Thursday, June 30, 2011

Today is officially the last day of my appointment at Cal, although I'm around for a few more weeks. I'm still somewhat in denial of my impending move to Atlanta, where I'll be a fellow at the Fox Center at Emory for the next year. Part of that is my reluctance to leave the Bay Area (and my fantastic 1908 Leola Hall-designed Elmwood apartment); most of it is the enormous pain in the ass of a cross-country move.
Hall was known for her built-ins.

But I'm looking forward to the year's work, which will mainly be on my book, and to hanging out with my new Emory and ATL-area colleagues. I'll also teach an undergraduate course in the spring. (On lady robots? Undoubtedly.)

Including my postdoctoral year, I'll have spent nearly eight years in Berkeley. It's been a good run.

[Obligatory Georgia-related link. Come to think of it, I probably need a playlist if I'm going to get all this packing done. Suggestions welcome.]

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Such a doll

Everyone knows that Teen Talk Barbie never said, "Math is hard; let's go shopping!" It caught on nonetheless; there was something about the phrase that made people think that, yes, this is just what a talking Barbie would say.

Speech is one of those things that is supposed to set "the human" apart from "the inhuman," as what Anca Parvulescu describes as "one in a series of properties invoked as [the] minimal difference, a catalog that offers something to hold on to whenever the human risks contamination with the nonhuman" (4).* Animated dolls occupy a special place in western lore as objects that particularly challenge that distinction, though these minimal differences like (realistic) speech and (real) laughter are sticking points where the distinction is nonetheless upheld.

Still, dolls and automata are powerful figures for women in particular, or rather, the distinction between a woman and a doll has frequently seemed to be particularly easy to erase, from Galatea to Coppélia to the aestheticized-into-objecthood daughter Pansy in The Portrait of a Lady. Michael Taussig notes of a collection of eighteenth-century automata that the figures represented include "everything but the white male. There are negroes in top hats and tight breeches, the 'upside-down world clock' with a monkey playing the drum, ... and women—especially women" (213-4).

Women's propensity to be confused with dolls, and the triumph of artificiality in that confusion, is perhaps one of the sources of anxiety that has long surrounded the Barbie doll in particular as an "unrealistic model" for girls. Barbie's nonhuman appearance—her slender foot perpetually extended for the high-heeled glass slipper that would make of her a princess—registers not as uncanny but as ideal.

The talking Barbie's speech is therefore the place where the inanimate doll gets a chance to seem more "lifelike," and, by the same stroke, the place where it is feared that her "lifelike" quality will reveal the lifelike dimension itself (what women are "really like") to be, in essence, no more than the mechanical, unthinking doll with which women are so often conflated.

Enter "Math is hard; let's go shopping!" As Benjamin Zimmer documents in the LL post linked above, "math is hard; let's go shopping!" is an abbreviated pairing of two real phrases that Teen Talk Barbie originally played,"Math class is tough" and "Want to go shopping? Okay, meet me at the mall." The urban legend version stages an exchange; the newly more-lifelike (talking) Barbie eschews "hard," intellectually challenging math in favor of (pleasurable?) shopping.

The two things are of course gender-coded. But more importantly, they're gender-coded on precisely the grounds on which women are confused with dolls. The math signifies intellectual activity, which Teen Talk Barbie legendarily renounces because it is "hard"; at stake here is not only intellect but volition, the will to take on what is difficult and to engage in ("hard") work. At stake is the possibility of being all there. Teen Talk Barbie doesn't have it, of course. But it is perfectly believable that she can engage in shopping, which Rachel Bowlby has described as, at least in certain versions, a fully automatized leisure activity. The female shopper, as figured in the late nineteenth century, is devoid of volition and powerless before the commodity, seized by an insatiable desire not genuinely her own. (The classic portrayal is in Zola's novel Au Bonheur des dames.)** She is rendered an automaton before the bargain table.

For the patently unrealistic yet more-real-than-real-women Barbie to come alive by saying "Math is hard; let's go shopping!" is thus a bigger betrayal than just the usual reinforcement of gender stereotypes around STEM fields. The whole point of automata is for them to become self-aware, rise up, and shake off their oppressors (us). The betrayal of Teen Talk Barbie, succinctly rendered as "Math is hard; let's go shopping!," is that she uses her moment of speech not to become self-aware and subvert the inhuman decorativeness for which she was designed, but rather to reject cognition and embrace the doll-like automatism that is already attributed to real women. That is: inhuman Barbie is representative of real women, more representative than the real women are, and what she "says" goes.

The above image is a Creative Commons licensed Flickr image. The photographer's caption reproaches Barbie for, well, being a doll: "empty-headed." Tellingly, the sole comment to date reads, "i've met women with a gaze like that... scary indeed."
Whatever women may do to protest the untruths of Barbie is moot whenever Barbie, and dolls in general, are already posited as the truth of women.

* Parvulescu is alluding to laughter in this description--laughter being another candidate for that minimal difference.

** There is also a twentieth-century "savvy" female shopper—the two kinds of shopper always exist in tension, as Bowlby explains. Judging from ads, the volitionless shopper seems to buy chocolate and desserts, while the wily shopper buys cleaning supplies.

See also the "X is hard" Snowclones Database entry.

Bowlby, Rachel. Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping. New York: Columbia UP, 2001. Print.

Parvulescu, Anca. Laughter: Notes on a Passion. Cambridge: MITP 2010. Print.

Taussig, Michael. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Image: Barbie. Pete Lounsbury, 2004. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I'm just going to throw this out there for no good reason. It bugs me that the whole entire internet seems not to have identified the brilliant quotation at the end of Janelle Monáe's track "Wondaland." One dude even thinks it's from the Randall Thompson "Alleluia." Absurd. It is obviously a variation on the refrain from "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones." Come on, internets; I expect better.

This has been a PSA.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A few links on HPS, publicness, public knowledge, etc., etc.:

A charming rant by Dominic Berry on "HPS on't telly":
It looks as though TV is just catching up with what David Phillip Miller has called the ‘Sobel effect’, the seemingly endless growth in popular science and science history writing triggered by Dava Sobel in the 1990s. In the particular case of the programme which sparked this blog post this is literally so, for John Emsley, one of the more prolific contributors to this popular history of science movement, was a key consultant on Jim Al-Khalili’s Chemistry: A Volatile History which is currently being repeated. Much of this programming is bad, just bad. And most irritatingly, history of science seems to be something anyone thinks they can just pick up and spout off about. One of the most recent and partiuclarly aggravating examples of this was Niall Fergusson’s use of Newton and Boyle as the prime example of how the Royal Society thrived due to collective enterprise. Fuck sake.

More recently and perhaps more reflectively, Rebekah Higgitt on history of science spoiling everybody's party (with great links and comments):
As regular readers will know, one of my abiding interests is the relationship between academic history of science and popular history of science or, more specifically, how to make historiographically-informed books into readable texts. It’s an issue that has been around for some time, prompting comments by David Miller on the ‘Sobel Effect’ back in 2002 (when he told “The Amazing Tale of How Multitudes of Popular Writers Pinched All the Best Stories in the History of Science and Became Rich and Famous while Historians Languished in Accustomed Poverty and Obscurity, and how this Transformed the World”). This wasn’t just sour grapes, but an analysis of the effect on the publishing marking and an important discussion of how more recent trends in historiography tend to complicate narratives and question accounts of discovery as a heroic process.

James Sumner has a satisfying rant about "first-talk" — the first computer, the first refrigerator, the first whatever — in the history of technology, and how it is always absolute garbage.
I’m paid a lot of money not to write like that, but he’s saying what I’m thinking. First-talk, far too often, reduces to an annoying game which gets out of the historical record pretty much what it decides to put in. It’s a distraction. Real technical change is gradual, and rich in independent overlapping discoveries. That’s not a fussy academic quibble: it’s a point small children can grasp.

And only semirelatedly, Iain Pears offers the most thoughtful assessment of A. C. Grayling's New College of the Humanities that I've yet seen. (It's also one of the few that takes the time to debunk the idea that NCH is an "American-style university": "Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr do not, I think, download curricula from the internet to teach their students.") The golden insight comes at the end:
Professor Grayling is acting because he considers the battle within the national university system to be lost. But in some ways it has only just started, after long delays.

It was the duty of his generation to fight that battle, but it did not. Had serious opposition been mounted 10 or 20 years back then there might have been some chance of success. But his generation was extraordinarily supine.

Collectively, they let it happen, and contented themselves with gaming the system. That worked, and some gained as much celebrity as academics can get in a culture which cares little for scholarship. But these are not the people who should now be delivering lectures about saving the humanities: they had their chance, and they blew it. A little more activity when they were in their prime and the humanities might not have needed saving; a little more humility now and the reception given to their proposal could have been radically more favourable.

Now we're really straying from the original topic, but I really enjoyed Alex Golub's debunking of the idea that creativity is the same thing as spontaneity.
Of course, overall I agree with Robinson’s point: as someone with a long history of performance in drama and music I am often shocked at the cultural barrenness of my students. We have created a system that teaches them that music comes out of machines, not them, and most serious dance they see on television has more in common with a strip tease than Alvin Ailey. Arts education, like physical education, or the craftwork that goes into creating visual art, is desperately needed in our schools’ curriculum at both the secondary and tertiary level. It’s an important part of learning to be human.

But what that education is — what enables creativity — is often quite different from what people imagine. It requires more training and discipline, not less. In other words: being socialized into a culture of practice. This is a lesson that any athropologist — or any artist — should remind us as we think about education in this country today.

And a reminder to myself: never, ever read the comments at Inside Higher Ed. They are like YouTube comments, only about things that matter.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Poetry in the wild: Longfellow edition

I love these instances of poetry in the wild—moments when you see poetry being deployed to unlikely ends, or when you see the general public being called upon to recognize something that you're usually called a hopeless nerd for studying. A few weeks ago I took note of a Businessweek article that was briefly viral, whose most quotable and quoted line was
"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," he says. "That sucks."
And then there is this gem, from a pharmacy in Rockridge:

So I couldn't help being struck by the widespread mockery of Sarah Palin's mangling of the story of Paul Revere. It's not that she wasn't wrong--of course she was wrong, completely. It's that everyone knew with such certainty just how wrong she was, and that they had the goods on the truth about Paul Revere.

And why did everyone know the real story of Paul Revere?

Do I even have to ask? Because of Henry frickin' Wadsworth Longfellow. Everybody heard that poem in grade school and knows at least bits of it by heart.

Here's how Comedy Central blurbed Jon Stewart's June 6 segment on Palin. Note the direct quotation from Longfellow.

Stephen Colbert likewise quoted Longfellow in his segment on Palin. In fact, he comically bowdlerized the poem, and getting the joke depended on remembering the original:
"It's just like we all learned in grade school.'One if by land, bells if by two, hey, British, you're warned, sailed the ocean blue.'"
Both Stewart and Colbert take special note of Palin's language, a "folksy word salad," as the Stewart blurb calls it, "a random string of words," as Colbert puts it. The focus on the disorder of Palin's words seems to register some indignation at the departure from Longfellow's rhymed, aggressively accentual verse, which neither can help quoting.

Normally nobody cares at all (or even notices) if a politician messes up some history; in fact, outright misrepresentations and lies are pretty par for the course in politics. Yet this particular screw-up briefly had everyone in a lather, and I think it has everything to do with the poetry. Sarah Palin did fail a sort of knowledge-test, but it was more a test of national folklore than of history (even though of course the national folklore is being called history). It seems to be less offensive to most people that she got the history wrong (which of course she did) than that she didn't know Longfellow's poem. One if by land, two if by sea! What, were you raised by wolves?

From a historical perspective, the idea of Henry Wadsworth "I wrote The Song of Hiawatha" Longfellow as some kind of neutral, unimpeachable historical authority is pretty hilarious. And from a literary perspective, it's puzzling to be reminded how powerfully such a bad and, in some ways, marginal poem has lodged in the national consciousness, while poems we poetry critics might all think of as central—Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning," for example—languish in relative obscurity. Who decides what poems (if any) get taught in elementary school, and for what reason? How many teachers have taught "Paul Revere's Ride" not as poetry (fair enough!) but as history? For how many people is this one of the few poems they learned in school--or even the only poem?

This is why poetry is so interesting to observe in the wild. You never know what it's going to do.

[UPDATE: Jill Lepore does it better.]

Friday, June 10, 2011

I spent a week fiddling with the back end of Arcade, and all I have to show for it is a blog post.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sentimental Spaces

“And what a quantity of animal beings there are in the being of a man!”

     — Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
My essay "Sentimental Spaces: On Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's Nest" is now up at at Jacket2.

One of the many nice things about Jacket2 is that it's fully online and open access. There are some drawbacks to this, of course: in MS the article is about 27 pages, which makes the lack of pagination in the online version perhaps a little heartwrenching. But the trade-off is that you don't need a library subscription to read it. (I'd be happy to send a pdf to anyone who really feels that the pagination issue is beyond the pale.)

Many thanks to the great Julia Bloch for the opportunity, and for the patient editing.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

My "Facebook is ridiculous" post of yore can never match the gloriousness of this rant. Via Aaron.
A link this morning: Alice Bell on why calling for "scientific literacy" doesn't make sense.

This is apropos of her observation that what one of her FB friends called "the ultimate scab university," the New College of the Humanities, seems to place an awful lot of emphasis on "scientific literacy," by which they seem to mean "a list of Richard Dawkins-approved articles of faith supplemented of no particular understanding of why you should believe them or even what it means to believe them."

[Nina Power on the New College of the Humanities and its parasitic use of University of London resources:
Students of the new college will apparently ‘use many of the resources of the University of London: the exceptional library in Senate House, the University of London Union with its many societies and sports activities’ - how is this even remotely allowed? If you’re going to set up a private college, at least have the decency to buy your own fucking resources.

Also, a really spectacular rant in the Guardian by Terry Eagleton.]

Friday, June 3, 2011

We should really declare a moratorium on calling things "labs" willy-nilly.

Y'all know who you are.

Apparently the semester is over

I've started many a blog post in the last few weeks, only to discard it, dissatisfied. I'm in a bit of a strange lull lately, despite having the usual gigantic heap of work on my hands. I submitted an essay relatively recently, but not the essay, and I'm on the fence about how deeply to revise the essay right now (versus after I hand it to some readers). Common sense tells me to cobble together something remotely worthy of a response and send it out for feedback, because I've been staring at the thing for too long. Reading the essay tells me to scrap the whole thing, go vegan for three weeks, maybe seek enlightenment, and then try again.

I'm hoping for some middle ground, since abandoning cheese just isn't going to happen.

I've meant to do some critical reflecting on the course I most recently taught, Didactic Modernism. I've actually written pages on the subject (scrapped). Partly those pages veered into reminiscences about books I've read, courses I've taken, things I wish I knew.

How you never really know what your students are thinking. How you, as a student, often only find out what you're thinking after the lapse of years. As a teacher, likewise.

How strange course evaluations are. How Alan Jacobs argues that course evaluations should be given at least a semester after the course has ended. How a student said that my expectations for the final exam made me "as pompous as Ezra Pound." How I chose to read this as evidence of the student's having learned that Ezra Pound expects you to know a lot, which is true. Also that Ezra Pound could be pretty pompous. Also true.

How another student said that Berkeley should give me tenure. How this saddened me for a variety of reasons.

In short, I seem to be too near to it still to do anything but ramble.

The essence of it is that it seems difficult to separate one's teaching methods from one's memories of being a student, even when you remember that you were by definition an atypical student. And I can't kick the belief that what makes a course a great learning experience is incredibly arbitrary and contingent. It is the lot of an English major to sit through many sub-par discussions. The trade off is that you've read Moby-Dick, and carefully. You forget the one, and remember the other, and return to it for the rest of your life.

How do you create the conditions for that? Well, you assign Moby-Dick, for one thing. But of course there's more to it. But what is that more, and for whom?

I was the kind of student who responded well to being set tasks. Given something hard to do, I rose to the occasion. I was a nerd; that's how I ended up in grad school! This is clearly not the case for all students. I've heard many students say that as soon as something is an assignment, they don't want to do it; it sucks out all their creativity and they stop trying. Also that if something isn't required, they won't do it.

This may be the first semester I've given an extra credit option. The option, in this case, was to do something slightly more onerous than a standard course blog post, in order to make up for missed blog posts of past weeks. Here was an interesting scenario. You couldn't lose credit, but you could gain it. There was no penalty for trying. (There is, some might point out, never any penalty for trying, insofar as getting no credit is always worse than getting a low grade. This seems to be beside the point when it comes to the psychology of grades.) Several students decided to do extra credit. Some really really needed it; some only sort of needed it. One asked if she could do it when she did not need it. There were easier and more difficult ways to do this extra credit, and some chose more difficult ways.

How can you rig a course so that it all seems like extra credit? Would it even be wise?

I once memorized "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" "for" a course, while studying for the final. The course was a pretext; I memorized it for the poem.

You never know when your students are doing that, or doing something like it for a different class--not that you necessarily want to know.

The pedagogical uses of grading continue to puzzle me. Clearly it functions differently for different people. In some ways it's a form of gamification, which some people find motivating and others find stressful and demoralizing. Grades certainly confuse the issue of learning.

These are, of course, questions I've been pondering precisely because my students this semester were so very excellent. It so clearly wasn't all about carrots and sticks for most of them. So then--what? Did I already do my bit by assigning Gertrude Stein? Will my students remember Tender Buttons forever?

On these matters my course evaluations are silent.