Tuesday, December 31, 2013


It seems that I am unable to resist retrospection.  I can, at least, do better than simply recapitulating 2013 broadly; if I am going to look back, it will be across a longer time and with a narrower focus.

Yesterday, I made the comment that there is a metaphor in part of my view on writing.  If there is one, it is one dealing with sewage and plumbing, and it is not the first time I have ventured into such discourse in this webspace.  Examples are here, here, here, and here, and there are likely more that can be found by going even further back, or out from this webspace and into my other writing (I recall a poem I wrote for my brother some years back...).  I may not do it frequently, but I do from time to time indulge in what can easily be called shitty writing.

That someone who makes much of being a scholar in the academic humanities would do such a thing, would wade into stalls with shovel in hand and spread around the stinking piles I find there, will no doubt strike some as odd.  Traditional wisdom holds that one of the hallmarks of erudition, one of the typifying qualities of being educated, is the ability to avoid the indecent, to keep bodily odors down and out of speech and writing, to not spill blackwater where it ought not to go--which is most everywhere.  Those like me are not supposed to be night-soil men; we are supposed to pretend that the ivory tower has no facilities for that sort of thing.

It is a pretense, and pretensions are supposed to be execrable.  Those in the academic humanities are often...earthy in their senses of humor, and those who handle the medieval are particularly prone to being so.  The materials we treat demand it.  The masterwork of the Well of English Undefiled rattles on in heroic couplets about farting, oral sex, and a gag that Mel Brooks appropriates.  Beowulf has "a great ale-sharing" among people who took no kegs with them into the woods, as my late Anglo-Saxon professor pointed out to his classes.  And one of the most notable medieval lyrics, a sweet song of reverdie to celebrate the return of spring, flatly states that the buck will fart with the re-greening of the world.  How, then, can my colleagues and I refuse to speak of such things?

The question then arises of whether those who have such senses of humor are attracted to the medieval and, more broadly, the academic humanities, or if the study of those things develops in the student such a sense of humor.  There is also this: what does it show of people that they have for hundreds or thousands of years continued to send forth such exhalations and extrude such products, for even now such things as farts are funny.

Monday, December 30, 2013


In the run-up to the new year, there is a tendency to do retrospective work, to look back over the year that is passing and assess it for what it has brought about, for good and for ill.  Any ending, any new beginning, prompts the same, really, whether the ending of an arbitrary and largely-agreed-upon-for-convenience-as-a-way-to-negotiate-colonial-and-imperial-legacies "solar" calendar or a term of instruction or a series of terms of instruction meant to culminate in the formal presentation of credentials that once purportedly indicated a particular level of achievement and broad-based expertise but now serve as entry-level certification that may yet be disregarded.

Offering such a retrospective today or tomorrow would be easy.  It is expected, certainly; the tendency far predates this webspace or its writer.  But it would be to no purpose.  The year has been amply recorded already, and not only by me.  Those records are available broadly and openly, and those who want to see them will simply look upon them; those who do not will be attracted for a moment to the noted retrospection, their eyes passing easily over content they have seen before, taking a brief pleasure in being reminded of that thing that they saw that one time, and moving on to the next spectacle.  Little will be learned from it, if anything at all.

I therefore have no intention of offering the usual retrospective of the year.  Since the end of April, I have worked to put such images of my thoughts and understandings as I can out into the ether of the internet; they are there to be seen by those who want to see them, and if I do refer to them (perhaps too frequently, as may be thought), I do so to explain ideas further or to provide additional reference rather than to look back upon things and think "See how good it has been!"  While some of it has been good--the news of my coming child is perhaps the most notable example--most has been...less good, and I would put most of it behind me.

That I would raises the question of why, then, I write of things?  For writing is in part remembering outside the self and more durably than in the frail fleshy bits between the ears; writing the pieces I write means that they are there, in the world and in some senses embodied, that they may come back to me again and again.  But writing is also in part the externalization of the internal, the pushing-out of that which is within; by writing, I am able in some measure to get out of me what would otherwise remain within me and would fester to corruption did I not expel it from myself and flush it away.  And I retain the frail hope that what I do send out will be collected somewhere and what vitality it has left will be extracted for the benefit of others.

Again, there is a metaphor in that.  Again, I would tend to think so.

Sunday, December 29, 2013


As a student of the academic humanities, I have many writing projects that need to be completed.  Waiting for my attention is one paper I have already committed to write, continued work on the revision of my dissertation, three essays of varying levels of academic intensity, blog entries here and in two other webspaces, several creative pieces, my personal journal, an academic book independent of my dissertation, and a number of funding and job applications.  Each will need several pages of writing at the very least, and although I have at times been able to compose quickly, I am not always so fortunate as to be able to churn our thirty pages in a day.  (When I am, I pay for it in pain; doing to myself what I must to be thus productive has side effects that are...uncomfortable.)

Given this, it might be asked why I spend my time on such "lesser" projects as this blog and other blogs, or on my personal journal.  I have admittedly neglected each in the past, sometimes for sustained stretches.  How sporadic were my posts to this webspace before May of this year?  And I have fared less well in my other "minor" projects, certainly.  So it makes sense that, if I have much writing to do and have demonstrated that I can set aside some in favor of other work, that I ought perhaps to stand aside from more...humble pieces in the interest of devoting my attention to the more...important pieces (insofar as people regard work in the academic humanities as "important," although they should).

Such thoughts assume, however, that there are only so many words to be said, that my language is a finite resource and that there are only so many words that can pour out of me.  My parents can assure you that this is not true, I think, and that it has not been since I learned to speak.  While the length of the day and the demands of my body may limit the size of the spigot, the tank which it drains has not been sounded; it is as the cup Þorr raises in the halls of Utgard-Loki, perhaps.  It is not the case that my spending words in such venues as this drains me of words to use on other projects; to continue with water, they are the drops sprayed out that fall on other plants than the flowers, and the garden is still enriched by them.

Another image to use, perhaps, is that of exercise.  Is it not the case for those who wish to exert their bodies that they stretch themselves beforehand, thinking thereby to minimize injury and enhance their performance?  Why, then, would it not be the case that those who work with their minds would stretch them through such activities as brief bits of writing?  Writing is made easier by doing more of it, not harder, so the time I spend in putting together blog posts and journal entries is not wasted from the other, "greater" projects; it is training and practice so that I can do that part of The Work better.  And that is a thing to be valued.

Saturday, December 28, 2013


As I was returning home from taking my wife to work yesterday, I heard comments on the radio about skaldic poetry, the highly allusive and complicated verse typified by the works of Snorri Sturluson and Egill Skallagrímsson.  In them, the speaker (whose name I sadly forget) noted the deep background knowledge that audiences of skaldic verse had to have to understand what the skalds were saying to them.  (As the skalds were usually saying nice things about the lords who supported them, the audiences usually had reason to know what was being said; even the doughty Nordic folks liked hearing people speak well of them.)

I know of people who might say that we have lost the ability to have such things, that we do not teach our children enough of the old ways and common backgrounds for us to have such a body of work.  But I think those people are wrong; we do still have the ability to make such works happen, to refer to things in arcane kennings, through obscure metonymy and synecdoche.  Indeed, we are more able to do so; more people can be counted on to know more things or, failing that, to know where to go to learn of those things.  For instance, when I wrote some days ago that "The Muse is far away / On Oreb or on Sinai," I expected that my readers would either mark the association with Milton's Paradise Lost (Book I, lines 6-7), already having the knowledge or running a simple search for "Oreb or on Sinai," and so would understand what I wrote without my having to write it.  Or when I wrote earlier that "Jeff Lynne's cheery call has been answered abundantly," people would know who Lynne is or would find out quickly.  And there are other examples besides.

We still refer to things form our past, and we recognize now that our past is far more complicated and glorious than we had been led to believe in that same past.  More value is ascribed to more things, not less, and so more is referenced now than once was.  Not only in poetry: are there not Arthurian overtones in the Zelda series (perhaps an essay for another time), and do we not still celebrate retellings of old tales on screens silver, small, and digital?  It is because there are more symbols to navigate that my part of The Work, my study of the academic humanities and teaching of the same, remains valuable.  My colleagues and I are the ones who examine what is done for what works well and what works poorly, writing of how they function and what those functions assert about both the people who produce and the people who consume.  It is only through looking to the past that we can do so; without knowing that Oreb and Sinai are linked by Milton, the repetition of that link makes little sense, and without the training in looking for such things and looking at them in ways admittedly esoteric, what they reveal of writer and reader is hardly evident.

And it needs to be.  For one, there is the link to the cultures of the past from which the cultures of the present are sprung, a link that may lead at times to uncomfortable realizations of ancestral errors but that still serves to ground people in the long line of humanity.  For another, the presentation and manipulation of such symbols as my colleagues and I are wont to explicate serves to influence the thoughts and perspectives of people; media saturation ensures that it is so.  Being able to recognize the symbols that are presented and understand their contexts of origin allows for greater self-control, greater immunity from the ploys of marketers and demagogues, and greater ability of the self to be the self.  And that is certainly a worthy thing.

Friday, December 27, 2013


Another of my small problems presented itself yesterday.  As I was checking one of the several email accounts I maintain (far better than my websites, admittedly), I found that a number of emails I had sent out I had, in fact, only thought I sent out; they were still sitting in my outbox.  Some of them were months old.  In a flurry, I sent them out again, hoping that they would either not be too late or, if they were, that their recipients would take some small pity upon me, seeing the divergence between the dates of the documents attached to them and the date my emails reached their intended inboxes.

The wonders of modern technology at work.

I confess to being thoroughly annoyed at the problem.  Among the emails that did not go out when I had meant them to were several containing information that really ought to have gone out when I sent it.  I have the distinct impression that the failure of the technology and of my vigilance over the technology (I really ought to have checked on it to make sure that it did what I wanted it to instead of simply assuming that it would do what I wanted it to do) has cost me opportunities that I would have otherwise enjoyed.  It would not be the first time that I have missed out on things because I did not pay enough attention, and it will likely not be the last, either; I have been a poor student for that particular lesson, however many times it has been presented to me.

One I recall, and one I regard now as being a small problem despite the panic I experienced when it actually happened, is another technological issue.  As an undergraduate, I had a high opinion of myself (surprising, I know), and because of that high opinion, I had enrolled in a number of classes I regarded at the time as being advanced (I know better now, but I was not the man then that I am now--if I can be considered to be a man even now, which I know is questionable).  In those classes, as is typical of upper-division major coursework, I had large projects due--presentations, actually, in which I was not so practiced then as I am now.  I had saved the texts of those presentations to physical media, which I had taken with me to school to print out and submit as appropriate.  Only they did not make it to the medium, or they did and vanished from it--and I had not been intelligent enough to keep a backup copy or email myself one (this is in the long-ago days before cloud storage was a thing).  Having the good fortune to have come from witty people, and having been a diligent student (I was less entertaining then than I am now, and I am hardly the life of the party, as I have noted), I was able to cobble together something in a hurry that managed to squeak by.  But I was not content with it; I knew I could have done better because I had done better.  And now, I seem to have repeated the kind of error I made then.

I may have to give back my degrees.

Thursday, December 26, 2013


I will be going to the doctor today for the first time in some years.  It is not good of me to have been neglectful of my physical health, and I very much have been; I recall going to the doctor in The City before I was awarded my doctorate, but not after--and not soon before the degree, either.  Yet I had insurance nearly the entire time I was in The City, and enough offices were open on weekends that I could have made my way to one of them.  That I have until today avoided seeking physician's care is only one of the many ways in which I have been a fool, so I am glad to be limiting the duration of my foolishness--or at least to reduce it in some small measure for a time.

There is nothing wrong with me that wasn't already, so those of you who read this and give a damn about its writer need not worry.  I am simply going in for a checkup--and probably reimmunization, so as to protect the upcoming baby.  I am not among the people who believe that the repeated studies which disprove the causal link between vaccination and autism are concocted by Big Pharma to silence the "truth" that was published in The Lancet and later recanted amid much shame.  I believe it easier and more likely that one person will lie than many in alignment, and if things are so bad that the conspiracy supposed to exist does and has the influence ascribed to it, we are all under its control, anyway.

That I have been neglectful of my physical health, not seeking medical attention as often as I have needed it (and there have been a few times I well ought to have done so) and not doing basic care and maintenance on my body(the regular checkup), is likely a combination of things.  The perception of being too busy is one of them; while I have time off in the work I do now, in The City, I did have a rather...involved workload.  Machismo (or some convenient variant on it) is likely another issue; as long as I can work, I ought to work, and I have boasted about continuing to do my part of The Work while feverishly watching pink elephant people trying to take my shoes.  Against that, the occasional pain in my ass (extending down my leg) or soreness in my left elbow (from an old martial arts injury) is nothing, so why make a fuss about it?  Or so the line of thought goes.

More likely has been fear, the common fear that the doctor will make me do things I do not want to do (those who have terminal degrees cannot usually force others to obey, as I know too well), or the common fear that the doctor will find something grievously wrong (I know that I have some bad habits and that I may suffer greatly because of them).  Both are stupid, the former for the reason I note in parentheses, the latter because it is the case that not knowing about problems does not mean not having problems.  Better, or less bad, to find them while they may still be fixed (or mitigated) than to find them through the experience of suffering their full effects.  And, for those upon whom others depend or will depend, better to know what weaknesses are in place so that some remedy for them can be found, that the dependent do not suffer.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Have a Merry Christmas, those of you who observe the day!
Have a Happy Wednesday, those of you who do not!
And those of you who believe
There *is* a war on Christmas,
May your joy in this day come from enlightenment.
So may it be for us all.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


I am rereading Tolkien's Lord of the Rings...again.  I have lost track of how many times I have read the piece; in my adolescence, when I first encountered it, I read the text repeatedly, and in my adulthood, I have read it annually or more often.  Tolkien's masterwork has informed my writing; my master's thesis works with his commentaries, and I offer conference papers that invoke him at greater and lesser length.  (I know the links are to a website that I am not diligent in maintaining.  I am working to improve.)  So it is...accurate to say that I view Tolkien's writing as important.

That I do will mark me in the eyes of some as being...flighty.  I carry with me the nagging suspicion that I am viewed by those who prize the older iterations of my profession of professing as something of a scholarly dilettante, wasting my time on trifles instead of working with the mighty works of the traditional English-language canon (and I suppose it means that I worry about that dilettantism myself).  And perhaps it is the case that I look largely at the relatively recent works of Tolkien and of his successors--notably Robin Hobb--because I cannot handle the "serious" pieces of writing.  Or, more likely, I look at writing because I cannot handle the "real" world of business, politics, or the STEM fields; I delve into letters not because I am stupid--which I like to think is clearly not the case--but because I am weak (again, the nagging suspicion of how I am viewed and the similarly nagging self-doubt).

My self-doubt aside, the view that the writing of the past is of more value than that of the present is wrong.  I am aware that there is a lot of insipid pap available; I am also aware that we have only a small part of the writing that has been done, and even among that small portion, there is a fair bit that is simply bad.  It does not get carried forward as much as the "great" works, admittedly, but the fact that it is there to be seen demonstrates that the writers of the past were of as varied quality as the writers of the present.  (Tim William Machan has somewhat to say about it.)  We simply see more of the variety now because we live now; had we lived then (and been able to read), we would have seen much the same proportion--and the proportion itself is an issue.  There is much more to read now than before, even with the Internet; is not most online content written even now?  That does mean there is more crap through which to sift, but it also means that there are more treasures to be found.  Jewels in raw form may need cutting and polishing, I admit, but that does not mean they are not worth value.  And some have already been burnished to a shine through much handling.

I will go add another gleam to the Middle-earth corpus.

Monday, December 23, 2013


As I noted yesterday (albeit briefly), I spent the last week in the Texas Hill Country, reconnecting with family.  I enjoyed my time among my people--and even among my wife's people (with more of them coming to visit at Sherwood Cottage tomorrow)--and I even managed to behave myself.  Mostly.  It was a remarkably good trip, overall, and I am glad to have taken it.  (I must admit, however, to being glad to be back at Sherwood Cottage; sleeping in my own bed is better, and it helps to be among my materials for The Work.)

As with any trip back home for those who have left, there is the issue of being in a place where people knew you when, as my former bishop commented (and I have discussed).  I was fortunate enough to have few old ghosts arise to haunt me; I saw, but did not have a chance to speak with, a puppy-love person, and a performer with whom my father and late great uncle worked was on stage at a show I attended.  (Yes, there are shows in the Texas Hill Country.  No, they are not all country and western or pickin' and grinnin', although many are.)  So I was fortunate to not have to endure so many reminders of old idiocies and youthful indiscretions as I usually have when I am where I grew up, and that, I think, did much to make the trip a good one.

I have observed (although whether here or only in talking with my wife, I do not recall) that on family visit trips there is an often unfortunate tendency to fall back into older patterns of relations and behaviors.  We revert to what we remember being with the people we see--and this tends to mean a return to the dependent/provider relationship.  It tends to suppress or abnegate the growth that years and distances have compelled, doing much to undermine what has hopefully been the self-betterment of all involved.  And that is not good for parents who have been able to focus upon themselves again now that the immediate and immense burden of raising children is lifted from them.  (I know that they will always be parents, but there is a difference between being the parent of adults who are able to make their own way and the parent of dependent children who cannot.)  It is not good for the returning children, either, although I know it sounds much as if I whine to point it out.

On this last trip, I feel that I did not slip, or I did not slip so far, as I have in the past.  I was not a pleasant or easy child, I know, and I have apologized to my parents more than once for the trouble I know I caused them while I was growing up (there; I may well not yet really be an adult, although I had damned well better get there if I am not).  My own return to that does nobody any good--and I think it is the same for many others.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


As might be guessed from the erraticism of my work in this webspace over the past days, I have been away.  "Away" in this case meant a trip to the Texas Hill Country to see my family and part of my wife's, and we had a good visit.  It will likely be the last such before our child is born--and the families are already excited about the impending arrival.  Several gifts have already been given the child, despite the child's not having been born yet.  And others were given to my wife and me, gifts we were thankful to receive.

After a long day of driving, though, I am weary.  More, there is still much to do today.  Thus, today I write only briefly, although I fully intend to have more normal a bit of commentary tomorrow...

Thursday, December 19, 2013


I received word today that I have a teaching schedule for the spring term, one that works out well for me.  After what I ran into last spring, I think I am justified in being happy to have work to do.  I am all too familiar with what it is like to not have it, and despite my occasional complaints about handling students and their work, I have no desire to repeat the experience.

I realize that I am not always as indicative of being grateful as I ought to be.  I know that what I write often betrays frustration with the world in which I live and the people with whom I share that world.  I know also that people are sometimes put off by what they read of what I write in such a vein.  It is not my intent--for all that an authorial statement of intent can actually be trusted.

Even as I acknowledge the sometimes uncomfortable nature of my writing, though, I must admit that I have no intention of changing much of how I go about things.  It would not be fitting of me to deny my experience and the emotions it provokes in me, and if I am to entertain so narcissistic an activity as writing a personal blog, one that serves primarily to offer my words to the pervasive ether of the online world, I do owe it to myself to represent as honestly as I can what I feel.

I am human.  Sometimes my feelings are unpleasant.  As such, my discussions of them will be sometimes unpleasant.  That is not a reason to deny them.  And it is the case that I am in a situation similar to that in which many others find themselves.  I entertain the hope (if again with some narcissism) that my comments about my experience may be of some aid and assistance to others, and if they are to be so, then they need to be as complete as can be made.  I entertain the hope also that what I write will produce some commentary and lead to some discussion--and I have seen that hope fulfilled more than once.  If I do want to see discussion, then I need to offer somewhat to promote it, and the more of myself that I offer up for discussion, the more likely that discussion is to happen.

It is the case that I perform a particular role in this space--as do all writers in all writing situations and indeed all people in all situations.  We are all of us wearing masks and costumes, playing parts as the Bard remarks, although the roles are not a mere seven but seventy times seven.  I do not expect that all of my performances will win awards, certainly, but it is not always in search of praise that the actor acts, or that the writer writes, or that the worker works on The Work.  It is often welcome, but it is neither sufficient nor necessary; the thing itself justifies itself.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


There is annoyance
Even for those who write
Whose work is often thought not work
Whose lives are thought to be filled with ease

There are times
The words will not come
The Muse is far away
On Oreb or on Sinai
And not many write
Amid the rocks
Without solid walls surrounding them
Since hillsides and mountaintops are windy
And it is hard to put a pen to a page that is flying away

Then there are others
When an error has slipped through reading
Before the piece is allowed out into the world
But it shows up later
And it stands out
A white shirttail sticking through the open zipper of dark pants

Sometimes it can be tucked in swiftly and without comment.
Other times
An hour goes by
Filled of speaking to people whose eyes are at crotch level

The latter seems more frequent.

Monday, December 16, 2013


That I am so relatively tardy in posting today is an artifact of the down-time that the intersession break allows.  I do not at present have the pressure of having to head off to work or to one of the other things that I have to do during a regular semester at the moment, which has its benefits.  It also has drawbacks in its promotion of laziness, and I have noted that I already suffer from that particularly human plight enough.  I do not need things to add to it; I rather need the opposite, but it seems that I am not likely to find it in the next few days.

My tardiness and laziness, however, do not mean that I do not have things to do or things to say.  For instance, I can comment about Rebecca Schuman's 13 December 2013 Salon.com article "The End of the College Essay."  In the article, Schuman argues " that the required-course college essay is a failure," citing rampant plagiarism, the overall disdain students have for the comments that instructors leave on student papers, and the dissatisfaction many college instructors voice regarding their students' work as reasons to abandon the practice.  Since, Schuman argues, college is more about getting a job (something I have discussed before), and the jobs students are likely to do will not really require them to put together a coherent argument, and since students generally do not engage with the work of essay-writing in any event, there is no point to requiring students to write essays.  The exercise is wasteful and unpleasant, and therefore to be avoided.

I  know from having looked at their comments that some of my colleagues have already voiced their disagreement with Schuman (although I have not read their comments in detail).  At the risk of sounding once again like I am saying "Me, too," in a desperate attempt to fit in, I offer my own disagreements with Schuman:
  1. Schuman notes the increasingly vocational aspect of undergraduate education.  It is part of work that it is not always pleasant, that tasks are required of employees that they would rather not do.  In some of my older jobs, I was obliged to clean restrooms--and I hated doing so, particularly given whom I knew used them.  Yet it was either do so or cease earning a paycheck--and the paycheck was worth more.  Students need to learn such lessons, and I have had many who never had jobs before they came into my classes; better with me than with their solvency at stake.
  2. There are work issues that will bear in on writing.  Despite hopes, sometimes there are legal problems, and those problems depend largely on written documentation for their resolution.  The skills developed in essay writing therefore do have a direct bearing on work--even for the non-writer.
  3. As many have noted, there are other skills developed in essay writing than in essay writing---if students are obliged to develop them.  I discuss the matter with my own students as being, if nothing else, practice in attending to small details--and that skill applies in every discipline.
  4. Students are typically quite young.  What they think they want may well not be what they actually want.  That they do not want to write essays does not mean that they will not want to do so.
  5. There is more to the student than the intended job.  The essay offers an avenue into that "more."  It is not the only avenue, certainly, but it is one.
I am sure there are other ways to argue against Schuman.  I am equally sure that as a person whose professional existence is largely justified through the teaching and evaluation of essays, my defense of the required assignment can be considered somewhat...suspect (although I am one of the many whom Schuman notes view grading with disfavor).  To borrow something of a cliché, however, the choir still needs to hear the preaching.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


Today is my brother's birthday, which I celebrate as being a good day.  I know that I am fortunate to have such a brother as I have; mine is remarkably talented, more than reasonably intelligent, and good looking without being better looking than I am.  More, he is a person whose personality is agreeable to mine.  We get along pretty well, and I am given to understand that this is not usually the case for people.  I wish my brother a happy birthday therefore, and in all sincerity note my hope that he has much joy of it.  I certainly intend to do so.

With the note, though, there comes to mind an oddity of some English usage I have known (as happens on occasion).  The statement "May s/he have joy of it" has a particularly backhanded use, one bitterly condemnatory.  I have seen it, or something very much like it, used to express...disapproval of a person who has sought out something that was contested and has acquired it by less than honorable means.  It is something to say of Claudius to "congratulate" him on the Danish throne.  It bespeaks a joy to be had in the same way that Brutus is held to have honor.  It is not a thing to have to hear.

I will admit, however, that I may be rare in hearing such a phrase in such a way.  Those who know me know that I am prone to reading matters in a less-than-optimistic light, that I am prone to seeing insult in things whether or not one has been offered or is even on display.  The tendency is something that preexists my work as a scholar of the humanities and may well be the means through which I developed the basic skill-set that informs my academic study.  But even if it is, it does tend to enforce upon me a certain...unpleasant attitude about the world.  It bids me complain a lot, and that is not always or necessarily even often a helpful thing.

That my brother is as he is, then, is fortunate.  For the most part, he understands my attitudes toward existence, understands the ease with which I and others can look at the world and see that things are wrong with it.  And he is usually better than I am about seeing how problems can be fixed; it is perhaps part of the training he has had that I have not that he does so, but I dimly recall it being one of his many endearing qualities as he and I were growing up.  (I perhaps do not do well to phrase that in the past tense.)  It is only one of the reasons I make an effort to remain in touch with him that he has good advice much of the time.  He is also witty and engaging, possessed of a charisma I have never commanded, and I am fortunate to have had him in my life these twenty-six years.

I hope to have him around for a good many more.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


The term has ended, and with that end comes something like a month of time away from work.  It is welcome, certainly, although I know that in my saying so I cater to those who suggest that those who teach should be paid less because they work less, because they get such time away from their work.

The only problem is that the time away is not time away, not really.  I know that I have things I must do between now and the beginning of the next semester, and I am not happy to have to do all of them.  Despite my expecting them, grade complaints are an unfortunate occurrence and annoying.  Far more enjoyable is the work of building up a course of study for one of the classes I get to teach next term: a survey of early British literature.  It has been a while since I taught one, and I am looking forward to getting to work with students in my primary area of study once again.  But the fact that it is enjoyable does not mean that it is not work; those who have set up courses know that there is quite a bit involved in putting together a syllabus and compiling a course calendar.  Certain materials must be covered, others are necessary to understand those that must be covered, and still others will come up as being remarkably useful or interesting.  Assessment must be conducted, ideally of a sort that drives instruction and induces students to generate new knowledge as they complete the assessments--which frequently means papers (and I am assigning one, to be completed in stages) and almost always means some kind of exam (I am assigning one of these, too, towards which I will work not so much in stages as in practice rounds).

Too, I have to read all of what I assign, and I have to do so in such a way that I can guide discussion of the text and inform that discussion with relevant criticism.  I was a good graduate student, so I have a lot of notes and a lot of the books to which the notes refer.  I am also not hesitant to ask my colleagues who specialize in areas other than mine for guidance and insight--perhaps even to the point of giving a CV-enhancing guest talk in my class from time to time.  (I was fortunate enough to get to do so a time or two, and it helped me immensely.)  Gathering the materials and (re)familiarizing myself with them is no mean task, and I have to be more than a little bit ahead of my students in doing so; I have to give them reason to trust that I belong at the front of the classroom even now, despite having years of teaching experience and a terminal degree firmly in hand.  It is a challenge which I relish, a challenge I expect to be able to meet, but a challenge that will take effort to meet even so.  Thus, I may not have so much of a break as some might think--as I have said before.

Friday, December 13, 2013


This is the end of exam week.
There ought to be much rejoicing.
There ought to be joy in the hearts of students
Whose semester's labors are done.
There ought to be joy in the hearts of instructors
Whose semester's labors are done.
But both of those mean that it must be true
That the semester's labors are done,
And that is not the case.

The students await the telling of grades
To find if they have failed.
The waiting is the worst part.
It perhaps spurs the complaints
More than the numbers themselves.
(My own experience suggests this.
I get more emails asking for points
Than complaining of not having gotten enough.)

Instructors of most ranks have to make the grades,
To read what students write
And report on the truth thus revealed.
Sometimes they are hindered in this
By one last meeting,
To no reasonable end but to much annoyance,
And they must work all the faster
To find a bit of rest from the work
And space to do The Work--
For exams do not enter into it.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Yesterday was a good day.  Proctoring final exams once again worked in my favor; I was able to get two of my four classes graded completely, their grades submitted to the school.  Two more classes remain, their exams waiting to be given and one or two individual items still waiting for my review.  And the expected grade complaints have already started; I have gotten several emails asking me to give students "just a few more points" or to round up a grade (despite my calculating grades on a point-add system this term).  I imagine that more will follow as students see what numbers have been posted to the in-class system and to the school's more formal records.  They always do.

Sometimes, those complaints get entirely out of hand, involving other people entirely.  In fact, I have told one such story before--and some who read this might remember when it happened.  I do not think that I will have the same kind of experience in my current position as I had in that long-ago time as a graduate teaching assistant; something about the collegiate culture where I am now is sufficiently different from that where I was then to forestall that kind of thing happening, or so I feel.  But I confess that I am always just a bit uneasy as I submit grades.  I always have to wonder if I will be harassed in my office or over email--or at home (because Sherwood Cottage is not well hidden, and I shudder to think that some...unpleasant person will find where I live and bother my lovely wife or my growing baby).  I have to wonder if a student or parent will confront me openly and I will be obliged to use what I have learned and raise my hand in anger.

I have to wonder if this time will be the time that I am confronted by a weapon against which I can make no defense.

(You who think it will not happen...reallyReally?  And do you think that college students are entirely sane and stable, or that they lack access to guns?)

Yet even so, I still issue grades that accurately reflect what I see of the students' performance, filtered through rubrics that I make public online and in class.  Some students do exceptionally well, putting together pieces of writing that are delights to read.  Some do not, and I cannot offer them rewards that they have not earned.  Comments about what to seek out and eliminate from their writing, comments about what to add to their writing, I offer them (whatever grade they may earn), but the students who do not write well--whether because they tried valiantly and did not reach the goals set for them or, too often, because they neglected to make the attempt until late, and then attempted it poorly--do not get good grades from me.  (The difference between what I consider good and what they consider good--they, who are accustomed to getting As for simply showing up--does not help.)  And they should not.  But I still worry.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


I have noted a few times in the past that I read articles on Cracked.com, working from them in my writing here and on the blog I abortively maintain in support of my teaching.  (Evidently, I can maintain one blog with any regularity in addition to my personal journals and my professional writing.)  Yesterday, I came across J.F. Sargent's "5 Important Milestones of Adulthood Nobody Talks About," and on the second page of that article there is a comment that stands out to me: "college ended, and I got a real job, and suddenly my responsibility wasn't to go to a room and half-listen to an incredibly smart person who was being paid to tolerate me explain some of the most complicated and nuanced ideas ever developed in human history."  Indeed, as I saw it, I did a double-take, and a slow smile that combat veterans have told me is more unnerving than being under fire (seriously--but I have mellowed out in my old age) spread across my face; even now I am giggling as I think on it.  For it bespeaks a truth of which far too few students are aware--particularly in weeks such as this which, as I have mentioned, wrap up terms of instruction.

Despite the protestations of many, most of my colleagues in the professoriate are damned intelligent people.  The way the system is set up, each of us who is at the front of the collegiate classroom has made a recorded contribution to human knowledge, bringing into the world some new thing that has not been known by anyone before--or is well on the way to doing so.  Even those of us who have been proven wrong in the years since can take satisfaction in the fact that the understanding we developed was necessary to arriving at the better one--and none of us are at The Truth, even though each of us edges the rest of us just a little bit closer to it.  And none of us to my knowledge relish being cooped up in a classroom for several hours a week with "young adults" who do not want to be there but are there because they perceive being there as necessary to getting a pretty piece of paper that will allow them to do what it is that they actually want to do.  (I think I am echoing myself again.)  Guiding bright and engaged minds to new insights and understandings (and, yes, seeing our own ideas taken up as standards of judgment and lenses through which to view the world--but who doesn't like knowing that their views matter?) is great, but most of the students in most of our classes are filling out course requirements, not looking into things that they want to know, and their lack of commitment to the work tells in their classroom performance.

(Many do realize later that they actually ought to have learned what their classes were teaching them, consciously or not.)

I like the job I have.  I view myself as a scholar, and I view as a major component of scholarship the dissemination of knowledge--not just through publication or presentation, but in the classroom.  But I have little love for students who do not take what they are doing seriously--and most of them, sadly, do not take seriously the work that is assigned them, as their performance on that work suggests.  I do much to prompt engagement with the materials I present--jokes, subject materials unusual and innovative, examples from popular media--yet many will not reach out and take hold of what I lay before them.  Why should I be expected to enjoy being shown that my efforts are of no avail?  The job for which I am paid means that I do what I can to offer the information.  The work to which I am called bids me reach out to and work with those who accept the offer.  The rest remain in my classes (and are complaining about their grades this week in addition to trying to find ways to improve those grades--only now at the end).  They have the right to the seats they occupy.  But I cannot say that I am giddy at the thought that those seats are occupied by those who would rather be somewhere else--except that the school "makes" them, and they, as any others, hate what they are "made" to do and those who most immediately "make" them do it.

Sargent is right, and I wish more people realized it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


As I noted yesterday, this week is exam week at my current institution.  I have discussed final exams a few times in this webspace, albeit with varying degrees of specificity.  Something about the finality of the exercise of siting for a final exam provokes thought, and even amid the grading that exams entail (or ought to, although I have known of professors who did not grade the final efforts of their students), there is time for that thought.  There is cognitive space that calls for filling, often through introspection and consideration of what is ending, but not always.

For example, early in my graduate career, I annoyed my office mates during final exam time.  I did not do so overtly or through the usual devices of pestering them with inanities or physical distractions (except, perhaps, for the woman who is now my wife).  Rather, I annoyed them through the ostentatious display of my unconcern; while they frenetically put together final projects and shuffled through stacks of paperwork, I sat comfortably and read--and not even for work, but for pleasure.  I admit that I did not act well in ensuring that I was seen to be otherwise concerned, to be nonchalant about my performance.  I need not have been so blatant about being done and confident in being done (although my chair in the office was far more comfortable than that in my dorm room or in the library, the other two places I would have been able to sit so long at my ease, and the comfort of my chair is important to me).

Now as then, however, I treasure the reading time that exam weeks tend to allow.  Although, as I note, time is taken up by grading (that onerous, hateful task) during the week, and I certainly have enough of it to do in the next few days, I am relieved of the tasks of lesson planning and executing those lessons.  (It is not that I do not enjoy them, but they do take up time.)  The relief opens time for me to sit comfortably and catch up on the reading too much neglected during the headlong rush that is a term of full-time teaching (and if I teach fewer classes now than in the past, I spend more time on each class, so that I am not gaining any freedom through the lighter course load).  So far, I have read from recent issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, to which I have subscribed since 1999 (surprising, I know).  I know also that I will take up some of the journals to which I have subscribed for several years, as well; I have noted (here) that I have not been so diligent in reading them, partly through the loss of time easily dedicated to them.  Several back issues are stacked on my desks at home and at work, and I will be poring over them before long, either this week or during the break between terms.

The "break" is busy for me, as for many of my colleagues.  The "time off" afforded those in the ivory tower--even in the basement or on the lobby floor--is not so idle as people want to portray it as being.  Exam week, however, offers the chance for some start on its tasks, for which I am grateful.

Monday, December 9, 2013


I got some good news this morning as I read my email: publication!  My poem, "By the Crawl-Space Door," was accepted as part of the One Image: One Hundred Voices Flash Fiction, Poetry & Creative Non-Fiction Global Writing Project, and I am quite excited.  It is the first poem I have had published, other than the snippets of verse in this webspace, in some time, and I cannot deny that I am happy to be validated in some small way as a creative writer.  The curator of the project (if that is the word) is far from inexpert, and her approval of my work is a bit of praise from someone who knows how to offer it.

That the commendation is such a happy thing for me speaks to something I think I have addressed before: the need for approval.  Most people have it, I think, the need to have someone else offer an upraised thumb or a nod of the head; we are social animals, and indications of approval are indications that we belong.  (I am aware of the song.  I do not know that it applies here).  Given the opprobrium that attaches itself to the work of the mind, particularly the work of the mind in humanistic study, opportunities for approval are more eagerly sought by I and those like me than by others, I think.

The question will doubtlessly arise about my publication as to whether or not I am going to get paid for the work.  The answer is "probably not."  At best, the publication will help me to be able to get other paying work.  It denotes that I am capable of conducting work outside my area of specialty, that I can handle other parts of English studies than the late medieval Arthurian literature in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur upon which I focus.  As such, I am more able to see connections among ideas and, presumably, to present those connections in ways that others can see--a useful thing for both research and teaching.

There is also this to consider: in being published as a creative writer, I can demonstrate that Shaw's adage about teachers is not quite as applicable as people like to believe.  When I teach poetry, as I have discussed doing before, I do so from the position of having written it, and written it in a way that has gotten out into the world through the agency of another.  I do, and I teach...and I suppose that part of why I maintain this webspace is in the same vein.  I write here and elsewhere, occasionally in more formal publication, to demonstrate that I am capable, that I can do the things I ask of my students term after term.  And even as they presumably hope to earn approval through their efforts, I seek to earn approval through mine.

This is the beginning of exam week at my current institution; my students will be seeking approval from me, and I have the hope that some of them will find it as I have found approval from my peers today.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


The annual Christmas pageant at the United Methodist Church of the Village in New York City is today, and, for the first time in some years, I will miss it; the commute is a bit much.  In the past, I played the part of Herod the Great, enjoying it perhaps more than I ought to have done and thereby earning acclaim as the Resident Villain of the Church of the Village.  (Indeed, any time a church performance called for a bad guy, I was the first one tapped; I played a slave-driver and Judas Iscariot in addition to Herod, making some people quite uncomfortable.)  While I am glad to see that the performance will continue, and that the role I have held will be filled by a talented actor (far more than I), I find myself missing it greatly--as I have noted to a few people.

It is not the first time that I have been in the position, and I doubt that it will be the last.  I have many times been part of an organization only for a few years, and while I have done much in those years, I have not been able to remain.  Consequently, I have had to step aside, yet the work I had been doing still needed to be done; as such, someone else was asked to take on the work, or volunteered to do it.  The organizations have endured since, frequently thriving for quite some time after my departure; I have looked back in on them from time to time and seen that they do so.  As with the church, I a happy to see that what I have been involved with has fared well; I am increased through my association with things that endure.  But I long to be part of the thing again, at least for a time (some things, I would not return to, even if richly rewarded).

The fact of being replaced or succeeded is something with which most people, if not all, must contend.  (There is a distinction between the two, although both involve one person leaving a position and another taking that same spot.)  Seeing it happen is not easy; investment of time and energy into doing a thing, sometimes over the space of years, prompts identification with that thing.  To have another assume the role identified with is difficult; it implies at some level that the time and effort spent on the thing matters not at all, that the person who spent the time and energy does not matter.  And it is no easy thing for people to be told that they do not matter; witness the depressive tendencies among those who are downsized out of jobs or who retire.

That is not the only available interpretation, however.  Far more fortunate, and easy to believe when having left a place of respect and love, is the interpretation that the time and effort spent have positioned the organization such that it can continue and thrive.  Rather than being the support, the person spending the time and energy is a trailblazer, and the fact that the path laid out can be followed easily and well is a sign that the trailblazer has done well.  It is admittedly true that the interpretation is eased by the positive confirmation of those who follow after (and I have had that, for which I am grateful), but even without such signs, so long as there is not positive evidence to the contrary (and I have had that, too, which is less good but still useful; if nothing else, I know the difference well), the interpretation can be sustained.  And that is a good thing on which to think.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


I mentioned in a passing bit of verse not long ago that I attended a company party.*  While there, I had a nice discussion with a colleague who happens to be married to an employee of the company hosting the party, one touching on Asimov.  As a couple of recent posts attest, I have had the works of the Good Doctor on the mind, so the conversation resonated with me--the more so because it spoke to criticism of writing, which is the very thing I do.  And so I return to the notion, offering commentary about the man's works directly, rather than addressing uses of them or criticizing the way in which I have done so.

There are certainly criticism that can be levied against Asimov's work, even the best-known parts of that work: the Robot and Foundation novels, which take place in the same continuum.  The writing very much shows its age in depictions of technology and of race and gender relations, as well as in tying events to years which have since passed without those events occurring.**  And it is the case that those who value hard sf for its unflinching commitment to respect the laws of physics as best understood at the time of writing (for we cannot fault a person for not knowing what has not yet been realized) can turn away from Asimov with some justification.  The positronic brain, hyperdrive, gravitic ships, and various other devices that pervade his books across the two dozen millennia of their internal chronology seem to defy explanation within the laws of reality as we have them, and he glosses over their workings almost entirely.

Even so, there is much of value in the Good Doctor's work.  Perhaps most notable is the concept of the Three Laws of Robotics, which gives the English language the word "robotics" and which, as is discussed elsewhere, is still a touchstone for those actually working in robotics.  But there are other concepts worth noting, as well.  One, as I have noted in many of my earlier blog posts, is voiced in "Sucker Bait": the danger in overspecialization.  There is always the peril of myopia in narrow focus; the concentration on a single thing that allows for new work to be done with that thing teds to exclude other concerns, not seldom to the detriment of those so focused.  It accounts, I think, for the phenomena that undergird the stereotype of the absent-minded professor.  It accounts also, I think, for a number of the problems seen in the administration of the planet; people focus narrowly on the vanishingly small parts of creation that are their selves, neglecting the interconnections among us all, but considering those connections reveals much and is the principal means through which ethical principles of mutuality are advanced.  (There are admittedly some who argue against the validity of mutuality as desirable, but they are relatively few.  Far more common are those who nominally espouse mutuality but act in ways contrary to it because of the greater ease of doing so.)

Another valuable point in Asimov's work is that it is well reasoned.  What he writes values the practiced and disciplined mind working rigorously through information, sorting it, and arriving at conclusions that, if not always expected, are fortunate and more than fortunate.  There is little of the deus ex machina in the main Asimovian corpus (and that little is developed over the space of several books and across millennia within the milieu) and much more of applied reason, bespeaking a fundamental trust that the human mind can engage with the universe successfully.  And that is very much worth keeping in mind.

*Yes, the poem is autobiographical.  Much of what appears in this webspace is.

**This is a problem in other science fiction milieus.  See, for example, the Eugenics Wars in the Star Trek universe.

Friday, December 6, 2013


Snow has sought out Stillwater now.
The white winter-blanket warmth strips away,
And fright at the frozen falling of water
Grips the good people gathered in town.
Salt for the spreading and shovels are ready,
Flat-iron fixed to fight clear the way.
Broad the blades and bright their edges
That purpose to push the powder away.
Gray the ground and gray the sky
As snow will settle and slush develop,
And faces of folk will fall at the sight.

Hearth and home are happily found
In days cold and dark, drive away chill,
And company close keeps people warm.
Family, friends, and feasting combine
To heat the hearts of the hall-fellows
And merry make them met together.
A fierce joy is found in falling snow.
Borne in the blood, bard-work awakens,
The ancestors' arts echoing, as of
Lore-days long-gone.  Late is the time,
But not bereft of blessings all.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


I made the comment on the social media feed of a coworker and friend that I would need more time to figure out what I need to say about the condemnations of Linda Tirado's "This Is Why Poor People's Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense."  I have taken some of that time, although probably not enough (the writing can always be made better), and I will not say there are not problems with the piece.  For example, Ryan Grim's defense of Tirado is a bit of an overstatement; I hold advanced degrees in language and do a damned lot of reading, and Tirado's distance from the experiences she depicts is not so clear as Grim asserts.  I do not ignore problems in writing, as I think I have demonstrated more than once recently, and several times earlier.  I do try to point out what is good amidst the problems, as I think I have also frequently demonstrated.

In her defense, Tirado does not propose to offer a flawless bit of writing (as though such a thing exists*); "There's no way to structure this coherently. They are random observations that might help explain the mental processes" is not exactly a claim to authoritative statements.  Too, the shift in tense that Grim references as being a point of contention for critics is a common occurrence in narratives, particularly first-person narratives, both among the well educated and the poorly taught; it is still an annoyance, and I tend to expect better from those who will describe themselves as essayists (as Tirado does in her byline), but confusion of verb tense does not undermine the fundamental message sent in her piece--which is well worth considering.

A number of things disturb me about some of the criticism aimed at Tirado.  One that strikes close to home is the idea that the poor cannot possibly display the benefits of education.  I have commented before about having taught students whose socioeconomic circumstances have been at best strained (a good example is here).  Yes, many of them faltered.  But many of them did remarkably well.  (And that leaves aside the issue of being able to articulate excellent ideas in idioms other than those "prescribed" by the not-as-real-as-people-want-to-believe "Standard" English.)  That they were poor did not mean that they were stupid or that they could not learn even while remaining poor.  To suggest that the socioeconomically disadvantaged cannot be smart or display what is typically associated with (but by no means equates to) intelligence is flatly fucking stupid.

Another earlier comment of mine that bears in on Tirado's commentary, here, points out that many of my students at my previous institution have become convinced of the futility of the attempt; I use the phrase "many report that they view themselves as belonging to a permanent underclass," which hardly bespeaks hope.  It is admittedly true that there are avenues out of poverty, and hard work in them is markedly helpful in pursuing said avenues.  But hard work alone will not suffice; it never has.**  The other things which enable a person to escape from poverty--whether individual,  generational, or systemic--have to be in place for the escape to be possible, and there are guards on the gates to work against that escape.  Having seen them at work, having seen people struggle and fail despite their efforts, I can well understand the claim (to which some reportedly object) that there seems no way out.  In this, as in many other things, exceptions argue in favor of the rule; the exceptions are remembered because they violate the normal pattern, which says bad things about the normal pattern and the complicity of us all in maintaining it--including through the reactionary condemnations of Tirado's piece.

*I anticipate that an objection to this statement will come in the form of reference to some religion's scriptures.  To them I reply, as I have within the context of my own faith before, that a perfect text would not need to go through revision.  Too, what does the term "perfect" mean (other than in reference to tenses of verbs)?

**Other factors significantly influence personal finance, and they do so to such an extent that they can undermine any amount of hard work.  Illness and accident happen even to the best, brightest, and most diligent, and for every Stephen Hawking who endures catastrophic conditions with solvency (although he, being highly placed at Cambridge, benefits from institutional health care, as many others do not), there are untold hundreds or thousands who, insured or not, see themselves and their families reduced to penury in attempts to heal themselves or, because they cannot work and dare not seek care, sit idly as all falls to ruin around them.  Layoffs and outsourcing strip jobs away from those who would happily work at them for forty years, and it is increasingly the case that those who are hired are not hired into positions that are eligible for benefits (even my own job says I do not have access to nice retirement plans, and with a child on the way, my ability to put money back is...limited).  Broader economic forces prevent people from being hired--and broader cultural forces prevent many others from getting jobs (about which more here).  And, sometimes, a person simply cannot find a way in because there is not one to be found.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


I was at a company party yesterday evening,
Attending as my wife's +1,
And during the introductions,
The repeating ritual of offering labels for others to use,
Both implicitly
(Through race
Through gender
Through age
Through demeanor)
And explicitly
(Hi, I'm X--
And I often want to say "Inigo Montoya" for X
Or "Bob"
Though neither are true),
I labeled myself as what I am
Or at least as one part of me is.

The usual thing happened.
Eyes narrowed slightly.
Stance shifted slightly,
Moving backward
Narrowing the profile.
"That is what I was worst at in school,"
Or words not far removed from it.

I should be used to it by now.
But, as a pastor once told me,
We do not do well to should all over ourselves.

At the end of the evening,
I was thanked.
There was another at the party,
One like me,
One whose speech and dress and manner
One whose profession of professing
Make him an outsider
Despite his connections
To the people at the party.
I found him a fine interlocutor
Enjoyed his company,
And I think he mine.

I wonder if this is what it is like
In some small way
To be a token.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


My cousin made the point--the good point-- a couple of days ago that those people who "celebrate" Christmas but claim to be atheist or, if religious, one of the many faiths other than Christianity are somewhat hypocritical.  A discussion ensued, one which is ongoing (and I probably ought to stop feeding the trolls with it), in which I note the indication of financial primacy in the holiday season (loosely Thanksgiving through the new year) and in which one of the other participants sought to impress others with superior knowledge about the pagan (or Pagan?  I am unsure.) origins of many of the "traditional" Christmas accoutrements.  (As though the other people in the discussion did not already know.  Then again, I have had the benefit of long association with an exceptional folklorist and polytheist scholar, so I suppose I have had an unfair advantage.)

I found myself annoyed by the commentary.  Aside from the implication that I do not know things that I actually do know (petty, I know), the blithe acceptance of unexamined cultural norms grates on me.  It is the kind of thing that I see too often in my students, not only the first-year folks (who might be expected not to know any better), but the upper-division students who ought to know after years in higher education that they should interrogate their beliefs and practices not only for their origins, but for their implications and their resonances.  It bespeaks an unwillingness to think, to question, to investigate, and it is only through thinking, questioning, and investigating that problems can be identified and resolved--and we have a damned lot of problems.

Take "typical" Christmas celebrations, for example.  They consist for the most part of gatherings of kith and kin, large meals, and gift exchanges--and none of these are actually about Christ, even though they are ostensibly so ("Keep the Christ in Christmas!  Boycott stores whose employees don't say 'Christmas!'").  Those who do go to a Christian church typically do so for one, perhaps two hours that week, and perhaps they put a little more in the offering plate.  They do not emulate the Christ whose birth--misplaced in the year and in time--they nominally celebrate (and I must confess my hypocrisy again because I am insufficiently good at doing so).  At best, they emulate Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior.

But I do not think that people are typically at their best; rather, I think that many pay lip-service to the Christianity of the holiday and then give their devotion to lucre.  The focus is not Christ.  It is not even family and friends.  It is on ostentatious consumption, showing that there is money to be spent and that it can be spent on things that are not vital for life.  Again, I am a hypocrite for having participated in it; I am not going to refuse to gift those close to me or to accept the gifts that they give me, and yet I claim and have claimed to be a man of faith, as do many others.  So if my cousin is right to call into question those who participate in a Christian holiday who are not Christian--and I think he is--then there are a great many of us who ought to reexamine what we do towards the end of December.

Monday, December 2, 2013


With No-Shave November having ended, my participation in the event has likewise ended.  Although, as I noted before, I had worn a beard more or less continuously since entering graduate school, after shearing away the hair on Halloween (it is still a scary image), I found letting it grow back this past month to be...uncomfortable.  My neck itched abominably, and some comments were made as a result of the change in my appearance that I found...unhelpful.  Then, too, there was the oddity of someone else's face staring at me as my own, as I noted.  But all that is past now, and I am glad of it.

I have returned to my own face.  I have returned to some semblance of the distinguished professorial dignity I hope to convey through my visage and carriage.  I have returned to looking like myself as I see myself, looking like this:
The photo is courtesy of my lovely and loving wife.
I am vain enough to be happy with the way things have turned out.  If it is the case that my beard did not grow quite so much over November as I had thought it would (based on past experience of the time between needing beard trims), it is also the case that I did have a lot of people ask me after why I did as I did, which was part of the point.  And I also reminded myself of why it is that I do not shave away all of the beard and moustache with which I have been so generously and excellently provided.  (I did note that I am a bit vain, did I not?)

Perhaps, if I do No-Shave November again, I will shave something else entirely.  I do not think that I will need eyebrows...

Sunday, December 1, 2013


I just got back from a markedly nice overnight trip to Hiwasse, Arkansas, to visit my father-in-law and the step-family (which accounts for the timing of this post; I was not in a position to write until now).  It was a good experience, one which fed me abundantly in terms of actual food and in terms of more...ephemeral nourishment; I know that I am prone to falling into ruts of routine, digging myself deeper with each rotation, until all I can see are the walls of the trench into which I have worked myself.  Having the chance to pull myself out of the trench and get to see hills and trees instead was certainly welcome, and I feel refreshed because of it.

That I do is perhaps odd; I am not outdoorsman, to glory overly much in the natural world away from my books and the many flows of human information upon which I feed in earnest.  I am very much a man of the city or of the suburbs, valuing what concentrations of people allow, and I am hardly suited by temperament or skill to life away from grocery stores and Internet connections.  I thrive on being at ease and surrounded by my things, as I have discussed, and the agricultural world of tilled earth, braying ass, and lowing cattle does not promote ease--the lives of the farmer and rancher are filled with toil, as I am aware from my family and personal histories.  Nor yet does the wild world of forest and fenland, and Hiwasse straddles the two.

Even so, I do have an appreciation for the splendors of the rural world.  I have written of nocturnal beautiesIn another place, I have written of the glory of the Texas Hill Country in wildflower season.  Even with as citified as I am, I am aware of and grateful for the labors of field hand and range-rider on my behalf; I know that my food must be gotten from the soil and raised on the land, and I do not scorn those whose labors conduce to those ends.  Too, my family history lies in the unending farmlands of the American Midwest, and my personal history in the Texas Hill Country saw me raised among the sons and daughters of the cowboys' legacy.  A person can hardly help having some...love of the land who has had such circumstances.

Being reminded of that foundation from time to time is a good thing, and the recent trip to Arkansas served as such a reminder.  Having had it will help me to return to my other work, to The Work, with renewed vigor and a clearer mind (or so I hope), my strength restored through contact, even tangential (for it is not from the Ozarks that those of my people whom I have known have come), with the kind of life that my biological and cultural forebears lived.  I am thankful for it, and I look forward to putting that renewal to good use in the days and weeks to come.

Saturday, November 30, 2013


I am happy to have managed to make a post to this blog every day this month.  It does not equal the accomplishment of those who have successfully completed NaNoWriMo, certainly, but it is a far cry from where I have been in my own writing.  It gives me the hope that I might someday be able to do another extended writing project--which is good since, as a scholar in the humanities, I am expected to do quite a few such projects throughout the next forty or fifty years (if I should live so long).

I have been aiming at prose pieces of approximately 500 words in this blog (along with a sprinkling of amateur poetry of varying length).  I know that I have not always succeeded at providing so much; a couple posts in the middle of the month fell far short of my expectation.  Some of my posts, however, have been a fair bit longer; I tend to run off at the mouth with things about which I am passionate, and the tendency follows me into writing.  Still, I think I came out somewhere near 500 words on average (I have not done the word counts to be sure), so I am content with the performance.

Writing is a skill set, and, like any such thing, it requires practice to develop proficiency and, perhaps, excellence.  Part of what I have been trying to do in this blog is habituate myself to the practice of writing.  My current pace is a good one, I think; it is worth maintaining for a time, until it becomes easy to do (it is not terribly difficult now).  Once it does, I will see about increasing my rate of production; 750 words seems a good next benchmark.

Advancement by 250 words will seem familiar to some; writing assignments typically operate in such numbers.  It has to do with typewriters, I think, whose text did tend to yield 250 words to the page.  Another 250 words meant another page or so, and offered an easy means of assessment; insufficient pages, insufficient content, no need to bother.  Things have changed, of course; "regular" formatting for work usually yields something like 325 words to the page.  But the older assessment patterns still persist (sometimes to the detriment of the students, who follow word count rather than page length and so suffer for not following directions).

That I appear ready to follow them as I advance in my writing marks me as embedded in the older practices, another way in which I can be argued as participating in structures of oppression (because, of course, as one of those pointy-headed folks, I am concerned with the indoctrination of the youth); the Zawacki bit comes to mind once again for some reason.  I try to transmit better and more consistent information to my students, certainly, but I still follow the basic patterns.  And I discuss them fairly frequently here, as I will probably continue to do as I continue to work on how well and how diligently I write.

Friday, November 29, 2013


Neither knowledge nor understanding
Is a one-time thing.
Both must be courted

Neither knowledge nor understanding
Is a particularly shy beloved.
Both respond willingly
To diligent pursuit.

Neither knowledge nor understanding
Is a thing free with favors.
Both require demonstrations
Of passionate ardor.

I have pursued both for long,
Given much of my life
Built my identity
Focused my being
On consummation with them.
I know that I am not their first.
I know that I am not their only.
I know that even now, I share them with others,
And they with me.

I do not think that any of us use protection.
The sensation is too good to suffer such interference.
(Although it occurs to me that
Decorum insists
That such activities be done in private;
The ivory tower isolation
Makes more sense now.)

Is it any wonder
That the love of knowledge and of understanding
Leaves so many children behind,
Perhaps more fair than Bradstreet's ill-formed offspring,
Perhaps not,
But still the fruits
Of labor like that of loins
Though situated higher in the body?

We are all of us
Pumping away
Grinding away
Milking for all the worth that can be found
In an orgiastic frenzy
All in our heads.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


For folks in the United States, it is once again Thanksgiving, something I have been discussing off and on over the last few days.  (Those outside the US, have a good day.)  I have already seen posts to social media feeds articulate thanks for things, and I have seen others that mark the day as National Genocide Day, a day solemnizing the near-total destruction of First Nations populations across centuries.  And I cannot say that either set is wrong.

(Of course, there is always the issue of my exercise of privilege in entering into such discussions.  After all, I am a member of almost all of the groups that enjoy particular privilege in the United States; I am almost the embodiment of the person for whom "the system" is designed to work.  Only my socioeconomic status interferes, and that only mildly; I am not wealthy, but I am not poor, so I am among the unmarked and therefore the secondary beneficiary of "the system."  Only for the wealthy do prevailing cultural assumptions work better than they do for me.  My ethos for entering into discussions of the generational experience of oppression is therefore weak, as I have been told more than once.)

It would be irresponsible to ignore the less pleasant parts of human history; we are a violent and bloodthirsty species, overall.  And it is true that many of the holidays any current group celebrates are borrowed from earlier celebrations, decontextualized from their "original" or original intents.  The same is true for many of our other cultural practices--whatever "our" is under discussion (or perhaps "your," since I cannot include myself among many of the groups that my cultural and biological forebears have trodden down).  It seems if we are to eschew things because they have a bloody history, if we are to set aside practices because they began in anger and hate, then there is nothing that can be done.  No act is without violence; no history is without conflict; no ancestry is without wrongdoing, and while questions of scale are valid and usefully asked, at some point, they cease to matter.  Quantification fails.

I had not intended to go even so far into the issue as I have (and I know that there is much more to say about the matter).  I had intended only to offer up my own statement of thanks, rather than broaching the topic of how fraught this holiday--any holiday, really--is (and they all are, which I can discuss on other occasions, if I remember to do so).  But the world is complex, and so engagement with the world, to be honest and open, must be likewise complex.  And I am thankful that things are thusly complex; were they simple, all would have been figured out by this point, and the challenge of living would be over.  (Again, though, my privilege speaks; my challenges may be minor and entertaining, but those others face are surely not.  Whether I ought to be thankful that it is so...perhaps for the former, but not the latter.  Complexity, again.)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Yesterday's post has lingered with me.

When I posted a link to it to a social media feed, I did so by contextualizing it as "the kind of public intellectualism I hope to continue to do."  The post is one that assails the words of a reporter for their inaccuracies and shortcomings, which is problematic.  While flaws in the transmission of knowledge and disagreements about the presentations thereof ought to be noted, linking "public intellectualism" to that activity serves to reinforce unhelpful stereotypes that contribute to the idea of the scholar as undesirable company.  It supports the kind of thing that makes one of Zawacki's jokes work, inadvertently contributing to the anti-authoritarian, anti-intellectual component of the US zeitgeist John McWhorter identifies in Doing Our Own Thing and which I discuss a bit more here).  As such, the comment was ill-advised.

Certainly it is the role of the intellectual to identify errors that are passed on as "fact"--and publication in major media associated indelibly with "factual" writing* comes off as presentation as "fact."  It is the role of the intellectual to apply the cultivated powers of mind, the result of a society organized such that people can take the time and expend the effort to cultivate them instead of necessarily and solely the crops in the field (not that I am arguing against those who do, particularly given how much I like to eat), in the pursuit of perfecting human activity--and the discourse of people, their dissemination of information, is a fundamental human activity.  So it is the role of the intellectual to pick apart what is presented, to find the holes in it and, by extension, the holes in humanity they indicate; only by doing so can those holes be filled, and only by doing so can what is needed to fill those holes best be known.

Yet that...corrective impetus is not the only role of the intellectual.  I was reminded of this while I was looking over materials in support of yesterday's post: the words of the Good Doctor.  In "Galley Slave," Asimov writes that the work of a scholar is that of an artist; scholars "design and build articles and books.  There is more to it than the mere thinking of words and putting them in the right order" (although that is no small task).  Scholarship is a creative act as much as painting or dance or sculpture or poetry.  Those of us who work The Work try to capture some small slice of our perception of The Truth in a way that others can see and follow to their own perception of The Truth; the end goal is to have enough separate views of The Truth that it can be shown in all its magnificent splendor to the eyes of any who care to look upon it.  And if I seem something of a mystic in my phrasing, that is not to be wondered at; I have linked my work as a scholar to the exercise of my faith before(here, here, and here, at least), and I have experienced something of the Divine in my work on various projects.  Oxymoronic as it might seem, my scholarship is in large measure my worship, and because I am called to share my experience of the Transcendent, I do what I do.

It simply sometimes does not go as well as I would hope.

*I am aware of the contested nature of the claim as it regards any publication and presentation.  I am also aware that long-standing cultural assumptions at work in the United States hold journalistic writing up as an exemplar of "unbiased" and "accurate" presentations of "fact," and that the New York Times is cited as more or less the national newspaper of record.  It is "supposed" to be "fact."

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Yesterday, I was working on some of my outside teaching activities (a bit of extra money is welcome, and that means a bit of extra work needs to be, as well), and I came across John Markoff's 24 November 2013 New York Times article "Already Anticipating Terminator Ethics."  In the article, Markoff reports on the Humanoids 2013 conference, focusing on one presentation at the event: Ronald C. Arkin's "How to NOT Build a Terminator."  He provides a summary of Arkin's talk, using it to note that "we are a long way from perfecting a robot intelligent enough to disobey an order because it would violate the laws of war or humanity" and thus that humanity still must accept responsibility for the field actions of the automatons they create.  Markoff notes that there was some challenge to Arkin's ideas about the potential peril of robotics research, if only passingly and at the end of the article, indicating his fundamental agreement that continued development of autonomous military machines is ethically fraught.

I find much of interest in the article.  As a student of literature who has at many points made reference to the Good Doctor, I was pleased to see the deployment of Isaac Asimov in the article.  Any time the kind of work with which I am familiar and for my interest in which I was ridiculed or abused appears in broad reference, I am glad to see it; something in me is satisfied by the impression that I was right to familiarize myself with the material, since it allows me to be part of the conversation going on.  More formally, as a literary scholar, I appreciate the irony of using Asimov in discussion of robots being developed in the service of DARPA; Asimovian robots are predicated on not being able to cause harm to human beings, and "defense" projects (as Markoff reports that Arkin notes) are all too easily turned to the destruction of life and property.  (The seeming dodge that Markoff quotes Gill Pratt as offering suggests that such a turn is intended--although I would have to have more context to be sure.)  I appreciate that literary and figurative devices appear in "sober" reporting, and I would like to see my students learn the lesson that such things are good to know and to understand when they are seen, as in Markoff's employment of Asimov.

Despite my pleasure at seeing the Good Doctor cited, I have some quibbles with Markoff's specific use.  By referring to Asimov as a "science-fiction writer" in a science article, he creates the impression that Asimov is only a fiction writer, which is demonstrably untrue.  While the Foundation and Robot novels are perhaps his best-known work, Asimov was also a capacious writer of non-fiction, including Biblical and literary commentaries and an astonishing number of essays.  Too, he was among the professoriate at Columbia University, from which he earned his PhD at a remarkably young age (younger than I did, and I had mine before I was thirty, which is early).  To imply something of a sneering only, then, does the man a disservice.

Similar are the errors of fact in the article with reference to Asimov.  For instance, Markoff notes that Arkin's talk begins "where Asimov left off with his fourth law of robotics--'A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.'"  The law referenced appears initially in the 1985 novel Robots and Empire, and it marks a significant shift for a character who eventually (both in terms of composition and in terms of the Asimovian milieu) assumes a godlike character (in a bit of irony for so dedicated a humanist as was Asimov).  And it is worded differently, if only slightly, than Markoff quotes it--but I suppose that a missed preposition may be forgiven (or that a later edition of the text than mine might have changed it).  But it is not the fourth law, but the Zeroth (since zero precedes one and the law regarding humanity takes precedence over the First Law, which protects the individual human being), although calling it fourth (with the lowercase, not-a-proper-noun f) can be justified on the grounds that it was the fourth to be developed.  Still, that the wording is questionable does not argue in Markoff's favor any more than crossing a date does; Markoff early in the article notes that Asimov anticipates the need for robotic ethics fifty years ago, and he does not go far enough.  The anticipation goes as far back as the late 1930s, as the Good Doctor notes in his introductory remarks to the 1990 collection Robot Visions, and Asimov's codification of those robotic ethics appears as early as 1941 (as does the word "robotics," as the OED notes)--more than sixty years back from Markoff's piece.  Again, more accuracy ought to be given to that particular son of the Best of the Boroughs.

If I come across as something of an Asimov fanboy...I am something of an Asimov fanboy, so it makes sense.  But I am also a scholar of writing, and Markoff's writing could have been better in some ways.  The topic he treats and the conclusion he reaches about it deserve to be handled with the utmost care and diligence, so while he does well to engage with them and bring them to the attention of the general public (which the New York Times serves to do, as I have noted), if only for a short while (because most will not remember long that he has written, let along what he has written), he does less well than he ought to have done.