I’m still not sure that Twitter represents a revolution in learning as much as a novel way to capture students’ attention for a short time. If the Tweeting continues too long, I notice a slow, but persistent process of students being sucked into their handheld devices and out of my classroom – it’s a truly metaphysical moment.

If, however, I can transition quickly enough into an actual old-fashioned classroom activity, then Tweaching has been a great way to grasp their attention (and maybe make them think I’m cooler than I actually am). If any reader has advice about how they use Twitter or electronic media in the classroom, I’d love to hear about it.

Ethics and Learning

Twitter encourages brevity and that is its strength and weakness. My students conception of ethics fit well in the Twittersphere since it was largely slogan-driven. “Don’t cheat, because you’re only cheating yourself” etc…

One thing I have become convinced of is that we do not spend near enough time talking about the depths of academic integrity. Instead, we satisfy ourselves with razor thin notions of right and wrong. With almost no exceptions, my students told me that plagiarism is as simple as copying material from someone else without citing it. This is the beginning and the end of their thinking on the issue and I think it’s a problem.

From this perspective, plagiarism is simply an ethical decision that good people obviously know they will never make. This viewpoint is inadequate because plagiarism and academic integrity are much more complicated than that.

Building on the vocabulary of ethics and morality that our tweeting provided, I posed a few scenarios for my students that sparked a tremendous discussion – I was proud of them.

1). Say that you find out that you are writing about the same short story as your friend. Is it alright to discuss the story in order to learn more about it?

2). Suppose that you go to your instructor to talk about your ideas. Is what he or she says in that meeting OK for you to use in your paper?

3). What do you do if your friends know that you have a better grasp of the assignment than they do and they ask to see your paper, to get ideas about how they might tackle the assignment.

None of these scenarios adhere to the simplicity that the “don’t steal” school of academic integrity suggests. In reality, very good people make bad decisions in each of these situations, and that is in large part due to their complexity. There is of course nothing wrong with talking about a story with your friends outside of class. In fact, your teachers would love that. There is a line that can’t be crossed, however, and the problem is that the line is ill-defined.

The problem is exacerbated when the line is not only ill-defined, but ill-considered. When we reduce cheating and integrity to simple truisms, we set ourselves up for failure. Life is complex and simple rules do not prepare one for living it.

An ethical life is not lived by rules. It is lived in ambiguity. Avoiding that ambiguity invites disaster.

Please share this if you have the notion. A conversation about ethics wouldn’t hurt anyone right now.

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Twitter Plus Teaching=Tweaching?

twitter-bird-white-on-blue

In one of my very first posts, I wondered how I might incorporate Twitter into my composition class. This week I actually tried it, and I think that it worked. I want to emphasize that it was by no means smooth going, but, as is normal for me, I take that as a sign of success. See Groucho Marx.

First, a little context. We are in the middle of our research projects and we’re currently emphasizing that our arguments are not simply us speaking our minds, but rather our engagement with bigger conversations. (I say us because I’m doing a project along with my class, in case you missed that post).

It’s important for me that my students understand that they already constantly compose writing within this model. Twitter, for example, makes use of things like hashtags and a “reply” function. For me, this is a handy metaphor for the conversational aspect of academic writing. The # is a symbolic representation of an ongoing, complex, and highly organic conversation. The reply feature is a way to speak directly back to an individual contribution to that conversation. This week, I made the argument that our choosing of topics is akin to applying a hashtag to something we want to say. When we bring an outside voice into our papers, through quotation or paraphrase, we are essentially hitting the reply button.

So to illustrate, I created a unique hashtag before class (#TwitterForComp) and Tweeted the question “How can we use Twitter in composition class?” In class, I had my students pull out their smartphones and laptops (their faces – you’d have thought it was Christmas morning) and tweet ideas aimed at that hashtag. This is where the messiness began.

Many students tweeted really thoughtful responses. Someone suggested that doing a hashtag search might be a way to discover articles or opinions about their topic. Someone else noted that Twitter’s required conciseness is good practice in formulating a thesis or topic sentence clearly and efficiently. I was rather blown away by responses like these, and there were more than a few.

There were, however, students who used the opportunity to goof around a little. This is completely understandable to me and, in some ways, I encouraged it, but it made me work a little harder to achieve my pedagogical goals. I am grateful for the chaos, however. It gave me an opening to describe for them what they were doing in composing these playful tweets and how that might be useful in their research.

I told them that they were, in essence, diagnosing what would get a particular audience’s attention and constructing humorous tweets to achieve that goal – to reach someone. I told them that I was not offended by this and that they should in fact do precisely that when constructing their arguments in their final projects. Their jokes were interesting because they were interested in their audience. “Interested people are interesting people,” is what I wrote on the white board. I noted that the interesting people I follow on Twitter (Drunk Hulk for example) gain my attention because of their creative engagement with the world around them. I applauded their improvisation asked that they think about appropriate ways to gain the attention and applause of their research papers’ readers.

We’ll have to see about the long-term effects of this class, but it seemed to have, at least temporarily, driven home the idea that their research papers are not simply a platform to scream their opinions at the world. They are, instead, an opportunity to thoughtfully participate in a conversation. I told them that a critic does not simply tell everyone what he thinks. That is what a douchbag does. A critic listens and responds.

I don’t want to be a douchbag. I value your opinion about this hashtag. Please reply either here or at the Facebook page.

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The Agent of Chaos: Teaching as a Student

horsefeathers01

I am about to step into the Undiscovered Country.

For whatever reason, since I’ve become a “professional,” I’ve continually sought out the “amateur.” In a later post, I plan on exploring this ethic more deeply, but for now, all I mean is that my so-called success in landing a job as an English professor has emboldened me to ruthlessly experiment with my teaching methods. Maybe I’m too cocky for my own good, but finishing my terminal degree seems to have relieved a self-imposed pressure to please my betters and explore the possibilities of teaching English in ways that speak to my own passions and imagination.

Generally, my teaching style is to institute a bit of anarchy in the classroom. I have an agenda, but whatever I put on it depends on my students participating and pursuing their own education, not passively sitting back as I provide information.

Consumers do not enjoy my classes.

But I stress to my students that the activity I require, though sometimes chaotic, is meant to keep them from settling into a passivity that can stifle education. I do understand that different people have different learning styles, and that some people are engaged as they passively sit back, watch, and listen. Believe it or not, I myself am one of those people. I account for this as best I can by providing some instruction each class, but it is usually supplemented by exploratory writing, group workshops, and some sort of problem-solving activity. My role in the class is, in a sense, like that of Groucho Marx in the great movie Horse Feathers.

Groucho, playing Quincy Adams Wagstaff, institutes chaos among a stuffy college faculty, then organizes the anarchy into a highly crafted production. This is my goal each class, my garden of pedagogical Eden.

I am aware of my motives, but self-awareness comes with a price. I’ve slowly come to realize that each time I teach, I have one specific student in mind.

Me.

My first run at college ended in failure as I was unable to conjure a vision of myself that was sufficient enough to keep me interested in learning. The professorial me is now always and forever trying to reach the withdrawn, aimless, youthful me that follows me into every classroom. His ghost still haunts the man he has become.

I think that my students largely enjoy my classes, but they must be ever so confused at the figure at the front of their classroom. I think the picture above captures my fragmented ego better than my words can describe it. I am, in many ways, both men in that publicity shot. Culture and Anarchy, bitter enemies and passionate lovers, working together. This is the chaotic contradiction I draw on to try and empower my students. This chimera. This boy-man. This momentary professor who is an eternal student.

Well, given this back-story and my propensity for experimentation, I was knocked over by a comment I received this week on this blog. In my post “Dear Student: Teaching as Relationship,” I wrote about a certain assignment prompt I wrote as a personal letter to my students. I received the following comment:

Have you also done this assignment? I teach a boatload of composition courses and find that doing my own assignments gives me perspective. I just take it through the rough draft. That’s not critique or advice, by the way. I just want to know.

This, quite frankly, blew my mind, and I am ever so grateful for this person taking the time to comment. The idea of doing one of my own assignments has never crossed my mind, but I found the idea irresistible. Not to psychoanalyze myself, but the notion of attempting as a student an assignment I designed as a teacher beautifully captures the exhilarating terror of the split personality I bring into my classroom. Immediately I began plotting.

So here is the experiment. My research writing class is about to undertake their semester-long research assignments. I, as a good faculty member, conduct my own research all the time anyway, so why not do a research paper with my students? It began today. I had planned a set of activities to help my classes work from their questions about their topic to working thesis statements that will send them off hunting for their first volley of research. So I explained my plan and, like an engaged student would do, presented my own research project using the same four steps I had asked them to use. I then committed to preparing my own annotated bibliography, my own research proposal, my own rough draft…everything I am requiring them to do I am going to do myself.

With them. As one of them.

I admitted to my students that this was an enthusiastic experiment and it may end up as a foolish idealistic failure, but even so, I wanted them to feel a sense of ownership in this class. My attempt at leveling the distance between student and teacher was meant to treat them as intellectual peers as well as my students. How this balance will work, we will all learn together. I asked how they felt about this experiment and most of them expressed an enthusiasm for it.

Then something astonishing happened.

I set them off developing their own working thesis statements and, stepping back into my teacher-self, scurried among them, answering any questions they had about their projects. The number of thoughtful, probing questions I fielded was dizzying. Everyone had real questions about how to pursue topics that suddenly seemed to matter very much to them. My students were engaged, and I was elated.

This pedagogical bliss then reached a magnificent crescendo, a chaos worthy of Groucho Marx himself. One of my students took my playful experimentation and threw it right back at me. “Do we get to grade your paper at the end?” he asked.

This is going to be so much fun.

I will try and provide periodic updates about this adventure. In the meantime, I would love to hear from you about your experiences or concerns with my teaching methods and would gladly receive any advice. Please feel free to comment either here or, even better, at The Arnoldian Project Facebook page (like the Project at the upper left corner).

Architecture, the Campus, and Learning to Become

Kenyon

Last semester, I was responsible for more than one existential crisis, I fear.

If you’ve followed this blog for any period of time, you know that I don’t only enjoy confusing my students, I feel that it’s essential to their education. I believe that disorientation requires re-orientation and that is what learning is all about. My post about the Bernard Malamud story “Angel Levine” should explain what I mean.

Another essential element in the alchemy of education is, of course, curiosity. In fact let’s call it Curiosity, with a capital C. It where education begins (and possibly ends).

The crises I set in motion were related to an assignment I gave my freshmen. I asked them, in short, to be curious about their surroundings. I assigned a paper in which students were to write about their own campus. It is their temporary home after all, so I thought it was appropriate that they thoughtfully consider what the experience means. They were to choose a single place on campus, and it could have been any place, to analyze. I wanted them to consider the location of their chosen space and its prominent features.

My hope was that they would pause at particular spot and observe, noticing how the space functions. Who has access to it? What pragmatic goals does it serve? And most importantly, what kind of person is the space supposed to create? This is the question that caused all the ruckus.

The difficulty was simply that my students had never considered that spaces might be supposed to do anything. To many of them, places are strictly constructed to walk over or sit in. My asking them to find meaning in their built environment was paramount to Jesus asking the Rich Young Ruler to sell all his possessions.

My students’ difficulty with the assignment (and thus me) is not unique. For so many people, it’s unnatural to think with any depth about how places shape our desires and conceptions of ourselves. To me, this is apparent in the mad rush toward online learning and things that are, for some reason, called “MOOCS” (no, Bubble Boy, not the Moors). My good friend Danielle Nielsen is currently writing about her experiences with these things at her excellent blog http://dnielsen2.blogspot.com/. I wish her all the luck in the world and am enjoying reading her updates.

Education as Baptism

The idea behind this distance-learning initiative suggests, whether intentionally or not, that education is as simple as the transference of information. It denies the possibility that education might instead be a special immersion in a specific environment to create and expand a student’s experience. I use the term “baptism” loosely, but I think it works as a metaphor for what I’m getting at. Just as the devotee is submerged (in some traditions) and emerges a new person, the student immerses him or herself in their chosen institution, an act which will ideally change them for the better. Becoming is, therefore, a spiritual experience.

o_brother_tim_blake_nelson

In the act of destroying the physical campus, the movement toward distance in education destroys this spiritual aspect of higher learning as well. And, ironically, the e-learning philosophy bears remarkable similarity to my students view of campus space. Both physical space and education itself are simply landscapes to be traversed, not experiences to be savored.

Jeff Selingo recently defended the campus experience in an insightful article that I hope you will take the time to read. His sentiments echo my own. I fear that in the rush to provide information to students, we are too willing to ignore their humanity. What is passing for education is really merely credentialing for industrial purposes. Education is something different than that.

Education, like humanity itself, is about becoming. This means that it’s every bit as spiritual a process as it is technical. It therefore extends beyond the information transmitted in the classroom and out into the campus space. Yes, we learn who we might be by studying the facts of George Washington’s life, but we are also offered visions of our potential selves by the spaces in which we abide. Take City College of New York, for instance:

ny_ccny_city_college_of_new_york_campus_15_107

This magnificent campus was built to educate New York’s poor and decidedly un-privileged (Bernard Malamud is one prominent example out of many). In fact, it was so much thought of as a place for the children of the city’s Jewish immigrants that CCNY was jokingly said to stand for Circumcised Citizens of New York.

Yet take some time to experience the details of its buildings and plazas. This is a campus space that values its students and their potential. Notice the promise the design offers the working-class student. The Gothic design immerses the urbanite in an educational tradition that extends through the ages, forcing them out of their immediate environment, backwards through history. By walking these halls and sitting in this plaza, students are placed in virtual conversation with the best that’s been thought and said. Great architecture is access to something currently out of reach, and this campus grants that access.

Also, note the prominence of the windows. Their size and sheer number certainly bring light into CCNY’s classrooms, but they also narrow the distance between the learning going on inside the classroom and the experiences of life outside. It’s as if students are encouraged to understand that the things they learn in these rooms are meant to be permanent and portable. This empowers education and suggests that there is a future to be forged outside these walls. It screams “Be Something Great.”

I have only emphasized architecture in this reflection, but the social is equally vital in the college experience as Selingo articulates in his article. Human beings are social by nature, for better or worse. By occupying physical spaces with other people, networks are possible. Long-lasting, meaningful friendships can be forged. Mentoring that passes down a tradition of wisdom is available. Education can be, at its best, deeply and broadly imagined. Students can be encouraged to become in a way that distance-learning simply cannot replicate.

Or I suppose that efficient, cost-effective, and icy cubicles will work just as well.

I’d love your opinions about this, so please share them either here or, even better, on the Arnoldian Project Facebook page (link is to the left of the page). Do your experiences match my mushy idealism? How much hot air am I full of?

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