Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Tomorrow, my beautiful and most beloved wife and I flee The City for the hinterlands of Arkansas, there to chair panels (and, in my case, present a paper) at the 2011 South Central Modern Language Association conference in Hot Springs.  It will be my fifth appearance at the conference and the second time I will have put together and chaired a panel; with luck, it will not be my last time doing either.

One of the things that happens at the conference is the beginnings of setting up for the next one.  To that end, I already have another idea for a panel.  There has been an upswing in, well, bullshit studies.  It seems interesting to me, and so I think I will be submitting a panel proposal for one.  The call for papers will go out later, once I find out whether or not the propsal has been accepted.  I am not sure whether it will be; I can easily ground the panel in ongoing research in major journals, but it does smack of the silly, and silly does not always go over well--even for Monty Python.

Even so, if you are interested in heading down to San Antonio right around Halloween next year, keep me in mind.  I might just have a ready-made excuse for you to go, particularly those of you who are in academia (and I know you are out there).

Right now, though, I am proctoring a midterm exam in one of my remedial English classes; thankfully, the room has a working computer.  I have caught up on the grading that I had from yesterday's teaching, which is good, and I have been able to enter midterm grades for three of my seven classes, which is better.  The other four have to wait for their midterm exams to be graded; I should be able to knock out today's today, but the other two, on Thursday and Friday, will have to wait until I return from the conference.  It is the only drawback to going, that I have a pile of grading and concomitant administrative paperwork to tend to as soon as I return.  It takes the shine off of what would otherwise be a shining example of what is good about the academic life.

There really is quite a bit good about it, actually, when it works out.  Even though I am teaching at a very junior college and am completely off of the tenure system, I enjoy quite a bit of job security here, and I get a number of benefits.  It is cold comfort, I know, to the great majority of those who enter into the academic humanities, who are on the adjunct circuit and struggling even then.  I feel for my colleagues, certainly, and I do what lobbying I can for them at this institution and in my professional organizations--of which there are several.  How much good it does, I do not know, but I can at the very least hope that I am doing no harm.

Friday, October 21, 2011


In about a week, I will be in Arkansas again.  While my beloved wife is going with me, and we are going to be staying with her father again, this trip is not so much one of pleasure as one of business.  For we are both going to be chairing panels at the 2011 South Central Modern Language Association conference, which will take place in Hot Springs.

Lovely town, really.

As part of my work in putting together panels, I solicit copies of my panelists' papers ahead of time so that I can read through them and have what I hope are good, thought-provoking questions for them that will stimulate discussion not just among the panelists, but among the (too often too few) members of the audience, as well.  One of those papers from this year's panel of mine--which I have read and formulated several questions about--makes reference to an article in Criticism 45.2 (Spring 2003), "Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory," by Thomas Leitch.  Although the article primarily concerns the conversion of novels to film, I have found it an interesting read thus far and one which may well prove illuminating in my own (decidedly non-film-based) research.

I agree with most, if not all, of what Leitch puts across in the article, which centers around the idea (as should be obvious from the title) that the way in which adaptations are approached, often by adaptors and commonly by critics of film and literature, is wrong.  For instance, the privileging of the novel over the movie is based on error.  For instance, Letich remarks that "theater critics have always condescended to the canned nature of cinema, which freezes a single performance text forever instead of allowing retakes every night" (155); surely, the process of editing and revising a novel or poem has the same effect.  Indeed, variant versions of texts are pointed out as problematic; an example ready to mind for me is the divergence between the editions of Malory in the tradition of Caxton and that of the Winchester manuscript.  There is little doubt as to the canonicity and literary merit of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (believe me, I know), just as there is little condemnation for the quest towards a single "authentic" version of a great many literary and non-literary texts (I am minded of "authorized" and "author's preferred" editions of some of the books I own).  To bring in another art entirely, musical albums are finely crafted, highly edited works, and yet the fact of their being presented as a single "real" version occasions little or no comment (of which I am aware).  Why, then, should film suffer under such an onus?

For another example, Leitch points out that "movies remain notoriously a mass medium that seeks as broad an audience as possible" (155).  Yet cannot the same be said for most of the novels that are so prized?  And is there not the principle articulated by Alexander Nehamas to consider, that it is often in the very fact of wide dispersal that works (in whatever medium) come to be taken up as elite cultural products?  There is something of this in criticism of medieval texts, in which it is often precisely because there are a great many manuscript copies of a work that it is perceived as having been important and therefore worth taking under study.

Similarly consonant with medieval textual practice is Leitch's rejection of the supposed value of originality in the novel.  Leitch goes to the Bard as his example (163).  I can point out a great many bits of Arthurian legend, particularly Malory's own lynchpin text, which are themselves reliant upon understandings of, and borrowings (at varying degrees of explicitness) from, earlier works.  Beowulf, the singular masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon poetry and Germanic heroic epic, makes free use of prior historical materials for a great many of its allusions and embedded tales, and there is less doubt about its canonicity (in several languages, no less) than there is for Malory.  So to assume that film adaptation is to be decried because it is in measure derivative is, as Leitch points out, fallacious.

There is more, of course, but even so few examples provide much that is good to think upon.

Works Cited
~Leitch, Thomas M. "Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory." Criticism 45.2 (Spring 2003): 149-71. Project Muse. Web. 21 October 2011.
~Nehamas, Alexander.  "Plato's Pop Culture Problem, and Ours." NYTimes.com. New York Times, 29 August 2010. Web. 14 September 2011.

Friday, October 14, 2011


A friend of a friend commented today on Facebook that spending a Friday night studying and paper-writing is "lame."  I initially wanted to reject the premise entirely, and I did speak against it, noting that having scholarship to do "keeps you out of trouble" in one of my more dad-like moments.

Yes, I am practicing.  No, there is not a reason for me to be doing so quite yet.  So relax.  The horror of a little version of me is not yet ready to be released into the world.

The comment did provide me a pushing-off point for consideration, however.  I have spent many Friday evenings as I am spending this one: working on one bit of writing or another, or reading so as to be able to work on a piece of writing.  And I suppose that a great many people would very much think it "lame" that I do so--whatever "lame" means in this context.  Certainly my legs both work, and work well, which is not a luxury in this city of staircases.

Seriously, New York seems like that one Escher piece at times.  Or Jared's castle in Labyrinth, particularly that one room--and there are even Bowie look-alikes!


What is wrong with a person spending time doing what that person enjoys doing?  And while I know that many people do not consider doing homework to be a happy event, those of us who are seeking advanced degrees--or whose jobs rely upon us having them--have little claim to number ourselves among such people.  Also, we ought well to enjoy the work we do--and homework is simply more of that work.

But what else would we be doing?  Right now, my dear and beloved wife is hard at work teaching some of the more academically disadvantaged students among our school's corps of academically disadvantaged students; one alternate enjoyable activity is therefore ruled out for now.  Another would involve me spending time and money at a bar, and while I have both available to me, it is better in the end for me to make different use of both than buying beer for me to drink and keep ahold of around my middle.

I have quite enough beer there already, thank you.  And there is some in the fridge at home, bought much less expensively than would be the case at a bar in midtown Manhattan.

Most of my friends in this part of the country are either hours away by train and car or are themselves academics, and so likely enwrapped in the same kind of thing that I am doing right now.  They no doubt have scholarship to tend to and other writing to get done, and I would not tread upon that.

I will also not wake up with a hangover.  And that is, perhaps, sufficient recompense for being "lame."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


One of the recurring assignments in my classes is one which requires students to summarize articles from the New York Times, usually the opinion/editorial section.  Students benefit from the practice in reading and in writing, and it allows me to begin teaching attention to the sourcing of materials.  It is a good exercise for them, and one with which I have had quite a bit of success.

Every so often, I experience a coincidence, a Jungian synchronicity.  Recently, one of them came about as a result of the summary assignment.  One of my students had written a summary of David Brooks' September article "The Limits of Empathy," which appeared in the New York Times on September 29, 2011.  In the article, Brooks notes that empathy, the idea of being able to understand how and what other people are feeling, is overrated.  He calls it "a sideshow," arguing that it is used to display that we are "trying" to be better people, but that the display, because not coupled with ideological rigor or organizational/institutional alignment, is insufficient to ensure right action.  A weakness in his treatment arises in his invocation of the Nazis, but his use of other information is effective, making for an interesting article.

The Jungian occurrence derives from my other reading.  I had not long before received College English 74.1 (September 2011), in which is an article by Rutgers University English professor Ann Jurecic titled "Empathy and the Critic."  Jurecic seeks to complicate the concept of empathetic reading.  She notes that the development of empathy--commonly regarded as the foundation of moral action--is frequently put forward as a justification for teaching literature; reading well-written works helps us to understand people, and in understanding them, we come to treat them better.  She also notes an opposing view, that reading a text explicitly to seek out connections is to be overly simplistic or even to assume an offensively hierarchical power dynamic.  Neither viewpoint is sufficient to her understanding, and she maintains that effective teaching recognizes both as being simultaneously true--in addition to other things.  As is to be expected from a work in a high-profile academic journal, Jurecic's article makes ample use of previous researches to sufficiently support its points of contention, and as should be more frequently the case than is true even within a composition-focused journal, the article is easily read and understood even by someone (such as myself) who does not have extensive background training in rhetorical and pedagogical theory.

Having finished reading the Jurecic piece the day before the student turned in the summary of the Brooks piece, I had the College English article fairly far forward in my mind when I read the New York Times article to be able to grade the student's work.  (That is another reason I have students write summaries of news articles: it helps me stay informed.)  Even though Jurecic does not take into consideration the treatise that seems to have sparked Brooks' writing, Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, there is a fair bit of overlap among their sources; Jurecic also  takes into account the viewpoint that Brooks expresses, although I sincerely doubt that Brooks had read Jurecic before writing his article.

I do agree with something that both voice: fellow-feeling is not enough.  It is fine and good, as Brooks notes, to be able to understand the lives of those around us.  But being able to imagine ourselves feeling as others feel does not mean that we will be able to do anything to make things better for them--or that we will be motivated to do so, which he also writes.  Perhaps it is only because I am so evil a man as I am, but there have been a number of times that I have been well aware of what others have felt, even to the point of having felt it or something very much akin to it myself, and have thought that the others damned well deserved to feel the way that they did; sometimes people ought to feel like shit because they have acted shittily.  I tell my students from time to time that I have no sympathy for them precisely because I have faced down heavy course loads with lots of homework.  Even now, even having a full-time teaching job at which I could easily remain for the rest of my career, I have homework to do--and this little piece is not part of it, so that there is more writing waiting for my attention when I get done with my regular day.  I am not about to assign less work to my students because of it.  And if Brooks is right, I am wholly justified in my actions; he argues that the "sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code [sic]" does more to make people "good" or admirable than their ability to engage with the psychological states of those they encounter.  He uses the example of the adulterer, who takes pleasure in undertaking a reprehensible act and so is to be shunned even if the reasons for the actions are understood; similarly, while I understand why my students complain about the amount of work I assign or the nature of it, I fail to agree that their complaints should alter my teaching.

Jurecic also articulates the position that empathy, defined as the ability to perceive and understand the emotional states of others, is insufficient.  She would have empathy be the underpinning of academic, institutional, and pedagogical practice, so that the understanding of others comes to inform and direct the treatment of them.  This makes much sense to me.  Certainly, as an educator, I am obliged to treat my students with a certain degree of courtesy--really, I am obliged to do so because I am, or am at least trying to be, a decent human being.  And I do keep in mind that my students have not had the many advantages which have been mine.  Aside from white male privilege, which I have noted has been to my benefit (here, here, and here), I came up in a place, time, and situation which encouraged me (specifically, rather than just because I happen to be a white guy) to spend a great deal of time tending to my studies; many, if not most, of my students have not.  As such, my teaching does necessarily accommodate that difference to some extent.

I maintain, however, that 1) entry into my classroom is on my terms, terms which I openly publish to my students along with the means to fulfill those terms or escape them; and 2) where a student starts in terms of background knowledge and academic socialization is not tied to how hard a student is willing to work at this point to improve.  As such, when my students complain about the amount and type of work my classes require, or the standards by which I evaluate that work--and they very much do--I pay little heed.  I try not to let what pity I may feel for their life circumstances occlude my evaluation of the work that is submitted to me or my judgment of what skills and levels of skills are necessary to pass out of my class, for while I may as a person feel for them, I know that they will ultimately be judged on the quality of what they do.  And just as the bad home life of a killer does not mean that the person killed is not dead, the poor prior education of a student does not mean that a sentence written unclearly and saying nothing in fact is clear and content-laden.  Perhaps it is an expression of empathy, somehow, and an appropriate reaction to it that drives me to act as I do in the classroom; I do feel for the students (in many cases), but I know that if I allow it to unduly affect me in the moment, I will not be able to help the students get to a point at which they no longer have to feel the way that they currently do.

I can hope.

Works Cited
~Brooks, David. "The Limits of Empathy." New York Times. New York Times, 29 September 2011. Web. 12 October 2011.
~Jurecic, Ann. "Empathy and the Critic." College English 74.1 (September 2011): 10-27. Print.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


On Monday, my wife and I are off from work in observance of the lie that is Columbus Day.  Those who claim that the "discovery" by Columbus of the New World should not be celebrated are quite correct.  One cannot, after all, discover something when there are already people there.

Instead, we celebrate an informal Leif Eirikssons Dagr on the day before (as it should be!).  Tomorrow, in fact.

The weather promises to be good, so I am firing up the smoker one last time this year.  Something like ten pounds of pork, six of chicken, and three of beef are in my refrigerator, along with two pounds of cheese, waiting for the event.  All the meat  save the beef is already rubbed with my special blends of seasonings, soaking up flavor to go along with the sweet hickory smoke I am going to be surrounding them with; the beef will get its salt and pepper rub tomorrow morning, right before going into the smoke.  I may get some salmon and/or herring to do tomorrow, too.

Bottles of mead are waiting to fill the horn for passing around, as well.  It will not be a bad day, I think.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


When I first met her, the woman who is now my wife already had two cats.  Over the six years I have known her, I have grown fairly fond of those two cats; she claims I have become a cat person, in fact, although I am not so sure I would go quite that far.

Recently, we took a third cat into our home.  A friend of ours had found the cat, along with its mother and siblings, in an abandoned warehouse some time back; she could not care for all of them, and my wife, kind hearted as she is, felt bad that they did not have homes to go to.  Because I do not like for my wife to feel bad, I agreed (reluctantly) to give the kitten a chance.

In the weeks since, the kitten has grown on me.  I am struck, though, by the cat's fascination with our toilets.  Every time I go to relieve myself, the kitten rushes in, rising up to peer intently into the bowl.  My wife notes that the kitten has, in fact, fallen into the toilet several times.

I am forced to wonder how true the old saw is, that pets reflect their owners...