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.