Monthly Archives: December 2003

Movement Orders

I’ve fueled up the car and finished wrapping the gifts. The girls love the whole phenomenon of wrapping presents, especially the bows and ribbons, and Tink is particularly fond of tissue paper. I saw the doctor today, and he said I’m probably not communicable, but added that I can expect to continue to be very, very tired and low-energy for another week or two; the gunk in my lungs makes them rather poor at doing what they’re supposed to do. I got a haircut, my first in years, since my habit’s usually been to run the clippers over my head every couple weeks. The girl who cut my hair was young and pretty and absolutely brutal in the way she let her aesthetic sensibilities run over my 34-year-old male ego, and I’m delighted with the results. I’ve cleaned out the refrigerator and washed all the dishes. The committee is on board with the project, and wants some doable revisions to the prospectus. I’ve had the car’s oil changed and checked the tire pressure, and the tires themselves look fine, as they should: they’re practically brand new.

And I’m very, very tired, and all this means that I haven’t yet read another word of Derek Bok or Stanley Aronowitz or Andrew Feenberg, and I feel a bit of guilt about that, but I won’t let myself feel too much. I’ll bring Bok and Aronowitz and Feenberg with me when I drive down to D.C. tomorrrow, but I’ll also bring Patrick O’Brian.

Blogging, as you can guess, may be intermittent, but I’m looking forward to taking some occasional quiet time at 3rd & Pennsylvania, too. Happy holidays.

Sharing an Indulgence

A confession of weakness: in my flurry of Christmas shopping for father and brother and relations and friends, I’m afraid I took that guilty pleasure and got a CD for me, too. Yes, I’m weak and self-indulgent, so weak and self-indulgent as to play that same CD while I was wrapping presents.

And it’s the best CD I’ve bought in years.

I’m sure some people are familiar with the wonderful singing of Washington, DC songbird Eva Cassidy; I actually came at her work from the other end, being a longtime fan of Chuck Brown, and not having known that she did the backing vocals on E.U.’s first album all by herself. But I gotta say: if you like jazz vocals at all (actually, I think the collaboration kinda walks between jazz, pop ballads, and blue-eyed soul), go out right now and find this album. It’s so, so good.

Go find some Chuck Brown, too, of course, especially his live albums (and if you enjoy them, there’s also the much more high-energy — to the point of being practically incendiary — Trouble Funk), and Eva Cassidy’s other stuff is fine, fine, fine — but “The Other Side” is the best collection of soulful, blues-tinged jazz ballads and duets you’ll hear in a long, long time.

And if Eva’s “Over the Rainbow” doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, there’s something wrong with you.

The Long Way Home

Grades are in and the semester’s done. I’m relieved and a little regretful too, and like I said, I’ll miss the students. (I’m very tired, as well, but that’s largely due to the pneumonia.) I’m also almost entirely done with my Christmas shopping, which is a happy feeling (did I already say I’m tired?); the one thing left is to pick up something for my dad that my brother asked me to get, for which I’ll have to travel down to the big mall tomorrow — not looking forward to it.

Anyway: I made some good progress through Derek Bok’s Universities in the Marketplace today. Bok contends that “whatever value consumer demand may have in deciding what goods to produce, it is not a reliable guide for choosing an appropriate curriculum or constructing an ideal research agenda” (29), with which you may accurately imagine that I happily agree, and much of the book examines the complicated intersections and interactions between universities and markets. He goes on to point out that “efforts to adapt the corporate model by trying to measure performance of ‘manage by objective’ are much more difficult and dangerous for universities than they are for commercial enterprises” (30), which again strikes me as apt: why is it that so many people so easily think that corporate capitalism is an ideal model for every aspect of society? Do we perform a sort of mental syllogism by which most humans today like and need money, corporations are all about producing more and more money, hence in a democratic society corporations and things that imitate them can produce the greatest good by producing the greatest amount of money?

OK, so it’s a rhetorical question, and a reductive and rather silly one at that. Bok goes on to offer chilling accounts of the collision of corporate and university agendas in the arena of high-stakes academic research and concludes that the corporate privatization of research is genuinely dangerous because of the demonstrable ways in which corporate interests contravene human interests: “using the promise of financial gain to bring about socially useful results is a risky enterprise” (77). I was happy to see, as well, that Bok has some of the same reservations I do about the contemporary hyper-privileging of efficiency: “efficiency is not a very helpful guide for teaching and research. A corporate trustee will periodically make news by calling for greater productivity through heavier teaching loads and fewer faculty members per student, but such measures can easily damage the quality of education. Similarly, an efficiency expert can identify redundant positions in science departments, but eliminating the positions may gravely diminish the value of the research effort. As James Watson is said to have remarked: ‘To encourage real creativity, you need to have a good deal of slack.'” (31) [Somebody help me out here: what do you do with MLA style and punctuation and citation in that last sentence, aside from the block-quote cop-out? 'Cause I've got Gibaldi's 6th edition of the official Handbook and two other handbooks -- Hacker and The Everyday Writer -- and none of them help.] Again, the contemporary trend seems to be to see corporate America as utopia — but do we really want to live in a world where efficiency is the crowning virtue?

Is an efficient lover a good lover? Or would we rather take, as Supertramp puts it, the long way home?

More tomorrow.

Five Years

1996:

My mother, my father and I drive up to York, Pennsylvania to visit my brother. My father had been up to the York County Jail once before, but it was dark. At ten thirty Christmas morning, we find ourselves lost on Main Street, snow starting to fall, everything closed.

We see a bar with the front door propped open, glimpse pool tables inside. Rolling Rock neon sign in the window. My family is one of those families that gets dressed up for Christmas day; our coats flap with the wind’s gusts. We walk in. Five or six men, all with mustaches, all in jeans and biker boots and gimme caps, one woman, in jeans and a leather jacket. All white. We ask about the jail. The tall guy in the sleeveless black Iron Maiden shirt gives us directions.

“Hey,” he says. “Take care. I been visiting up there on Christmas myself.”

Afterwards, my brother goes back to his cell.

1998:

My mother, my father and I drive up to Hagerstown, Maryland to visit my brother. We’ve all been to the State Prison before: my dad would drive up from DC, my mom from Maryland; I would drive down from Pittsburgh. The hills are beautiful once you get off the interstate.

We’ve learned to wear loafers or shoes that are easy to take off, to not wear belts or watches, for the metal detector. The first time my mom visited they made her take off her underwire bra and leave it in one of the storage lockers.

The little kids there make it OK. They’re happy no matter what: it’s Christmas, and they’re seeing Daddy. It’s all an adventure. It’s hard to not grin when you watch them.

Afterwards, my brother goes back to his cell.

1999:

My mother, my father and I drive up to Hagerstown, Maryland to visit my brother. It’s not snowing this year, but the day’s light is dim and gray.

One of the families we meet in the waiting room tells us about a nearby hotel that has a cash bar and buffet open on Christmas. After we visit my brother, we eat in a dark, smoky room, unable to turn in any direction where we’re not facing a TV. I have a warmed-over Reuben and a Budweiser.

My brother goes back to his cell.

2000:

My mother, my father and I drive up to Hagerstown, Maryland to visit my brother. Light gusts of snow; wind; a high, thin sun.

After the visit, we find a gas station that also sells deli sandwiches. We lay them out on the car’s white hood and eat. It’s the best chicken salad sub I’ve ever had. It’s almost warm for Christmas Day, almost 40 degrees.

My brother goes back to his cell.

2001:

I drive my mother up to the Jessup Correctional Training Center to visit my brother. My father’s been up the previous day. Mix of snow and rain.

I ask the guard at the front desk if we can bring in a pencil and paper so my mom can write to my brother, since she can no longer speak. The guard picks up the phone and calls the visiting room officer. They talk. She hangs up. “They’ll give you writing materials in there,” she says.

She waves at my mom and says hi. “I’m sorry she can’t talk,” she says to me. “She always used to be so nice when she would come in here.” My mom smiles back and nods, a little wide-eyed. “Merry Christmas,” the guard says.

In the visiting room with my brother, she cries, soundlessly, her mouth wide, her eyes shut. In the visiting room, you’re only allowed to embrace at the beginning and end of a visit.

After the visit, all the restaurants on the way home are closed. My mom has a hard time eating anyway, with the disease.

My brother goes back to his cell.

Wished-For Courses

One of my colleagues was kind enough to collect final portfolios for me, and so I’m doing final grades tonight, enjoying reading through portfolios, tallying up points, wishing some students had come to class more often, being pleasantly surprised by how well others have done. The pneumonia’s still kicking my butt — I feel like I’m too tired to do practically anything, and the goop in my lungs made me gasp for breath after five minutes of shoveling snow, although I’ll also say my landlords are overwhelmingly sweet in their concern — but I’m going to try to get through the rest of the grading tonight. So probably no dissertation post tonight, unfortunately.

But all this reading of student writing, plus the fact that a couple students asked me for advice on what literature courses to take, has been making me start casting yearning glances at my bookshelves, and thinking about books I’d love to teach. One thing I’ve always wanted to do would be to teach a course on the history of political rhetoric, from the Pro Ligario to the Letter from Birmingham Jail. I’ve enjoyed teaching a couple of intro-level creative writing workshops, and I’ve enjoyed teaching a couple of 100-level literature survey courses, and I think the coolest thing I got to do was plan, propose and co-teach a 300-level course called Writing and Emerging Technologies for our school’s new IT minor program; we started with the Phaedrus, read Frankenstein and Shelley Jackson’s hypertext Patchwork Girl and Neuromancer plus a bunch of critical stuff and had a terrific time. And last spring I got to co-teach an experimental writing workshop on surrealism and the avant-garde, and there have been other fun projects, too: I’ve been lucky in the things I’ve been able to teach.

But my dream course? What do I long to teach, right now in the middle of winter, thinking about the fun things I might indulge myself in reading over the holidays before getting back down to serious work on the dissertation?

The contemporary American Novel. It’d be a 400-level course, I think, with some serious reading assignments, and there’d be a big final project where students would have to choose another, longer novel by one of the authors we’d already read in class. So we’d read The Crying of Lot 49 together in class, and Gravity’s Rainbow would be an option for the final project. We’d read Beloved, and Song of Solomon would be an option for the final project. Lolita and Pale Fire. White Noise and Underworld. Tracks or The Beet Queen and Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.

And looking back over that list, it strikes me that it’s ultimately a syllabus about American myths and mythologies. Which would beg me to include Steve Erickson, Joan Didion, James Ellroy, Lydia Davis, Philip K. Dick, Carole Maso, A. M. Homes. . . .

What would your dream syllabus be?

Efficient Teaching

OK, enough of the navel-gazing woe-is-me I-have-the-sniffles foolishness already. I’m supposed to be doing work here.

Derek Bok (interesting link on race, admissions, and SATs) cites Veblen’s remark that “the ideals of scholarship are yielding ground, in an uncertain and varying degree before the pressure of businesslike exigencies” (Veblen 139, qtd. in Bok 18), pointing me once again back towards someone who I probably really ought to read. He then contrasts the supposed efficiency of the corporation to the “anarchy” of academe, but notes that despite the apparent administrative weaknesses common to “American research universities”, “they are the best in the world at what they do” (21), and details many of the non-market motivations that drive professors. The difficulty I have here with Bok’s reasoning is that he still predicates everything upon the rational and competitive actions of individual actors, whether those actors be professors or students. Is rational and individualistic competition really the only thing that makes universities good? Bok himself notes that “the ethos of the university keeps [administrators] from earning sums remotely comparable to those of top business leaders” (24): so apparently, university administrators are not the rational profit-maximizing beings familiar to us from neoclassical economics. While I don’t disagree with Bok that universities could benefit from more efficient governance, and even that they might learn some things from corporations about efficiency, it strikes me as odd that he seems to miss his own point that universities, unlike corporations, do not hold as their primary mission the wholesale pursuit of ever-increasing efficiency. In universities, there are things more important than efficiency.

Interestingly, Bok uses his thoughts on efficiency to arrive at the conclusion that “very few universities make a serious, systematic effort to study their own teaching, let alone try to assess how much their students learn or to experiment with new methods of instruction” (26). I’ll point out here that, to the best of my knowledge, composition is a rare discipline in the amount of devotion it gives to pedagogy. From personal experience, I know the lit side of English doesn’t do half the thinking about teaching that composition does. Classics doesn’t devote much disciplinary thought to pedagogy; neither, to judge by the journals I’ve waded through this semester, does economics. (Check out Brad DeLong’s wonderful post on math problems, and note what he has to say about reading and writing. Is there a pedagogical connection here?) What about other disciplines? And, finally: are better ways of teaching always necessarily more efficient — or are there better ways to characterize them?

Schleim und Sein

So I washed the dishes and cleaned up the apartment yesterday, at least, and did laundry too, and vacuumed, and was feeling pretty happy about that. And I was feeling pretty happy, too, that I’m not snot-person sick. That my whole body hasn’t been replaced with snot the horrible way it sometimes is when you’re sick in the winter. The way your skeleton turns into dried-out hardened snot balled and knitted together and your blood becomes that runny spray from a too-wet sneeze and your internal organs are made up of that thick stuff that you’ve got to throttle-snort out of the back of your sinus cavity and swallow. Because that’s the worst, when you become made of snot. That which is snot walks with a human face and lives through you, moving by touch from one hand to another like in the one cool scene in that really silly Denzel movie, and you exist only to serve snot.

So I was thinking about how grateful I am to not be snot-person sick, and that got me thinking about Heidegger. (No, really!) See, if I want to reenact the whole spurious Cartesian binary thing, I could talk about how my relief is an intellectual reaction to the absence of a bodily problem, but y’know, that’s Philosophy 101 stuff, and I’ve ranted about it before. But Heidegger, in his later notebooks (I’m working from memory here), elaborates on his theories of the contingency of historical self-knowledge. (One can see from fascimiles that Heidegger rather cryptically titled the final volume, on the inside cover, his “schleimabwischendes tagebuch”, or literally, his “booger-wiping journal”.) Heidegger uses the notions of schleim, schleimsein, and schleimwerden (the snot-ness, the being-snot, and the becoming-snot) to extend his devastating critique of the spurious splits between mind and body, intellect and materiality, head’s ghost and heart’s machine, that constitute Descartes’ self-reifying practices. Via Hegel’s dialectic, one can approach echtschleim, true snot-ness, and thereby bridge the gap between the schleimsein of the head or mind and the schleimsein of the body or heart.

I got all excited about this, and I was telling the doctor about it this morning as he was X-raying my chest, and then he showed me the black-and-white transparency that looked like a big plate of scrambled eggs sitting in the middle of my lungs, and I said, “See? There’s proof of what Heidegger was saying! Do you understand how an intellectual understanding of the Hegelian dialectic has effectuated a material translation of snot from one place to another, Doc? Do you understand the implications this has for all of Western metaphysics, man?”

So, yeah. It ain’t no winter cold. I’ve got pneumonia.

(Note added 12/16: in retrospect, the snot stuff isn’t all that funny. But yesterday was such a crappy day, I had to have something to laugh at, and the doctor prescribed Tylenol 3 to help with my persistent-like-a-boomerang-to-the-lungs-with-Energizer-batteries cough, which probably did something for my sense of humor. Hell, with codeine for coughs, I’m wondering if he prescribes percoset for sneezes. Anyway: unfortunately, the pneumonia is no joke.)

Sickbed Update

Still feeling like refried crap, but I think it’s starting to get better. I haven’t seen or spoken to a soul in the past two days, except for a couple phone calls: in that regard, I suppose I picked a good time to be sick, with classes done and no papers to grade except for the few that came in late. The past two days, I’ve done little more than stay in bed, in the hopes of sleeping this vile stuff away. I was thinking of posting some lyrics yesterday, maybe to “La Grippe” or to “Government Flu”, since I had nothing like the energy to come up with anything original, but, well, a little praeteritio will have to suffice.

Back to bed. Maybe another 12 hours will help.

Last Day

I coughed and hacked and wheezed my way through my semester’s last day of teaching today. It was a banner semester for plagiarism, unfortunately; three different cases, with three different solutions, two still pending. While Charlie’s work has offered me some really productive ways to think about calling into question the notion of writing as property, I think one way to understand plagiarism as a problem would be to see it as the reduction of the value of a piece of writing solely to its exchange value: its only worth to the student is in the grade it can get the student, as opposed to the use value that students get from what they learn by going through the process of actually writing a paper. In other words, one doesn’t necessarily have to buy into conventional constructions of textual ownership in order to understand plagiarism as problematic.

But I was talking about my day. I’m still sick, but it’s just been fatigue and a terrible cough and nothing else, and I think the worst of it is behind me. I still don’t feel like eating anything, much less anything spicy, which is unfortunate because the only leftovers in the fridge are all spicy. My sink is full of dirty dishes. My apartment is a godawful wreck. I can’t remember the last time I watered the plants. This is not the way I like things.

But I blushed when I got applause after telling them thank you for a great semester.

Or maybe it was applause for all of us. Applause to say you’re welcome and we worked our butts off. That’s a better way to think of it, I think.

The Misfit’s Fisheries

I’m wretchedly sick, and so I’m afraid this’ll be a rather simple-minded entry. Cough medicine and then to bed.

Kevin St. Martin, in his article “Making Space for Community Resource Management in Fisheries” (Annals of the Association of American Geographers), describes an alternative to the bioeconomic understanding of rational profit-seeking “individual fishermen operating on an open-access commons” (122) leading inevitably to Garrett Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’. St. Martin declares that his goal in the article is to open up alternative non-individually-oriented ways of seeing so that “The landscape of fishing communities, once made visible, suggests an opportunity for forms of area-based management that might facilitate community development rather than just individual prosperity” (122). After having read Hardin’s article scant days ago and kinda nodded my head along with it, St. Martin’s perspective turned me around some. Consider his contention that “To accept Hardin’s model, and indeed that of fisheries bioeconomics, we must imagine a homogenous common resource open to all and at the same time we must assume a particular individual subject who desires to maximize personal wealth” (125): there are certainly non-homogenous resources that are not open to all, and there are certainly individuals who don’t always desire to maximize personal wealth. Hardin was being pessimistic. (That word ‘tragedy’ is a bit of a tip-off, no?) So, to me, St. Martin’s critique — while true, as he compellingly demonstrates, for fisheries — doesn’t invalidate the problem Hardin perceives (and I don’t think Martin intended it to). There will always be individuals who are greedy assholes, and Hardin’s project is to problematize our society’s “tendency” inherited from Adam Smith “to assume that decisions reached individually will, in fact, be the best decisions for an entire society”.
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