Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Who is "the reader"?; or, What you get for prohibiting the word "I"

It must be exasperating to be a composition student. I am not saying this sarcastically; I mean it. At Cal, I'm blessed with smart, high-achieving students who got where they are today by following rules. They showed some imagination, but not too much imagination, and assiduously followed rules, and thereby got high marks and other official stamps of approval. This wasn't simply a matter of following stated rules, although that was part of it; often they also had to negotiate unspoken codes of comportment. They learned "test-taking strategies," a term that openly acknowledges that standardized tests are a game that can be won through generalized test-taking maneuvers; if the tests were truly effective as tests, then the only possible strategy would be to possess the appropriate depth and breadth of knowledge. They learned rules, sometimes explicit rules and sometimes rules that had to be figured out the hard way. They figured out at an early age that if they failed to follow rules, they could be punished all their lives. And they were not told which rules could be broken safely, or when.

I know exactly why high school writing teachers prohibit the use of the word "I," and if I were in their situation I'd do the same thing. It's a fence around the Torah; it's the blinking "don't walk" signal long before the oncoming cars get a green light.

But now my students truly don't believe that they are allowed to use the word "I," even in the context of assignments for which they clearly need it. They know intellectually that "I" is not the real evil, but the years of training have done them in.

So now it's "the reader," a fictional character by means of which we can obfuscate the difference between "I" and "everybody." Alas.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Nineteenth-century scientist of the week: Elliott Coues

Elliott Coues, 1842-1899

Coues was an ornithologist, naturalist, and (according to Wikipedia) army surgeon. I first ran across him in Frederic A. Lucas's The Story of Museum Groups, a guide leaflet from the American Museum of Natural History.

Museum groups, or "habitat groups," are free-standing groups of stuffed animals, usually dioramas in which specimens are placed in a more or less naturalistic position, with an artificial background that simulates the animal's habitat. Here is one currently on display at the AMNH:

(You can read all about this diorama here.)

Coues is quoted in the leaflet as a representative of the anti-museum group old guard, saying "as late as 1874" that
'Spread eagle' styles of mounting, artificial rocks and flowers, etc., are entirely out of place in a collection of any scientific pretensions, or designed for popular instruction. Besides, they take up too much room. Artistic grouping of an extensive collection is usually out of the question; and when this is unattainable, halfway efforts in that direction should be abandoned in favor of severe simplicity. Birds look best, on the whole, in uniform rows, assorted according to size, as far as natural classification allows. (Lucas 5)
For Coues, there was something anti-scientific about the habitat group; he felt that specimens should be displayed according to their taxonomy rather than their ecological contexts. So, for instance, an ostrich would be displayed next to an emu, not next to warthogs (as they actually were at the AMNH in the 1940s). If I recall correctly, the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle at the Jardin des Plantes is in large part arranged taxonomically even today, for instance. (But then, they also had a quite goofy exhibit on dragons in the basement when I visited.)

Coues isn't particularly best known for his views on museum groups; they were common enough views in the nineteenth century. He's better known for his commitment to classification and his interest in westward exploration (he edited Lewis and Clark's journals, for example), and of course his extensive studies of birds.

Like many other scientists of the period, Coues was interested in spiritualism, and he was also a member of the American Society for Psychical Research. He was for many years committed to the notion of "biogen," a "substance of mind," or "soul-stuff," in which, according to Coues, the vital principle resided (Coues 14-5). As best I can gloss it, it was vitalism with a spiritualist twist. The idea was not welcomed by the scientific community at large, but in 1885 Coues wrote,
I know that I have made a great discovery which conservative science will properly be slow to acknowledge. I also know that I can demonstrate the thing. Meanwhile, people may call me what they please, and I say proudly, with Galvani, 'they may call me the frog's dancing-master -- but I know that I have discovered one of the great forces of nature.' Galvinism [sic] is an accepted scientific fact: so will Biogen be in due time, and sooner perhaps than even I suppose. (qtd. in Cutright and Brodhead 304)

Famous last words. This is yet another example of the way that science and its protocols fluctuate and are subject to dispute.

Here's his obituary in The Nation.

Coues, Elliott. Biogen: A Speculation on the Origin and Nature of Life. 3rd ed. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1884.

Cutright, Paul Russell, and Michael J. Brodhead. Elliott Coues: Naturalist and Frontier Historian. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2001.

Lucas, Frederic A. The Story of Museum Groups. 4th ed. Guide Leaflet Series, No. 53. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1926.

ETA: Apparently students who are given chocolate give more positive teaching evaluations. Oh, for crying out loud.

ETA (again): I appear to have been linked by "Your Unique Portal to the Conservative Blogosphere." It must be very unique, because last I checked, nineteenth-century spiritualist ornithologists were not a conservative issue, or a political issue at all, for that matter. In fact, this blog is in no way a part of the "conservative blogosphere," unless we are talking about conserve in the jam/jelly sense, in which case, well, maybe.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Trashy current fiction

Marianne Moore wrote in 1925:
In 1854, in a report made by the librarian of The Astor Library, New York City -- we read: "The young fry of today employ all the hours they are not in school, reading trashy current fiction such as Scott, Cooper, Dickens, Punch, and The Illustrated News."

The Dial 79 (September 1925) 264-66, reprinted in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, ed. Patricia C. Willis (New York: Viking, 1986) 152.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Every day on the way to my office I pass by a nail salon with the best disembodied hand display I have ever seen.

It really makes me want to have my nails done there.