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.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


The amount of time I put into text--into reading it and into making it--is really more than sufficient. I know that it exceeds far the amount of time invested in text by any layperson, and that is as it should be, given that I seek to do text as a vocation.

I spend, as should be obvious, a fair bit of time considering my engagement with text--and that, too, is as it should be. Not reflecting on one's work is a sure path to error in that work.

I try, though without the degree of success I should like, to avoid error.

But as I consider the work I do, I encounter some thorny issues. One of them is the idea (which does exist among the greater body of my colleagues) that understanding a work of art--whatever the medium--is possible only for the trained critic.

In this attitude, my discipline betrays its origins among the monastic orders. It is similar, this attitude, to the notion that one can only know God by way of a dedicated priesthood.

I betray my Protestantism in saying that I find the notion objectionable.

There is nothing necessarily better about a critical understanding of a given piece of creative work than an untutored, intuitive one. And any who are willing to invest the effort into doing so can come to have a meaningful relationship with creative works or literature or art or anything else.


Just as it is true that Protestant churches have clergy even though their doctrines call for each congregant to form a deep, abiding, individual relationship with the Most High, it is to the advantage of people to look to those who do give their lives over to the study of the creative or whatever for guidance in understanding it. For as with Protestant clergy, there are insights available to the dedicate scholar that are not so much so to the layperson.

This is only to be expected. In the so-called "practical" or "applied" arts, it is fully anticipated that a long-time practitioner will surpass in understanding the novice. Similarly, in the martial arts, one's senior students are expected to understand more than are junior students. But it must also be acknowledged that a beginning artisan can create a masterwork, and that an untutored, inexperienced brawler can lay low an old master.

Training does not create an exemption from error, just as its lack does not deny the possibility of either meaningful engagement or success. But as a rule, one who has labored long and trained intensely can be expected to contribute in a way that reflects the training, a way typically not expected from or provided by the inexperienced.

It is in the twin hopes of making such contributions and of being able to share them with others that I pursue this course of action, my years-long study of the written word.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


There are times when, upon looking at various news reports and comments made about them, I feel great sadness at the state of humanity. I do realize that the anonymity of Internet postings makes it "safer" for people to vent spleen, to make incendiary comments that, were they more directly associated with their words, they would not voice. I also realize that this is a tendency, not an absolute, and that there are a number of exceptions; many people who post under handles remain as respectful and pleasant as they are face-to-face (or are even more so), while others (myself included) work more or less with the same level of vitriol without regard to medium.

And I have posted my name to this blog (by which I mean Ravings with a Dash of Lucid Prose on Blogger, for those who read my comments in re-post).

I am hardly alone in decrying trolling and various other forms of rudeness (hypocritically, I know, in my case, as many who know me will continue to happily attest); Lynne Truss is one of the more widely-known examples, I think. But it is not really a recent phenomenon. The distinction is that people tend to be more overt in their rudeness now--there is less incentive to be subtle.

In some ways, this is without doubt a reflection of protected free speech (for those who have it). One of the primary justifications for protecting speech is that advancement depends upon the generation of new ideas, some of which may be considered execrable when initially voiced but which prove to be more accurate than orthodox views in place at the time of initial voicing. Astronomical models provide some of the more telling historical examples of such advancements.

The problem--if it is actually a problem--with that is that to find new good ideas necessarily means working on many ideas, and not all of them will be good ones. It is an unavoidable thing, then, that bad ideas will get voiced, even by people who otherwise tend to put forward good ones.

(I am not certain whether or not to include myself in that category. Thus, I probably ought not to. But many of you are aware of that already.)

One thing that wider access to the Internet has permitted is an increase of the ability for people to find ideas and to give voice to their own (or, more frequently, parrotings of others' ideas). And that does have the great benefit of putting more good ideas in positions where more people can latch onto them. But it does the same for bad ideas, and there are a lot more bad ideas than good--however either "good" or "bad" is defined.

Definition is problematic. Often, definitions are received items, deposited (despite Freire's injunctions against that process) and not reflected upon. Too rarely do we look at what we believe a thing is and means and consider why we do so. It is easy to simply accept what we "already know" or what is simply told to us, and while it is admittedly true that there are many circumstances in which we should do so (because none of us has enough knowledge in ourselves to be able to carry out fruitful investigations of all truths), we allow ourselves to do so even beyond when it is reasonable to do so.

Hell, most of us don't even know when it is reasonable and when it isn't. And that strikes me as being a large problem.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


It seems that South Carolina continues in its pursuit of national media attention for its politics. Philandering governors, Congressional representatives shouting inappropriately, comments of "raghead" aimed at women, and now Alvin Greene all speak to a desire to show off down-home goodness.

Honestly, I think Mr. Greene's campaign is interesting. And I think it far from the worst idea out there. There is something satisfying in someone who comes off as genuinely from "the people" seeking a seat in the government that, many years ago, was proclaimed to be "of the people by the people for the people."

And I am not at all surprised by the amount of flak that is growing up about this campaign. Aside from the usual issues of trolling in the comments attendant on the linked article (and in a couple of others I've glanced at), the question about his allegedly showing porn to a teenager is an obvious point of concern. However, until and unless it is proven to be a criminal act in a court of law, it remains only an accusation--and I hope that we are not in a place again where accusation is itself condemning. And as regards his refusal to comment on the matter: it's smart. Even if he did do what he is accused of doing, his not discussing it is smart; there is no way that Mr. Greene's talking about it will work to his benefit.

I am not now and never have been a resident of South Carolina. I do not vote there, so my own interest in Mr. Greene's candidacy is remote. But I do find it interesting that the party whose primary he won is not behind him; is not the point of party politics to put the party's candidate into office, regardless of who that candidate is? I can understand how keeping a moral and ethical high-ground is important in South Carolina at this point (particularly given the spectacular failures in that regard of "the party of family values" in that state), and so being sure of a candidate's ethical and moral rectitude matters.


The race is not waiting for the investigation to be concluded. And like any race, it needs to be won.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


I do try to do some reading from various news sources each morning, and since I live in Brooklyn, it makes sense to me that one of the sources tends to be The New York Times. As I looked through its online component this morning, I ran across this article, and, as often happens, my reading prompted some thought on my part.

On this, the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, my thoughts turn toward what it means to be American.

It is not so easy a question to answer as to ask. Even a simple geographic sense is somewhat frustrated. The term "America" refers to more than simply the United States; there are two continents that are included under the heading of "the Americas," and the United States is not even the largest nation among those of the two continents (that honor belongs to Canada). And even when the term is used (admittedly in an unfairly restrictive sense) to refer to those who live in the United States, it is not an accurate use.

For there is more to being "American" than simply living in a place. But I do not know how to speak to more.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Below appears the text of a letter that I have sent to the Louisiana Board of Regents. It comes in regard to massive cuts to the library budget, something which I oppose both because I have gained from such access and because other people deserve to similarly gain.

An Open Letter to the Regents of the University of Louisiana:

According to information provided by Susan Richard, Associate Dean of Student Libraries at the University of Louisiana, the LOUIS network is facing the loss of more than three-fifths of its online journal access in the next two months. The loss, which eliminates access to tens of thousands of electronic books and journals (including the most prominent and widely-used databases for research int he humanities as well as the most authoritative dictionary of the English language), is due to the withdrawal of funding from the Board of Regents.

The course of action is not acceptable.

The mission of the university as a whole is two-fold: the development and dissemination of human knowledge. The two components are inextricably linked, since knowledge cannot be spread without being created and achieved. In brief, the university, to be able to function, must be able to make possible both research and teaching. Vital to that two-fold mission is a library that provides access to significant amounts of scholarly materials, and the databases to which access is about to be denied constitute perhaps the most efficient means of securing that access.

That access, and the mission of the university which such access supports, is key to the continued improvement of the state of Louisiana and its people. While it is admittedly true that there are budgetary concerns being faced by the state, the greater Gulf Coast region, and indeed the whole of the United States, withdrawing funding form public institutions of learning is not the means to resolve them, particularly not if the desire is to resolve them in a long-term manner that would inhibit the return of such conditions as the state, region, and country currently face.

This is particularly true in light of remarks made by William P. Kelly, President of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, in the Fall 2009 issue of Folio. He speaks as the president of a university which is itself facing a number of financial woes, much as are the schools in Louisiana. In his comments, though, President Kelly notes that "Prosperity, social stability, the very sustainability of the planet depend upon our capacity to generate new knowledge and to expand educational opportunities" and that public universities--such as those affected by the pending cuts to LOUIS--"have generated a disproportionately large share of American
research." And as you, along with the rest of the people of Louisiana, the region, and the nation benefit greatly from such research, you have a vested interest in maintaining the ability of the students and professors of the state of Louisiana to conduct it.

Without access to the journals provided by LOUIS, they will not be able to do so.

It is imperative for the continued improvement of the people of the state of Louisiana that they have access in their public institutions to the knowledge being generated by leading scholars across the world. LOUIS is perhaps the most powerful tool available to provide them that access; by withdrawing its funding, you are cutting the students in the state's public universities off from that knowledge, from being able to enter into the ongoing conversation of scholarship in the rest of the world.

And it will happen at a time which will exert a maximum negative impact upon the student body. For when, in two months, access to databases vanishes, it will be just at the time when students have gotten settled into the new academic year, just when they will begin to work on their own assignments; instead of turning to the library as has been the case for generations and in
the most productive undergraduate careers, they will have to go elsewhere--if they can find such an elsewhere. The graduate students upon whose labor many departments depend for teaching introductory classes will not be able to conduct the research that helps to elevate the names of Louisiana universities in the esteem of the wider scholarly community. The professors who teach them, and whose work also points to the scholarly potential of Louisiana colleges, will find themselves unable to continue to do their own research.

None of these things are good for Louisiana's universities, and what harms the universities will ultimately come to harm the people.

But this can be prevented. All that needs to be done is to restore funding to the programs that support the core mission of the university: to create and spread knowledge. And restoring funding to LOUIS will, in large part, do that.


Geoffrey B. Elliott
PhD Candidate, University of Louisiana at Lafayette