Friday, December 31, 2010


With an hour and a quarter left until this year ends, I am tempted to join in the widespread bout of nostalgia this time of year prompts. I am not immune to its attractions. And I have much for which to be thankful this year.

The turn of the year, though, gets to be even more fun for me, now. Last week saw Christmas. This week is seeing New Year's. Next week sees my anniversary.

It is a good time.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


On December 27, 2010, the online New York Times published an editorial, "The White Coast." The editorial compares what is called the "Boxing Day storm" to blizzards in 1978 and 1993, noting that the message sent by all three was "Stay indoors and stay put." Now that the storm is past, the editorial notes, comes the fun of cleaning up, which prompts longing for spring.

Even now, as I look at either my backyard or the street--er, avenue--in front of my apartment, I see mostly sheets of cold whiteness. In my backyard, this is understandable; I've got no great desire to shovel snow, and no great need to do so on that side of the building. In the front, though, it is more of an issue. Traffic is still non-existent on the avenue. The few vehicles that have tried to drive down the block are axle-deep in upchurned snow, frozen and freezing monuments to the majesty of this little Boxing Day blizzard. Train service is still well, with a number of trains simply not going where they are supposed to.

This, of course, includes the train I usually take. Fortunately, I have other options, but still...I have to go out today. It will prove inconvenient (and cold!), and I find myself annoyed at the prospect.

Monday, December 27, 2010


Now that one of the major holiday weekends is past us (and I had a fine one, thank you very much), it is time for a bit of a return to work. It won't last too long, of course, since National Hangover Day is coming up, and not long after that, I, at least, will be back to my actual job.

Until then, though, I intend to be doing a lot of writing. And, as usual, some of it will have to do with what goes on in the world.

In my small part of it, snow is on the ground. In abundance. My backyard IS a snowdrift, one nearly as tall as I am. Out front, the road and sidewalk are near-unbroken mounds of fluffy whiteness. It's pretty, really, and makes me happy that I get to stay inside for a while.

Also in my small part of the world, my local paper ran this editorial, "The Repeal Amendment." Towards the end of it, the writer (for convenience, I'll pretend it's one) articulates the ideas 1) that, in a bit of cliché, the Constitution exists to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and 2) the kind of past that the current conservative movement seeks a return to (in a manner reminiscent of the Reagan who is so widely idealized) is a myth.

Myth is a powerful thing. It has a powerful hold on the collective cultural consciousness of the group which gives rise to it--and upon the groups claiming descent from them. Witness the continued invocation of Greek and Roman cosmology in the names of the heavenly bodies or our depiction of extreme efforts as "Herculean." Witness also the very names of the days of the week in English, which are most of them derived from the names of Asgardian indwellers (with another coming, again, from the Greco-Roman cosmology). Note also the pervasiveness of the idea that "Columbus discovered America" (about which, as I discuss such things with my students, I note that "You can't discover something where people already are") or that the Founding Fathers were actually committed to the idea of universal freedom (Washington and Jefferson, remember, both owned slaves) and opposed federal overreach (note the Whiskey Rebellion, in which Washington himself led federally-authorized troops against American citizens to assert federal authority to tax).

But myth is myth precisely because it is not fact. Certainly, there are truths embedded in the myths we tell and are told, and even in their exaggerations and untruths, they show us much about ourselves. But they never show us all of what we need to see, and that is one of many reasons that it is dangerous to base our concepts of reality and where we ought to go upon such things.

Friday, December 24, 2010


While preparing another short summary for future classes (I do this because it is a nice bit of mental exercise--warm-up for the brain, as it were), I ran across Paul Taylor's "Who Should Be the Judge?" in the online New York Times. His article, updated on December 23, is placed in a larger context of discussion of the American middle class; in doing so, it addresses a topic of interest for me, as I think I may have suggested.

The article does, though, directly address another topic of interest for me. Taylor asks "where does the impoverished grad student fit?" And, having been a poor grad student, being married to a wonderful wife who has also been one, having many friends who are them, the question resounds.

But I have an answer:

A tiny, tiny hole, the better to promote self-loathing and angst.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


The Fall 2010 semester at the college where I work formally ended at 4pm today. My contribution to it ended some twenty-four hours earlier, when I submitted the last sets of grades I had to turn in. There were quite a few failures among those sets, though in almost every case those failures resulted from students simply not showing up and doing the work.

I have no doubt that I shall once again find myself inundated with grade complaints over the next few weeks. It happens at the end of every semester, though I have an inkling that matters in that regard will be a bit worse this time around; there were a lot more Fs going around. In a number of cases, those Fs mean exactly what an old office-mate commented F stands for.

You know who you are.

Grades in my classes were pretty bad this time around. In one class, only four students passed; the highest grade among them was a C+. Another had only nine still enrolled at the end of term; again, only four passed, though the high grade was a B-. A third did better, with seven passing and several of those earning Bs. The last composition class did best, with twelve passing and one earning a B+. My remedial English class saw four of nine remaining students pass, though with better results than the similarly-populated composition class. One of my two speech classes fared much like the third composition class, but the other one was quite good, indeed; fifteen of eighteen passed, with two earning an A- from me.

There are several things that this could indicate. One is that my standards have increased. I tend to reject this idea, since I worked this term to make my assignments more accessible and set things up so that the information from one assignment could be--and indeed was supposed to be, as I informed my students repeatedly--used on the next. But it is possible even so that I did not explain myself as clearly as could be done, something suggested by comments from the school's learning center (oddly received only in the last two weeks of the term) that the tutors themselves had trouble understanding my teaching methods. I shall work, whether my standards have increased or not, to clarify my expectations and the ways in which they can be met still further.

Another thing that the generally poor performance of my students could indicate is that the curricular shifts imposed from on high had a culling effect. A number of students were issued Fs through administrative action, the result of their not being deemed eligible to take (or, in two cases, failing) the exit exam my department instituted this term. After the cut-off date, at which time I had to inform students that they could not sit for the exit exam, many simply stopped attending--for which I cannot blame them. And, really, many who were deemed ineligible were nailed for simply not turning papers in. I do not know how to work to fix that last part, and I have voiced my objections (complete with reference to current research in composition studies--I do take both CCC and College English, after all) to the high-stakes exam.

Yet another potential cause, and one that seems borne out by my institution's recruiting practices and events during the semester, is that this semester saw an awful lot of off-key students. My school does serve traditionally-underprivileged populations, so that the difficulty of accommodation to the discourse community of collegiate study is expected. But when students throw chairs at their college instructors or brandish weapons at one another during class time (both of which occurred), matters have passed beyond the simple disjunction between student socialization and expected practice. Such an environment is hardly conducive to formal learning of any sort, let alone the "higher education" that is supposed to be taking place at any college. It is hardly helped by the "bring them in at whatever cost" mentality that all too often permeates the admissions offices of such schools as the one at which I teach; some of my students have been homeless and have done fine work even so, but a great many others in less-unfortunate situations use their socioeconomic circumstances as excuses to make trouble.

Only one of these is even partly under my control, and I am going to be working on it, as noted. As to the other two, I can only take the break to rest and pray that next semester works a little better than this one did.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


All I have to say about what appears below is that I have disturbing thoughts sometimes. This is true for us all, I think, but unfortunately for all of you, I am given to voicing (or posting, as the case may be) those thoughts.

There is an old fairy-story beast
One Tolkien doesn't talk about
Called the banshee
Bean sidhe
Wailing Woman
La Llorona
And many other names.
The details of the stories vary.
There is a common thread.
The screeching call
Summons the souls of the living
To join the dance of the dead.
I have heard that plaintive wailing
In the sibilant scream
Of subway car wheels
On the rails.
Not long ago
I caught myself
And now I have to wonder
Am I going to end up responding to that call?


In a post to another blog I have recently started, I drafted a summary of a article dealing with some of the effects of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal. I'll not repeat myself here, but I will add to what I posted as an example for my students that I find it interesting that so many of the university presidents have so suddenly expressed support for ROTC. I also find it interesting that one of the professors who is on the Stanford U. committee that will rule on whether or not to open more fully to ROTC notes the possible issues of political expediency that resulted in the shut-down of the Stanford ROTC in 1973.

Is it possible that there is a similar political-expediency motivation behind the current upswelling of support? Given the multiple calls for engagement by the academy with the outside world as well as concerns over the diminishing relevance of university education, I rather think so.

Even so, I am minded of the concept of the Fortunate Fall: without sin, there can be no redemption. So even if the motives behind the push are politic rather than sincere, I cannot say that the expansion of the ROTC program is bad. It opens access to higher education, which is good. It also promotes service, which is good. And every so often, it introduces people to each other whose later unions produce people I value.

My parents, after all, met in ROTC.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


When I got home last night from taking in final papers and doing a last bit of Christmas shopping, I was pleased to find my copy of CCC 62.2 (December 2010) waiting for me. I just got done reading Profession, and it is good that I get to keep keeping up with the research in a large part of my work--I am a medievalist by training, but I end up being a compositionist by institution and sheer dint of course-load.

As to that, I am unsure if I have discussed this, but in the Fall 2010 term, I taught 29 hours of coursework across seven sections. Four of those were five-hour developmental freshman composition sections (two, in the evening, were five-hour solid blocks). Another was a section of the new remedial course at my institution (which seems to have worked out well), and the remainder was taken up by speech.

In the Spring 2011 term (which will begin on January 12, last I heard), I am teaching only slightly less; I only have three of the five-hour courses, while the rest remains the same. My days are still more or less shot, but I do have a bit more time in the mornings, which will be of great help; one of the hardest things this term has been teaching until 10pm and having to be back on-site at 9am the next morning.

I will be hard-pressed, I know, to get my dissertation done for presentation the Spring 2011 term at my PhD institution. I should still be clear to go for the year, however, which is some comfort.

Monday, December 20, 2010


I noted in my last post that I had received my copy of Profession 2010. Some days later, after a holiday party and several sets of exam-gradings, I have finally finished my first reading of it, and as with the previous issues, I find myself quite pleased with the text.

The 2010 issue is divided into some four sections. The first, centering around the Presidential Forum, discusses translation studies, which is a seemingly strongly emergent field of inquiry in the humanities and one which piques my interest both as one who does work as a medievalist (which almost always involves some translation) and as a teacher at a school largely populated by non-native speakers of English. The second discusses disability and language, a field with which I have had only limited contact. The third is a less-organized grouping of articles discussing a variety of subjects (including one relevant to this blog and all blogs, generally), while the fourth is the "Forum" in which Philip Goldstein and Gerald Graff argue about what the latter states in Profession 2009.

A concept that I had had earlier but that I find reinforced by the translation studies section of Profession 2010 is the notion that translation traditionally relies on the concept--not entirely accurate--that there is a single, stable version of a given language, which can be converted into a single, stable version of another language. For example, Naoki Sakai directly addresses the futility of the idea in "Translation and the Figure of Border: Toward the Apprehension of Translation as a Social Action." Professor Sakai notes that "The unity of language cannot be given in experience because it is nothing but a regulative idea, enabling us to comprehend related data about languages" (27); Sakai cites Kant's definition of the regulative idea as one not actually in evidence but applied so as to make possible systematic interpretation of present evidence (I am, of course, paraphrasing). In Sakai's view, the concept of unified language accompanies unified nation-hood, and both are comparatively recent concepts that are artificially developed (30-31), and as such, both are contingent upon an Other (32). Sakai's viewpoint opens up any translated text to postcolonial analysis, really, and so the article serves to undergird more critical work.

More work on translation is, in fact, called for by the articles in the translation studies cluster in Profession 2010. As part of this, Catherine Porter notes that there is demand for qualified, productive translators (7), seemingly as an imminently understandable response to globalism and the breakdown of sociolinguistic hegemony. Verena Conley expands upon the notion, stating that "the global circulation of languages and cultures that, intersecting and interacting multifariously, are the foundation no longer for Towers of Babel but for myriad networks in and between which translations proliferate" (19). And it is in this multiplicity of sociolinguistic interaction that my teaching begins to be affected.

As I noted, many if not most of my students are not native speakers of English. By the time they reach my classes, though, they are expected to be able to function at the collegiate level (whatever that means) in English, largely as a result of having taken and passed a long sequence of ESL courses offered by my institution. In large part, they are; the tasks I set before them, they accomplish, perhaps not spectacularly well, but competently.

But there are always some who manage to slide through and should not have. I know I am not always as patient with them as I ought to be (though in one or two cases, I have been far more forgiving than is entirely appropriate). Still, at what point do I actually enter the sequence? I know that much of what I do is explicitly the development of vocabulary and specific modes of thought and inquiry which are derived at length from culturally-specific underlying concepts, and that the cultures spawning them are not the same which give rise to my students (including many of the native speakers, though I am not about to go into that particular discussion at the moment). Am I not then simply doing what we might call a more advanced level of ESL? Or is it something different altogether?


Works Cited
~Conley, Verena. "Living in Translation." Profession 2010 (2010): 18-24. Print.
~Porter, Catherine. Introduction. Profession 2010 (2010): 5-8. Print.
~Sakai, Naoki. "Translation and the Figure of Border: Toward the Apprehension of Translation as a Social Action." Profession 2010 (2010): 25-34. Print.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I have several things to note today. One is that today is my dear younger brother's birthday; I have already called to wish him well.

Another is that my copy of Profession 2010 has arrived. It seems to be of slightly less extent than the previous few editions, and I am not yet sure of the implications of that. I have not yet had a chance to read it fully, though I have gotten through the two introductory pieces. I do, though, intend to do as I have been doing with the journals I take: after reading through, or reading into, I am going to write some kind of response to one or more of the articles contained within. As usual, they will appear here when done.

In the interim, though, I offer the following (in part so that I will have examples for my students in coming terms):

On December 13, 2010, the online New York Times released an op-ed piece by David Brooks, "Ben Franklin's Nation." In the article, Brooks notes that the world is increasingly composed of the middle class, and that the growth of the middle class across the globe will increase in the next few decades. Brooks sees this as an opportunity for a redefinition of the place of the United States in the world; rather than being the world leader in standard of living (which we will not be able to sustain), we can become the world leader in determining what it means to be middle-class. He writes: "Americans could well become the champions of middle-class dignity. The U.S. could become the crossroads nation for those who aspire to join the middle and upper-middle class, attracting students, immigrants and entrepreneurs." He goes on to note that doing so would oblige the US to redefine and enhance what it means to be middle class, arguing that doing so could make the twenty-first century "another American century."

I am, in part, pleased by this message. As I have noted elsewhere, I am (despite being a liberal elite who, as an academic, is supposed to hate America) more or less fond of the country of my birth, and so I cannot help but be moved by the idea that American exceptionalism can be perpetuated; I confess to being enough of an egotist that I like seeing that which is associated with me and with which I identify valorized. And, if nothing else, it is a better view of American exceptionalism than that which holds that the country has the right and duty to police the world.

That said, as one of the "pointy-headed elitists," I am aware that there are problems with the middle-class ideology that Brooks espouses. In its current form, at least, the American middle-class-ness of which I partake and which Brooks lauds is based upon the exploitation, both historical and current, of various populations. Immigrant laborers and overseas sweatshops do much to make the kind of consumption upon which middle-class life depends--even when predicated upon social contexts, following Brooks, since "the community clubs, the professional societies, the religious charities and Little Leagues" that he notes have material requirements--possible. So for Brooks' idea of a worldwide middle class led by the American concept of the same to work in an equitable, sustainable, ethical sense will require not so much a refiguring of what the middle class is as a resetting of it to an (idealized or romanticized?) earlier notion of it.

There was a time in the United States, so goes the story, that a solid manufacturing job would enable a person to enter into some kind of middle-class life. Perhaps wealth and "luxury"* were beyond the average factory worker, but that worker could support a family of four or five reasonably comfortably, taking an annual vacation and making another annual trek back to old homes to meet with family over the holidays. Parents could afford to help their kids through college, helping the next generation do better than they themselves did.

That condition, if it ever actually existed, certainly no longer does in the United States, and I have doubts that it exists elsewhere in any great abundance. Until and unless it does, unfortunately, the utopian middle-class world Brooks envisions cannot--and damned well ought not to--come to pass.

*I use the term advisedly, realizing that for many people, having enough food to eat each day and a secure place to live is a luxury currently beyond their means.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I do a lot of reading, and I do a lot of thinking about what I read. As I do so, I sometimes find myself in uncomfortably strained positions, largely resulting from my being (politically) moderate-by-the-law-of-averages.

For instance, I believe in the value of the military as an institution. I also believe that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for certain crimes, as corporal punishment is an appropriate response to certain childhood behaviors. I have heard the arguments against them, and I understand (most of) them, but I find that they suffer from a supposition error. Quite frankly, there are people who will not amend their behavior without the application of physical force, and some will not amend their behavior even then.

At the same time, I am cognizant that I speak from a position of privilege. Being definitionally a WASP, I am very much the kind of person who is serviced by the prevailing traditional cultural practices of the United States at large (and I am aware of how nebulous and inexact such a descriptor is). I believe in the worth of a great many social welfare programs and the ability of an active government to make things better for those who are less fortunate, particularly as I have derived benefit from them--I went to public schools, state colleges, and I paid for the latter with federally-subsidized loans.

It comes up even in discussion of speech acts. I want to believe in free speech; I want to believe that I should get to say what I want to say, when I want to say it, and wherever I happen to be. But I cannot set aside what are reasonable restrictions upon that principle (the classic shout of fire in a crowded theater, for instance). And I find it difficult to determine where humor stops being a joke--which ought to be protected--and becomes something restrictable.

Free speech necessarily involves giving offense. But at what point does "offense," which we may execrate as being in bad taste or contrary to prevailing social standards, become "harm," and therefore restrictable? How much do I, do any of us, have to worry about causing "harm," so that we have to censor ourselves? And cannot the instillation of such fear itself be construed as "harm?"

These are the kinds of questions that bounce around my mind. These, and "Ought I to stop off and get a beer after work tonight?"

Monday, December 13, 2010


There is a certain satisfaction to proctoring an exam in a room thoughtfully provided with a computer for me to use. Normally, on exam days such as this one, I would run out of things to do. Even now, my grading is caught up and, because I am at a different campus than my dissertation materials, I cannot be expected to get back into revising a chapter (which I really, REALLY need to do). But today, I have a computer in the room, and only five students scribbling in blue books in the hopes of passing my class.

It is a good thing.

Friday, December 10, 2010


Thank God for small problems.

I subscribe, at least in part and in my moments of greater lucidity, to the idea that we are presented challenges so as to have some reason to grow greater than we now are. My teaching is predicated upon the idea, in fact, and when I am in better control of myself, I strive to do as I teach others to do.

I was presented with a small problem not long ago this evening. As I was sitting at the dining table--which has not been used for dining in entirely too long (though the tree that occupies it at the moment is quite nice, it must be said)--I heard the sound of glass breaking. And falling.

I thought that one of our two cats had knocked something over, so I got up ready to scold one or both of them. When I did, though, I saw that both were snuggled quite contentedly in my good chair--neither seemed to have moved such that the glass had broken by their actions.

Immediately after, I went to where I had heard the break: the bathroom. There, I saw that the interior, frosted pane on the stationary shower window had popped and pieces of it had fallen all about the bathtub. I was taken aback by the event, actually, and had a bit of a panicked moment as I scrambled for what to do. But I was able, in fairly short order, to get calmed down and to call for a bit of advice on a temporary patch. (I intend to call the landlord, but I know for a fact that the office is closed right now, and that it will not open again for a while--the point is that I'd have had to put in a temporary patch, anyway, so I took care of it first.)

After I slapped an ugly construction of cardboard, plastic, and duct tape in the space between the broken panel (there is still glass wedged into it, and I am not going to mess with pulling the remaining glass out without help) and the bathtub, and even while I was assembling the contraption, I groused about how annoying having to take care of such things is. And it is, admittedly, hardly the most pleasant of experiences to have shit in the house break.

But at least I have a home to fix.

That thought occurred to me about two minutes after I got the patch placed. And I realized that, as a problem, patching a window so that cold air doesn't cascade in is a small, small thing. I could be like one of the all-too-many homeless people in New York City, and instead of patching a window in the warmth be shivering in the cold and hoping to scrabble enough together to get a bite to whatever means are available.

So I am not displeased at having to patch the window. I learned a little bit more about how to make due, and I was reminded that I have much for which to be grateful. Neither is a bad thing.

Friday, December 3, 2010


Amidst meetings with students regarding their grades and why what they turned in to me is, in fact, plagiarism, I have been looking back over some blog entries my friends and I have made. The perspective is quite nice, and I enjoy the kinds of comments that get exchanged.

I also enjoy the occasional text-message, such as one I received from my lovely and surpassingly excellent wife just now. She writes* that a student of hers offered up the funniest and most inadvertently astute misspelling: "If we want to sell imported whine, we would have to find where the rich people live."

Aside from the joke embedded in it--one that I found especially funny, given my experience with the wealthy in my hometown--the comment reminds me of an article from College English 73.2 (November 2010), Cathryn Molloy's "The Malcliché: An Argument for and Unlikely Episteme." In the article, Molloy argues that the misuse of the much-maligned cliché is a way to "transcend uncertainty in ways that make our mortality a bit more tolerable" (147), one that is valuable because its unintentional origin reveals much about the perceptions the utterer has of social structures (146, 149, 151). While I am unsure that there needs to be a new label for the phenomenon (is not what Molloy, following Freedman (139), calls the malcliché already subsumed by the definition of "malapropism?"), I do find myself at least partly convinced by the argument, generally.

What, then, is revealed about the student who errs this way? What is revealed of my wife and myself, who both found the incident funny enough to relate? What is revealed of the reader who reads this, whatever the reaction of that reader may be?

*Is "writes" the correct verb to use to refer to text messages? Should it be "texts," or "messages," perhaps? I do not know, and I would welcome input.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


It has been some time, I know, since I commented. In that time, the semester has drawn closer to an end, and I have worked to explain to my students the concepts of counter-argument and rebuttal.

It has gone as well as it ever has, which is to say "not well at all."

As I was explaining it this week, though, an example occurred to me. It is a bit of a lark (satire or parody, whichever allows me protection under Fair Use), yes, but still, I thought it worth much as anything I write ever really is.*

The archetypal Mighty Weapon can be defined as a crafted or artificially-produced object (i.e., one not occurring in nature) which, whether by design or accident, is capable of inflicting significant harm on places, other objects, or people. Often, the Mighty Weapon will have qualities or attributes that violate the commonly-understood nature of reality. The "food" that can be gotten from Taco Bell meets this definition handily; it is a manifestation of the Mighty Weapon.

It is admittedly true that food is not often considered a vector for such an archetype as the Mighty Weapon. Food is a necessity for life, which is not regarded as true for Mighty Weapons--or, indeed, any weapons, if pacifists are to be believed. Additionally, weapons are typically conceived of as implements used for striking in some form, and food, except in school-house cafeterias, is not often enough employed in such a manner as to facilitate the identification of any particular food item as a weapon.

In this, as in so many other cases, common thought is misleading. While food is necessary for life and is not typically employed in a striking capacity, it has on no small number of occasions been used as a vector for chemical and biological attacks--poisons both and therefore weapons, if markedly ignoble ones. The storied presence of food-tasters speaks to the recognition of such a venue for attack. So, too, do various food-tampering laws in the United States and elsewhere. Even hygiene standards and the simple existence of the Heimlich Maneuver in some measure address the potential lethality of food, and if a thing can be made lethal, then it can be made into a weapon. Food thus presents itself as a suitable manifestation of a Mighty Weapon, even if it is one not commonly understood as such.

The destructive powers of Taco Bell "food" in particular is well-known. The Adult Swim cartoon The Venture Brothers includes in "The Trial of the Monarch" a warning from Dr. Orpheus, calling upon people to avoid the bathroom he recently vacated because he "had Taco Bell for lunch!" This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the safety such "food" provides. Instead, it likens the after-effects of consuming Taco Bell to serious health hazards, and while the warning offered refers specifically to the effect of eating Taco Bell on others, is it not the effect of a bullet upon the one it strikes, rather than upon the one who fires it from a gun, which is the thing to be avoided? Taco Bell "food" is thus tacitly connected to the use of weaponry.

In addition to the pop-culture reference, a friend of mine (who will remain nameless here not so much for his own protection but because his name ought not to be presented where children, the elderly, or the infirm might accidentally come into contact with it) tells a story of an occasion of particular stupidity in his life. On that occasion, he and some of his other friends thought that it would be a good idea for them to get into an eating contest in which the objects of consumption were to be Taco Bell soft tacos.

As he relates the story, there was no winner. While it was true that one among them did prove to have a greater capacity for consumption, that one proved also to have a greater amount of suffering. Diarrhea, indigestion, nausea, and extreme discomfort were all attendant upon the "victory," and to as much greater an extent upon the "winner" than upon the "losers" as was the margin of excess. None of these, admittedly, are "harm" in the same way that amputation and death are, but as those who have suffered them are aware, they are hardly pleasant, either. And it is not necessary for a weapon that it inflict catastrophic injury, as the development of non-lethal ammunition such as beanbag shells and tasers suggests; the level of incapacitation that gastrointestinal distress inflicts is comparable to some non-lethal ammunition, so that the "harm" administered by the consumption of Taco Bell "food" does attain to the level delivered by more traditional weapons.

Situation of Taco Bell "food" as a weapon, though, does not make it a Mighty Weapon, though it is necessary for it. The mightiness of the weapon is a result of its insidiousness and ubiquity. The former is addressed, in part, above; food is not commonly understood to be a weapon. Many times, the un-looked-for weapon is the one that strikes most deeply and to greatest effect. That Taco Bell "food" is sneaky in this way increases its effect, lending to its might as a weapon.

Similarly, the comparatively low cost of the "food" available from Taco Bell masks its destructive potential. Typically, armament is quite costly, so that a low price is disassociated with martial possibility. Related is the fact that armament tends to be highly esteemed. In the United States (and elsewhere, admittedly), the esteem in which something is held often strongly correlates to its assessed financial value, so that things which cost more are perceived as more worthwhile and more important. Conversely, things which cost less are perceived as less worthwhile and less important, so that the low price of Taco Bell "food" distances it from more conventional weapons, aiding in the development of the stealth which increases the destructive effect of the "food."

Being able to strike from hiding tends to increase destructive capacity. So, too, does being able to strike from multiple locations. Taco Bell, as franchised fast food, is amply situated to attack along multiple vectors. There are Taco bell "restaurants" on street-corners, in malls, in college food-courts, in airports (which prompts the release of their effects in cramped, crowded spaces, increasing the severity of those effects yet more), and elsewhere. Each one carries a payload of gut-destroying "foods," all easily and quickly available to any who ask and pay the nearly-nominal fees for the products. While it can be argued that the individual effects of each item of Taco Bell "food" are minute, they are available in such numbers that the collected "food" cannot be considered anything less than a Mighty Weapon of high order.

This, of course, leaves aside the soul-crushing despair that nearly-universally accompanies work in food service franchises, the detrimental effects on people and the environment that the food production supplying the fast-food industry creates, and the demonstrated adverse health-effects of fast-food consumption. Factoring those in removes any doubt that Taco Bell "food" is one of the many manifestations of the archetypal Mighty Weapon, one lurking throughout the United States and waiting to be aimed at each one of us.

*Self-pity aside, it's a joke, folks. Also, I am not going to provide full and formal citation here, and for the same reason: It's a damned joke.

Friday, November 19, 2010


I received my copy of College English 73.2 (November 2010) a few days ago. It features a series of anecdotes by Edward M. White, grouped together as a loose essay under the title "English Professor as a Public Figure: My Days in Court."

I read the essay with interest; aside from my desire to see what is going on in my current teaching field, I am increasingly convinced of the need for those of us in the academy to take on roles as public advocates of our own fields and of the academy-as-academy (rather than simply job training with a few electives). It seemed to me that White's essay would address that concern, as it in fact does. He addresses, for instance, the faulty perception "that college English teaching was a matter of hiding from public life in some version of an ivory tower" (183). He also asserts that it is incumbent upon new faculty of whatever rank to become
citizens of higher education as well as campus professors, be ready to stand up in court, in a hearing room, and in committee rooms as well as in the classroom to defend the values we [as academics] must be prepared to speak out, because your job as an English professor comes with important public responsibilities you should not avoid. (194-95)

The individual anecdotes White relates are chilling. Even in something so laudable as fighting censorship, problems arise. According to White, the argument that "a literary critic and, even worse, and English professor, is so committed to reading that he [or she]...cannot come to a disinterested opinion on obscenity" (185) was confirmed by the United States Supreme Court (186). That of an over-zealous, ill-informed churchman, however, was accepted as representative of the community (185-86). The implications that 1) unthinking, untutored zeal is more legally acceptable than considered expertise and 2) that unthinking, untutored zeal is an accurate representation of the community are hardly comfortable.

The discomfort is increased in White's relation of a legislative committee meeting. White notes that his appearances before that committee failed because he spoke with the nuance necessary to accuracy "in an arena where slogans and simplifications were the rule" (191). He relates the comments of a state senator: "'Just like a professor!' he barked. 'You ask a simple question and all you get back is a bunch of gobbledy-gook!'" (192). That laws are made by such people, that expressed complexity is regarded as gibberish, is hardly soothing.

White's anecdotal essay articulates both the need for academics to participate in various public discourses and the truth that such participation will not always be appreciated. It is a thing to keep in mind, particularly with the increasingly anti-intellectual trends in American popular culture (and even among the universities, as the recent elimination of non-English language programs at a number of major state schools shows).

The ideological victories of a great many forces have come about not because those forces deployed "better rhetoric," but because they spoke so loudly and often that their droning became an unavoidable part of the general milieu. That din must be countered somehow.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I have a little bit of time in which I am done with the grading I needed to do, class doesn't start for a while and is already prepped, and my dissertation stuff is elsewhere so that I need not feel guilty for not working on it. Hence, I make little notes.

I gave my students last week time in class to work on the next papers they have due for me. Some complained about this, which I fully expected; there is not one damned thing that a teacher can do that SOME students will not complain about. But I did not anticipate one of the complaints at all.

I forget the exact words the student used, but they amounted to a protest that the student had nothing at all to say without being able to go and look up information.

I found the complaint particularly disturbing.

There are a number of problems with the information-saturated environment in which a great many of the students now in college (and in my classes) grew up. Among them, perhaps most notably among them, are the shifts in the notions of what intellectual property and academic honesty are. I worry, though, that there is the additional detriment to students coming to have some kind of pride and investment in their own work.

A great many of the students at the school where I teach already have issues with academia. Many of them have been told that they have or have had no place in any kind of schooling. While it must be admitted that there are quite a few who used to or still do conduct themselves in ways that indicate they do not belong in the academic environment (and there are such students), there are many more who have moved past that point or who were wrongly told it to begin with. They already are unsure of themselves and whether or not they actually have anything worth contributing to the ongoing discussion that is academic writing; that lack of surety serves as a prod to plagiarism and all kinds of other things that those of us who teach decry.

I think my worry understandable. And I am moved to pity.

Friday, November 12, 2010


As some people know, I have kept a journal for some time. Often, the journal is a simple record of my daily life--or, more recently, far-less-regular recollections that are spliced together whenever I remember to do so. Sometimes, I use it to work out ideas for papers, books (yes, there are a couple in embryo in the well-inked wombs of my journals), and stories. From time to time also, I include poetry.

I had had an image in my mind for some time, and last night, I finally got it out onto the page:

He walks
Hands in his pockets
Shoulders hunched against the wind
Head down
Eyes scanning the ground ahead
Looking for places to put his feet
Each long, slow step the swing of an axe
Biting into the distance
He has yet to travel
Footfalls thudding dully on the pavement
In rhythm
What will happen if he misses his swing?
What will happen if he
When he
Cuts all the way through?
What sort of wood will be
If it can be called yielding
When prompted by many blows of an axe?

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Yes, it is Veterans' Day, and yes, it is the old Armistice Day, as well. And I am very much grateful to those who have served and still serve this country. That service has not been perfect, and it has been badly used by those in power over it, but it is a damned sight better than a number of the alternatives.

Faint praise, I know.

The people in the armed services are just that: people. They are human. They err. Sometimes they err greatly. But they also are in a position that does much for others. And for that, I thank them.

Friday, November 5, 2010


I have been following recent debates about the status of the humanities in higher education, which makes sense since I work in the humanities in higher education. As I have, it has become evident to me that critics of the humanities think that those of us who work in them ought to be able to get our points across to our students in six or so hours of coursework, after which our students will be "informed" and "critically self-aware."

It occurs to me that no accounting student is expected to be able to serve as an accountant after only six or so hours of coursework. No medical student is awarded a doctorate and released to treat patients after a mere six hours of coursework. Chemists don't get away with it, either. Neither do physicists, nor do political scientists.

And I know that as I begin to make this point, some will comment that "Those things are hard." And they are, I admit. But how many times do you think I have seen people with degrees in those fields--and others--say that they cannot write, that writing is hard?

Look at the comments made by many of the detractors of the study of the humanities. How well do they write? How much in the way of critical reasoning skills do they display?

Suddenly, the humanities are not such easy things. And yet we are supposed to get students to master them in six or so hours of coursework.

Am I the only one who sees this as a problem?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


The big news consists of the results of the midterm elections. Those results were not unanticipated. And I hold little if any rancor over them.

Remember this day, folks. Remember over the next couple of years that you asked for it.

I hope you like what you get.

Friday, October 22, 2010


I just finished reading Stephen R. Donaldson's latest book, Against All Things Ending.


The book is sizable, well over 500 pages, but its physical size matches the immensity of the goings-on in the pages. In it, the end of a world is very much at hand, and the tragedies embedded in the very beginnings of that world are made manifest.

As with every volume of the series, Donaldson's command of language is exquisite. The extent of the man's vocabulary continues to be a delight. Reading him forces me to improve myself; I have to go to the dictionary every time I read him, and my own vocabulary is far from small. Donaldson's choice of words, though, is not a flashy thing; he does not write as though to show off that his knowledge of the lexicon is as it is. Instead, the words he uses are that right words; when he writes of "roynish" creatures or of the "caducity" of a formerly-fat character, or of the "atavistic vertigo" that afflicts the titular character, he does so because those words singly encapsulate phrases of meaning whose recitation would belabor and the text.

That text already does quite a bit. It is not easy, after all, to maintain the level of tension of the impending end of the world without sending the reader past the willingness to suspend disbelief, and Donaldson does do so, leaving the reader, following an uneasy triumph, facing the imminent final cataclysm but entirely without seeming contrivance (the victories are too partial and too dearly bought for the common stuff of fantasy). Nor yet is it easy to bring the reader into the minds of those who are not, for various reasons, wholly sane without losing comprehensibility--yet Donaldson succeeds in this.

The text, though enthralling, is not perfect. Page 511 displays a proofreading error (though it may well be that only my having spent time grading papers today attuned me to seeing such things). Also, like earlier volumes of the collected Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, there are incidences of the titular character enacting violence against women (in one particularly jarring case, against his own daughter--though not of the kind that that phrase would commonly bring to mind), which, coupled with his leprosy and his distinct lack of prowess--the more so in this volume than even in others--makes of him very much an anti-hero. But the book is very much more about a particular woman, the exigencies of her choices, and the ultimate revelation to her that the only choice that is ultimately effective is the choice to trust to others.

That is one of the major messages of the books, that trust in others is always necessary for success, even if it does invite the possibility of betrayal. Another is the reminder that there are always consequences for the acts we do, and that many of them are neither those we would intend nor those we would endure if given the choice. But the most important, perhaps, is that hope remains while life endures: while we continue to choose and to work to an ending of our design, however poor our situation looks, something might happen that none of us expect.

Saturday, October 16, 2010



The school at which I work was reviewed by one of its accrediting agencies last year, and assessment was one of the areas in which the school was found wanting. Accordingly, the school scrambled to put measures in place to correct the lack, and as a result, I have been attending a series of assessment meetings during this first semester of being full-time faculty.

(It still sounds really nice to have a full-time gig.)

The idea of evaluation and assessment has, consequently, been much on my mind. It became more so when, as happens from time to time, a student asked: "Do you want us to pass?"

I would like to have quipped at that student "All except you," but I did not; I actually behaved myself, despite the class more or less erupting into a discussion where the students more or less agreed that my reporting them as having earned As would represent me having done my job. The sentiment thus expressed is one commonly voiced, and I think it speaks to students not understanding the purpose that assessment/evaluation should have.

I explained to my students that what it looks like, at least initially, when a great many students show As on their transcripts is that their instructors are not enforcing rigorous standards. In brief, it shows grade inflation, and grade inflation devalues achievement. It makes all involved look bad: when all students get As, the A doesn't matter, and when all students get As, the curriculum obviously cannot be that difficult, so that it looks like the students aren't being challenged and the teachers aren't pushing the students.

"If it's not hard," I tell my students, "then you've got no reason to get better."

Some of them get the point. They understand that I push them so that they will be forced to improve or suffer penalties to their transcripts and finances (I also make a point of repeatedly and, I think, impassionedly calling upon them to come get help with their difficulties with course materials--but only few ever take me up on the matter). But a great many suffer* from the notion that higher education is about credentialing, as Jane Jacobs notes. They do not view college as a place to test old ideas and develop new ones; it is for them instead a means of getting a nifty little piece of paper, and they want to get it for minimum effort.

That desire, to gain most for least effort, is a natural human desire. But it is not one that I am going to reward in my classroom. Doing so would do a disservice to those students who actually want to work at their education--and it is with those students that I am most concerned.

*The term is used deliberately.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


It has been some time since I last made a blog entry. Of note has been only this:

Contract negotiations between my union and my employer stalled out, forcing a shut-down this morning. Fortunately, the shut-down was short-lived, as a contract emerged quickly from the closed-down school. As it turns out, the union is getting pieces of almost everything it asked, though management has retained the possibility of layoffs in the future, depending on enrollment and potential federal regulations.

I get to keep getting a paycheck for the work I do, which is good. I have little seniority, which is less good, but I have also made sure that my bets are amply hedged.

And so I'll be teaching tonight.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


I mentioned earlier that I work for one of the proprietary colleges in New York City. As should not be a surprise, I am part of the union at that college; aside from my personal belief in the power of collective action (and its Constitutional justification in the First Amendment), it is more or less one of the terms of employment that I be enrolled in that union.

The union contract with the school expires on October 9, and so the union and the management of the school are currently in the process of negotiating the next contract. Right now, though, the management is arguing that because there is a chance that regulations being debated might in the future hurt the school, the management (which reports that enrollment and incoming monies are up right now) needs to be able to do, among other things, the following:

Cut the wages of all union employees (which includes all teaching faculty as well as the whole of the clerical and maintenance staffs) by 4%,

Cut employer matching contributions to the 401k by 1.5%,

Exclude newly-hired part-time faculty from participation in the 401k,

Extend the probation period (during which an employee may be fired without cause and without access to grievance procedures and protections) to seven semesters for teaching faculty and five for staff,

Install cameras in every classroom to use for "Lecture Capture," which can be used as a surveillance tool (inhibiting the academic freedom on which intellectual inquiry depends) and as a means to rebroadcast lectures as a moneymaking tool,

And reduce total teaching hours (including hours taught at other institutions, so that it messes with people caught in the traditional plight of the adjunct--bouncing between institutions in an attempt to cobble together enough hours to make enough money to live on).

These management demands are not acceptable to the union membership, obviously. And it is not simply because of the financial impact they have on the members, but because they will negatively impact the ability of the teachers to teach.

That impact will come from the reduction of employee connection to the institution. By giving the employees less reason to partake in the community of the school--particularly the part-time employees who, here as in most other colleges and universities across the country,* comprise the bulk of the teachers students encounter in their pivotal first year of classes--the school gives them less incentive to do the myriad outside tasks that result in good teaching. Limiting teachers' hours forces them to seek outside employment, thereby reducing the amount of time they may spend with students outside of class in office hours and consultations and the like, which in turn sharply limits the ability of students who might do well with a little extra help to get that help. And denying employees access to benefits reduces their connection to the school. So, too, does putting them under minute surveillance, for while observation from time to time is a boon to teaching, constant watching speaks of distrust, and who among us responds well to being told we are not worth trusting?

Because of these things, the union membership voted on Thursday to authorize a strike. The motion carried overwhelmingly; some eight members voted against it, while those in favor numbered in the hundreds. We do not look forward to this; we hope instead that the management of the school will come to its senses and not attempt to set up, in the interest of making money in the short-term, policies that will exert a long-term negative effect on the institution and the students it serves.

But we will not let these things pass.

*This according to information taken from Profession, College English, and CCC in their last few issues.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


In College English 73.1, Timothy L. Carens writes in "Serpents in the Garden: English Professors in Contemporary Film and Television" that the dominant paradigm for portraying English professors is as out-of-fashion older men who perpetrate sexual predation on intelligent female students through manipulation of access to the ability to perform interpretive criticism. In his view, the work of the English professor is that of providing access to a reified, ethereal deeper meaning of text and therefore of humanity. It becomes attractive through the seeming provision of power; the professor serves, at least initially, to enable students to form and substantiate their own interpretations of literary events, thereby assisting them in gaining power over a part of the prevailing cultural context in which they find themselves. But, as Carens notes, the professor can only permit this to a certain point, beyond which it serves to undermine the authority of the professor (who, of course, only permits the access so as to be able to indulge his--and the gender matters--own sexual desires, normally frustrated because of the manner in which the profession of professing English is devalued).

The article is fairly well-written and provides an interesting summary of depictions (though it could, of course, be more comprehensive, and could use a better set of examples than episodes of Dawson's Creek). And one of its central points--that collegiate English as a discipline is attractive because greatly permissive--is not far off the mark. Similarly on target is another, that there is "resentment and distrust reserved for those who preside over a body of knowledge and analytic skills invested with positive desire" (23). And I think that the resentment and distrust--not just of English and the humanities, but even at times the "hard" disciplines in the sciences--is something of a "sour grapes" phenomenon.

From speaking not just to a number of the students I have had over many years, but also with members of the various communities I participate in outside the academy (my family, for instance, and the church, as well as the aikikai and the occasional conversation in a bar), I have come to believe that there is a prevailing perception that the academic world is one analogous to the religious (a parallel that Carens also draws). That is, people often believe that those of us engaged in the profession of professing have access to knowledge and understanding utterly beyond that which the "normal person" can attain, and that we have it not because of long years of study that anyone could, at least in theory, similarly undertake, but because of what may well be termed a "divine ordination."

We do what we do because it is what we are meant to do, and unless a person is meant to do it, that person cannot do it. Or so the idea asserts.

Like the religious life, many hold the academic in high regard; they view it as a noble calling, even if they claim to not understand what actually goes on inside the walls of the ivory tower. In their minds, it is a thing that, because it allows greater understanding of more of the world, ought to be venerated to some degree; academics are special.

The disdain comes in when, as is often (and not wholly incorrectly) pointed out, those of us in the academy focus our attentions on extending human knowledge in small, small ways. To what end studying how it is that Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur became the standard text of English-language Arthurian legend, for example, or which chemicals result in the particulars of fecal coloration? And if to no end, then is it really a good thing that time and effort is spent upon the study? And with such questions, some of those who have not devoted themselves to the intellectual life repudiate it.

Sour grapes, as I said.

I'm not interested here in justifying the ways of academia to man.* But I do think that the attitude, which is often remarked upon, lies at the root of what Carens has to discuss. And, just to clear the air a bit, while there are some English professors who do successfully seduce their students (not always or only the female ones), most keep eleven-foot poles on hand to handle the issue of sex with students.

Unless I am completely wrong. Which might be the case. Though I hope not.

*I probably ought to apologize to Milton for this. But he was an arrogant asshole, and he's dead anyway, so I'm not sorry.

Work Cited
Carens, Timothy L. "Serpents in the Garden: English Professors in Contemporary Film and Television." College English 73.1 (September 2010): 1-27. Print.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Senate, I am disappointed in you. I truly, truly am. And I am so for several reasons.

Does it matter who a soldier goes to bed with if he or she is on duty on time the next day?

Is a sailor's performance affected by the gender of who rubs his or her genitals?

Does a Marine lose the ability to aim and fire a weapon if he or she has sex with someone of the same sex?

Can a pilot not fly if that pilot's controls are played with by another person with the same equipment?


Or is it that you are afraid that more people will know that more of you do things like tap your feet in bathroom stalls or have the wrong kind of fun with pages? (I know the second is a Representative, but it's not too far from that chamber...)


I work, as some know, at a proprietary two-year college, the very sort of institution that is currently facing quite a bit of scrutiny. There are reports that "For-Profit Colleges Mislead Students," that they are sites of fraud and deception, and that by profiting they actually work against students. And it is true that there are problems in some for-profit schools. Associates of mine (one might even call them friends, though they may not always be glad of the label) have commented to me to the effect that some of the for-profit schools explicitly operate on the student-as-customer model. Students pay, so goes the model, and so they are entitled to receipt of credits culminating in a degree.

Even at my own institution, I have heard such an attitude voiced by certain of my colleagues. Some of the comments in that regard, I have discussed: that the school is a two-year school in no way means that the students who attend it are less deserving of learning and of intellectual rigor. One might argue that because they bear a heavier direct cost (in addition to the indirect costs the rest of us carry), they are more deserving; they pay more, so they ought to get more.

But "more" in terms of education does not necessarily equal employment...and it never really has. In any event, hiring decisions are not made by the colleges being targeted; while there are, no doubt, some bad practices that need to be corrected, punishing a school because businesses do not hire its graduates seems akin to kicking you for something I did. And that does not strike me as a well-thought-out thing.

It is, yes, one of the hopes of most schools (not just for-profit ones) that their graduates will go on to find decent jobs and become contributing members of society (and the alumni association). And that hope is intensified for many two-year schools, since they tend to focus on technical and service fields. But the point of the thing is to help students become educated people who can interpret the information that comes to them in such a way as to be aware not only of what is being said but how what is being said is manipulated, and thereby participate fully in civic society.

While there are things that need fixing, the ideas for doing so that are being advanced are not the way to get at the problems facing not just the for-profit schools, but education generally.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


The new term at the school where I teach is a week old, now, and I am adjusting to the increased teaching load.

On September 15, the online New York Times offered an article by Professor Marino, "Boxing Lessons." In the article, Marino espouses the benefits to the thinking mind of training in boxing. He does comment that there is some resistance to the idea among the intellectual community. He argues, though, that training as a boxer allows a person to develop self-esteem through the realization that power and control can be exercised. Such training also allows fear to be negotiated; it will be present, but it can be overcome, and a fight in the ring facilitates practice in doing so.

Fundamentally, I agree with Marino. Although I have never been a boxer, I do have some years of training in other martial arts (classical jiujutsu, judo, and aikido) and have made a study of the literature of war and warriors; my approach is a bit different, but it gets me toward the same kinds of truths.

There is, as Marino notes, some resistance to the idea that there ought to be something of the warrior about the scholar (as some of the comments posted to the article point out). The monastic beginnings of Western scholarship account for some degree of this (though there were monastic knightly orders and a fair bit of hagiography details militantly saintly acts). My own experience suggests to me that a lot of us in the academic world(myself definitely included) were on the unfortunate receiving end of quite a bit of violence during youth; if my experience is even vaguely representative, then it is no surprise that a great many adults in the academic world would repudiate the value of violence and the ability to exercise it.

To be fair, my experience also suggests that there is a fair bit of resistance to the scholarly among the warlike. It is seen as an Other, and all too often, the Other is made the target of violence for no other reason than that it is the Other. Whether that violence is physical or is sublimated into aversion or--where my experience has seen it--resistance makes no difference.

Both forms of opposition to the idea are misguided, and have been recognized as such by many people in many times and places. Classical Greece offers up Theseus and Odysseus as examples of a balance between the virtues of mind and body; there were other heroes and greater warriors, but most of them came to much worse ends. The Biblical Samson was a strong man and ended up blind and buried under a pile of stone; did not David, a shepherd and musician, and Solomon, evidently a collector of wisdom and thus a scholar, fare far better? Musashi speaks in The Book of Five Rings to the principle that those who practice the sword must also cultivate knowledge of the other arts. The fairy tales that sink into the minds of our children valorize those who blend strength with understanding. The current positions of the various service academies in the United States also address the need for those who will use force to have insightful minds, to be scholars as well as warrior-leaders, as noted here.

And, yes, there are other avenues to develop many of the things that training in the martial arts provides. There are many paths to truth, as many, perhaps, as there are those to move along them. But there are also times when violence is, in fact, the appropriate response. Knowing when those times are...that is one of the values of the scholar to the warrior.

Friday, September 10, 2010


I know that it has been some time since I posted. There are reasons for this, but I'll not get into them.

What I will get into, given that tomorrow is what it is, is the thought that, nine years later...

I don't feel any safer. The programs that are in place to "secure our nation" are flawed, as the repeated breaches of them indicate. And many of those same programs are invasive--perhaps dangerous (as the whole thing with the body-scanners--which spray people with radiation--indicates), so that the source of danger shifts from some nutjobs who want to blow shit up "in the name of God" to the entrenched bureaucracy that is ultimately not accountable to the electorate.

Then again, I don't feel less safe. Really, death at any moment is a possibility and always has been. And people have long been aware of it; the whole memento mori movement and a lot of Christian teaching address the issue.

People continue to be as they have been.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


There is still a lot of hubbub regarding the "Ground Zero Mosque," much of it vitriol from people who don't live in New York City and who normally advocate individual and property rights and minimal interference from governmental entities but think that there ought to be laws against that sort of thing. I've noted it in brief before.

A friend offered me this link through a social networking site. And, just so you know, the man who wrote the letter so linked, Bishop Park, is not some newbie only recently come into his position, as noted here.

I think he's right. This issue goes to the heart of what it is to be American. For those who take the view that the United States is, as noted in the Constitution (Article VI and Amendment I) and in a statement by President Washington (Article 11 of the 1796 "Treaty of Peace and Friendship"), a nation that disclaims the explicit tie of religion to government, to deny equal protection of the due process of law (which is, as far as has been directly observed, is being followed) to an organization because of its religious affiliation is absurd. And for those who view the United States as a Christian nation and view Islam as the enemy of Christendom, I seem to recall Matthew 5 including such things as "Agree with thine adversary quickly" (verse 25), "I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (39), and "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (44); in the print editions I have where I live, they are even printed in red...

Not a lot of that going around right now, is there?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


This article brings up an interesting issue of ownership of a major artwork. Aside from the value of it being one of the recognized major works (I'll leave discussing what counts as "major" for another time), it does bear in on questions of plagiarism which I have discussed before. Since a new semester is starting soon, I'll likely be forced to deal with the issue again. Also, concerns of cultural management pop up.

To summarize from the article, David, lodged in Florence's Accademia Gallery, was held to belong specifically to Florence. Recently, however, Italian federal officials have claimed that the statue is the property of Italy generally and not of one of its cities, specifically. Others are making counter-claims, citing economic issues that the federal government dismisses. The issue of ownership, however, seems less important in popular imagination than the issue of access.

That last, that ownership is less important than access, seems to be a prevailing attitude among students I have had. There seems to be at work the ease of access is inversely proportional to the force of ownership, so that the easier it is to find something, the less important it is that someone actually has ownership of that thing. And while it is true that theft of ideas is not the same as theft of physical property (since taking an idea does not remove it from the place of its original holding, as physical theft does), the idea that ease of access equals diminished ownership means that idea-theft is increasingly not seen as theft by students, but is simply the use of a resource that is open to all.

I do not have any problem with using available public resources. Lord knows that I use them enough, myself. But I try to be responsible in that use, as do many people. A number of students, however, fail to see that use needs to be responsible. And it is not just in their papers that this is so; look at the subways and sidewalks in New York City, see the people cast their waste (not all of it discarded packaging) about themselves, and tell me that they are responsible. Hell, even in "Don't Mess with" Texas, litter lines the sides of the roads and highways.


As far as cultural management goes, Povoledo notes that resistance to new policies intended to increase access to cultural and historical fixtures "has been very vocal, both from within ministry ranks, as well as from members of the cultural intelligentsia who fear over-commercialization." This seems to me to be very much in keeping with ideas reported by Levine in Highbrow/lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (with thanks to Professor Jennifer Vaught for pointing out the source to me). In the text, Levine remarks that there was a major disjunction in the perception by the people of the United States as to what constituted "high" culture and who should have access to it. Efforts--largely successful, as it happens--were made to restrict access to such things as Shakespeare and Mozart to the upper socioeconomic strata; after the more-or-less solid appropriation of them, attempts to democratize access (largely through "we need to educate the masses" ideas) met with resistance as potentially destructive to the "real" cultural importance of things.

I am not convinced of that truth. For if it is the cast that the vast majority will not "get the point" (which is itself doubtful), assuming that a given percentage of the population at large will "understand" what is going on, allowing more people access will increase the number of those who are able to "get it."

I just hope that they think to credit their sources.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


There is much media attention being given to yet another rally going on in DC.

I do not lend much credence to the idea that coincidence has anything to do with what is going on.

We are not yet at a point where we act as though we believe that all people are created equal, despite the pretensions to that effect voiced by some. Nor are we at a point where we believe that it is the content of our characters that should judge us.

Not one of us would truly stand up to the scrutiny.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Just a brief note today:

While I am sad to see this article, there is some strange comfort in knowing that it is not only teachers whose "real" jobs are being screwed with...

Saturday, August 7, 2010


My daily reading brought me to this article today. In it, Bob Herbert laments the decline in the United States' relative standing among the college-educated. In it also, he twice cites Lady Gaga as evidence of the brain-drain that he asserts is taking place in the US (he also lumps in Lohan and Snooki).

I am not fond of Lady Gaga (or the other two--hell, I'm not even sure who "Snooki" is). And I do think that Herbert's comment that the United States "often holds intellectual achievement in contempt" is fairly accurate, as I think I have discussed (here, here, and here, among others). Even so, I find that I have questions about Herbert's article.

One of them regards the very issue of relative standing. He writes that the College Board tells us that the US, "once the world's leader in the percentage of young people with college degrees, has fallen to 12th among 36 developed nations." Assuming that this is true (and I am not contesting the factual basis), there remains the question of what the percentages are. If the percentage of US young people with college degrees has remained constant, but eleven other countries' percentages rose markedly, that would create the change that Herbert notes without there being any actual drop in the percentage of US students who get their funny little pieces of paper.

I would be interested in seeing the College Board's report for myself.

Another question I have is why Herbert expresses such vitriol towards pop-culture figures as he does. As I note above, I am not terribly fond of the people Herbert references; I think them execrable, in fact, and am greatly annoyed that they are able to make as much money as they do for contributing little. But I am also convinced that they are no worse than the schlock of any previous generation--and there has been quite a bit of it in every time. Much of Milton is nigh-unreadable. Not all of Shakespeare is good. Even Chaucer had bad days. And they are held up as the trifecta of superior English literature.

Given this, can we really be surprised that people like crap?

I do agree with Herbert's general thrust, that the people of the United States as a whole do not adequately intellectually engage with the world around them. I see it repeatedly in every class I teach. In each, there are students who are already engaged, there are others who are willing to engage, but there are always some who simply want to get the credit and move on, doing as little as possible and caring not one whit for what they do. And while I believe that it is too much to expect that all of the students who come into my classroom will have the same love of learning as I do, or the same regard for the subject matter, there are always those who are not even open to the possibility that there is something worthwhile in opening the mind and accepting challenges to it.

The simple truth is that it is not easy to wrestle with concepts and ideas. It is not easy to train the mind to be able to question itself and its assumptions. It requires continuous effort applied to all things, and that does tend to be an uncomfortable thing; there is a certain peace in simple belief, and intellectual engagement necessarily involves questioning assumptions and testing their validity,* and that destroys the comfort of acceptance, at least in the short term. While I'll not go so far as to say that the work of the mind in such things is as tiring as is the work of the body in the day-to-day tasks involved in preserving the material aspects of American culture (digging ditches is hard, dammit), it is taxing, and it is hard to blame those who spend their days engaged in labor for not spending their free time working at a different difficult task.

It certainly can be done, but it is just as certainly considerably demanding.

Part of the problem lies, I believe, in the idea that easy is good. It is a natural outgrowth of increasing technology that the necessary amount of work on the part of people tends to decrease; automation of production by using robots in factories is one prominent example, with the immensely increased ability to access information provided by the Internet another. As work becomes less necessary, less is done, which has the effect of making less able to be done; this is analogous to the development of muscle tissue, which loses its strength if it is not regularly exercised. As less becomes doable, more becomes subject to the sour grapes phenomenon (again, why study the old stuff?); because it cannot be done, people tend to salve their own chagrin at demonstrated incapability by labeling that which cannot be done as not worth doing.

That phenomenon, I am sure, contributes to my disdain for a lot of popular performers. I am also sure that it contributes to the devaluing of intellectual achievement in the United States. And I do not know how to fight it.

*As the Good Doctor remarks in "Belief," the very postulates from which any line of reasoning must proceed are themselves articles of faith, so that there is no way to avoid blind acceptance at some level.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Plagiarism has been much on my mind lately, as I think I may have noted. As I have spoken with my colleagues, I have found that many of them are reporting things similar to my experience; students are doing things that we call "cheating" openly and in many cases unabashedly. And that is not a comfortable situation for anyone--instructors are placed in a position to have to confront students, and students are forced either to admit their errors (not a bad thing, but not an easy one for any of us) or contest the instructor's judgment (which, since many of us use Google as well as did the student who cheated, is usually not an easy thing to do).

It was with some interest, then, that I read this article, in which Trip Gabriel discusses the increased incidence of plagiaristic behavior at even the higher levels of undergraduate academia. Perhaps I am something of a romantic, but it seems to me that there is something gravely wrong when top-notch institutions--whose students are supposedly academically socialized to a great extent--suffer from the same sort of rash of cut-and-paste, get-it-done-easily-and-move-on-quickly mentality that is found at other institutions where such a production-based mindset is more expected.

Leaving aside the problems inherent in the idea that there are institutions of higher learning where "getting done" is the accepted method of progress (and the hierarchical academia that idea entails), I cannot help but wonder if the reliance, in papers as well as "creative" works, on "sampling" does not point to some degree of stultification. I well realize that my wondering smacks of curmudgeonly in-my-dayism, that it falls firmly in line with the traditional "kids these days" complaint. But there is something worrying about the idea that the "remix" is an independent creative product.

I admit, though, that I am very much a product of my upbringing and education, both of which have been very much in keeping with the "traditional" American idea of white-middle-class-as-norm.

I admit also that the idea of the remix is an old one. Medieval English literature, for example, is replete with examples of recastings of older stories. Indeed, the focal work of my current research, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, is in most of its text an adaptation of other sources--where it is not an outright copy-over of them (as is pointed out by Vinaver, among others). Chaucer, the veritable parent of English literature, recasts stories in several of his more famous pieces (Troilus and Boece come to mind). And there is the old adage that Shakespeare himself was an inveterate plagiarist (to which I append for my students, "When you write as well as Shakespeare, you, too, may plagiarize. Not an instant before."). Their evidence asserts that copying is not a barrier to artistry, even enduringly high artistic achievement. And it follows that it may not be a barrier to serious academic inquiry.


Even if a number of older, respected artists (and scholars, no doubt) made their way by taking freely from what they found before them, they did more than simply regurgitate it wholesale. Malory, who keeps lines of his sources intact, often writes of "the frenssh booke," and where he fails to, he nonetheless recasts language and events in such a way as to significantly alter the thrust of the stories he relates. Chaucer acts similarly, freshening his re-settings by casting them into different verse-forms. And Shakespeare's contributions are too numerous for me to list.

Who among the samplers, remixers, and plagiarists at work now do so much with what they take up?

Works Cited
~Malory, Thomas. Malory: Complete Works. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. 2nd ed. New York, Oxford UP, 1978. Print.
~Vinaver, Eugène. Introduction. Malory: Complete Works. By Thomas Malory. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1978. v-x. Print.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


There continues to be hubbub about the WTC-area mosque, as noted here. And I do have something to say to the far-removed people who are complaining about this--many of whom have spoken out feverently in favor of the rights, priority, and authority of local government:

The local government of New York City approved the thing. It is completely and entirely a local issue, and it is being carried out via due process of law (so far as has yet been proven). So, those of you who want to interfere despite that being meddling with local government, butt out. You don't get to cry for national work when the locals disagree with you if you want to cry for local work when the nationals do.

Friday, July 23, 2010


As I was reading yesterday morning, I came across this article, in which Nicholas D. Kristof argues against another article in which Hanna Rosin articulates the position that manhood, as traditionally defined in Western culture (and elsewhere), is on its way out. Rosin's central point is that the economic upheavals that still wrack the United States and Europe are largely affecting men, and that, coupled with a preponderance of women in higher education and growth sectors of the economy, means that the "typical" role of men as the dominant sex is on its way out. She writes that "It's [the] broad, striving middle class that defines our society. And demographically, we can see with absolute clarity that in the coming decades the middle class will be dominated by women." And, upon reading her article in its entirety, I find it difficult to disagree.

Kristof replies that much of the gain women are currently seeing has "a catch-up quality" and that "Catch-up is easier than forging ahead." Perhaps this is true. It is certainly true that "men have typically benefited as women have gained greater equality."

The dialogue between the articles, though, is telling. Kristof does not refute what Rosin write, though he does qualify it. He does not deny that men are losing out in many regards, though he nuances it and offers different reasons than does Rosin. But he does say that even if and when "we men will find a way to hold our own," it will be "with the help of women"; his argument acknowledges that male development is contingent upon female influence.

And that is true. It very much is. For the great majority of us, our mothers were our first teachers. Most of my other teachers were and are women. And I, at least, do quite a bit with the thought of making my wife happy prominent in my mind.

Unfortunately, as Rosin rightly points out, there are a lot of men in the United States and elsewhere who are thoroughly socialized to not accept much in the way of help, let alone help from women. Leaving aside those who are inveterate, obstinate sexists, leaving aside those who do believe that women are inferior to men, there are a great many who are brought up to believe that they ought, not just as men but as adult human beings, to be providing for themselves and contributing to the maintenance of their families--and they are right to believe this. All of had damned well ought to be doing that very thing whenever we can.

The trouble right now is that it is not quite so possible to do so as it ought to be for a great many people. The reasons for it, I'll not go into at the moment, though they can be easily guessed at (not so much, to quote South Park, that "They took oer jebs" or however it's spelled to be pronounced that way). As a man, one who is in the female-dominated field of academia (and in English, no less, one of the most "feminine" disciplines), I do not know what to say about the issue.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


As part of the assessment of student learning my school is conducting, I have been directed to have students in my remedial reading classes summarize an article from the New York Times. Being fond of Internet searches and of making things fairly easy for myself, I looked to the online component of that outlet, and because I spend a lot of time looking at peoples' opinions, I plumbed the op-ed section of it for the article.

As it happened, I came up with Stephen Marche's "Byrd and the Bard," posted July 2, 2010, to In summary, the article laments the passing of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, with the sadness coming not so much from the loss of his support for policies as from the loss of his command of Shakespeare. Marche notes of Byrd that "he was the greatest Shakespeare-quoter in American political history," displaying an impressive command of the plays attributed to the Swan of Avon.* His ready employment of Shakespearean phrasing, coupled with his reliance on Scripture and the Constitution, marked him as belonging to an older ideal of social and political life. With his passing, the hold of that life upon the prevailing American consciousness is much reduced.

Having not ever been to, much less lived in or been registered to vote in, West Virginia, I am not personally invested in the death of the Senator. But I am very much interested in some of the comments Marche makes in his paean for Byrd. One such comment is that "Quoting Shakespeare is risky as a rhetorical strategy. No American politician today wants to seem too educated."

The idea that there can even be such a thing as "too educated" is abhorrent to me--though that is to be expected, given that I am an educator and continue to pursue my own education. But it does dovetail with some assertions made by John McWhorter in Doing Our Own Thing, namely that there has been an anti-intellectual tendency in the United States (akin to the anti-authoritarian one that is often celebrated) since its inception. And, having been the "brainy" kid in my childhood, I know that the rejection of those who are "too smart" starts early.

My students, when we talked about the article tonight, had comments about the notion (I know because I asked them). One asserted that appearing too intelligent could lead to an increased workload. The ideas behind that are that being smart provokes anger (prompting additional, punitive assignments), suggests that the smart person has leisure (because learning isn't "real work," and those who have time to sit around and read have time to do more work), or implies that the smart person is more capable (a compliment, yes, but a dangerous one). Another student suggested that appearing too educated removes a politician from being able to relate to the ostensible constituency (I am paraphrasing), most of whom belong to lower socio-economic strata and are therefore not likely possessed of higher education--or at least, not higher education in the humanities. Display of higher learning therefore, in that student's assessment, prompts alienation--and that is detrimental to continued political careers.

I am always happy when my students make sense, though I cannot say that I am pleased by the truth of what they say.

Another comment of Marche's with which I have some ado regards Byrd's "deepest anachronism...he believed in a community of language rather than images." I have only tenuous guesses as to what Marche means by the terms he uses--what is a "community of language," really, or the suggested "community of images?" But I am not convinced that we have yet turned wholly away from language. We (for varying values of "we") remain very much text-based, though the nature of what constitutes text is more overtly in flux now than it has been for most of human history. We still speak to one another, if in increasingly short units of meaning. And while we do see much more recently than in the preceding few decades of images--pictures and the like--appearing within what would otherwise be "simple" texts, at no point have we fully turned away from the image as a carrier of meaning and cultural referent. The first printer in the English language, Caxton, printed woodcut illustrations with some of his works, manuscripts from centuries before him are treasured as much for the beauty of their drawings and paintings as for the language and script, and there are ancient forms of writing that are themselves series of pictures; even from the earliest instances of recorded language, the image has been integral to meaning.

I do not think that the two terms are as diametrically opposed as Marche constructs them as being. Nor am I quite convinced that we no longer exist as a community of language--inasmuch as we ever have been "a community" rather than several communities. The clamors for and attempts to legislate English-only policies in the United States, as well as the counter-assertions that people have rights to their own languages, speak to a continued awareness of the influence of language upon identity. So, too, do various native and indigenous language movements.

And thus, Mr. Marche, while I empathize with the loss by West Virginia and the United States Senate of a man who had at his fingertips the words of the Bard, I do not think that that which he represented as such a man is gone away.

*I follow the traditional position that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. I do acknowledge, though, that there is ample debate about the matter. Hence the phrasing.

While this article was posted before my above blog post, I do think (now that I've glanced at it) that it addresses some of the concerns brought up.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I more or less took today to myself. I've been doing a lot of running around recently, and I figured that I could stand to take a day to rest; I feel like I'll be very well able to get back to work in earnest tomorrow.

One of the things that I do when I rest is read. I'll not restate my love of text (again at the moment), but I do generally find reading to be a pleasant activity. And even when I do run across things that prompt strong responses from me, such as this article, I enjoy the sensation.

As I read Staples's article earlier this afternoon, I found myself more or less in agreement with what he discusses. I have already had several cut-and-paste plagiarists in my writing classes this semester. In most of the cases, the offending students simply did not know that 1) they were supposed cite information that they get from the Internet, and 2) that their assignments needed to be their writing, rather than a collage of source materials formatted neatly (not that most format their papers according to the standards I enforce, but that is a different issue).

Regarding the former, I find that a lot of students simply do not realize that information taken from the Internet requires citation. The typical reaction from a student upon being confronted with the zero that plagiarism receives from me is something like "But it's on the Internet. Doesn't that mean the everybody owns it?" While I do acknowledge that ownership of information is a thorny issue--something that this article, among many others, speaks to--I do not see citation so much as confirming or denying ownership as a mark of respect for the person or people who went to the trouble of assembling the material being employed. This is particularly true in the cases of older works that have passed into the public domain and are "common property"; all of us really do own the work, at least in a legal sense, but we ought to at least pay lip service to the effort that went into constructing that material.

Some of the reasoning behind the latter type of behavior, the cut-and-paste-and-from-sources-only approach to writing for school, is in the academic socialization enforced upon the students in the past. There are in my experience a number of instructors at several academic levels who oblige their students to do nothing in their "research papers" except compile and summarize information. While it is very much true that being able to find and condense information is a valuable skill in the academy and outside it, the development of knowledge depends on more than simply grabbing data and putting it together. At the very least, it requires looking at the data and extrapolating from it; unless at least that minimal step is taken, all that is being accomplished is rote recitation--a task at which almost any contemporary computer vastly exceeds almost any human.

That I say so does not mean that I am against the computer or its use in scholastic research--indeed, I am very much for both. But I do not believe that the machine or its employment ought to stand in the place of identifying an idea and explicating both the information that gives rise to it and the process by which said information does so. I am not at all certain that it can.

I am also not at all certain that Staples's final call for the preservation of "the methods through which education at its best teaches people to think critically and originally" can be adequately answered. Rather, I think that new methods for doing so need to be developed. And there is already quite a bit of work--some of it quite good--being done in classrooms throughout the United States and outside it. There is also, unfortunately but unavoidably, quite a bit of shitty work being done in that regard.

The task before us, then, is to identify and expand upon those methods which are successful and valid, looking into why they are successful and why the others are not.

July 22, 2010
I caught a flagrant plagiarist yesterday; the student's entire paper, down to the line-breaks, had been cut-and-pasted from one of four websites. One of those websites, evidently, is Pretty obvious, really...

July 23,2010
I just spent a couple of hours grading papers, though for a different class. Three more students plagiarized. I understand that the end of the term is at hand, but I have spoken with their class at great length about the need for citation--as well as for doing one's own work, since cut-and-paste or copy-over jobs like those I caught today are not exactly the same as missing a citation.