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.