Thursday, July 31, 2008

This so-called "iced cream"

In the recent Chronicle article "Literary Geospaces," Jennifer Howard leads with the following:
In one of the most recent public eulogies for literary studies, a Nation essay that ran online in March decried the "trendism" on display in the Modern Language Association's job listings.

"The major trend now is trendiness itself, trendism, the desperate search for anything sexy," wrote William Deresiewicz, an associate professor of English at Yale University who has since left the profession. "Contemporary lit, global lit, ethnic American lit; creative writing, film, ecocriticism — whatever. There are postings here for positions in science fiction, in fantasy literature, in children's literature, even in something called 'digital humanities.'"

Hmm. These crazy trends, these sexy digital humanities.

* * * * *

Burns: I feel like such a free spirit, and I'm really enjoying this so-called...iced cream.

The sands of Google

Also found in my Google search of the other day, and just now investigated:

I once wrote a blog post including the words "World of Warcraft," so this blog is hilariously associated with this computer game in the inscrutable mind of Google, via something pertaining to the game called a "quest" (evidently a mini-narrative within the game), which contains my first name.

I could mention that the original post was in reference to the "x of y" construction of metaphor (e.g. "the sands of time," "the ghosts of memory"). I'm still hoping my friend Karen, a linguist, will one day give me the definitive analysis of this construction, but I tend to associate it with inappropriate metaphors and bad undergraduate writing (good undergraduate writing avoids irresponsible metaphors!). A famous South Park episode lampoons the way that gamers (allegedly) think of the world of Warcraft (a game) as being as important as the actual world.

In any case, according to Google, the game World of Warcraft has a quest called "Dearest Natalia":
My dear Natalia has gone missing.

Truth be told, she had been acting strangely for weeks leading up to her disappearance. I had caught her talking to herself when no one was around on more than one occasion. She was adamant that everything was ok and that she must be allowed to continue her research.

I had no idea World of Warcraft was about grad students.

I imagine the object of the quest is to get Natalia a fellowship so she can continue her research. I could really get behind that idea, actually.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Émile Zola and Gertrude Stein walk into a bar...

Recently I checked my sitemeter to see what miserable search strings had directed people to my blog. As I've ranted before, it's usually people who honestly feel that they need Cliffs Notes in order to understand children's literature. (Ouch.) So I was surprised to see a large number of search strings that were simply my name.

In short, I was forced to Google myself.

Turns out this is what I get for actually following links. A while ago Hillary sent me a link to a funny/appalling newspaper article, which precipitated a calm evening's snark.

Google reveals that the aforementioned snarking was recently (very slightly mis-)quoted in a Chronicle of Higher Ed article, Britt Peterson's "Darwin to the Rescue." Evidently there was a widespread desire for -- well, I'm not sure what, exactly. In the article, the quotation is kind of awkwardly framed so that it isn't actually clear what I'm saying, so I suspect most of the googling of my name was in the spirit of trying to figure out wtf was being said.

Dang. I wish the Chronicle would ask me about my research instead. Zola and Stein? Anybody?

Akademiks and academics

Sociological Images comes through again with a post on Akademics clothing. Gwen writes:
Contrary to what you might think, it’s not part of a campaign to promote literacy or libraries. It’s an ad for Akademiks clothing (a clothing label aimed at the hip-hop community).
As the earlier t-shirt featuring Einstein suggested, apparently even academic study has become an icon of itself.

* * * * *

Quasi-relatedly, I recently saw a sign outside a clothing store on Telegraph:

"Affliction sold here!"

I thought, "No thanks; I get that free with my dissertation."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Historical fiction again

Regarding historical fiction again -- Anne Scott MacLeod, whom I have long known to be awesome, notes in general how children's historical fiction tends toward presentism.
They evade the common realities of the societies they write about. In the case of novels about girls or women, authors want to give their heroines freer choices than their cultures would in fact have offered. To do that, they set aside the social mores of the past as though they were minor afflictions, small obstacles, easy — and painless — for an independent mind to overcome.
The smug presentist science I noted is but one facet of this general tendency, and I think MacLeod gets it right when she brings up the "independent mind." It's this idea that if you're just spunky enough you can Set Yourself Free from your historical context. The desire for a protagonist who is Set Free in this way, as revealed by the way such protagonists appear over and over, is effectively a desire for the opposite of historical fiction. As MacLeod puts it,
Most people are, by definition, not exceptional. Historical fiction writers who want their protagonists to reflect twentieth-century ideologies, however, end by making them exceptions to their cultures, so that in many a historical novel the reader learns nearly nothing — or at least nothing sympathetic — of how the people of a past society saw their world. Characters are divided into right — those who believe as we do — and wrong; that is, those who believe something that we now disavow. Such stories suggest that people of another time either did understand or should have understood the world as we do now, an outlook that quickly devolves into the belief that people are the same everywhere and in every time, draining human history of its nuance and variety.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Professors and composition

Everybody knows that Ron Silliman has the best linkspam around. Recently he's linked to an Inside Higher Ed article by William Major titled "Teaching Composition: A Reconsideration."

In it, Major argues that it might be valuable for the whole university system if actual tenured professors taught composition sometimes.
At the very least, full professors of English belong in the composition classroom because they might learn a thing or two about writing themselves. Moreover, the benefits to those students who will not see a professor their first year could be intangible. They would understand that we in the university take writing seriously enough that someone with gravitas and experience is teaching it. They would benefit from close contact with instructors who are not looking to move up or into the more ethereal realm of literature, those who believe that strong, clear writing is as essential as oxygen.

In point of fact, where I did my undergrad, "composition" was absorbed into the core humanities sequence. There were grad students employed as "writing tutors" who would meet with the students in separate groups and grade the papers, but they were for all intents and purposes TAs. The courses themselves were taught by a mix of grad students, postdocs, and tenured or tenure-track professors. The College definitely tried to give the impression that we were doing Very Serious Things in those classrooms, even though secretly they were teaching us comp. (I remember with fondness my Soc teacher, a postdoc who must have had a hard time suppressing her nausea at my terrible writing.)

It does seem a little rough on undergrads -- and nonmajors at that -- to stick them with the least tried teachers in the department. William Major sort of faux-wonders why grad students are so eager to get to teach literature classes instead of comp. He answers his own question: teaching composition is the ghetto of academic life.

Of course, there's a reason for this relating to the prestige of the English department in the university. Everybody agrees that we need English departments, but it's seen as a place of preservation and passing on of The Tradition -- a teaching department, existing for historical reasons. Science departments, on the other hand, are seen as valuable for The New -- research. So English professors are understandably miffed when, after completing a head-hurtingly difficult Ph.D., they're expected by the world to spend their time obsessed with split infinitives (as they're often caricatured by Language Log).

In fact, Major opens his article with the observation that
When I tell new acquaintances that I am an English professor, they generally react two ways. First, they express dismay that they now have to watch what they say (as if I were grading their performance).
And the mild irritation with which the article begins registers the problem in his very reasonable suggestion that professors take on composition once in a while. Nobody with money actually cares about humanities research, and university administrations are increasingly loath to support it. And teaching can take over your life, to the serious detriment of your research. Nobody wants to go back to the misery of having your research stunted the perpetual grading of stacks of very bad papers on Walt Whitman, once they've escaped that life. So for an English department to turn around and embrace the role of a teaching department might seem like a move to cede crucial ideological ground. Major envisions a utopian future produced by the de-ghettoization of composition -- of which he writes:
Might we see smaller Ph.D. programs because there is less need for composition instructors and because the professors are more fully engaged with undergraduate education? Might we have fewer doctorates awarded? A meaningful loosening of the job market? Imagine a world where positions teaching literature and composition are actually available for the professionals we graduate from our programs.
That surely would be lovely. But the fear that prevents us from getting there is the very realistic fear of a dystopia: that the English department itself will become the composition ghetto; that research will never be supported again, even in the limited amounts that we have now; that we will all be stuck as eternal adjuncts, even if we're as brainy as Stanley Fish. (Stanley Fish, perhaps, can afford to teach composition because he's become a public intellectual and probably never has to worry about having his research supported again.) The fear is that the Language Log caricature of the English professor will become true, because we'll never get to work on our research again (an all-too-familiar feeling when one is confronted with yet another stack of grading).

I think William Major knows that this is a danger: he sounds the note before he even begins his argument, after all. And he's writing from the perspective of someone who knows that teaching composition can be rewarding, but that it's also a ton of work that actively siphons away research time. For this kind of de-ghettoization of composition to work, we'd have to have a climate in which writing and complex thought in the humanities were solidly valued, whereas in the current climate both are on the margins, if in different ways.

* * * * *

I'm puzzled by Major's allegation that English professors "don’t have to undermine their status or misuse their expertise with something as mundane as composition. Life is good when you can spend it with Gilbert and Gubar rather than Elbow and Belanoff." WTF? I am totally assigning my composition students Gilbert and Gubar. And they are going to love it! Seriously.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Smug presentist science and historical fiction

I recently read a trio of children's novels set in the Elizabethan period, concerning a boy (orphan, naturally!) who joins Shakespeare's acting company.

When I taught A Room of One's Own a few years ago, I had my class discuss the "Shakespeare's sister" section. The almost universal cry was, "well she knows girls aren't allowed on the stage; why doesn't she just dress up as a boy?"

That masquerading as male is the natural solution to all a woman's woes is of course suggested by a good number of Shakespeare's plays (including Hamlet!). But it completely fails on a political level; it presupposes that the problems posed by women's social circumscription are always exceptional and individual. Cross-dressing isn't a political solution; women as a class cannot masquerade as male in order to gain basic rights. (Though, now that I think about it, it could be argued that the 1980s shoulder-padded, pretend-you-are-okay-with-not-getting-parental-leave model of feminism was an attempt to effect exactly that solution.)

Nonetheless, in his one (in my opinion, failed) attempt to present a three-dimensional female character, Gary Blackwood has said female character... dress up like a boy.* Sigh.

But that is not what I am writing to complain about today. No, my peeve of the moment is: Why is it that in historical novels for children, the main characters always magically transcend the scientific paradigms of their times and intuit the tenets of today's science?

Off the top of my head I can think of not only Widge in The Shakespeare Stealer (etc.) but also Jane from Boston Jane and Ayla in The Clan of the Cave Bear (this last not children's fiction, but something I read as a child -- bizarrely, on an adult's recommendation). I'm pretty sure that if I were to think on it I'd come up with a few more.

It always goes something like this: everybody says disease is caused by foul air, but Spunky Protagonist feels, just feels in her or his heart, that it is transmitted by "tiny seeds" that get passed along by rats and insects. It's just a feeling!

I suppose we are meant to see that pre-twenty-first-century science is so obviously crazy that we couldn't possibly respect a character that believes in such mumbo-jumbo.

This smug presentist attitude presumes that anyone with an ounce of sense could see that, for instance, blood-letting isn't an effective medical practice. But medicine is a notoriously difficult science to control; in any given case there are about a zillion possible confounding factors.

That's why it's irritating when characters intuit the tenets of modern science, but even more irritating when they figure those tenets out from faux-experimental methods. Like the character just happens to notice that, every time a person has blood let, that person's illness gets worse.

Man, if science really worked that way, we'd be in Physics City, as my father would say. Total determinism! No confounding variables! Completely clear-cut data every time! No significant sample size necessary! ...Anyone with an ounce of sense can see it!

The truth is that science is much more complicated than that, which is why centuries of genuinely smart people in the West did not come up with the germ theory of disease. It's not that they lack even the smallest modicum of purchase on reality. It's that science is not straightforward and self-evident. That is why our society employs professional scientists to do research.

It's my impression that this irritating phenomenon in children's historical fiction derives from the fact that most contemporary readers hardly know anything about science, but cling to the few things they do know (by the authority of textbooks or, sketchily, science journalism, and not by experiment) as if it makes them the intellectual superior of the entire population of the world prior to the present era.

This is actually not a new sentiment, but an outgrowth of aggressive Western progress narratives that were particularly prevalent in the nineteenth century. As Thorstein Veblen put it in his 1906 essay "The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation,"
Other ages and other peoples excel in other things [than science] and are known by other virtues. [He gives several examples of achievements in art, metaphysics, and mythology.] ...but in the eyes of modern civilised men all these things seem futile in comparison with the achievements of science.
Science is perceived as the marker of modernity as well as the thing that makes modernity superior to whatever came before it.

Mark Twain even wrote a whole book about a guy (a Yankee, significantly) who goes back in time and (violently) kicks the crap out of a whole lot of medieval people, and a medieval myth in particular (King Arthur) by means of his modern understanding of science and technology. (He also just happens to have a lot of random stuff on him, such as batteries and lead pipes. Hey, no problem! I keep such things in my purse as well.)

The violence with which the protagonist uses science and technology to attack myth and the people invested in it is striking.

But as Veblen suggests, a feeling of temporal superiority is also frequently translated into cultural superiority. A contemporary review of Connecticut Yankee by Sylvester Baxter reveals how nineteenth century narratives about historically prior people slipped easily into narratives about "primitive" people -- "pre"-scientific people who were supposed to need colonization or, as the case might be, violence. The medieval population of the novel becomes a figure for the colonized peoples of the nineteenth century -- needing to be dragged in to modernity, by force if necessary.

By resorting to the principle that "distribution in time" is paralleled by "distribution in space," we may solve many a problem. So there is a certain aspect of sober truth in this most fanciful tale, and, just as the Connecticut Yankee went back into the days of King Arthur's court, so might he go out into the world today, into Central Asia or Africa, or even into certain spots in this United States of ours, find himself amidst social conditions very similar to those of 1300 years ago, and even work his astonishing 19th century miracles with like result.

Nineteenth century science is (ironically) miraculous, and therefore unproblematically equal to progress. Connecticut Yankee is indeed a book about progress -- an anxious one, in which progress depends on mass bloodshed. But Baxter blithely ignores the ideological component of this narrative, even adding some progress-talk about the book's production:

The advance in the art of popular bookmaking in the past two decades is illustrated by the contrast between Innocents Abroad and this volume. In illustration, the progress is particularly notable. Even a child of today would turn in contempt from the crude woodcuts of the former to the beautiful pen-and-ink drawings by Dan Beard that adorn the new work.

Even a child. In the contest of least-infantilized-subject, the modern Western child turns out to be the winner.

As the inheritor of the new science, the newest people -- Western children -- get to assume intellectual authority over both colonized subjects and medieval people (Innocents and its "crude woodcuts") in a way that mimics the intellectual authority that adults hold over them (in school, for instance, where they learn this science and are disabused of fantasies in the first place). It is no wonder that the child is expected to turn away in contempt: it is the contempt of self-recognition.

Gary Blackwood, The Shakespeare Stealer (1998); Shakespeare's Scribe (2000); Shakespeare's Spy (2003).

*The character in question, in my opinion, is usually absent and therefore never a presence; or rather, she is present insofar as she presents as male. Otherwise she is a mystery, an absence, a... lack. H'm, wonder where I've seen that before.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

All the cultural capital money can buy

Here's another instance of the commodification of the idea of science, here embodied in the "genius" figure of Albert Einstein:

The t-shirt reads "GENIUS OF LOVE." Um. Okay.

Here's another funny item for sale, spotted at one of the many yuppie stores that have invaded Elmwood in recent years (I suppose I should say super-yuppie, since Elmwood wasn't exactly gritty when I moved here).

Seen in the photo below: posh white-painted, fake wooden books to, er, leave lying around on your floor?

Whatever, fools. I have the real deal.

Science in a bottle

Let's face it, between dissertating and teaching, I don't get out much. The total span of my world on an average day can be walked in twenty minutes. This is why, when I do bother to venture out of my academic cocoon, I am always amazed by what I find.

For instance.

Yes, this here is a "skin care" establishment in Rockridge. Who knew you needed to go in to a special facility to have your skin cared for? Mine seems to be sticking to my flesh all right so far, but in the event of a zombie attack, I know I will feel reassured by the presence of a skin care facility just down the road.

Even better, check out what this place has for sale!

Yes, that says science in a bottle. And here I wasted all that time in college taking science classes.

The copy reads:
Science in a Bottle

Remarkable Breakthrough Tightens and Defines the Eye Area

C-ESTA Eye Repair Concentrate (TM) containing DAE Complex IV is a medically based breakthrough for rejuvenating the thinner wrinkle prone eye area, as well as minimizing further signs of aging. This intensive formula contains higher concentrations of lipid soluble Vitamin C along with other remarkable topical agents that dramatically reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Research by Nicholas Perricone, M.D. demonstrates that DAE Complex encourages collagen production, protects against and repairs free radical damage, tightens and defines the eye area and generally promotes skin that is noticeably younger and smoother.

This exceptional eye therapy creates visible improvement from the first application, and cumulative use results in a measurably tighter, firmer and more resilient eye area.

See Results Today!

Wow. That is a remarkable breakthrough. Apparently the more science you apply to your eye area, the "tighter, firmer and more resilient" it becomes. Did my college physics class do that? No.

Clearly, science has advanced since I was in college.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Sociological Images has posted some images of black people being used as "props for white femininity," something I posted on regarding the James/Bündchen Vogue cover a while ago.

Lisa writes, "Dude, we are so not making this stuff up." To which I can only add:


Happy Fourth of July.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008