Thursday, May 30, 2013


I have become a red line rider,
Following number 2 through the tunnels
From intake in Brooklyn,
Best of the boroughs,
To output in Midtown.
If it makes Manhattan
A toilet,
A swirling mass of byproduct to be flushed away,
It is not the only thing that makes it so.
I have smelled the smell of Herald Square's subway station in the summertime,
Smelled it full of human waste and wasted humanity,
And what Martin's Starks say is not going to be true for a while yet.
What do I add to it?
What do I take from it?
What exchange between me
And the shoving Asimovian masses
As I make my way in The City?
What do any of us do in such a place
Other than mill about,
Cattle in a feed lot
(As was once described to me,
Although I do not remember who did so,
And I am sorry for it)?

If we are so bovine as that
(And we likely are),
Then where is the slaughterhouse
For which we are surely bound?
Who will be the butcher?
Who will eat the steaks we become?

Will I, at least, make a decent brisket?

Monday, May 27, 2013


In the United States, today is Memorial Day.  I have marked the occasion before, although I have not always been diligent about noting it on the day of observance (as here and here).  And I remain convinced that it is a day worth marking, for those who have fallen in service, or who survived grievous injury to body, mind, and soul in service, deserve to be remembered and honored where they have in truth been honorable.

(As I have noted, I am well aware that not all have.  But their failings do not detract from the good that their more righteous comrades have done in the world, and it is not the truth that no good has come from the mighty deeds of their comrades.)

This morning, less early in it than perhaps should have been, I thought I would take a look at 5 USC 6103 (United States Code, Title 5, Section 6103) and 36 USC 116 (United States Code, Title 36, Section 116), the laws providing for the formal observance of Memorial Day in the United States.  I ought not to have been surprised to find that they are as complicated as they are, but I was taken aback to note how much goes into a prescribed holiday--and there is more than the two cited sections of the US Code, as each references other laws entirely.

Much of the complication comes from the need in any law to be as specific and exact as possible.  Questions of definition always apply, although there is some oddness in trying to use words to define other words.  And, as I tell my students, there is a certain solemnity in observance that prompts formal language--which is typified in part by its preoccupation with specificity of naming and dating, with what each term means.

If we are to do honor to those who deserve to be honored, we do so in part by paying such detailed attention as formal language commands to the means by which we seek to honor them.  The very specificity of the diction and syntax serves to indicate that the thing being discussed is one worth close attention to detail, reinforcing the degree to which it is honored.  Taking the time to be sure that the thing is done correctly, and, indeed, stepping away from what is "normal" to do so, implies the regard for the thing and the value of that for which the thing is done.  Rather than being ostentatious for the sake of being ostentatious, it is a mark of respect and of the profundity of the relationship between that which is honored and those who would seek to honor it.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


Although I have not been producing as much material on my blogs as I ought to be, I have been doing a fair bit of writing; I make many comments on student papers, and at this point in the term, I have many students submitting papers, so there is a lot of writing coming from my pen and my keyboard.  I have been trying to prepare materials for my new classes, most of which appear online--and not in video or audio formats.  And I did manage to get a sample essay written for my classes, which took me several hours spread across yesterday and this morning to get completed (it appears here).

As usual, though, I have had a number of ideas for what to write, even if I have not had the energy to do much with them or the time to devote to them.  One of them centers on a book I bought quite a few years back: Neil Zawacki's How to Be a Villain: Evil Laughs, Secret Lairs, Master Plans, and More!!!  It was a purchase made as a lark when I was a young man flush with cash from delivering pizza, and it is one that ought not to surprise those who know some of my more public personas (...English Department Warlord, Destroyer of Grades, Resident Villain of the Church of the Village...).  It is also perfectly suited for reading in those moments when the mind needs something with which to occupy itself but nothing so deep as will require sustained attention or will keep the body from sleeping--and it was in the latter sort of moment that I was reading it again and saw the "mean English teacher" listed among potential evil henchmen.

As a teacher of English myself, and one not seldom called "mean" by students (I simply insist upon them performing at the level of which I know them to be capable and refuse to reward them for not doing so!), I found myself offended by the depiction.  I'm not a henchman; I have henchmen, dammit!  (Seriously: some semesters back, I had one I called "Sidekick," and he seemed to relish the descriptor even years later.)  How dare he!

Then I got to thinking about it, and I realized that there are a couple of important things going on in the listing.  One of them is that English teachers are, in fact, henchmen.  There is a hierarchy of administration reaching upwards from the individual teacher (at whatever rank: teaching assistant, instructor, lecturer, or among the professoriate).  The assistant or deputy chair, the department chair, the college dean, the executive vice president for academic affairs or provost, the university president, and the oversight boards all exert control over what the person traditionally at the front of the classroom is allowed or required to do.  At the primary and secondary levels in the United States, the department chair, vice principal, principal, superintendent, and school board and higher bodies do the same thing.  In either case, authority descends from on high, much as in the traditional villainous organizational structure, and the teacher is far from the summit, indeed.

Another thing that came to mind is that humor (and the book is one of humor) works best when it does not have to be explained.  That is, it is funnier when people are already in on the joke, and that means that the joke has to work from a common understanding.  If that is the case, then Zawacki's description of mean English teachers, which I offer below, has some disturbing implications:
These sadistic henchmen are perfect for when you want to inflict the greatest amount of pain possible.  They are arrogant, humorless, and ridiculously strict, insulting their pupil's [sic] intelligence because they couldn't become writers themselves.  They can extinguish any sense of creativity once held by an individual, as well as transform previously enjoyable literary works into nightmares of horror and confusion.  Their monotonous tones are capable of driving even the sanest person to the brink of insanity, useful when you are in need of a torture master.  Long after a child has grown up and become a hero, the sign of a mean English teacher continues to cause fear and discomfort. (104)
If this is how English teachers are viewed...I am not working hard enough.  More seriously, it suggests to me once again that people are often badly taught.  And it suggests to me that a few people have managed to ruin things for a great many others, for while I admit to the truth of some of Zawacki's points in myself, others are flatly inaccurate--and not just for me.  I am admittedly far from humble, and I am not especially yielding in my expectations of my students.  Too, I have managed to ruin some of the stories my students have like to tell one another and their children (there are some particularly frightening messages in the movies people's young daughters watch)--and it is through stories that we make meaning from the world.  But I am far from humorless (and even if you disagree with my determination of what is funny, there should be no doubt that I find things funny, and many of them).  It should be obvious to whomever reads this that I am a writer, else how would the words have gotten where you can see them?  (Also, I have papers out under my name, and I am working on others pretty much all the time, as well as less formal and more narrative ideas.)  I work towards my students examining artifacts and ideas and generating new understandings of the world from them--which sounds creative to me.  I exhort my students to find the joy in their work, something I have noted (here and elsewhere) is important to me in my own.  I am far from speaking in a monotone (about which I must ask you to trust me).  And I am not alone among English teachers in any of these, not by a large measure.

Get away from the stereotypes, people.  In a joke, they serve a valuable function.  But in the reality that the joke often helps us negotiate, they are not as accurate as people want them to be, and acting as if they are is not helpful for any of us.

Work Cited*
~Zawacki, Neil. How to Be a Villain: Evil Laughs, Secret Lairs, Master Plans, and More!!! Illus. James Dignan. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2003. Print.

*I am not offering formal citation for my own writings linked in the article.  The links should suffice, particularly since I tend to regard my blog posts as belonging to a single work, if an ongoing one.  And there is no question of me appropriating the words as my own, since they are already mine.

Monday, May 20, 2013


It would seem that the return to work is also prompting a return to some of my less-than-good habits, as evidenced by my lack of work in this venue.  I think it tends to give the lie to the idea that teachers do not work; the time and energy I devoted to maintaining my online presence while I was out of work is more than taken up by the tasks of work.  And it is not only this venue that suffers thereby; another few projects of mine have not gotten updated as they ought to be.  This is not at all to say that I would rather be out of work, however; I can make time for things in and around my teaching schedule, if I but pay attention and apply myself diligently.

There may be some problems with my doing so in the short term, however.  I am dealing with either allergies or an emergent sinus infection, which has me at something other than my best right now.  Feeling feverish at odd intervals is hardly optimal, and the drugs that might help to manage some of the symptoms have an unfortunate tendency to make me light-headed and somewhat...detached from my body, so that they are hardly ideal, themselves.  What I am able to muster, I have to attend to familial concerns, as my in-laws are in The City.  I get along with them more or less well anymore, but having company always imposes some responsibilities, and attending to them necessarily takes me away from some of the other things I do during my non-working hours.

I write now because the time is open and available.  There are advantages to being a morning person, after all.

One of them is that, even in The City, there is a sense of quiet in the morning.  The streets are not deserted, perhaps, but they are far from heavily occupied, either afoot or in vehicle.  The air is still cool (although damp today), and the sun, as it begins to glimmer over the too tall buildings of too densely packed humanity, fosters a growing glow amid the concrete, glass, and steel.  That it s enjoyed by so few, either because they are yet abed or are else ant-like and scurrying to and fro, frenetic in their miles-long tunnels and corridors, is a sad thing to consider.

So, too, that I shall join them soon.  But less so, in that I have again a job to do.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


It would seem that I have been recalled to work, thanks to actions by the union to which I belong.  I taught two classes yesterday, one of which I had not taught since my work as a graduate teaching assistant, and I have another such class (one I have not taught in a *long* while) coming up in the next couple of days.

I had not at all expected to have classes, or to have as nice a schedule of them as I have ended up having.  Consequently, I have had to scramble a bit to get things put together--and I am not done with setup yet.  I still need to assemble my course calendars, and I have at least one more syllabus to write.  I am obliged to report in to work today (student advising and faculty meetings happen whether I am assigned to teach or not), and I expect to do much of the work then.

It was nice to have the time to sit and write as I did during the time between jobs.  But I am better served by knowing that I have a paycheck coming in for the next few months.  If nothing else, my bad habits can remain funded for a bit longer--and I am very much a creature of habit.

Among my many habits is the preparation of teaching materials.  I had not expected to need to do so for the summer, so I have not got a great many things ready, but I find that I will have to go to my other blog and the website I maintain in support of my teaching to update them for the unexpected new term.  I have already adjusted other parts of my online presence to suit the changed circumstances; now it will be time to work on others.

It is surprisingly easy to forget how much work work is.  I was remarkably tired at the end of the day yesterday, and I have a fair bit to do today (although most of that will be quiet work done in my cubicle rather than the work of performing in front of the classroom).  Tomorrow, Friday, and Monday, I will have to do accelerated work with the classes I missed.  I was informed of the recall while I was away at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, and I had already booked my flight back to The City.  I think that things will be well--many students do not attend on the first day of classes, and I already have ideas for what I am going to require of them.  But it is going to be quite a bit of work to get things started back up.

How fortunate it is, then, that I am able to do the work of teaching swiftly and well!  And how fortunate it is that I have such work to do!  For the summer, at least...

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


In the time since I last posted, I went to the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.  It was my third time at the Congress, and it was as good an experience as I remember it being.  Each time, I am delighted to meet new people and to learn a great many things from them.  This time, I had the additional pleasure of presiding over a regular session as well as presenting on a panel organized by Helen Young, currently of the University of Sidney.

I am in one sense tempted to try to recount the series of events I experienced as I have them recorded in my private journals; although the conference is only a few days gone now, I long to once again feel the joy of it.  But I know that poring over the memories for such a reason will do me no good.  All it will do is remind me of the feeling at a time when I cannot experience it again, and that will serve to frustrate and sadden me.

It will sound odd to many, I know, to take such delight in a gathering of scholars as I have done at Kalamazoo this year, in 2011, and in 2010.  Gathering to share information and understanding is important for scholars in all fields--professionals in all fields, really--but for that sharing to be overwhelmingly joyous is perhaps uncommon.  Other conferences I have attended have not provoked the same reaction in me, although I have been glad of them and have benefited from them in no small measure.  But I thrive on an intense closeness, as those who know me know, and many other conferences, which take place in busy cities with much to do, do not do so much to promote that intensity as does the International Congress on Medieval Studies.  (Full disclosure: This last was pointed out to me through discussion of a Facebook post by a professor at the University of North Dakota whom I met in Kalamazoo.)

There are other things at work, as well.  Prominent among them is the relative isolation of the medieval in many departments (certainly frequently in English departments).  My experience and what I have heard from others is that the medievalists in departments not dedicated to medieval studies tend not to attract students to themselves.  Something of a conscious rejection of the past as "stupid" and "boring" is at work in this, I think, and even among scholars in other areas, there is a...disfavor in which the medieval is held.  For them, it is as though that which happened in Western Europe between the Fall of the Western Roman Empire and the beginning of directed Western European colonization of Africa and the New World* did not matter and should be ignored as irrelevant.  Others, coming to the medieval (much as I did) through highly romanticized ideals inculcated in fantasy literature or fantasy gaming, encounter the "real" medieval** and are shocked away from it.

The International Congress on Medieval studies by its very nature brings together people interested in the medieval.  As they are too often isolated on their campuses and in their broader lives (for many independent scholars appear and present at Kalamazoo, which is a good thing), when, as happens at Kalamazoo, they are immersed among people with similar love of the post-Classical pre-modern, they have the opportunity to hold forth and open up as is all too rare.  I, at least, feel such, and it is in being able to simply be, to not have to restrain as much of myself as I usually do (for fear of boring and thereby alienating many of those with whom I should like to remain close), that I come to love my attendance at the conference so.

Or it is one reason among many; there is much to love of the place.  And so I shall seek to go again.

*I am aware of how fraught these terms are in chronology and geography, in no small part because of some of the discussion conducted by Helen Young in her presentation at Kalamazoo.  Suggestions for better means of discussion are welcome.

**How real a thing can be when our ideas are based upon the limited evidence available to us is an open question.  Discussion of it is certainly welcome.

Monday, May 6, 2013


My wife and I have subscriptions to a number of magazines thanks to members of our families.  Accordingly, I read a number of magazines, including Texas Monthly.  As I did so this morning, I noticed in Dan Oko's "The Secret Shore" the comment that "J.R.R. Tolkien's towering Ents, the ancient, gnarled beings in The Lord of the Rings, have nothing on the Big Tree at Goose Island State Park."  And I was somewhat surprised to see it.

I am a long-time reader and fan of Tolkien's work; I have commented on him in this blog before, and I have even used his works in my scholarship once or twice.  I wholeheartedly endorse study and use of his works, not just the commentary on Beowulf that is still standard reading for students of Old English, but the more widely known Middle-earth corpus.  Seeing him invoked in a major, mainstream magazine, then, was greatly pleasing.

It was also somewhat of a shock.  Neither erudite scholarship nor fantastic fiction often spring to mind in discussions of Texas, especially of the rural Texas that the parks Oko describes very much are.  (Both perhaps should, given the overwhelming incidence of high-quality colleges and universities in Texas and the fact that Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, was Texan.)  Tolkien being used as a standard of comparison for discussion of a state park in Texas, then, does not suggest itself as the most natural tactic to take.

Then again, writers tend to be readers, and readers tend to be nerds; it should not be a shock that a piece of nerd culture would pop up in a work of writing, or that an editor (who also was likely a nerd) would allow it into print.  Also, Texas Monthly is produced in Austin, and Austin is hardly representative of the state as a whole (despite being the seat of the state legislature).  The presence of UT and the status of much of the city (especially in the minds of many New Yorkers) as a sort of colony of Williamsburg would make it more likely that the environment in which the magazine is produced would conduce to such literary references.  Too, following Peter Jackson's work, Lord of the Rings is part of the American mainstream--and therefore part of the Texan mainstream.  It should not, therefore, be too much of a shock to see it deployed.

Still, the part of me that remembers being ridiculed for having not only a book in my hand, but a book written by Tolkien, cannot help but start and stare at seeing something so long loved in print as I did this morning.  I ought not to be surprised anymore; I ought not to still feel the urge to prove acceptable my taste for and legitimate my work in fantasy literature.  Yet I am and I do, and as long as it is so, I will be able to feel a sudden and unexpected delight at seeing something like what Oko writes.

Sunday, May 5, 2013


¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!  Having grown up in central Texas and studied in San Antonio, I am familiar with the holiday.  I celebrate it, certainly.  But that is not the point of the post today.

The point is instead one proceeding from a Bible study class I sat in on today at the Church of the Village (my beloved wife taught Sunday school this morning, so I figured I would drop by the class).  The focus of discussion was Genesis 22:1-19, in which Abraham is commanded to take his son, Isaac, into the wilderness so as to make of him a burnt offering, prepares to offer him, and is halted with the knife upraised.

The verse was not comfortable for all in the class.  The idea of a deity who demands such a test of faith is not an easy one to reconcile with a god whose purported essence is love, and several people spoke to that discomfort in discussion.  Also mentioned was an uneasiness with the idea of a god that feels the need to test the faith of the believer (something that pops up in popular culture frequently, in South Park and other places).  And while the discussing soon veered away from that point and into other productive avenues, there are things to be said about the notion that were not.

We approach the idea of being divinely tested form the perspective of the student, and it is a commonplace that students are not at all fond of tests.  My own classrooms have demonstrated this to me in abundance, and even in my study of aikido, I have seen people avoid exams for years (indeed, one gentleman has managed to avoid testing for shodan for some ten years, despite his obvious proficiency with the material).  But the student who sits for the exam is not the only one involved in the testing process; the person who writes the exam and the proctor who administers it both have vested interests in the assessment.

I have written many tests and given many others.  When I write them, I work to make the tests themselves moments of teaching.  At their best, tests are not venues for students to demonstrate that they can recall material.  They are instead opportunities for the students to make new knowledge, to consider circumstances and arrive at new understandings.  When I administer them, I long to see my students achieve those understandings, even as I know that some will do the minimal amount they think will allow them to get around what they perceive as an obstacle, and others will not succeed.  Although I know that it is unavoidable, and I usually know which of my students will act which way, I still exult in the successes of those who succeed and lament the failures of those who fail (usually).

If I, who am merely mortal and decidedly bounded, act thus about the tests that I write for three-hour, one-semester courses in subjects unrelated in the students' minds to what they are going to do in their lives, surely the Almighty, concerned intimately with the lives and doings of all things in creation, would do so, as well, and more.

Saturday, May 4, 2013


Today is Jedi Day, and May the Fourth be with you!

As we celebrate those who have upheld the highest ideals of the Order--the pursuit of knowledge, respect for life in its myriad forms of wonder, defense of self and others with minimal harm--and those ideas, let us keep in mind, too, those who have sacrificed themselves in the name of the greater good.  And let us pay fitting tribute to their memory by striving for those same ideals.

Even if it appears in fiction, a good idea is good.

Friday, May 3, 2013


One of the things that the digital humanities is supposed to foster, as a number of articles in the last several issues of Profession note, is the exchange of ideas.  Scholarship promotes itself as being a venue for sharing knowledge and understanding, regardless of the medium, but digital versions thereof have the ability to reach broader audiences and to facilitate faster feedback than their print counterparts, as well as to permit asynchronous discussion and enduring potential for revision based upon the feedback received.  So "conventional wisdom" holds,* and so my own admittedly limited experience has shown.

I try to be a generator for some of that feedback.  On one blog I follow, Helen Young's Diverse Fictions, I make a point of offering comments in response to the author's posts.  From time to time, they have even been potentially helpful and productive conversations.  I can hope that I will benefit from similar commentaries on my own work.

If and when I ever get back to teaching, and teaching a class conducive to the idea, I think I will follow the practice I have seen some of my colleagues deploy and require my students to write their papers as blog entries.  I have had some practice in doing so, writing reflections and the occasional academic bit on this blog and another I maintain (if less well than this one), so I think I can speak from some situated ethos.  And, despite the protestations of many who claim that digital media are ruining writing in a way never before seen in the history of writing (which are inaccurate, I might add), there is much good writing on the Internet.

I entertain the conceit that I do some of it.

The assignment suggests itself as one suited to the continually-emergent digital environment and one likely to help students prepare for work; many of the job opportunities I have seen specifically ask for experience in blogging and other social media.  It allows for more flexible submission, permitting those students who have many other concerns (children and jobs) to be able to get their work done and turned in around their schedules.  Whether or not it is more environmentally-friendly than traditional submission, I am not sure.  But it might be, and that, too, is worth considering.

*I place the phrase in quotes because I am not entirely sure that digital scholarship has managed to develop conventions yet.  And convention should be questioned in any event.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


I generally have no trouble getting out of bed in the morning.  Most days, I wake up between five and six-thirty in the morning, rise easily, and get ready for the day in short order.  It is a habit I have long cultivated, as I enjoy the earlier morning.  There is something optimistic about seeing the day brighten, and the quiet of the early hours is soothing.

Over the past few days, however, I have been having trouble hauling myself out of bed.  I have been groggy, and my head and neck have hurt.  It does not proceed from strong drink; I have not had any for around a week.  (I am not about to spend my money on such things while I am unemployed; that would be stupid.)  I do not think it is allergies, either; I know that pollen counts are high, with the re-greening of The City and its surroundings, but my nose has not been running and my eyes have not been watering.

Perhaps it is simply the stress of my current circumstances.  But it might also be the recurring phenomenon with which I know many who teach are familiar.  The instructional term has ended, and when that happens, all of the things that get ignored or shunted aside in favor of getting done the myriad daily tasks of teaching suddenly emerge again.  The body and mind finally let go and relax, and in so doing, they open the way for fatigue to rush in and sickness to take hold.  (This worries me, as I cannot afford to be ill now.)

It is often remarked that teaching is a good job because of the breaks.  The usual rebuttal is to note continuing education requirements and the need to prepare for the next term.  Another frequently cited is the need to recuperate mentally from the work of trying to teach people who do not always want to be taught amidst administrative and uninformed political requirements.  The physical toll that teaching takes does not get as much attention--but it should.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


Happy May Day!  There are a number of things going on today, both for the traditional spring holiday and for organized labor, and I probably ought to get involved in some of them.  Whether or not I will remains to be seen; I do have other things to do.

Among them is addressing the point I had meant to before I remembered that today is a holiday and a union action day.

I have not made a secret of the recent changes to my employment status.  It has not been easy for me; I am accustomed to working (despite the protestations of many that those who teach do not actually work), and like many people, I have formed much of my identity around the work I do.  But even as I look for a new job (and I am looking, with several dozen job applications out at the moment and more to fill out each day), and even as I worry about meeting my financial obligations, I recognize some benefits to my current circumstances.

One of them is that I have time to write.  This has shown up, I think, in the series of blog entries that I have churned out over the past few days, particularly in comparison to the relative dearth of them in the past few months.  I am also working on a few other projects, such as the conference paper I wrapped up (with too much difficulty) yesterday and some grant applications that will not help in the short term but may well bear out for me in the next few years.  While working, I had not the energy to attend to them well; preparing for classes, teaching them, and grading the student submissions that came from them demanded most of my waking hours and more energy, really, than I had available for it.  Now, I have more of each, and I am trying to fill my non-job-applying time with the tasks I had let slip and which I can do for relatively little cost.

(It is one of the oddities of academic life that planning has to happen one to three years in advance to be effective.  And I still view myself as an academic despite my current lack of institutional affiliation; I spent long enough earning my degrees to justify it.)

Another benefit of the current circumstance is that I have a bit of time to slow down, look around me, and take in the glory of the world.  There are problems, sure, and those problems need to be fixed.  Indeed, I have commented (here, here, here, and here) that much of my teaching work at for-profit institutions, which take in many of those students who otherwise would have no opportunity to attend college, is in an effort to address some of those problems.  But that does not mean there is not much in the world that is good and should be celebrated; if nothing else, we are capable of changing things to be better, to help one another.

I have not always, or even often, been good about recognizing the good in what is around me, as those who know me know.  I am thankful to have the opportunity to be made aware of the blessings that are showered upon me even now, and I hope to be able to continue to recognize them.