Saturday, December 26, 2009

Interviews (with apologies to Gertrude Stein)

Room where is the room. Where is the room. A convention. A convention an elevator a convention and an intervention. Intervene how does it intervene what are the stakes. The stakes are high and they intervene in the discourse, a very fine discourse. Where is the room in an elevator.

An intervention an intervention a convention and it intervenes it just intervenes. It intervenes and a job. A job a job and a pedagogy. The diligence is spreading.

Best of luck to all those interviewing, and a happy MLA '09 to all!

(For a more classic take, here once again is the Chaucer blogger's Margerye Kempe at the Feest of MLA.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

White children and their natives

Aaron's recent post on the American "bad boy" in Avatar made me think in general about children's narratives that construct a "native" with which the child may have an adventure.

The American bad boy is very, very familiar: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Rip van Winkle, etc. Avatar seems to fall into this (primarily nineteenth-century) tradition as well. There's an extensive literature, from Fiedler to Jehlen and beyond.

I found myself thinking about Aaron's claim that this is a specifically American construction. I think that's right, but it put me in mind of its early twentieth-century non-U.S. cousins as well, who deviate from the model in interesting ways.

Related to the bad boy is the jolly uncle, e.g. the professor in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or Albus Dumbledore, technically a grown-up but a boy (not a girl) at heart. Jolly uncle is British and is there to let you in on some arcane knowledge that will help you on your boyish adventure. He'll also help you subvert the mean (female) housekeeper. It helps that he is an Oxford(ish) professor -- a puerile pedant, as it were.

Swallows and Amazons is also British, and offers yet another model. Here the mother is not to be resisted, because the mother is supremely pliable, an ally in the children's play. She will set you up with regular shipments of butter, eggs, milk, and cake made of butter, eggs, and milk, and will allow herself to be designated a "native" from whom the conquering children can get their various dairy products for free. We don't have a fun uncle/mean mom dynamic here; the mother is perhaps the most fun character of all, the best at playing, the ideal imaginary Indian. She's so good at playing that she is easily conquered.

Oddest of all to think about in the context of Avatar was Anne of Green Gables. Avonlea is a female utopia, and Anne peoples her woods and lakes with other girls and women, in part quite clearly because her tragic past has forced her to invest in objects in lieu of friends (her first best friend is her own reflection in a cabinet), but ultimately because creating alien others -- dryads, naiads, animated plants -- is a form of creative play that marks Anne as interesting.

Yet those creations are also a way of staking claim. As soon as she arrives at Green Gables, before she even knows that she will stay, Anne begins to name things, and thereafter they are in a sense her gentle friends -- hers. She is a second Adam, in her childishness experiencing her own days of prismatic color and offering the adults around her a cherished glimpse. Her "marriage" to her first real friend, Diana, in the garden (a little homespun Eden) confirms rather than undermines her status as namer and master of her environs; Diana never reaches Anne's imaginative capacities, and only ever shows the initiative of an Eve by her multiple failures to adequately enter into Anne's imaginary realm. If anything, Diana acts as the female principle of fun-squelching, not because she is mean but because, like Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly, she simply has an inadequate imagination.

Is Anne a colonist? She is, of course, a "spunky girl," but is she a "bad boy" too?

And what does it mean, in Swallows and Amazons and Anne of Green Gables, that in the absence of indigenous peoples, the children must invent some?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I just got back my student evaluations, with the usual hodgepodge of randomnesses that they bring. One student praised me for having handed out "a full syllabus," which context revealed to mean a complete one, at the beginning of the semester. Who are this student's other instructors, and did they not hand out a complete syllabus at the beginning of the semester??

Favorite comment: "The essays were very difficult, but in a good way."

When you care enough to give the very best poetry.

I ran into this book in the basement of Moe's this evening, while looking for something else:

It's the Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems, edited by Donald Hall. (I was underwhelmed by the table of contents, honestly.)

This is the hilarious thing that caught my eye:

There's literally a gold star on it indicating that the book is poet-laureate-approved.

I guess it's like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval, or the Oprah's Book Club seal, only less well known. This particular kind of call on expertise belongs to a consumer logic. Eight out of ten dentists recommend.

The volume is edited by a nationally famous poet, and just in case a nationally famous poet isn't famous enough, here are his credentials. You wouldn't want to get screwed on a bad volume of poetry. It would be like buying a bad toaster, the kind that always either under-toasts or burns the bread. You can't be expected to have researched poetry, just like you can't be expected to be an expert on toasters; that's why Consumer Reports, and gold poet laureate stickers, exist. To save you, the consumer, the labor of finding out more than you really need to know about poetry. I mean, who has time to compare all the stats, right? You just want a book that does the job.

To close, some wholly unrelated words of wisdom, courtesy of Google Ads:

Friday, December 11, 2009

Just so we're clear: the protesters were spending a quiet week in Wheeler Hall. People were free to come and go; no one was disturbed. The only noise I heard when conducting my review session on Wednesday was a loud banging -- a repair person fixing one of the doors that police had damaged during the previous occupation.

The protesters were keeping Wheeler Hall open.

UCPD has locked it down.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

All ye need to know

A commenter writes of this post on an inappropriate literary reference:
"Aw, come on, no need to cll it inappropriate. They probably think they have made a profound, beautiful slogan! XD"

My response is apparently too long to fit in the comment box, so here it is as a blog post. It occurs to me that when I spot literature in advertising I would do well to explain what's going on, so that this blog could be educational rather than just a place for me and my friends to laugh at the inappropriateness of quoting that particular line from Keats on the wall of a drug store.

* * * * *

Right, Dare, the glibness of the quotation -- the idea that you could just take that line and attribute it to John Keats like he was giving you life advice, or beauty tips -- is exactly what's so hilarious, because in the context of the poem that line is incredibly problematic. That particular line was a bone of contention for the New Critics and the subject of a famous essay by Cleanth Brooks in The Well Wrought Urn (1947), precisely because of its fortune-cookie quality, its apparent quotability. Brooks quotes T.S. Eliot as writing of it, "this line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem; and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue."

Whatever you feel about the New Critics, I think it has to be agreed that you can't take the line straight. Keats is not offering you life advice. Brooks writes that "[t]he very ambiguity of the statement, 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' ought to warn us against insisting very much on the statement in isolation, and to drive us back to a consideration of the context in which the statement is set." Brooks, for his part, points out that the line quoted on the pharmacy wall is "spoken" not by a lyric "I" but by the urn, a work of art whose beauty lies in its silent withholdings.

As my friend Charlie Légère has pointed out, Brooks, with disconcerting pro-rape cheerfulness, describes the scene painted on the urn as one "of violent love-making." This is the painted scene -- of a rape -- that Keats praises in the "Ode," and indeed, the urn itself partakes of the nature of the scene that it depicts.

"Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness" -- what a beautiful line, and what a troubling one. The figures depicted in the scene are suspended in time, just on the point of rape, "the maiden," as Brooks says (with offputting enthusiasm), "always to be kissed, never actually kissed." But the "still unravish'd bride" is not the woman on the urn; it is the urn itself, still unravished, always on the point of being ravished -- by quietness, not by loud speech (nor by an ad slogan) but by "quietness," the soft speech that could undo the urn (the soft speech, one might speculate, of criticism).

For Brooks, the source of tension is this deathly stillness, the contrast between the violence of the rape scene ("What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?") and the fixity of the art work. That the rape is never actually completed seems to Brooks to be -- not a defect, for it's the condition of the urn's status as art, but a loss. The art work, by being art, must exit life and movement. It's a reading enabled by the theory that rape is something to be followed through with, a consummation of life itself! -- Which, no doubt, it is, for certain values of "life."

A somewhat less pro-rape reading might see the suspension of both maiden and urn in their about-to-be-raped state as a suspension in dread, a fixing of a moment of terrible intensity. It's like that feeling you get reading L'Assomoir and having to put the book down for a while because you know Lantier is about to show up, and you know it will be seriously bad news. You dwell in a state of dread.

The urn, Keats writes, will persist in its fixity long after we're gone; "Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours." Being in midst of woe seems to be the point, the enabling condition for that final, rather too-smug sentence, "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'" The maiden frozen in the terror of facing a rapist, the urn "still unravish'd" only because it can be ravished, we amidst our woe and some future viewers of the urn amidst theirs are all canceled out, and yet fed upon, by that final line. Does beauty trump woe when it (because it) encodes a permanent state of violence? The urn may tell us that, but is it right?

Of course, everything I've just said has to do with the internal logic of the poem. A more obvious source of incongruity is that "beauty" in the "Ode" is a timeless, unmoving beauty in art, a beauty rather fearsome for being so very suspended in time, so chilly, so violent. In the photo, it's sitting above a shelf full of "beauty products," where "beauty" is now a debased commercial term for the stuff you're supposed to do to your body to avoid social censure, a "beauty" to be acquired by means of apricot scrub.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Puerility and Pedantry

From Burke and Kant, we're used to seeing the sublime opposed to the beautiful. But Longinus writes (in this 1698 translation of On the Sublime):
A Boyish, or Pedantick Style is contrary to it. For there is nothing so low as this latter, so mean, so oppos'd to true gallantry of Discourse. What is Pedantry then? 'Tis nothing else but the thought of a great Scholar, which is made cold, and non-sense, by endeavouring to be too refin'd and affected. And this is a fault into which those fall, who aim at saying something uncommon, and surprizing; who endeavour to make a Thought extreamly taking and charming: for they, by dressing their language in too many Figures, fall into a ridiculous Affectation.
What undoes the sublime, for Longinus, is too eager an attempt to describe it adequately, or to approximate it by being "uncommon, and surprizing."

It's interesting to me that Longinus collapses pedantry with puerility: teacher and pupil alike may partake of this intellectual fruitlessness. It seems to me that there's a difference between the two, on which more later perhaps.

I've been thinking a lot about puerility lately. For Longinus it's clearly a pejorative, but I think that a certain pedantry has its appeal for many modernists. The cognitive act of slogging through irrelevancies can amount to, I think, an ascetic quest for the real.

Michael North's recent book Machine-Age Comedy takes up what I think of as a puerile streak in modernism--the amusement in rigidity and mechanicity that, North argues, is peculiarly modern. Though North is more interested in Chaplin and, much later, David Foster Wallace, it's impossible not to see the same impulse in 'pataphysical and Oulipian writing. Puerility enables a certain kind of play that is regenerative for the modernists. In a Foreword to Machine-Age Comedy, the series editors, Mark Wollaeger and Kevin Dettmar, astutely wonder whether "whether comedy in the machine age was a boys-only playground" (vi). I rather think that it is -- not that only the XY-chromosomed were interested in it, but that puerility is a masculine formation--a way of performing boyhood, in fact. The simultaneous triviality and momentousness of childhood play is a source of vitality in modern literature, and problematic in the way that primitivism is problematic.

In I Capture the Castle, which I've just been teaching, Dodie Smith imagines Mortmain's modernist breakthrough as a return to origins, as he mimics "a child learning to read and write" (335). His teenaged daughter Cassandra, the narrator, has just undergone a series of experiences that have made her definitively and somewhat painfully leave childhood behind, and she finds his reappropriation of childhood as a figure trivial and confusing at once--as, perhaps, "dressing [his] language in too many Figures." "I feel so resentful!" she says to the novel's exemplary literary critic, Simon. "Why should father make things so difficult?"

The problem with Mortmain's childish, riddling poetics is that its cleverness runs roughshod over actual childhood, and in particular the experiences of his own children, whom he's neglected and failed to provide for for years. Cassandra, the realist, wants to "capture the castle"; in attempting to do so she writes a coming-of-age novel about herself. Mortmain's modernist novel, in contrast, regresses to the scene of learning to read. One can imagine why his daughter might resent his puerilities. She might say to her father, as William Carlos Williams imagines his critics saying to him at the beginning of Spring and All, "I do not like your poems; you have no faith whatever. You seem neither to have suffered nor, in fact, to have felt anything very deeply" (88).

Indeed, Williams positions himself as immature, as one who has not yet suffered. "[T]hey mean that when I have suffered," Williams writes, "I too shall run for cover; that I too shall seek refuge in fantasy. And mind you, I do not say that I will not. To decorate my age. But today it is different." A childish callousness is required for Williams to engage in the literary violence of his poetics. The fantasies of destruction that ensue are straight out of Winnicott. I think that Smith, in imagining the most exciting modernist gesture as one of (male) regression, is onto something, something that Michael North calls machine-age comedy and that Longinus* calls puerility, a delight in and a commitment to the trivial, gimmicky game and ritual repetition, the embrace of travesty so long as the travesty is fun.

This sounds judgmental, but I mean it as descriptive. If puerility is a counter to the sublime, perhaps it is also a needed corrective. It is generative as well as problematic, transgressive as well as regressive. It has much to do with what constitutes modern boyhood. American literature in particular has always loved the "bad boy," but modernist puerility is something more than a rebellion against "petticoat government." What that something is, I intend to find out.

*Longinus very likely didn't write On the Sublime. You know how it goes.

My thoughts on puerility are, of course, related to the meditations of my previous post on gendering Twitter.

Longinus (attrib.). An Essay upon Sublime. Oxford: Leon. Litchfield, 1698. Electronic reproduction. Ann Arbor, Mich. : UMI, 1999- (Early English books, 1641-1700 ; 1705:22).

North, Michael. Machine-Age Comedy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle. 1948. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1998. Print.

Williams, William Carlos. Spring and All. 1923. Imaginations. New York: New Directions, 1971. Print.

Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. 1971. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gendered Twitter

I find Mark Sample's Twitter stream and blog invaluable for thinking about the use of new media for teaching, especially since he actually tries things that, so far, I haven't dared try (blogging and tweeting?). A while ago he posted about his technology-driven syllabus and the role of Twitter in his class. "Twitter is," he wrote, "a snark valve":
When I look closely at what my students write in and outside of class, I find that their tweets fall into one of three categories:

1. Posting news and sharing resources relevant to the class
2. Asking questions and responding with clarifications about the readings
3. Writing sarcastic, irreverent comments about the readings or my teaching

In other words, one of the most common uses of Twitter among my students is snark.

And that is a good, powerful thing.

I know critics like David Denby have come down hard on snark as a pervasive, degraded, unproductive form of discourse. I couldn’t disagree more. Snark is, I argue, a legitimate way to engage culture. It’s involved, it’s witty, and most importantly, it takes an oppositional stance — a welcome reprieve from the majority of student writing, which avoids taking any stance at all.

But today Mark tweeted:
Danah Boyd's experience with the Twitter backchannel has me reevaluating my praise for Twitter snark.

The link is to Danah Boyd's thoughtful reflection on what sounds like an absolutely harrowing experience in giving a talk. The short version is that Boyd gave a talk at Web2.0 Expo in which a live twitter feed was visible to the audience, but not to Boyd, during the talk.
Well, I started out rough, but I was also totally off-kilter. And then, within the first two minutes, I started hearing rumblings. And then laughter. The sounds were completely irrelevant to what I was saying and I was devastated. I immediately knew that I had lost the audience. Rather than getting into flow and becoming an entertainer, I retreated into myself. I basically decided to read the entire speech instead of deliver it. I counted for the time when I could get off stage. I was reading aloud while thinking all sorts of terrible thoughts about myself and my failures. I wasn't even interested in my talk. All I wanted was to get it over with. I didn't know what was going on but I kept hearing sounds that made it very clear that something was happening behind me that was the focus of everyone's attention. The more people rumbled, the worse my headspace got and the worse my talk became. I fed on the response I got from the audience in the worst possible way. Rather than the audience pushing me to become a better speaker, it was pushing me to get worse. I hated the audience. I hated myself. I hated the situation. I wanted off. And so I talked through my talk, finishing greater than 2 minutes ahead of schedule because all I wanted was to be finished. And then I felt guilty so I made shit up for a whole minute and left the stage with 1 minute to spare.

This is interesting as a media phenomenon: the backchannel is, as Boyd says, turned into the frontchannel--at least for the audience. But it's still backchannel, too, since the speaker can't see it. The Twitter feed becomes a way for the audience to talk to itself without the speaker hearing, the speaker now no more than a conversation piece.

But then I wondered whether this rather radical frontloading of the Twitter feed, at a tech conference, was really the same kind of snark as the kind going on in Mark's class. The same technology that turned Boyd's talk into a "twitter circus" was, in Mark's class, "a systematic, constrained outlet for the snipe and snark and sarcasm that smart twenty-year-olds might otherwise direct towards more civil discourse, or unleash outside of the classroom, or worse, bottle up." And it seems clear that this is because the power dynamics were radically different.

In the classroom, the professor has structural, institutional power; as it happens Mark also gets some more institutional authority from being a white male professor, and his students lose some by being young and structurally placed in the position of the less knowledgeable parties. And of course, in the classroom the teacher doesn't have the twitter feed right next to his head.

And there's one more element to it that's worth considering, which is that when we teach twenty-year-olds, the bar for engagement is set a little lower. It's our job as teachers to help cultivate those moments of snark, or misgiving, or anger, or euphoria into more thoughtful reflection, to translate the personal reaction into a more sustained critical stance. Snark is then, as Mark puts it, "a welcome reprieve from the majority of student writing, which avoids taking any stance at all," and ideally--and I think this is one of the potential strengths of classroom Twitter--a platform from which to cultivate engaged critical thinking.

But the people at Web2.0 Expo are grown-ups. They're supposed to have made it past the "any engagement is better than no engagement," "make it a teachable moment" point. They should already be able to make that leap from instant reaction to thoughtful response on their own. That's not to say that snark can't be productive for professionals, but it might not be the appropriate or most useful mode for discussion at a professional conference.

And then there's the power dynamic. At a conference, you're among peers at best. But Web2.0 Expo is not just any conference; it's a conference situated within a field dominated by men. Boyd, as a young female scholar at this particular conference, was not in the position of power vis-à-vis her audience that Mark was in. And the twitter feed, now, was not an outlet of creative engagement (sarcastic or otherwise) but a steady stream of in-group chatter that structurally excluded the speaker, and therefore functioned primarily to reinforce the sense of being an in-group.

There's a break in Boyd's blog post that puts me in mind of (because I've been teaching it) the moment in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, when the narrator lights on a break in the text of Jane Eyre. Jane is walking along the roof at Thornfield, delivering an interior monologue about the injustice of keeping women from traveling and finding adventure. Abruptly, the novel switches back to the plot, as Jane suddenly starts telling us about Grace Poole's laugh (well, she thinks it's Grace Poole at this point).
That is an awkward break, I thought. It is upsetting to come upon Grace Poole all of a sudden. The continuity is disturbed. (68)
As Woolf reads it, the anger brought on by inequality erupts in the text; the text's roughness is a symptom of Brontë's real, felt, justified anger.

Something similar happens in Danah Boyd's post, marked with a self-consciously abrupt transition, "Speaking of which":
Speaking of which... what's with the folks who think it's cool to objectify speakers and talk about them as sexual objects? The worst part of backchannels for me is being forced to remember that there are always guys out there who simply see me as a fuckable object. Sure, writing crass crap on public whiteboards is funny... if you're 12. But why why why spend thousands of dollars to publicly objectify women just because you can? This is the part that makes me angry.

Who blames Danah Boyd? Many, no doubt. Up to this point she hasn't said a word about sexism or insults directed at her person, but it erupts here and never leaves for the rest of the post. Nor can it: it's the suppressed element that's been here all along. Misogyny structures the entire experience, not only in the specific comments directed at Boyd's body but in the in-group dynamic of the audience tittering to itself as Boyd tries to assume authority over her own talk. The shoring up of masculine (if not necessarily exclusively male) in-groups through the violent objectification of women's bodies has been documented elsewhere.*

Which brings me to Mark's reply to me, which raises even more questions:
Definitely. It's making me think about Twitter as a gendered space, something I hadn't considered before.

Partly, I want to say that the issue is not whether Twitter is a gendered space. It wasn't the gendering of Twitter that was the problem. It was the gendering of the conference, and of the room, which was set up not only so that the audience could see everything (Boyd, the Twitter feed) but also so that Boyd could see, literally, almost nothing:
A week before the conference, I received word from the organizers that I was not going to have my laptop on stage with me. The dirty secret is that I actually read a lot of my talks but the audience doesn't actually realize this because scanning between my computer and the audience is usually pretty easy. So it doesn't look like I'm reading. But without a laptop on stage, I have to rely on paper. I pushed back, asked to get my notes on the screen in front of me, but was told that this wasn't going to be possible. I was told that I was going to have a podium. So I resigned to having a podium. Again, as an academic, I've learned to read from podiums without folks fully realizing that I am reading.

When I showed up at the conference, I realized that the setup was different than I imagined. The podium was not angled, meaning that the paper would lie flat, making it harder to read and get away with it. Not good. But I figured that I knew the talk well enough to not sweat it.

I only learned about the Twitter feed shortly before my talk. I didn't know whether or not it was filtered. I also didn't get to see the talks by the previous speakers so I didn't know anything about what was going up on the screen.

When I walked out on stage, I was also in for a new shock: the lights were painfully bright. The only person I could see in the "audience" was James Duncan Davidson who was taking photographs. Otherwise, it was complete white-out. Taken aback by this, my talk started out rough. (my emphasis)

Boyd's post opens by cataloguing the ways in which she was blinded, first by having her normal reading medium changed, then by having her substitute medium not be accommodated by the physical layout of the podium, then by having no visual knowledge of the Twitter feed, and finally with the glare of hot white lights, "complete white-out." The only person she can physically see is, in fact, photographing her, his gaze augmented by the apparatus. Spectacle indeed.

Which is to say that while Boyd's experience could not have occurred without the Twitter feed, the way in which she was reduced and objectified had little to do with the medium per se (i.e. microblogging) and much to do with its physical installment in an already-gendered social space.

And yet -- I'm still intrigued by the question of Twitter's gendering. With its cute round bird logo and the word "twitter," its marketing calls up long-held (but not true) stereotypes about women's talk, which is held to be as plentiful and meaningless as bird noises:

This is, of course, also the stereotype about Twitter.

There's no conclusion here, but it's something I'll likely think more about.


Addendum: I can't help noticing the discussion of age that keeps surfacing in this post. I compared Boyd's audience to boys by citing C. J. Pascoe's book on the performance of masculinity by high-school boys; the post also follows through on Mark Sample's original comparison between the Web2.0 Expo audience and the younger (undoubtedly coed) population of his classroom. And of course, Boyd herself brings up the maturity factor when she writes, "writing crass crap on public whiteboards is funny... if you're 12." There's a lesson here about the idea of puerility (is snark by definition puerile?) and what kinds of boyhoods we cultivate and reward, but it will have to wait, I think, for another day.


*"[T]he sexual tall tales these boys told when they were together were not so much about indicating sexual desire as about proving their capacity to exercise control on the world around them, primarily through women's bodies" (Pascoe 104).

Pascoe, C. J. Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: U of California P, 2007. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. Annot. Susan Gubar. 1929. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005.

Monday, November 23, 2009

According to people on Twitter, about a hundred students have occupied UC headquarters in downtown Oakland.
@ucbprotest Tons of cops outside, some from ucpd. The facilitated discussion began and they're letting in 10 people from outside. The bldg's on lockdown

Chancellor Birgeneau:
The images that have appeared on YouTube and videos do not reflect our values and those of our entire campus community and may not accurately reflect the whole sequence of events. As are many of you who have written to us, we are distressed at the portrayal in the media of our campus.

Portrayal in the media? Media such as the student newspaper, the Daily Californian, whence this picture comes?

I'm a lot more concerned about the health and welfare of the students who were interpellated into the position of rebels by the presence of police in full riot gear.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


"Beauty is truth, truth beauty." Taken inside the pharmacy next to the Rockridge Trader Joe's.

Best inappropriate literary reference since the Shakespearean sugar cookies.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Against the "thesis"

Imagine you'd told a bunch of students that their papers must be structured and controlled by a one-sentence statement called a "thesis."

Could they be forgiven for thinking that they are being asked to make up some trite garbage before they've even read the text carefully and hang onto it for dear life whether or not it is borne out by evidence? I think they could.

The thesis is your argument. The thesis is the thing you stand behind. Everything in the paper is supposed to lead back to the thesis. We tell students that writing is a process, but the concept of a "thesis," in my experience, encourages intellectually untenable linear, top-down writing strategies and discourages revision.

I tell my students to come up with a hypothesis, not a thesis. A hypothesis is what you think is going on, what you think you're arguing, for now. Then you look at passages that you think are relevant. You analyze them, unbiased. You're checking your hypothesis, not desperately cherry-picking support for it. And if your hypothesis doesn't receive much support from the text, then you change it.

This is completely counterintuitive to a lot of students. Change your thesis?

Yes, because it's not a thesis yet; it's a hypothesis. The point of an essay is not, actually, to defend an argument no matter what the argument is. It's to develop an argument worth defending. That's harder than coming up with a "thesis."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Here is the thing about the Wheeler Hall occupation and the protesters being charged with "burglary" for entering in the middle of the night.

The issue of access to Wheeler has come up intermittently in the department for years. Wheeler is an old-school building that the university will not pay to keep up (they want the English department to pay), so it has old-school locks as well. Grad students don't have keys to the building.

When the faculty inquired about this, they were told by campus police that grad students could not be given keys for two reasons.

1. It was a security risk to give out that many keys (we have approximately 150 grads at any given time).

2. The windows in Wheeler Hall stick, so if grads really needed to get into the building they always could.*

YES. I know.

The protesters were doing what campus police told grad students they could do in lieu of having keys.

* blithely ignoring the ADA, of course

[Aaron on the occupation]
[Twitter list]
[Oakland North's article on the protest]
Apparently Wheeler Hall, home of my department, has been occupied by some dozens of students since about 6am.

[SF Weekly blog post]

Update 9:50 am: Specifically, they may be occupying my actual classroom.

Daily Cal live blog and article

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dante Atkins's distinction between joining a protest and sustained activism is an important one, and he is correct to note that challenges to equality have been creeping up on California for years.

That said, the accusatory tone of his open letter to UC students seems not only unnecessary but also bizarre. "Where were you when...?" just doesn't make sense if we're talking about college students and long-term policy trends. Where were they? I'm guessing junior high.

And then there's this dig:
take a minute to stop downloading whatever it is you're downloading (hey, I don't judge) and help us organize

Those crazy kids! All they do these days is download things! Get offa my lawn!


Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I tend to be very reticent about my research on this blog, perhaps due to the universal academic fear that nobody is interested. But I think I'm going to try to change that; after all, research is what I devote most of my brain to, and it is probably the most satisfying part of my life. (I mean, besides persimmon season, naturally!)

I have a few different research projects going on at the moment, but the most important is of course my dissertation. If one were to pigeonhole it, it would be called an American modernism dissertation, but the project actually resists such pigeonholing quite a bit. For one thing, one of the chapters is on a nineteenth-century French author, Zola. For another thing, the conceptual rubric of the project resists, or rather suspends, modernism as an identifying category. There is an impulse that I call "experimental" that runs through naturalism, modernism, and the avant-garde.

It's that word, "experimental," that gets me the most questions, and indeed it's the problematic nature of the experimental that most interests me.

When we talk about experimental literature, we usually mean one of two things, each inadequate yet revealing. One is an overly broad definition: that any text that is formally interesting, unusual, or, in short, literary by any number of standards may be deemed "experimental." This definition is inadequate insofar as it is too broad, nearly meaningless. It is revealing, however, insofar as it is used as a term of approval, one that, like "interesting" (as Sianne Ngai has so brilliantly explained [Chicago Journals paywall]), can express approval while evading or suspending aesthetic judgment.

Another use of the term "experimental literature," usually used in an attempt to narrow the overly broad definition above, is extremely literal: the author is imagined to have conducted a scientific experiment somewhere in time and space, and whatever appears on the page is the result, the "data," as it were. A direct and usually tenuous analogy is thus made between writing and "the" scientific method. Friedrich Kittler has a great chapter on automatic writing and the avant-garde in connection with precisely this definition, so I do not wish to say that this definition cannot be productive. But I think that it, too, is inadequate because it fails to capture, or has to try too hard to capture, a lot of literature that I think we would deem experimental but which did not emerge from amateur psychology experiments.

Moreover it presumes that we know what a scientific experiment is. Out of a desire for rigor, the second definition of experimental literature supposes that there is a single scientific method, universal, transhistorical, and fully theorized. Such an assumption might be forgiven if, in our "desire for rigor" we were to adopt scientific conventions ("assume the cow is a cylinder"; "assume zero friction"), but for good humanities scholars such an assumption would be ludicrous. It's no good to give up rigor out of a desire for rigor.

In point of fact, the definition of "experiment" and its status as a part of science has been in flux for centuries. In the period of interest to me, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, experiment is prestigious. It is a way to bring to light hitherto unseen realities. To be "experimental" has connotations of action and heroism, in contrast with "observational," which connotes passivity and even possibly just not doing anything at all. To be experimental is to be as scientific as possible.

And the notion of the experimental is also being radically challenged by the institutionalization of the biological and social sciences.

It's taken for granted that the well established physical sciences are the pinnacle of scientificity to which all other sciences must aspire. That's exactly what Claude Bernard very explicitly does in his Introduction à l'étude de la médecine expérimentale (1865), arguing that there's a natural, quasi-evolutionary sequence that begins with physics and chemistry and proceeds to the biological sciences, such that medicine, formerly an "art," is surely next in line to become experimental. Of course, Zola piggybacks on this idea, saying that after medicine comes the novel. (Obviously.)

This notion, that there is a unified scientific method and it is defined by the methods of the physical sciences, is still very much in force today. But there is a reason that the physical sciences use certain methods: they are well suited to the things that physical scientists study. Suppose you are studying epidemiology: there's a serious ethical challenge to infecting a bunch of people with a disease in order to study its etiology under different conditions.

Claude Bernard's solution is one that we still use today. It's still experimental, he argues, to observe the outbreak of an infectious disease first in one climate and then another, so long as you're doing it advisedly, with the hypothesis in mind that climate is a factor in the disease's etiology. That nature has infected the subjects on your behalf does not, he argues, make your work less experimental. On one hand, we can see his point; on the other, we can see how this constitutes a significant revision to the idea of experiment. It's no longer as much about what you do as about what you think. This is not Bernard's only revision to the idea of experiment, nor is Bernard the only one developing methods that are suitable for studying living and/or thinking, feeling creatures. New methods are proliferating all the time, and developing the clarity-in-obscurity of professionalism.

The upshot of all of this is that the concept of experiment is being made newly capacious, that the professional sciences are invested in their own clarity-in-obscurity, best exemplified by experiment, and that that clarity-in-obscurity is thought to get at the heart of reality.

It is this sense, the sense that to access reality warrants a clarity-in-obscurity, that animates the four texts that I discuss in my dissertation and constitutes what, for me, is a better account of "experimental literature." It is defined not by a single method or set of formal devices but by this fundamental understanding of a reality alien from us in particular ways that it was not previously alien. For Zola, there is the symptomatic depth model, which he himself constantly undercuts with a horrified awareness of the power of the superficial (in every sense) to control even the penetrating scientific gaze. For Stein, there is, increasingly, a move toward abstraction and a refusal of empirical reality as inevitably disappointing. For Moore, there is the encounter with the nonhuman animal or thing that always points, indexically, away. And for Williams, there is the photograph of the far-flung primitive, which is the only way to reveal Paterson.

It is in this clarity-in-obscurity, this sense of the real, that the sciences seek knowledge; there, too, is it sought by the authors I discuss. That literature of the period is seeking knowledge, not some kind of alternate fluffy "poetic knowledge" nor an inner, personal knowledge, but something metallic and solid and alien that we would all recognize as knowledge should give us some pause. It returns us to the word "experimental" as a term of approval, with its suspension of aesthetic judgment. Why is it the duty or the pleasure of literature to produce knowledge, and what does it mean when it is? Why is it good to "experiment," to "innovate" (a.k.a. make it new)?

How is it that we can understand art as a kind of research, and why is it that we so want to do so?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dear Letter Service,

That letter from the Graduate Chair wasn't for your internal use. Really. Please send it where I tell you to send it. Thanks.

Yours sincerely,


Friday, November 13, 2009

I've just had an article accepted for publication, with minor revisions. It's very exciting.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

More MSA

My partner in crime Jill and I were both pumped about the same panel this morning, the "Trans-Temporality" panel with Claire Colebrook, Rita Felski, Wai-Chee Dimock (she was unable to attend, but the panel moderator, Sara Blair, read the paper), and Jennifer Fleissner. I've long been a huge fan of Felski's and Fleissner's work in particular, so I was eager to go, and was not disappointed. Interestingly, Felski took the opportunity to talk mainly about Actor-Network Theory. I'd have liked to hear a little more about how ANT might alter or intersect with her previous work.

I also went to a roundtable on modernism and digital humanities that was very interesting. Jon Orwant from Google provoked a heated question about the proper treatment of books, one with which I was wholly sympathetic. (I mean, something terrible happened to a book. I would have been ticked myself.) I know it wouldn't have been appropriate to start airing my grievances about Google Books, but do they know that their scan of Geography and Plays is missing most of "Susie Asado"? (SKG, who is eerily omniscient, found me a better scan at Shana Kimball from the University of Michigan Library gave an interesting talk about collaboration between the university library and the Press, which is moving entirely to e-book/POD format. Mark Wollaeger's talk did not move me to want to use wikis in my classroom (why is it that I still mostly hate wikis?), but it did make me reconsider some of my strategies for next semester. I wonder how legal it would be to have my students put their critical editions of texts online. Kathleen Fitzpatrick's talk was mostly drawn from her book, which I've plugged before on this blog. I was able to meet her at the end of the panel, and amazingly, she recognized me from my tiny thumbnail Twitter photo.

At the panel I asked a question that I think was never fully answered, in part because I didn't really articulate the whole of my concern. It seems to me that online projects and/or infrastructures are often seen as a cheap (or even free) alternative to analog apparatuses, because the labor, because it is often diffused across a community, is rendered invisible (and unpaid). I wonder to what extent that impulse can be resisted by digital initiatives at university presses and online peer review projects, which actually do require a huge amount of labor (intellectual labor, I should say) both in starting up and in maintaining them. It seems to me that the conversion to online modes of communication obviously requires a re-valuing of that kind of work for tenure, etc. But it also requires valuing it, maybe for the first time for some people, in economic terms -- with the understanding that truly useful, coherent, and durable online projects and infrastructures require levels of funding that are perhaps not significantly lower than those of traditional formats. The real cost of publishing a book, that is, was never in the paper it's made of.

Relatedly, I spoke with Sam Alexander and Pericles Lewis about the Yale Modernism Lab, also recently plugged on this blog. Seriously, it is a cracking good idea. I think there must be some way that it could get hooked up to Zotero that would be useful, although I don't yet know enough about it to know how that would work exactly.

All in all, it was a productive conference (even if I was stuck in the ugly section of Montréal the entire time). I leave for home tomorrow. Once more into the breach -- I get a new stack of papers to grade on Monday.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Hilarious Google search string of the day: "easy R1A classes Cal."

Tip: don't take my section.

MSA 11

Some quick notes from today.

I went to a very interesting seminar on science studies and modernism this morning. The seminar was run by Anne Raine and Craig Gordon. I met some smart people, learned some new things, and wrote down the titles of some interesting-sounding books.

The thing that most struck me on reading all the papers was the diversity of possible meanings of "science studies," as manifested in people's various approaches. Most of the papers discussed a specific science in relation to modernism, e.g. environmental studies or astrophysics. Mine was one of the few papers that tried to deal with scientificity as a category (though I'm not sure to what extent I succeeded). For me, the most interesting sciences with which to deal in the modernist period are the biological and social sciences, precisely because of the way that they challenge existing notions of scientificity and/or experimentalism.

Unfortunately for my jetlagged, uncaffeinated body, the seminar was at 8am, but on the up side, the Montréal metro was a breeze.

I went to three panels today. One called "Border Conditions: Poetry at the Edge of Modernist Discourse" was chaired by Oren Izenberg and featured papers on Duncan's oracular impulse; Oppen's notion of poetry as a kind of testing of the truth, and translation and Mallarmé's refusal of voice.

A panel called "Circling, Singing, Scoring" included papers on Oppen and Stevens, Moore, and letter frequency -- what the speaker, Roger Gilbert, called "scrabbliness" (scrabbliness, roughly, is what happens when words are dense with letters that win a lot of points in Scrabble). The last paper was both interesting and comical, and this spoke to something I've been thinking about in relation to Christian Bök lately: why the act of accumulation is comical. I was most interested in Heather Cass White's paper on Marianne Moore, though (of course). She drew on the evidence of drafts to reveal a "romantic" Moore. Though I have a few reservations about how this was framed, it was an interesting and convincing talk.

In the afternoon there was a roundtable on "The Future of Women's Literature in Modernist Studies," chaired by Suzette Henke and featuring many important feminist modernists. It was very smart and illuminating. I was interested to learn, in Clare Hanson's talk, of Angela McRobbie's Aftermath of Feminism, which examines the sense of loss at the heart of postfeminism -- first, the loss of the mother as love-object, and second, the loss of a feminist ideal of liberation upon being handed a "feminism" that has been completely co-opted by patriarchal capitalism (i.e. "empowerfulness"). I'd love to read this book.

I did go to Susan Stanford Friedman's plenary talk, "Planetarity: Global Epistemologies in Modernist Studies," but it'll have to wait.

It's about 10:30 pm, and somebody in this B&B is playing very loud dance music. I really wish this were not the case.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Here's how academic presses could make my life more convenient.

I've heard recommendations, here and there, that professors assign more academic monographs to help sustain the academic publishing market. That's well and good for graduate classes, although I'm a little amused by the idea that the faltering academic publishing market is going to be saved by the flowing coffers of graduate students. And sure, maybe you could assign a monograph or two in an advanced undergraduate course -- I remember people doing that at my undergraduate institution.

But my existing need is not for a way to assign more monographs to students. Monographs are easy and, compared to science textbooks (or a Kindle loaded with e-books), cheap. It's also pretty easy to assign many journal articles, thanks to Project Muse and JSTOR -- you can just link from the course web site.

It's book chapters that are annoying to assign. They always mean time spent copying and/or scanning, and the end result is a poor-quality facsimile.

I would like it if all the university presses got together and offered high-quality pdfs* of individual book chapters for sale (cheap), iTunes-style. I say this not because it would save the academic publishing market but because it would make my life more convenient. I could assign a chapter from a book, the students would pay $.99 (or whatever), the publisher would see a tiny amount of money, and students get a readable, easy-to-access copy. I am sure there are big holes in this plan that would make it unprofitable for publishers. I don't know if everybody wins in this scenario, but I sure do.

*I know that a lot of people would say that pdfs are a mere vestige of print culture and should be done away with as the universe moves toward a dynamic e-book model. To me, the fact that pdfs are a vestige of print culture is precisely the advantage. You can print them, and then read them! On paper! They display correctly every time! Pdfs are the mp3s of text.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Some miscellany

I'm in the midst of a bunch of things right now. Here are a few of them:

1. I just heard about Yale's Modernism Lab. Very cool -- looks like a great teaching tool, and I love how well it cross-references.

Also, hopefully it will become a quick reference for undergraduates. I was dismayed recently to find some students citing Wikipedia chapter and verse on modernism -- dismayed because they seemed to have failed to note the big disclaimer that the Wikipedia nerds had very responsibly put at the top of the page:

"This article is in need of attention from an expert on the subject."

So true.

2. Even cooler is Kathleen Fitzpatrick's new book Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, which, as you might expect, is about the prospects of academic writing in the information age. Refreshingly, it's not a mournful elegy for a lost golden age of print, nor a hopped-up celebration of all things internetz, but rather a smart and critical look at the current state of print and online publishing.

Particularly intriguing are Fitzpatrick's thoughts about how to implement meaningful open peer review and open access academic publishing. Although the book is forthcoming, in print, from NYU Press, Fitzpatrick is also trying out open commenting using CommentPress and as part of her ongoing open access/open peer review project Media Commons. I highly recommend checking the book out, and commenting.

3. I'm also reading seminar papers for the upcoming MSA.

4. I'm reading some work by Moon Duchin on the role of repugnance in analytic philosophy. Very interesting stuff.

5. As usual, I'll keep mum about my ongoing research, but let me just say that Margaret Mead is fascinating.
I have a blog. Huh.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Part of our DNA

UCB Professor Emeritus Oliver Williamson just won a Nobel prize in economics. Chancellor Birgeneau's email to the campus community on the topic ended thus:
Earlier this morning, at a press conference, Professor Williamson was asked what this prize meant for Berkeley, given the difficult budgetary challenges that we are facing. Commenting on Berkeley's commitment to excellence across the length and breadth of the campus and its palpable energy for creating a richly collaborative intellectual environment, Professor Williamson replied that our campus is incredibly resilient, that it has faced many challenges in the last 50 years, and that with all the good will and resources on our campus, he was confident that we would survive this crisis. He emphasized that it was the duty of all of us to work together and of our legislature in Sacramento to support the university and not to squander this precious resource. In a tribute to his colleagues and to the many graduate students whom he has taught and mentored, Professor Williamson modestly indicated that "some wonderful people are coming along and there are more prospects for Nobels ahead."

I thank Professor Williamson for his insightful remarks and for reminding us not to become too discouraged by short-term challenges. Today's Nobel Prize is clear evidence that Berkeley's excellence is recognized around the world. It is a part of our DNA that will not be changed and will be preserved for future generations.

Part of our DNA?

It's a metaphor, of course, but a metaphor for what? Our material constitution?

We've cut both teaching and hiring, so I'm going to guess that's not it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Simultaneity in online teaching

I've meant to post for weeks about my online teaching experience, and I've never really gotten to it, in part because it's connected to a lot of larger issues that I've been considering.

But for now, a straight report: I thought it went quite well. We used the chat function in UCB's online course management system, BSpace, so it was basically a 1990s-style chat room. (Do chat rooms still exist? -- versus, say, group chat on Skype?)

The topic of discussion was a classic article on composition pedagogy by Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz, "The Novice as Expert." I love it because it invites students to think critically about their own positions as composition students. It allows students to take what Sommers and Saltz argue is a necessary step on the road to mature writing: to take experiences and concerns that are personal and abstract them. Consequently, the students took the discussion personally in the best possible way: it was at once theoretical and applicable.

Occasionally people indulged in pronouncements about how writing should be taught (fire away, folks, but that paper's still due on Friday), but they mostly stayed on task. This was lucky, because of one feature of the online chat that I hadn't quite anticipated was the proliferation of independent conversations. The chat software enforces a linearity that promotes simultaneity.

Here's what I mean by that: in a classroom, you're engaged in speech, and speech is bound in time. If two people talk at the same time, neither will be heard properly. Students have to restrain themselves, or in some rare cases I have to restrain them, so that discussion can proceed in an orderly and audible fashion. I know I've sat on an idea in many a class, frustrated in the knowledge that by the time so-and-so stopped talking, the moment, and the idea, would have passed, and I would never get to say my piece.

This is not an issue in an online chat, because the software enforces linearity for you. You can stop listening/reading, because you can just scroll back up and catch up when you're done thinking about whatever you're thinking about. You can blurt out your idea when you have it, because the software makes it physically impossible to interrupt. The linearity of the conversation stream, which is enforced by the software, means that students are freed from time's winged chariot in composing and responding to comments. Simultaneity becomes an option for them, because the software will render the many different thoughts and conversations going on in a linear sequence on their behalf.

The result was that there were a lot of simultaneous (and vigorous) conversations going on at once, to which everyone was privy. It was difficult to change topics (as I needed to do so we could talk about their upcoming assignment) because several students were selectively paying attention to, and participating in, certain conversations.

I'd like to follow this up with the aforementioned connections, but I think it would be better for me to go grade some papers. I'll dump some names for now, and with any luck I'll get back to the topic sooner or later. Some names: Cathy Davidson, Larry Eigner, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hillary Gravendyk, Jonathan Crary, Walter Benjamin.

By the way, regarding emoticons: it turned out that I was the primary perpetrator of smiley faces. It's much more difficult to soften a "that was incorrect" in text, I find, than face to face. So corrections and disagreements often came with smiley faces from me. I think it's important for the teacher to be aware of the chilling effects of her apparent displeasure, and in a classroom it's easy for intellectual issues to get confused with personal ones (e.g., students' common misconception that a low grade reflects a teacher's personal dislike rather than the quality of the work). Consequently, I'm okay with using goofy emoticons from time to time to defuse any misperception of disapproval.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

[My write-up of a recent poetry reading is now up on the department blog. I might add that I had the pleasure of speaking with Anne Tardos and Maurice Scully after the reading; they were both lovely.]

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The UC Index

Data and graphs compiled by environmental engineers at UCD:

Percentage change in number of UC senior managers, 1997-2007: +118.
Percentage change in number of UC faculty: +24.
Percentage change in UC student enrollment, 1997-2007: +39.
Percentage change in UC undergraduate education fee: +103.
Percentage change in 2009-10 UC budget due to decrease in state support: -3.
Percentage change in proposed student fees in Spring 2010: +30.
Ratio of UC faculty/senior management in 1993: 2.5.
Ratio of UC faculty/senior management in 2009: 1.
Estimated annual added cost of the excess UC senior managers: $791,981,440.
Number of California resident UC students whose educational fee could be supported by that sum: 126,000.
Ratio of student fee revenue/General Fund revenue in 1997: 0.28.
Ratio in 2008: 0.53.
Ratio in 2008 if the cost of excess management were removed: 0.29.
Cost of increased UC senior management compensation in 2009: $9 million.
President Yudof's view of UC's budget problems: "There are always crises...[but] it will all work out."
Yudof's 2008-9 compensation: $828,000.
Chancellor Katehi's salary: $400,000.
President Obama's salary: $400,000.
Yudof's response to a question about faculty furloughs: "[B]eing president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you, but no one is listening."

University of California Statistical Summary of Students and Staff, Fall 2007

Thursday, September 24, 2009

UC Walkout

I, like many others, tweeted the noon rally on Sproul (#ucwalkout). Aaron has great pictures here.
(Someone else's great Flickr set.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Still getting the Duns Scotus google hits. For serious.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Online teaching

I've come down with a cold, which is annoying. Normally I would just make soup and carry on, but it's autumn, I teach at a large university, and H1N1 paranoia is in the air.

So I've been instructed not to teach in person until my cold is gone.


This feels like overkill, but precautions are more or less overkill by definition, so I'll be holding class online through UCB's online course software tomorrow.

I must admit that, much as I value the face-to-face communality of a class, I'm pretty interested in how an online class will go. Perhaps my less talkative students will pipe up more, for instance. Some of my favorite teaching tricks -- moving around the room, using humor to correct a wrong assumption -- won't be available to me. But on the other hand, an archive of the entire discussion will be stored on the course web site.

I'm also curious as to how my students will choose to communicate. Will they use complete sentences, standard punctuation, and a more formal register than they use in everyday speech? Or will the medium of the chat room prompt lolz and wtfs?

My box of Kleenex and I will soon find out.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Anthropology Department Fall Colloquium

UPDATE: video
Special Event

Monday September 14th 4pm

160 Kroeber Hall

"The University in Crisis - The Dismantling and Destruction of the
University of California"

A panel discussion with:

T.J. Clark, Professor, and George C. & Helen N. Pardee Chair of Modern Art
George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Linguistics
Charles Schwartz, Professor Emeritus of Physics
Introduction: Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Chancellor’s Professor of Anthropology
Discussant: Laura Nader, Professor of Anthropology

Reception Follows the Event

Teaching "grammar" versus teaching rhetoric

It always makes me nervous to say that I agree with Stanley Fish, but he makes some good points in his recent column on teaching composition. (Standard Fish-related disclaimer: I deeply disagree with some things he's said previously on the subject.)
“If we teach standardized, handbook grammar as if it is the only ‘correct’ form of grammar, we are teaching in cooperation with a discriminatory power system” (Patricia A. Dunn and Kenneth Lindblom, English Journal, January, 2003).

Statements like this one issue from the mistake of importing a sociological/political analysis of a craft into the teaching of it. It may be true that the standard language is an instrument of power and a device for protecting the status quo, but that very truth is a reason for teaching it to students who are being prepared for entry into the world as it now is rather than the world as it might be in some utopian imagination — all dialects equal, all habit of speech and writing equally rewarded.
Of course, Dunn and Lindblom are completely correct when it comes to imputing moral value to different sociolects. You'll get no argument from me there.

But Fish is right to point out the problem with importing the concerns of one discipline wholesale into another. That's what happens when linguists (or, on occasion, people who took one linguistics class in undergrad) make it a personal crusade to eradicate "prescriptivism" not only within their discipline, where that label is meaningful, but in the entire wide world, where it is less so. (Please note: this is not a description of all linguists by any means.)

Fish's point is related to one of my fundamental convictions about teaching writing, which is that it's not about teaching morals (good grief) or about language-as-it-exists-in-the-world (as in linguistics, where "prescriptivism" versus "descriptivism" is a meaningful matter of methodology). Rather, it's about teaching rhetoric. And rhetoric means manipulating language in all its plasticity, not observing it like a creature in the wild. That involves mastering particular stylized linguistic patterns, sometimes informally known by the name of "grammar," no Chomskian implications intended.

I also quite like the exercises Fish proposes:
I have devised a number of exercises designed to reinforce and extend the basic insight. These include (1) asking students to make a sentence out of a random list of words, and then explain what they did; (2) asking students to turn a three-word sentence like “Jane likes cake” into a 100-word sentence without losing control of the basic structure and then explain, word-by-word, clause-by-clause, what they did; (3) asking students to replace the nonsense words in the first stanza of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” with ordinary English words in a way that makes coherent (if silly) sense, and then explain what they did, and how they knew what kind of word to put into each “slot.” (The answer is that even in the absence of sense or content, the stanza’s formal structure tells them what to do and what not to do.)

Notice that the exercises always come in two parts. In the first part students are asked to do something they can do easily. In the second part they are asked to analyze their own performance. The second part is the hard one; it requires students to raise to a level of analytical conscience the operations they must perform if they are to write sentences that hang together.
"Jabberwocky," by the way, is God's gift to teaching. I used it in a History of the English Language lecture last year. I can't tell you how my heart swelled with delight when a student proposed, based on the stem vowel, that "outgrabe" was a past-tense strong verb.

Listen up, NYT! More smart discussions of humanities pedagogy, please! Maybe someday if you work at it you'll even make it to humanities research...

Monday, September 7, 2009

My Zotero library

I've just added a Zotero widget to my sidebar using Yahoo! Pipes, pretty closely following the procedure that Mark Sample outlines -- and justifies -- with such clarity:
Looked at prosaically, public Zotero libraries may be the equivalent of a give-a-penny, take-a-penny bowl at a local store. This convenience alone would be useful, but the creators of Zotero are much more inspired than that. They know that sharing a library is crowdsourcing a library. The more people who know what we’re researching before we’re done with the research, the better. Better for the researchers, better for the research. Collaboration begins at the source, literally.
I wouldn't quite say I've drunk the crowdsourcing Kool-Aid yet, but I agree with Sample's subtext, that cultural shifts are needed to make the humanities more collaboration-friendly, and opening up your Zotero library is one step in that direction.

Happily, the Zotero widget gave me a lot less trouble than the Twitter search widget on my course blog, something I may whine about in the future, because the Twitter widget still doesn't really work properly, and the documentation is officially "unofficial." Argh.

Okay, well, actually, it seems like I just got that whining done.

Next project!

[Update: the little Dapper whozit that I'm using seems to like to screw up and display a lengthy error message every once in a while. It's a passing thing, apparently. You get what you pay for and all that.]

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Our reliance on the stupidity of computers is an endless source of comedy

Google's great achievement, supposedly, is using its search capabilities to match ads to keywords in order to target people who actually might be interested in them. But anecdotally I would say that this leads to a high percentage of unintentionally hilarious, supremely inappropriate ads, whereas in days of yore perhaps this was more rare.

Whenever I clean out my gmail spam folder, Google Ads never fails to offer me some spam casserole recipes, and if I notice them I tend to have a double reaction of dissonance: first, the switch from thinking of spam in the sense that I've explicitly gone into this folder to tackle to spam-in-a-tin, and then the slightly ill feeling one gets from thinking of spam-in-a-tin.

It occurs to me to wonder why one would put ads on the spam folder in the first place. It is, after all, by design and definition, the place where unwanted ads go to die. But then, maybe that's the only natural home for spam casserole recipes.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

On the cuts

Professor Catherine Cole has written a thoughtful open letter to students regarding the UC budget cuts:
As someone who has worked for the University of California for 13 years, I can say without reservation I LOVE this university and have chosen to work here, turning down offers to work other places. I believe deeply in our public mission, and the twin values of access and excellence that are central to our goals. I am proud to work for a campus of the UC that is ranked by many as the number one public university in America. I am especially proud and honored to have the opportunity to teach our extraordinary graduate students here at Berkeley, and I know for many of them, Berkeley’s twin values of access and excellence are the main reason they chose us over other institutions. I deeply value the fact that our undergrad student body is remarkably diverse. Berkeley has more students on Pell grants (government grants that fund students with the least economic resources) than all the Ivy League schools put together. Many of my undergrad students are the first in their families to get a higher education. Many of them are working, sometimes even full time, to put themselves through college. They approach our exchange together in the classroom as a privilege rather than an entitlement, and it is MY privilege to teach them because they are so committed, bright, and curious. I went into university teaching because of the ideals and values that guide my encounters with students every day. I did not choose this job for the money. I am distressed and deeply concerned that administrators at the top level of the University of California are using the present budget crises of the University of California to fundamentally alter the focus and mission of the university in ways that are instrumentalist and utilitarian, and show little respect for the role of the liberal arts in producing effective and thoughtful citizens.

Read the whole thing here.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A wordle about my dissertation.

I just sent off a manuscript; hurray!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Questions that I had forgotten were questions

I was speaking to a fellow grad student who will remain nameless in a program (not here) that will remain nameless whose advisor has been, shall we say, kind of hands-off.

A situation arose in which Grad, who, despite assiduous badgering, had not received any substantive feedback for more than a year, was suddenly given a deadline by which to make a lot of deep changes. When Grad mentioned the whole year-of-no-feedback thing, Advisor pulled the old I Will Not Spoonfeed You, as if timely, substantive comments on drafts were an whiny crybaby thing to expect from an advisor.

Okay, so that was my encounter with a failure in mentorship today, fortunately for me not first-hand. (My committee is, in fact, awesomely on top of things.)

I got kind of steamed up about Grad and Advisor, because I think that thinking of basic mentoring as "spoonfeeding" is classist, irresponsible, and unrealistic. There is such a thing as spoonfeeding, but telling students about the profession that they are entering is not it.

It reminded me that mentoring involves tipping people off about things that seem like second nature to you, because they are not in fact normal things in the wider world.

The fact that you hear Christmas music and think "oh yeah, MLA" does not mean that you are normal; it means that you are a strange Gollum-like creature that lives in darkness.

I mean that in a good way.

Conversely, if someone asks you whether MLA is a conference or an association, it does not mean that person is stupid. It means that he or she is still a hobbit.

So I think I'll use this blog space from time to time to record questions that I had forgotten were questions. Hopefully some hapless person on the internet will benefit, and in any case I will remember that academia is not second nature to everybody.


Q. What do you call a professor?

A. Conventions vary from school to school, and if an instructor requests a particular name or title, then that's the one to use. But when in doubt, go with "Professor So-and-So." Err on the side of an overly formal title. Since I'm a graduate instructor and first names are the convention for GSIs at Berkeley, I have my students call me Natalia.
HG: I still can't get over the weirdness of "extreme" as an adjective applied to mammals. Whoever came up with that was some kind of wackadoo genius or idiot savant.


HG: That's kind of a given.

[. . .]

HG: I really want you to take seriously the question of what makes a mammal "extreme" in the cultural imagination.

NC: I smell an article.

HG: Yes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

School's back!

My summer of fellowship was completely awesome, don't get me wrong. I got loads done. But I still get that autumnal excitement when fall semester starts, even though Berkeley's fall semester marks the beginning of the hot season. It's not just the thrill of buying more binder clips (oh, the pleasures of graduate life), it's the feeling that the whole world is back in business.

Here's why this semester will be awesome:

-I'm going to get to work on my Williams chapter, which is about Paterson and auto-ethnography and, probably, Margaret Mead

-I'm teaching a new course, featuring some science studies greatest hits, and also Virginia Woolf

-I'm going to MSA in November

No doubt I will start whining once the grading hits (I know I scheduled a couple of painfully quick turnarounds in there), but just now I'm excited for things to begin.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Seen recently in Kroeber Hall.


Sous la construction, une grève?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Writing as flesh

I've long been fascinated by the bodily connection that we often feel that we have with our writing. This is as true of writing done on a computer as of manuscript or print. Aaron just wrote a thoughtful post describing pieces of writing as his children (although, come on Aaron, the whole Abraham/Ishmael thing is kind of creepy). It's a common enough metaphor. And of course, there is the proverbial "bleeding on" a draft, as if to suggest corrections were tantamount to taking a pen and slicing open the text's flesh.

In Of Grammatology, Derrida puts his finger on a value judgment that runs through discourses on writing:
There is therefore a good and a bad writing: the good and natural is the divine inscription in the heart and the soul; the perverse and artful is technique, exiled in the exteriority of the body. [...] The good writing has therefore always been comprehended.
The kind of writing that gets the same ontological status as speech, Derrida suggests, is the kind that is not really writing at all, but rather a metaphorical "inscription" defined by interiority and presence. The writing that is writing per se, the kind defined by its portability, its capacity to circulate alienated from the body, is the kind that is considered fallen, a mere sorry simulacrum of speech.

But the writing that I encounter in my workaday life, both as a critic and as a teacher, doesn't quite fit into this schema. Our writing really is alienable, but the process of alienation is painful. You can "develop a thick skin" when it comes to criticism (of your writing, not of you personally!), but it's still never easy to "take." That's why Aaron's metaphor of children feels so apt (even as it feels excessive): flesh of your flesh, it eventually leaves you to circulate in the world on its own. You can't control it, you can't protect it, and it sometimes sends you resentful text messages about how you always liked that other essay better.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Woman (defensively): "I liked her! I thought Amy Adams was adorable!"

(Overheard outside the Elmwood Theater as I walked by this evening.)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Daily Show does Latour

John Oliver of The Daily Show summarizes Bruno Latour's Science in Action:

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Todd Disotell: I think the arguments are very easy to counter, and it's going to let me write a counter-paper.

John Oliver: What will he do then, write a counter-paper to your counter?

TD: Yeah.

JO: And you'll publish a counter-paper to that, then he'll write a counter-paper saying that he's right and you're wrong, and no one will read any of them.

TD: Ummm...probably true, unfortunately.

Oliver's clowning notwithstanding, it's a drama of black boxes: if it comes to be accepted by wider consensus that Jeffrey Schwartz is correct and that humans are more closely related to orangutans than to chimpanzees, then, as Disotell warns, we'll have to change all our textbooks, the ultimate black boxes.

On another note, I hope that was a fake textbook they used. Surely no one is teaching that humans are descended from chimpanzees. As Disotell says, humans and chimpanzees probably hold an ancestor in common; it's not at all the same thing.

Monday, August 3, 2009

On citing works

This post is for the poor lost souls who keep winding up here after googling "works cited for [title]."

I am guessing that you're about fourteen and have only just learned about this whole "citation" thing. So here's the drill.

A works cited list gives people the information necessary to track down a source that you used: author, title, volume, publisher, date, etc.

There are several different citation styles. But if you're looking for "works cited," then chances are you're using MLA (Modern Language Association) format, one of two standard formats in the humanities (the other is Chicago).

In general, you won't have much success googling for the citation of a particular source. But that's okay, because there are standard templates for citing various kinds of sources, and you can easily figure out how to use them.

You'll find a nice summary of MLA style guidelines at Purdue University's inestimable Online Writing Lab (OWL).

Here's an MLA citation for a single-author book:

Altieri, Charles. Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

[Altieri, Charles] is the author. The last name comes first in a works cited list, because you will want to alphabetize your entries. In a footnote (in Chicago style, for instance) you would not invert the name, because there would be no need to alphabetize.

[Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry] is the title.

[Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989] is the publication information: city, name of publisher (the UP stands for University Press; it's a standard abbreviation), year of publication.

Each of these categories is treated like a little sentence and ends with a period.

* * *

The MLA Handbook recently came out in its seventh edition, with a few notable style changes (notable, that is, if you were already using MLA 6). APA usually calls its list of works a "Reference List," while Chicago style has an optional bibliography in addition to footnotes or endnotes.

Here are a few more useful links:

APA (The OWL at Purdue University)

Chicago (there may be a paywall)

And for the benefit of all you "Stephen Crane study guide" googlers out there, here's the OWL's page on avoiding plagiarism. Remember that avoiding plagiarism is your responsibility.

Over and out.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Black boxes

If Marconi says something about ultra-short waves it MEANS something. Its meaning can only be properly estimated by someone who KNOWS.

     --Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading 25.

One of the reasons I find the history and philosophy of science (HPS) so useful in my work is its concern with the conditions of factuality. Bruno Latour calls facts "black boxes"; we don't worry about how they came to be determined; they're axiomatic.

HPS doesn't just open black boxes; it looks at how black boxes are made. I've seen a dictum floating around lately that strikes me as apt: "You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts." Usually this dictum invokes the intractable reality of the fact, but to me it has more to do with social consensus. Latour argues that no statement, no matter how well it matches with data, can be a fact unless a community comes to a consensus about it, turning it into a black box. A fact can never be "your own."

To dispute a fact is to reopen the black box, inviting critique of the process by which the fact was established. Reopening a black box by definition has a destabilizing effect, because the fact is no longer being taken as a given. This is why science studies are so often caricatured as "debunking" science. And yet it is possible to examine the social and discursive conditions under which ideas become facts, and to understand where Hobbes was coming from, and still believe that there is such a thing as air pressure (to give one prominent example).

I was literally a child during the so-called "science wars"; the Sokal hoax transpired when I was about fourteen. They turned on the necessity of black boxes to get anything done.

Some things need to be black boxes, because all arguments require premises. Imagine teaching a course on twentieth-century history and having your students decide to debate whether there really was a Holocaust. It's not only inefficient; in this case it's morally repugnant. (And here we get into serious science studies territory: the intimate relationship between fact-making and morality.)

We hear from certain vocal factions that by making certain things into black boxes, we are shutting down debate. This is quite true. In my classroom, certain things are not up for debate: whether the Holocaust happened; whether women or people of color are capable of intellection or autonomy; whether there is such a thing as air pressure. If we entertained these questions, we would get nowhere.

This is exactly what Latour worries about in a 2004 essay: a tendency to open black boxes can be salutary, but can also lead to paranoid conspiracy theories (Obama's birth certificate, anyone?).
Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes -- society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism -- while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below.

To put it in literary terms, there was always something a little Gothic about Foucault.

And here is where I think literary criticism becomes useful to science studies: there was always something a little Gothic about science, too, whose residues emerge in culture (one prominent example would be Shelley's Frankenstein, directly inspired by the distinctly Gothic research of Luigi Galvani).

That's why the French physiologist Claude Bernard could write in 1865,

If I had to give an analogy to express my opinion about the science of life [the life sciences], I would say that it is a beautiful salon filled with light, which cannot be approached except by passing through a long and frightful kitchen. (28)
This remarkable quotation is about black boxes, cast in domestic terms. Teatime in the salon only happens by virtue of the messier labor occurring in the kitchen, and a humanities scholar would say that if we are interested in tea then we are also interested in the kitchen. Notice Bernard's language about the kitchen, however -- the space of labor and inquiry. We have feelings about it. It is "long and frightful."

Opening a black box is dangerous, yes, because in allowing disciplined scholars to examine the conditions of fact-production, we also invite less disciplined investigators to declare that facts are not facts and to argue for the legitimacy of theories legitimized by the consensus of the uninformed. (This is what leads Lorraine Daston to make a somewhat invidious distinction between a highly disciplinary and disciplined History of Science and a wilder and woollier, and less rigorous, Science Studies.)

Indeed, Latour seems to anticipate this when he titles the first chapter of Science in Action "Opening Pandora's Black Box," registering how science studies invites a world of trouble. As he puts it in the 2004 essay, "What social scientists do to our favorite objects is so horrific that certainly we don't want them to come any nearer. 'Please,' we exclaim, 'don't touch them at all! Don't try to explain them!" (240). Such a long and frightful kitchen.

Latour goes on to suggest that what's needed is a shift in focus from "matters of fact" to "matters of concern." I don't disagree, although I'm not sure Latour is so much pointing out a new direction as dividing good science studies from bad science studies (his footnotes seem to indicate the latter).

But what's more interesting to me is that feeling of fright. The upshot of Latour's 2004 essay is not that we must stop opening black boxes but that the fright must be removed and replaced by a feeling of warmth and security in our facts.

But there is a key difference between the fright mentioned by Bernard and that diagnosed by Latour, which is that for Bernard the fright is experienced by the investigator, for Latour by the believer in facts who is about to be pwned by a smug philosopher of science. For Latour, the (barbaric) critic experiences only the pleasure of domination, never the fear of uncertainty.

But can this be right? Doesn't any thoroughly sure-footed, smug critique amount to something less than critique? And perhaps the history of science can be forgiven for a overcorrecting a bit, after a tendency toward teleological just-so stories had made us so comfortable in our facts.

To open black boxes is to register the strange complexity of reality. This is a frightening pleasure: frightening because the danger is genuine, pleasurable because thinking people like a good scare.

As Jane Austen phrases it:

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all of Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; -- I remember finishing it in two days -- my hair standing on end the whole time." (121)

Austen recognizes as well as anyone how necessary it is to distinguish between critique and paranoid fantasies; Catherine Morland repeatedly tries literally to open black boxes only to find that they contain thoroughly banal items. When she is later confronted with a very material mystery -- that of General Tilney's sudden inhospitality -- her equally mystified mother counsels, "depend upon it, it is something not at all worth understanding" (232).

Her mother is mistaken, of course.

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. 1818; New York: Penguin, 1988. Print.

Bernard, Claude. Introduction à l'étude de la médécine expérimentale. Paris: Baillière, 1865.

Daston, Lorraine. "Science Studies and the History of Science." Critical Inquiry 35.4 (January 2009): 798-813. Chicago Journals. 17 July 2009. Web.

Latour, Bruno. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987. Print.

---. "Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern." Critical Inquiry 30.2 (Winter 2004): 225-48. Print.

Pound, Ezra. A B C of Reading. 1934; New York: New Directions, 1960. Print.

Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985.