Friday, June 25, 2010


To continue on in catching up on my reading and the thrust of discussion here and here:

I recently took a trip to Boston, which accounts for some of the out-of-pocketness I have noted, and along the four-hour train ride each way (which was remarkably pleasant), I read through the June 2010 issue of College Composition and Communication. There were a few good things to come out of that reading.

One of them, and the reason that I continue to subscribe to as many journals as I do, is the simple pleasure at reading and pondering the work that other people in the humanities do. I like to know what is going on in the "out there" of the acadmeic world, and coming abreast of what the journals are printing helps with that.

Another, and one more practical, is that I came across a response to an article published in CCC last year. The response by Shultz Colby, Colby, and Johnson to Alexander's "Gaming in the Composition Classroom," and Alexander's rebuttal, which appear in CCC 61.4 (June 2010): 761-68, reminded me of one of my students. Said student is the most recent of a number who have given some of their assignments to the discussion of video games (and since I encourage my students to write about what they care about, it comes as no surprise to me that I see such papers); as I read the responses, and later re-read the article which spawned them, it occurred to me that the student would benefit from seeing them himself. I therefore printed out copies of them and handed them to him after he finished taking his midterm examination earlier this week.

The student seemed impressed that I had taken the time to prepare a wholly outside thing for him, and was a bit surprised to learn that there is research published in at least one major journal that takes seriously the social phenomenon of gaming. I was pleased to have made a connection to a student in such a way, and that my journal-reading facilitates such is enough reason for me, as an educator, to keep taking my periodicals.

More directly related to my own earlier writing, though, is Robert R. Johnson's article in the issue, "Craft Knowledge: Of Disciplinarity in Writing Studies" (673-90). In it, Johnson engages the notion that "a craftperson is just simply not an artist, let alone a thinker" (674), arguing against such a dichotomy between craft and thought and articulating the applicability of an older model of craftspersonship to current compositional techniques and pedagogies.

I have, I believe, ranted against the same dichotomy that Johnson identifies, and I find that I agree with him as he writes "Craft, after all, is one of the most central human essences" (675). While it is true that other creatures use tools and behave in ways that can easily be understood as agricultural, it is also true that much of our understanding of ourselves is predicated upon analysis of what we do--and making stuff is a big part of what we do. And while it can be argued that the English verb "to make" is a fairly general one (in terms of meaning, I mean), it is one that is applied to a great many things that do not themselves necessarily involve the actual creation of a product. We speak of "making love," when love is not actually produced by sexual acts. There is the idea of "making money," and unless we work at a mint or a press, we are not actually creating currency (and the ciphers that stand in for it in many cases, being "virtual," are not necessarily created in any event). I have read in the papers of Louisiana students about "making groceries" in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with the farms, ranches, or other points of production of foodstuffs, but only a point of dispersal and distribution of them.

The idea of our use of "to make" parallels Stephen R. Donaldson's statements on the verb "to feel" that appear in, as I recall, Lord Foul's Bane.

There need to be more articles, more discussions, that work to break down the rigid and all-too-often hostile division between those who study and those who labor. At its simplest, it is the work of those who labor that allows those of us who study the time and leisure to be able to do so; it is foolish of any of us who are in academia to spurn as unworthy and "less" those whose hands and arms and backs create and sustain our surroundings. But at its simplest also, it is the work of those who study that has enabled much of what those who labor do and enjoy; were it not for the researchers--not just in the hard sciences, though certainly not excluding them--there would be little of that which has resulted in improvements to the lives of those who earn their bread by the sweat of their brows.

And if you tell me that those in the United States are not, overall, better off now than in the days of their parents and grandparents, I do not believe you. I think I have discussed this somewhat.

We do each need the other, despite what some philosophies assert. None of us exists alone; none of us can exist without other people--simple biology commands it. And the idea that any of us, and I very much mean ANY of us, can be responsible without regard to other people, is flatly fallacious.

Works Cited
Donaldson, Stephen R. Lord Foul's Bane. New York: Del Rey, 1977. Print.
"Interchanges." College Composition and Communication 61.4 (June 2010): 759-68. Print.
Johnson, Robert R. "Craft Knowledge: Of Disciplinarity in Writing Studies." College Composition and Communication 61.4 (June 2010): 673-90. Print.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


There are a lot of things going on at the moment, and since I have been out of pocket for many of them, I am not going to discuss them here. But I am no longer out of pocket, as the fact of this post indicates, and so I return to my being in contact with this thing that is the Internet.

It should come as no surprise that I am something of an arrogant person. A number of people, some of whom I have discussed before, would have it thought that since I am a college educator and I push my students beyond the traditional, restricted canon and challenge them to actually think about what underlies the things that they do and with which they are presented, that I am a member of the "liberal elite." And, since I am in a position where I will simply laugh at anyone who disagrees with me, I must believe that I know better than other people, and both of those are arrogance.

(As though the ad hominem and false dichotomy "You either support the Patriot Act or you hate America/love the terrorists" are not themselves a bit arrogant. And that they are decried by the very traditions that many who employ them clamor to see returned to primacy...)

And I suppose that there is some truth to the accusation that I am arrogant. I do think that I know better than a damned lot of people; knowing things is supposed to be one of the reasons school exists, and I have been in school for a long time. Heaven forbid that I might take a bit of pride in the results of the many years and thousands of dollars that I have spent coming to know and understand things, or that any of my colleagues who have fared similarly do so. How dare I congratulate myself even a little for helping the students in my classrooms to be able to look beyond the surfaces with which they are presented and begin to be able to analyze and understand the substructures of them. It's not like its real work, after all.

Though I rather think that those who make in earnest such complaints as I mock would be far less able to do my work than I theirs. But that, too, is a bit of an arrogant statement.

It is true that I have a healthy--perhaps an overly-healthy--ego. And it is also true that the nature of the work I do smacks of hubris.

Both as a scholar and as a teacher, I am in a position where I do assert my judgment over the works and actions of other people. As an evaluator of cultural products (in which I do include my students' papers, since they are not written without the context of the students' physical and social surroundings--in a word, culture), I necessarily assert intellectual authority, and any such assertion smacks of pride. Doing so is a judgment, a vicarious foisting onto another of arbitrary, externally imposed standards.

In that sense, my work is a work of oppression.

It is fortunate, therefore, that the thing described by the term is not so uniformly negative as some would have others believe.

Certianly, it is true that much oppression is wrong. It is equally true that much ill has been done with it. It is also true, however, that all social relations are, in effect, extensions of an oppressive principle. We are all of us caught in systems that compel us to behave in certain ways through no more complex a reason than that of "might makes right." Children, particularly, are subject to this; they are placed under arbitrary--though not necessarily capricious--restrictions that are utlimately enacted by virtue of their being physically compelled to act in a certain way or physically punished for failing to comply (and the removal of privileges and confinement to "time outs"--which I am not certain are all that effective--are physical punishments no less than the spankings which are so roundly decried).

Their being so subjected helps them to be safe. It provides them with a structure for understanding that they can use to develop as people who can actually act in such a way as is of benefit to others as well as to themselves, ways not likely to result in one participant maiming another.

These, I think, are good things. And if it is true that fair ends cannot proceed from foul means (which is, admittedly, debatable), then it follows that not all oppression is ill.

Arrogant as I am, however, I am not so much so that I am unwilling too admit that I may well be wrong, should evidence to that effect be presented to me in an articulate, well-reasoned manner. And that, I have been taught and continue to believe after having looked about myself, is part of the ideal of scholarship that the "arrogant" liberal elite--the disconnected intelligentsia that are mocked even as the woks of their minds underpin the societies that facilitate their mocking--aspire to embody.

So who really is the cocky son of a bitch?

Sunday, June 13, 2010


I was privileged to deliver a short sermon at the Church of the Village this morning. The text of the message--more or less--appears below; as with any address, the presentation deviated a bit from what was written, and I do not recall everything I added in.

If there is a central message to the lectionary texts,(1) it is likely that we cannot depend upon a blind performance of tradition. Just because we have done a thing a certain way in the past is not in and of itself a reason to continue to do it.

That is not to say that there is nothing of value in the past. Even today being a young adult service has precedent; an older Book of Worship calls the second Sunday in June "Student Day."(2) We are as we are in large part because of who and what have gone before us. God loves us, just as He loves those who precede us, and so it follows that the past cannot be all bad.

This is a good thing for me. I have long studied things that happened before me, and I would hate to think that I have spent my years in vain. And that includes (and here I look at you, Pastor Rivera) my time poring over Chaucer.

Certainly, there is much to be taken from the past. But even those like me who make their livings studying what the past has to offer do not do so in a vacuum. Rather, we look at how what has been applies to what is. I love the literatures of Old and Middle English, yes, but I am glad that my scholarship about them is not conducted in them. They do not do what I need a language to do, and so I use newer tools.

The readings call upon us to do the same. They exhort us to follow the path God has laid down for us, regardless of if it is in the face of our enemies.(3) They tell us that even the boundaries of normal social propriety can and should be laid aside in favor of humble service to Christian teaching.(4) And they tell us that to rely upon the protection of forms, to align ourselves with tradition and even law simply because "it's the way things have always been done," is folly (5); we can, following I Kings, adhere to the letter of the law but wholly miss its spirit, and so fall into grave, grave error.(6) A sinner who acts with sincere humility when presented with the veritable presence of God is better in the sight of God than one who holds to the proper social forms without apprehending the feeling and the animating principle behind them.

All too often, we cling to the rites and rituals, the methods and manners, that we have been taught without examining them. We do not look at ourselves and our actions to see whether or not they serve the ends that we are called by Christ to serve. And we cling so, we thus fail to look at ourselves, because it is comfortable to do so. It is familiar. And as human beings, we seek familiar comfort.

In doing so, we point up our own imperfections.

None of us is what we are called to be. All of us fall short of it in some way. If for no other reason than that we are limited beings, constrained in our bodies and capable of perceiving only a minuscule portion of the glorious, wondrous creation in which we are placed, we cannot attain all tat which we are encouraged to be. We cannot even clearly know what it is, but can only at best make educated guesses as to the nature of it and adhere to it as best we can.

Even then, we inevitably fall short of it. We hunger. We thirst. We tire. We are pressed by all the demands of our bodies and the many communities in which we exist. Thus, we lose track of the path we choose to follow--a path we can only hope and pray is the right one.

Sometimes, we find out that such paths are indeed not the right ones. Some of you have read things I have written--including this--and called them into question. You were right to do so, as I now realize. It took me a while to realize that I was wrong; I was wrapped up in my belief in my own rightness and so did not consider other ways. I failed to look at myself and see if what I was saying was really what I believed, and if what I believed was what I knew I needed to believe.

In doing so, I erred.

But I am forgiven.

I am forgiven as the woman who washed the feet of Christ in the home of the Pharisee was forgiven.(7) I am led in the ways of righteousness in that I seek, as the Psalmist, to be so led. And I am led thus and forgiven thus because I have done as we are called by Paul to do (8); I have looked at what the old ways call for, found that I had been adhering to them for no better reason than that they are as they had been, and turned away from them.

All the advancement, all the improvement that we have seen throughout the history of humanity has arisen from an examination of current circumstances, an evaluation of them, and a decision to retain what is good and correct what is not. For example, having temperature control and indoor plumbing is better than not; the latter, I know from listening to those who remember not having it, was opposed. It was thought that an indoor toilet was unsanitary and wrong. I like not having to go to an outhouse when it's twenty degrees outside.

More seriously, as recently as ninety years ago, women in the United States were not eligible to vote. That changed when people realized how foolish it was to disallow people from governance who are governed by what is supposed to be a representative society, and that men's and women's voices have the same value.

Less than sixty-five years ago, the African-American servicemen (and it was only men in combat then, something which has also begun to change) who enlisted in the armed services of the United States were still not allowed to serve alongside their white brothers-in-arms. This changed when a man from Missouri signed an order because he recognized that the color they all bled was the same shade of red and the colors they bled for were the same red, white, and blue.(9)

Less than sixty years ago, schools were divided based upon the color of their students' skins. That, too, ended with the recognition that separate is never equal.(10)

Less than fifty years ago, the law in fully thirty percent of this country prohibited people from getting married to those whom they loved if those others had different "racial" origins, a prohibition based upon the mistaken notion that humanity was meant by God to be divided. That changed when the Supreme Court looked at such laws and recognized how antithetical to what the United States is supposed to be they were.(11)

In each of these, people looked about themselves and saw that the way they were living, the laws they lived with and adhered to for not better reason than that they were the ways things had been done before them, were wrong. They were out of line with the spirit of kinship and love for one's neighbor that Christ calls us to dwell within and act alongside. And they were changed and made more nearly perfect than they had been before.

There is, though, a long, long way yet to go.

Even though there are times when we stray further from the path of righteousness when we change our behavior, there is NO WAY TO IMPROVE except that we make the attempt. We know that we are not perfect now. We know that we are not yet living in the way that God would have us live. We know also that we cannot grow closer to it unless we change what we are doing now.

We have to stop treading over and over again the paths that we know do not work.

My thanks to Pastor Hector Rivera and the young adults of the Church of the Village for their review of and insights about this sermon during its drafting.

(1) The General Board of Discipleship website's "Lectionary Planning Helps for Sundays" discussion of the third Sunday after Pentecost asserts that "the Scriptures in the lectionary are generally chosen NOT to relate to one another."

(2) Methodist 145.

(3) Psalm 5:1-8.

(4) Luke 7:36-50.

(5) Galatians 2:15-21.

(6) I Kings 21:1-21.

(7) Luke 7:48.

(8) GBOD.

(9) McKeeby.

(10) "Even Hand."

(11) Grossman.

Works Cited
General Board of Discipleship. "Lectionary Helps for Sundays." GBOD, 2010. Web. May 23, 2010.
Grossman, Joanna. "The Fortieth Anniversary of Loving v. Virginia: The Personal and Cultural Legacy of the Case that Ended Legal Prohibitions on Interracial Marriage." FindLaw: Thompson Reuters; May 30, 2007. Web. May 23, 2010.
Holy Bible. King James Version. Grand Rapids, MI: World, 1989. Print.
McKeeby, David. "End of U.S. Military Segregation Set Stage for Rights Movement." US Dept. of State; February 25, 2008. Web. May 23, 2008.
Methodist Church. Book of Worship for Church and Home. Nashville: Methodist Publishing House, 1965. Print.
"'With an Even Hand' Brown v. Board at Fifty." Library of Congress: Library of Congress; August 10, 2004. Web. May 23, 2010.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


During my composition class last night, one of the semesterly occurrences happened.

A student, one who is quite active in class discussion and actually quite enjoyable for the most part, railed against my requiring papers (as opposed to paragraph answers), remarking among others that the student's desired profession (counseling) will not require writing and that my policies endanger student GPAs. Also noted was the difficulty of my assignments relative to those of other instructors; said the student, "You should be more like them [the other instructors]."

This seems to happen every term I teach, though the level of course varies. Sometimes, it comes up in remedial--I've been told by a student that I ought to treat those in my classroom like idiots.* Sometimes, it pops up in literature classes--I have student evaluations claiming that I demand "too much from a beginning class." Once or twice, it popped up in a class required for many students' graduation, one populated with senior undergraduates who really ought to have known better.

Each time, I laugh afterwards.

I have discussed some of my reasons for my policies. At root, I push my students because 1) they need to be pushed, and 2) they are capable of doing what I ask them to do. Were I to be "easy," there would be no drive for students to improve. People do not get better at doing things if they are allowed to do only that which they can already do easily.

It is true that some students disengage when presented with my teaching persona. I make a point of not worrying much about whether or not a given student passes or not for several reasons. One is purely selfish; I have enough of my own work to do without worrying about students doing theirs--they will or they will not, and those who do will do well or not. Another is the simple fact that my students are adults; I can recommend choices, but I cannot compel them--and I do not wish to try.

Quite frankly, if one of my students decides to not do the work (and a number of them admit to me in writing that they do slapdash work), I cannot force that work to be done. So I apply the stated consequence; it is not as though I do not make my policies transparent, so that if my standards are arbitrary (and they are, admittedly, though they are not capricious) they are at least explicit. And it is not as though I do not give my students the opportunity to revise their work after it has been initially graded, so that they have the opportunity to remedy what I perceive as deficient in their presentations of argument.

I openly--even proudly--admit that I demand much of my students. And it seems to work for most of them, which is all that any system of teaching can be asked to do. There are, admittedly, other ways to go about doing this. Teaching, though, is not a simple skill-set to be learned by rote and reproduced without thought. It is instead a development of inter-human relationships, and as such becomes idiosyncratic to each instructor. I cannot teach other than I do because I cannot be other than I am.

Why should I be expected to be?

*Sometime, I'll tell the story of being told by an employer in education that I needed to treat my students as though they were all intellectually differently-abled. Though the employer was not so polite in the language used.

Addendum (posted July 18, 2010)
The student in question, the one who railed against my policies, has been repeatedly absent after submitting the first of the required papers for the course. That student, as a result, has disappeared from my roster; the school at which I teach has a policy that those students who miss three consecutive classes are considered to have unofficially withdrawn. And since my class meets only once each week...

Thursday, June 10, 2010


This article was pointed out by one of my Facebook friends--and an esteemed colleague from my graduate institution. It links to this article and this one. While I do not agree with the particulars of the articles (and Stanley Fish is a controversial figure, if a decidedly influential one), in their general thrust--education in the humanities is a damned good thing--I am very much aligned with them.

I have been giving thought to much the same issue recently (yes, I know it smacks of "Me, too," but I have been doing so), though from a slightly different angle. Some occurrences in my classes of late, as well as the readings I continue to do, have prompted it. And I have long been driven by a more personal concern in this regard.

I come from a hard-working family. Those who have already heard me talk about it know that the parts of my family with whom I have spent any appreciable amount of time are all very much in the working class. My father has been working in HVAC for something like twenty years. My mother worked in grocery stores for most of my growing up, and now is employed as a tax preparer. One of the few cousins I talk to is a school janitor. His mother manages an elementray school cafeteria. His father does automotive work. Hell, I spent my summers and school holidays from sixth grade up through high school doing electrical and other construction work (around other jobs once I turned sixteen and could do "real" work).

I come from solid, salt-of-the-earth working-folk. They value education, certainly--Dad's father taught music for close to forty years, for example--and they are very much pleased with me that I have taken the opportunity to study as I have. But they do not really understand what it is that I do.

For years, now, I have been trying to figure out a way to explain it to them. And I think that Roth's article addresses the point to a great degree.

But the thing that my students did that brought the issue to mind for me:

I am teaching two sections of remedial reading this summer. It is hardly the first time that I have done so, and I have found that aligning all of my reading examples around a central theme helps (yes, this policy is derived from the Freshman English Office at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, for which I did my first college teaching). Because I am working on a dissertation in Arthurian literature (and I know I need to be working harder at it), this summer's examples are coming largely from discussions of Malory.

Several students in both classes asked me where they could get a copy of the text.

It is always flattering when students show interest in the instructor's interests.

When they asked, there came up in class a discussion of why studying "the old shit" is worthwhile. Malory provides an easy example; it does much of the same stuff that contemporary entertainment media do. Le Morte d'Arthur could easily become a Quentin Tarantino movie (if he makes one, remember that I pointed it out). And we talked about jokes popping up, among other things.

But there are other reasons than the simple entertainment value (which is considerable and a fine reason to look at the materials to begin with). As has been pointed out, engagement with an object of study at a level of personal interest is the beginning of scholarship. And any created object reflects something of the circumstances in which it was created--which includes the creator. Studying the works of people is studying people, and the study of people is a worthwhile endeavor for any of us.

I am not going to make the case that study of the humanities is superior to the study of the "hard" disciplines such as chemistry and engineering. I benefit quite a bit from those studies, so it would be ill of me to badmouth them. But I will assert that not producing an immediate, obvious benefit is not the same as not producing a benefit. "Hidden" does not mean "nonexistent."

Ask a ninja.

And it is true that picking apart Shakespeare's sonnets does not cure disease. Tracing the metrical structure of Beowulf does not harness and transmit electrical power. Explicating the Arthurian influences upon works of contemporary fantasy literature does not suck pollutants out of the atmosphere. Nor does scanning screenplays for their Marxist overtones clean the oil leaked into the Gulf (though the engineers aren't exactly doing well at it, either).

What doing such things does, what studying the humanities and the arts does, is allow people to examine the cultural products and histories in which we are all embedded. It permits examination of the prevailing attitudes at work in various times and places--attitudes of which people may well not be aware, but again, that a person is unaware of a thing hardly means that the thing is not there. It lets us look at why we do the things we do.

It allows us to better understand what it is to be human.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


I realize that I am fairly late in posting this. I can only plead the excuse that I have been a bit ill for the past few days. It is not anything major, but it does put me a bit out of my element.

The major event of the day is, to once again betray my prejudices, the anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy during WWII. Sixty-six years ago, the largest amphibious assault in recorded history was launched. Although many thousands died in that attack, their deaths ultimately led to the overthrow of one of the most evil men in history.

And so, though it is a small thing, such thanks as I have to give I give to them. God bless and keep them.

Of more personal importance to me is another anniversary marked today. In 1981, my parents picked this day to become husband and wife. Today, they are still happily married, and the home and family that June 6, 1981, afforded me are at the root of my being.

I am hardly ungrateful for that.

I am also far from ungrateful that I am in a position to be able to spend my evenings contemplating academic readings or offering my opinions on the world. I could be spending these moments frantically searching to find enough food to put on the table, or money to buy it. I could be trying to escape predation of one sort or another. I know that many are in such situations, and I thank the Almighty daily that I am not among them.

I am in a position of privilege. And I am human enough that I hope to see that privilege maintained; who among us does not like to keep what we have?

But I do some small things to aid the situation. I do give to a number of charities. And my work as a teacher, particularly in that such work services traditionally underprivileged populations, tends to aid those who are in disadvantaged positions to attain some form of advantage.

It is good work, I think, and worthy. And even if I do not raise my hand in anger or slay the enemies of a nation or of cross-national human concerns, I work in my own small way to ensure that the promises of an open society, one in which people are given the opportunity to accomplish what it is in them to do, one in which the various things for which we discriminate against people cease to matter--save only a very few.

For though I believe that a person's race, gender, sexuality, religious stance or lack thereof, socio-economic status, and condition of ability do not determine a person's worth, I am not about to say that a person who is lazy is deserving of esteem. Those who seek to advance themselves at the expense of others--not by building upon their accomplishments but by willfully and knowingly stealing them for their own--should be condemned. And those who will say that the endeavor of the expansion of human knowledge in which I and many others are engaged is a facile folly earn nothing but my enmity.

Does such a statement make of me a hypocrite? Perhaps, but as I have before noted, if I am, I am in fine and ample company.