Monday, April 30, 2012

20120430.2030

My reading of the March 2012 PMLA has not yet ended--I have been sticking around home more than usual these past few days, and, as I noted, I tend to do my journal reading on the train.  But I went to the dojo today (and did not do so well there as I like to), so I was on the train, and thus I read.

Among today's readings was the short piece by Joan DeJean, "A Long Eighteenth Century?  What Eighteenth Century?" which bemoans the increasing presentism of foreign language departments in the United States.*  DeJean does not claim any scientific rigor or statistical validity, simply noting that "Enough of a trend emerged" from those surveyed for the author "to feel that it was time to sound an alarm" (317).  The alarm derives from the increasing dearth of new hires--and of faculty positions generally--in period specializations in pre-modern non-English languages, although Italian manages to hold onto its "holy trinity--Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio" (317), and Spanish, because of other factors, has enough enrollment to keep its variety to some extent (318).  Even so, DeJean paints a depressing picture, one which forebodes ill for the study of language in the United States.

Aside from evoking my sympathy for the departments affected (I stand in solidarity with my fellow students of older languages and literatures) and my fear for my own discipline (although DeJean posits that medievalists in English could take up some of the slack created by the elimination of medievalist positions in other languages' departments, I am not certain that administrators would see that as a viable work--and even DeJean is not pleased with the proposition [320]), the article gives me some things to consider.  One of them is DeJean's comment that "We are all intellectually poorer because of this drift to presentism [outlined in the article]" (320).  It seems to imply that there is something wrong with considering the language and literature of the present and near past, and I cannot agree with that implication; there is a lot going on now, and some of it is even worth attending to.  But my arguments against such rhetoric are on record; I need not rehash them here, and there is more to address in DeJean's comment than the implication.

Namely, DeJean is correct.

There is the adage about what happens to those who do not know their history, and those who know that history are aware that the "good old days" are anything but good.  Aside from proverbial wisdom, however, there is the issue--which DeJean points out in some measure (320)--that what happens now is a result of what happened then, so that to understand now we must understand then.  Similarly, failing to comprehend the then shuts out a large chunk of the comprehension of now that we can have, and that is a detriment to us all.  Too, we have a number of tools now that were not available then, and the application of those tools can illuminate then, enhancing further our understanding of the underpinning of now.  And, if nothing else, there are some amazingly subtle, witty bits that happened then, and we miss out by not looking at them now.

I would say that, though, being a medievalist.

My discipline has little to do, however, with my interest in another thing DeJean writes, this in the end-note to the piece: "I name no names so that none of them can be held responsible for my remarks" (320n).  There is something wrong with the world when a professor who is by title well-respected, one at a major institution, has to worry about repercussions upon colleagues for a piece printed in a major research journal.  Academic research is supposed to be one of the few places, if not the only place, where people can speak freely and openly, where they can state opinions sincerely held and supported from evidence, even if those opinions are not necessarily popular or easy to hear.  For such a figure as DeJean, who by all rights ought to be among the people who get to speak freely, to feel compelled to conceal her sources so as to protect them, to note that her sources may well need protecting, bespeaks something that I cannot call anything but evil.

Is this the world in which we live, that those who work to help others find truth must have it hidden that they have done so?  And if it is, can we complain of its sad, sad state?

*I am aware because of my readings (specific citations from which I do not recall at the moment, since I am working away from the set of materials from which I would pull them) and from the simple fact of living in New York after having lived in central Texas and southwestern Louisiana of the problems inherent in the term "foreign language departments."  The languages taught by such departments have a large number of native speakers among the native-born United States citizenship, so that their status as "foreign" is fraught, and the United States does not actually have an official language (the de facto English is not de jure).  The University of Texas at San Antonio calls its version the "Department of Modern Languages and Literatures," which I think a better solution--but it has not caught on as much as I should like.

Work Cited
DeJean, Joan. "A Long Eighteenth Century? What Eighteenth Century?" PMLA 127.2 (March 2012): 317-20. Print.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

20120429.0953

Ah, the old ritual of the Sunday morning newspaper reading!  How it highlights the delight of sleeping in and lounging about in one's pajamas while coffee brews and comes to its fullness of flavor and enlivening richness!  And how it reminds a person of what is wrong in the world!

I just read Gail Collins's 27 April 2012 New York Times piece "A Very Pricey Pineapple," in which she reminds readers about the massive economic underpinnings of the various educational "reforms" that have been pushed through in the past decade or so.  Collins points out that a few companies are making quite a bit of money from the emphasis on standardized testing in the executions of the tests themselves as well as in the production of textbooks to suit the tests and even schools and teaching programs in which to embed the whole thing.*  By bringing out the pineapple imagery, she links edu-business to the absurd, offering an effective satire on the institution and calling therefore for a change to it.

I find it interesting that it is okay in the prevailing public mind for companies--who are not hired at the local level, but whose products are enforced by a top-down mandate--to make millions upon millions of dollars to write tests, but for teachers to make a decent wage as they administer the tests and work with the students for months beforehand to ensure that they are able to pass them--and for the time after the test to try to teach them something that they can take forward with them--is objectionable.

I find it interesting that complaints about bad teachers lead to calls to dismantle or restructure the whole educational system--and answers to those calls--but complaints about bad police officers, about bad soldiers, about bad sailors, about bad airmen, about bad Marines (and there are poor examples of all of these) do not prompt public outcry or legislative action to privatize the whole system and to take away from those who are trained in how to do things the actual doing of those things, putting it into the hands of those whose primary focus is not the activity but making money off of it.

I find it interesting that the same people who seek to enforce "accountability" are those who complain about schools getting worse, as though the major shift in educational policy has not been the move away from teachers having secure positions of respect and authority and towards automation, widespread homogeneity, distancing of the school from the student, top-down command and control, and the test as the be-all and end-all of teaching.

I find it interesting in the way that Shakespeare's Anthony calls Brutus "an honorable man."

*Full disclosure: I work at a for-profit college.  College, however, is not a legally compulsory activity, and it is one in which many if not most students have choices of institutions, as opposed to primary and secondary schooling, which are largely systematic and operate under expansive, unifying programs such as those outlined in the article.

Friday, April 27, 2012

20120427.2100

On 25 April 2012, I received my copy of the March 2012 issue of PMLA.  Journals have been taking their sweet time to get to me of late; I suppose I ought to check up on my memberships to be sure that they are current, but I think I am paid up for the year.

Anyway, I was not able to jump right onto reading it as I usually am; I have mentioned a few times, I think, that I try to keep abreast of major developments in the fields in which I work as a scholar, so I generally start reading journals as soon as I get them.  This one waited a day or two for me to get started with it, and, since I tend to do my journal-reading on the train, I am not yet done reading through the current issue.  But I have read a few of the articles, and a few things have already struck me.

One is a short passage near the beginning of Christopher Grobe's "The Breath of the Poem: Confessional Print/Performance circa 1959" which reads
Authors are not supposed to have smells because, by and large, they are not supposed to have bodies.  And, with the exception of a private frission or two over the tactile pleasures of fine paper, neither are we readers supposed to have, or else make much use of, bodies.
Much of that strange ritual the poetry reading [sic] seems choreographed to enforce this prohibition.  Why else, when called on to perform their authority at such readings, do our literary titans meekly clutch the podium at their abdomen, sport clothing that aspires to invisibility, and defer to the safer seductions of the printed page by visibly scanning, word by word, poems they know by heart, by breath, and by gut?  The author, on such occasions, is merely the onion-skin flap protecting the poem--the mercifully thin obstruction to poetic meaning and not its conduit. (215)
I know and have known a number of poets, some of them better than others, and I have occasionally (too often for a number of people, I know) pushed forward some semblance of verse, myself.  From my experience with the poetic community--which I will admit is limited--I find myself asking Grobe's questions alongside him.  The "poet voice," the propensity for performing poets (and other artists I have seen, but I'll not delve into that too much) to dress all in black, and the all-too-often evident phenomenon of people burying their faces in the pages they wrote rather than looking at the audience to which they are actually presenting the work have all raised my hackles and prompted me to ask Why?

I know there are some answers.  Some of them are even good ones.  One (and one with which I am familiar, doing a fair bit of writing myself, although more of it in analytical prose than in "artistic" endeavors) is that a writer writing a thing does not entail that the writer remembers the thing.  Even now, I am at work on a paper in large part so I can get the idea out of my head; I can hardly expect to keep it in when I push it out.  Hell, my dissertation, on which I spent years of work, is not as clear in my mind scant weeks after I defended it as I recall it being in the hours surrounding the defense.  So that part, the need to look over the material, I can well understand.  But the rest...I am not sure about the rest.

Especially the "poet voice."  That drives me nuts.  The false suppression of inflection and intonation in favor of a pseudo-dramatic, staggered, assumed breathiness grates.  If a poem is supposed to be a relation of feeling, why should it not sound as though the reader feels?  If it is an attempt to arrive at some truth, then why should it not ring of the elation of uncovering truth, or of the sorrow that an unpleasant truth cam prompt?  And if it is an expression of the poet's inner being, and it really does sound like the "poet voice" puts it, why should I want to know the person?  For I get to deal with enough deadness and false pomposity riding the subway each day, and before that, among the central Texas population among whom I grew up; I do not need it when I look to something outside of my "normal" life.

As I think on it, it occurs to me that the "poet voice" may be part of the reason that the general public (insofar as it exists) has trouble with poetry--something which has been an issue of concern for me.  Something about the falseness...it forces the poem into some place other than where people are willing to go to it, and it is forced; few people, if any, actually talk the way they read poems, and those people are usually shunned for being blasted annoying.

Do not use the "poet voice" and then complain that "people don't like poetry anymore."  Your use of the thing is part of the problem.

Work Cited
Grobe, Christopher. "The Breath of the Poem: Confessional Print/Performance circa 1959." PMLA 127.2 (March 2012). 215-30. Print.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

20120425.0824

It should be no surprise that when I read the 24 April 2012 New York Times editorial "Subsidize Students, Not Tax Cuts," I was on the side of the editors who argue for keeping student loan interest down.  It should not be a surprise that I am on board with the article's assertion that "Nothing is more important to this country’s future than ensuring a good education for coming generations."  Nor should it be a surprise that I think it spot-on that the article points out how usual partisan politics are interfering with what might actually be helpful to those students.

None of these should be surprising--and I offer this for full disclosure--because I am among the population that would be affected by the changes to the system.  I have more than $50,000 in student loans still outstanding at the moment.  I am married to a person who has several dozen thousands of dollars out, as well, and my brother is not without debt despite having benefited from a four-year, full-ride scholarship.  My wife and I both teach college, and our students are largely if not entirely dependent upon federal student aid, so anything which discourages people from signing on for it impacts our ability to make a living.*

But, as I think I may have mentioned before, that I benefit from a thing does not make my saying it untrue.

Those people who do take out student loans and complete a course of study within a reasonable time (say, five years for undergraduate, three for masters, and the traditional seven for a terminal degree, although I am not wedded to those numbers) are doing what they can to make of themselves productive members of society.  Even those who, like myself, pursue studies in the less tangible fields of the arts and humanities do so; the study of science is neither moral nor immoral, being concerned (both usefully and correctly) with the "how," while such fields as mine are the "why."  Traditional wisdom asserts that such people have higher earning potential over their lifetimes, meaning more lifetime tax revenue for the state, and that they offer other benefits to the community--they are more likely to participate in the structures of governance and more likely to enrich their communities in other ways.

Much money is given to the care and maintenance of those outside the social contract and to those who violate it.  Should we not be at least as kind to those who actually do what they are supposed to do as we are to those who do not?

*Then again, maybe, since we both have "silly majors" outside the physical sciences and engineering (as commenter Holly puts things) and are among the over-paid parent-blackmailers of the academic elite (as per Connecticut Yankee**), perhaps we ought to expect it.  Or is that too heavily sarcastic?

**My work in my "silly major" tells me that "Connecticut Yankee" is an inauspicious name.  Sir Boss ends up miserable, alone, and ultimately of no effect, after all...

Monday, April 23, 2012

20120423.1635

I am working on a paper, trying to get it put into text so that I can get it out of my head.  When I write at home, I find it helpful to have my heavy curtains open; doing so lets me have such light as can be had at the base of the cliff-wall apartments that line the broad canyon of the Brooklyn avenue on which I live, and it allows me to look out upon the traffic, afoot and vehicular, that goes by.  Both help me to think, and since I need all the help I can get in that regard...

Just now, I saw something happen in the tree-well in front of my apartment, something that happens frequently in New York but rarely in my experience outside of it.  It strikes me as odd that a people who claim to love their city so much as New Yorkers will piss and shit all over its sidewalks and streets in the open day.  It strikes me as even stranger that they will perpetuate the behavior by having their young children do so.

I can't have a pipe in a park here, but folks can take a shit in front of my window.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

20120422.1810

On my other blog, I commented last week about it being the end of the term where I teach.  I also mentioned there that I am on leave for the summer, something which has not happened in my adult life before; this is the first time that I am taking advantage of one of the things that gets trotted out to justify paying educators at lower rates than they really ought to get.*

I am not spending the time wholly idly.  I have a paper in the works right now, and I have others that I would like to get going (once I get done with the one I have in draft at the moment).  Also, I have additional reading to do; that seems to always be the case, even if I feel like I am not doing enough of it.

In addition, I will be doing a fair bit of traveling.  I am bound for Lafayette, Louisiana; Kerrville, Texas; and Tama, Iowa, where I will participate in commencement exercises and visit family.  I will also be heading to the United Kingdom to attend a two-week program in medieval studies at the University of Cambridge--around which I will do some lovely touristy things, since I will be in a position to do so.

I worry about taking the time off, however.  My most beloved wife and I have discussed the issue at length, and while we are reasonably confident in our finances, and she urges me to take the time to spend with family and study abroad, I remain somewhat hesitant.  Make no mistake; I am eager to go, to see, to do, but there is something in me, something born of the socio-economic background from which I hail, that tries to give me pause.

Tries, because I have already bought the airline tickets and booked lodgings.

There have been a few comments made to me that have reawakened a worry that I had thought my wife and I had managed to put aside.  I am not entirely happy to have had it brought back up to me that my taking a term off and traveling for a month at a time is at odds with my upbringing; my wife and I both come from families that very much embody the traditional Protestant work ethic, families that have had to work hard and long to remain in positions of relative security--and which have had problems at times despite the many, many hours they have put in.

It is in part because I have seen such hard-working folks as my folks suffer that my politics incline the way that they do.  There are times when hard work is not enough--something that the "Christian" populations among which I spent my youth ought to keep in mind.  But that is aside from my central point.

Said point is this: I am still adjusting to being in the many positions I occupy, and the shift is not entirely comfortable.  I suppose that as complaints go, however, it is a good one to have to have.

*In most places.  I am aware that there are parts of the US (and I restrict my discussion to it for reasons I have discussed elsewhere, such as here and here) where teachers are appropriately--or even excessively--paid.  But they are not many.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

20120415.1704

In this blog, I comment, perhaps more than is warranted, about my exercise of faith and about the difficulties I have negotiating my identity as a person of faith with my identity as a scholar.  I may have mentioned, as well, the partial origin of the difficulty in the perspectives of many intellectuals and many Protestant Christians (and I am a Protestant Christian, by upbringing and family history and current practice, being a member of the United Methodist Church of the Village) that the two are mutually incompatible.  Certainly, the topic has been on my mind, as became evident during a Maundy Thursday activity in which I took part this year.

I spent some time this afternoon musing on the matter, and it occurred to me that in my work as a literary scholar, looking at texts and pulling out of them little bits of truth that I then pass on to those who are interested in hearing it (far too few, I am afraid), I follow at least one of the paths that Christ laid out for those who follow Him.  For is it not the case that Jesus, in telling and then explaining parables (as in, say, Matthew 13, Mark 12, Luke 15, and John 10, among others), performed literary explication--that is, He pulled from within a text, by way of explaining its imagery, a deeper meaning that is not necessarily clear from the literal, denotative interpretation of the words in it?

It seems to me that in doing my work as a literary scholar (although I do not do enough), I emulate Christ.  And it seems to me (although I may well be wrong; it happens, and far more often than I should like) that in emulating Christ, I work to enact the Christianity that I profess.  In that, then, my scholarship becomes the very living practice of my faith, an idea I find strangely comforting as I try to straddle the all too often, all too rigid schism between the life of the mind and the life of the soul, a rift that people on both sides try to widen despite the common history of the academy and the church, those two most prominent gathering-points of the two parties.

Friday, April 13, 2012

20120413.1742

Those who read what I write are perhaps aware that I maintain another blog in addition to this one.  Those who are thusly aware might remark that it is odd that I maintain two blogs when I write so rarely as I do in them.  And they would be right...except for the reason behind my bifurcated online commentary.

The other blog I maintain exists to support my teaching.  For the most part, I use it--if insufficiently frequently--to produce examples for my students and to make announcements of upcoming events to them.  I put up on it the kind of writing I would like to see them do, modeling the behavior I hope to see from them (and too seldom do).  Summaries and sample essays go up on it, along with rare musings about classroom practice and teaching philosophy.

I know that I could easily post such things to this blog.  On occasion, I do.  But while I do not take any special pains to hide this blog from my students, I do not advertise its existence to them.  There are a number of things that I post on this blog that are not wholly appropriate for a classroom context--even a college classroom context, which gets to play a bit faster and looser with rules than do the middle and high school classrooms my undergraduate training equipped me to handle.

I try to remain the person I am, as nearly as I can present that person, in all circumstances.  Even so, there are things that my students do not need to have thrust upon them, and listing this blog on my course syllabi, as I do for the other blog I maintain, would rather shove those things into my students' faces.  And that would be rude.

When I am rude, I like to do a better job of it.

Monday, April 9, 2012

20120409.1720

Yes, yes, yes, I know it has been entirely too long since I last posted, and I know that this post is a bit late for what I am talking about.  Still...

A friend of mine posted on her Facebook page yesterday a link to Herod's song in Jesus Christ Superstar as an Easter greeting.  Since she is my friend, and since I have repeatedly played a different although related Herod for my church, I took a look at it.  When I did, I noticed a few things that, frankly, offended me--aside from it being a musical, which annoys me on general principles.*

For one, and admittedly least, it puts into the mouth of a villain from a line of villainy a song very much in the older styles of jazz, thereby equating early jazz with evil.  In doing so, it reinforces negative stereotypes about the audiences of that style of music, perpetuating an instance of the generic fallacy.

The scene rolls around in stereotypes, really.  Herod is portrayed as a less-hairy version of Richard Simmons, looking like prejudicial depictions of flamboyantly effeminate homosexual men; his voice is largely high and wispy, he runs around shirtless and in shorts, accompanied by--among others--a painted-faced close mimic of Freddie Mercury (whose awesomeness is unable to be duplicated).  Gay men are thereby equated with evil, which depiction is offensive to me as a member of a reconciling congregation, a friend to several homosexual men, and a person who looks forward to the end of discrimination based on inborn qualities.**

I was going to make another comment about the unspeaking, over-exaggeratedly smiling black pianist Herod employs, one very much aligned with stereotypical depictions of black jazz musicians.  But as I think on it, that is exactly the kind of thing that should be aligned with evil.  Along with musicals, generally.

*There are, of course, exceptions.  But they are not many, and you do not need to know them.  So there.

**Yes, I view sexual orientation as an inborn quality, and yes, I support discrimination based on the choices made by consenting adults.