Month: October 2005

Trick or Treat

Zeugma’s still working on her costume, but Tink’s ready for some trick-or-treating.

Tink wearing her Cthulhu mask

I’m hoping, for the girls’ sake, that at least a few of the neighbors will be handing out tuna and kibble in addition to the usual chocolates and candy corn.


Two things happened on the season finale of “Over There” that I’m sure everyone saw coming. First: in a fine nod to the sluggish pace of Army bureaucracy, Bo finally got his Bronze Star. Second: Lieutenant Underpants got fragged. What was masterful, for me, was the pacing of the cuts between home and war, the fine use of v-mail as a narrative device to increase the emotional affect of the distance between home and war, and the bookending of the episode with Angel’s hymn and Dim’s atheist prayer. And the funereal last five minutes were nothing short of brilliant: the coffin-echo implicit in the attention to the placing of empty beer bottles back into the empty case, and the use of entrenching tools to shovel dirt onto the light around which they’d all said Amen.

Two of the schools to which I’m thinking of applying for jobs ask for a Department of Defense form 214, a record of active-duty service. Mine’s on file with the credentials office. And I have to wonder whether those schools would be happy with me, and whether I’d be happy with them. I’m thinking about the training sessions I gave as an NCO for soldiers on the Geneva Convention and Laws of War, and some of the stupid lieutenants I encountered in my career (plus, to be fair, three good ones, as well as one sergeant major who I’ll never forget, and one lieutenant colonel who was the finest officer I ever met), and I wonder: could I make a difference? Do I want or need to? (I could, I think. I might.)

Two ways to think about this. One: I did some temporary duty at one of the schools — in fact, I got my corporal’s stripes pinned while I was there — and loved the place for its architecture and location and history, and for the cadets’ huge enthusiasm.

Two: it’s obvious from my research agenda that Marxist economists influence my theoretical perspective. I’m thinking there’s a chance some institutions might scowl at that, however clear it might be from my experience that when I was in, I loved the Army and the soldiers with whom I worked.

And I’m looking forward to “Over There” season two.

Teaching Philosophy

More job market stuff — looks like I’m following Clancy’s lead here. I’d be grateful for feedback, if you’re so inclined.


In her end-of-semester evaluation of a first-year composition course I had taught, one student offered the following teasing characterization of my pedagogical approach: “Practice! Practice! Practice! Write! Write! Write!” I grinned when I read it, partly at that teasing quality but mostly at the accuracy of her characterization. As a teacher, I focus on the enactment of education, the self-aware doing and re-doing that constitutes learning, the inherently difficult labor that brings one toward sharper facility and deeper knowing. This difficulty is pedagogically useful, and students’ work in engaging with difficult texts—writing them or reading them—is highly productive educative work.

One of my chief goals in the classroom is to make that work and its value visible. In her work on learning and difficulty, Mariolina Salvatori describes the “necessity for the knower […] to understand herself in the act of understanding” combined with the “necessity for a […] thinker to expose a text’s fissures” and to explore those fissures as moments of productive possibility. I see important parallels here to the radical self-conscious inhabiting of another’s perspective in what Peter Elbow has called “the believing game” and to the similarly radical self-conscious questioning or critique of another’s perspective in Elbow’s “doubting game.” Both of these sets of moves are processual and recursive ways of understanding or constructing cultural texts, and in their difficulty and self-awareness, they make learning visible.

The self-awareness of such work is an inward-turning technique, but for both Salvatori and Elbow—and for my students, as well—it is always coupled to the outward-turning, interactive uses of writing. I ask my students to understand that the cultural texts they consume and create, and their meanings, are inherently social. A classroom example of these coupled understandings is in my two-on-two approach to peer review: rather than having students draft individual peer response letters to one another based on their texts, I have teams of two students collaboratively write those letters, asking them in their initial paragraph of response to stay close to the author’s ideas (i.e., “believing”), then in a second paragraph pointing out the most startling or interesting moments in the text, and in a final paragraph raising questions based on those moments, (i.e., “doubting”). In writing these response letters collaboratively, students find that talking together through their responses makes it easier to write a response, and also models for them the ways intersecting perspectives can socially construct new knowledge.

A second example of class work that performs the self-conscious interaction between the individual and the social is in the class weblogs I ask my students to keep as an online alternative to journals. At the class weblogs linked from <>, students write posts on assigned topics and on topics of their own choosing, and comment on one another’s posts. Sometimes they receive outside feedback as well, as when I had them to respond to a difficult excerpt from Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated, and de Zengotita left a generous comment of his own in reply to their weblog responses. Delighted, some of them asked if they could put up final drafts of their essays as Web pages, in the hopes of continuing the intellectual dialogue. They found value in the ways that their weblog work made learning visible; a value for writing that went beyond a mere grade.

I see a necessary heterogeneity of value in the writing classroom. There is, of course, always the grade and its attendant pressures; the necessity to help students develop the writerly skills necessary for survival in school and career. As the interaction described above indicates, though, I hope as well to help students develop an appetite for and sense of pleasure in the writerly act of intellectual exchange that works through difficulty to create new knowledge; that makes visible the value of personal, academic, transactional, poetic, social, or experimental writing—but always deeply respectful of the work that goes into that writing.

Halloween Mix

My cousin Jess, knowing the thing about my birthday and Halloween, mailed me a gloriously campy and awesome Halloween CD. Delighted, I figured I’d try my hand at making one too, ’cause, well, it’s the time of the season.

  1. Philip Glass, “Koyaanisqatsi”
  2. Mike Oldfield, “Tubular Bells (Opening Theme)”
  3. Nick Cave, “Red Right Hand”
  4. Shivaree, “Goodnight Moon”
  5. Pram, “Track of the Cat”
  6. My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, “Confessions of a Knife (Part 1)”
  7. Ministry, “Cannibal Song”
  8. Slayer, “South of Heaven”
  9. Foetus, “Cirrhosis (Amon Tobin Mix)”
  10. Marilyn Manson, “Doll-Dagga Buzz-Buzz Ziggety-Zag”
  11. DJ Shadow, “Stem / Long Stem / Transmission 2”
  12. Secret Chiefs 3, “Horsemen of the Invisible”
  13. Skinny Puppy, “Reclamation”
  14. Carmina Burana, “O Fortuna”
  15. Richard O’Brien, “Science Fiction Double Feature”

At first I didn’t think it would cohere well, the lyric-focused stripped-down rock of Nick Cave and Shivaree (She whispers! I love that. How many singers besides her and PJ Harvey can get away with that in a song?) with the dirty, percussive on-acid techno of Foetus and Secret Chiefs 3 with metal (nothing says Halloween, after all, like a Dave Lombardo drum fill) with classical, but the segues are mostly OK. I tried to avoid going too over the top — I mean, it would’ve been easy and obvious to just make it all Skinny Puppy, or Skinny Puppy plus sludgy death metal — because that would’ve tipped that all-important Halloween balance between fun and dark.

Thanks, Jess.

CFP: Writing, Teaching, Technology

The UMass Amherst English Department is co-sponsoring a K-college Conference on Writing, Teaching, and Technology on April 7 and 8, 2006. From the Call for Proposals:

The rapid development of computer capabilities is providing new venues for writing for people of all ages: personal web pages, web diaries, and blogs make it possible for people to write and share their work around the globe. As technology facilitates writing, it also challenges our very notion of writing. Writers can compose not only with words, but also with images and sound. Software programs are moving far beyond spell-checking; some are being marketed claiming to evaluate writing. Finally, technology also provides new opportunities for teaching writing (for example, electronic writing portfolios; software, like WebCT, that organizes courses and facilitates sharing of drafts; distanced education platforms). This conference aims to allow teachers from different backgrounds and with different interests to share methods, ideas, and projects for using technology effectively in the writing classroom.

I’m not involved with organizing the conference, but I know some of the folks who are, and it looks like this’ll be pretty cool, especially with the cross-grade-level focus. Kathleen Yancey will give the opening address, and Charles Moran will be the speaker for the closing session. If you’re within a few hours’ drive and have an interest in technology and teaching, I’m sure they’d love to see a proposal from you.

NFL Visual Rhetorics

I don’t much like Fox, but I have to say: they get football right. ABC’s Monday Night graphics muddy up the bottom half of the screen, and CBS is even worse in its Sunday coverage that places silly 1998-style brushed-metal medallions and bars over all corners of the screen — but Fox, with its use of translucency and a single top-of-the-screen bar or icon gets it right.

Beyond that, though, the cinematography angle fascinates me. CBS is clearly the most naturalistic, doing the least image filtering of the three networks, and their CGI projection of the first-down line seems almost embarassed in its self-effacement. ABC’s Monday Night franchise this year is sort of in the middle, with some obvious on-the-fly video image enhancement in its balancing of black and white levels, and I can’t tell how much sharpening they’re doing. But Fox: man, Fox is shameless, and I can’t help but love them for the way in which they’re spinning the game into sheer spectacle, almost to the point where it might as well be a video game. Compare a Fox game to a CBS game: visually speaking, what you see from Fox is (1) an equalized image adjustment, heightening the strong blacks and strong whites in any image, reducing the range of lightness values and so increasing the contrast, (2) a posterization of color values, so that similar hues merge into one another, and (3) a sharpening of edges, so that differences in color and hue and value seem more sharply defined.

The net result? The NFL on Fox is far easier to follow in the way in which they dumb down all of the information that the game presents. And that’s a good thing. So what we’re seeing is something beyond the rhetoric of naturalism: we’re seeing a favorable public visual rhetoric that happily reduces the information available.

A filtered rhetoric.

Help Me, Gertrude

(With sincere apologies to Gertrude Stein.)

Position that is in wood. A research called philosophy shows shudders. In the job letter there is falling whereas the reference has no cut of all the fallings. It is not cheese except when it is and when it sleeps. To consider a lecture, a dissertation abstract, when it is cooked is so anxious, and not mildly, shows the force of application and a reason. A recommendation always inside a conundrum, meaning an embarassment, belongs to the deadline and the time that makes time of reference change visibly. Burnt abstract applies behind curriculum. A letter makes cheese for an eyesight casserole and an exchange. The instruction is to stop: there was not yet December for the sample and the hotel. There are not crashes beyond tape and food or the bar. When we talk we know that teaching is green for dentistry and nodding. There are flowers that are projects.

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Not Working Class

A few weeks ago, Bill asked in a great post about poetics, rhetoric, and the logic of affect, “Is a ‘working-class rhetoric’ even possible?” I’d like to see more from Bill in this vein, partly because I’m not entirely comfortable with the implicit parallel I (perhaps mistakenly) infer from Bill’s post between poetics versus rhetorics and working class versus middle class (that seems to be hinted at in a heart-versus-head way in Julie Lindquist’s recent College English piece, as well), but largely because I agree with a lot of what he’s saying, especially the statements that “Our culture doesn’t have a vocabulary for having non-fiction discussions about class status. We lack terms with agreed-upon meanings. Statements about class (especially working-class) status are politically divisive, perpetually contested.”

We learn from Raymond Williams that class distinctions are inherently contradictory: the working class is characterized by its activity, while the middle class is characterized by its position. Yet there is a rhetoric of the working class academic, a status-claim performed in books, articles, listservs, and conferences.

I can’t perform that status-claim. I am not a member of the working class.

In saying that, I am not suggesting such claims are wrong or misguided. I am in no way trying to perform the rationalization of economic inequality in self-indulgent praise of the inherent moral superiority of the middle class that one prominent scholar in my discipline has deemed necessary. I am not attempting to indict the admirable scholarly work in such excellent volumes as This Fine Place So Far from Home and Coming to Class. I’m just saying: I can’t claim that. I won’t claim that. And I don’t want to claim that.

Why not? I’ve still got my Class A Commercial Driver’s License. I can still drive the biggest rigs and biggest loads out there. I hauled 72 tons plenty of times, and that’s bigger than most peoples’ houses. I worked construction as a teenager and temped in my 20s. I went into the regular Army as an enlisted trucker, and came out Sergeant Edwards. With a cross wrench, I can change a tire faster than anybody you know (well, OK, except for maybe Rob) outside of NASCAR. And I wouldn’t be finishing my PhD right now if I hadn’t had the Army’s GI Bill.

But I’m not working class.

And it’s obvious, from Raymond Williams, why not. The working class is defined, synchronically, by its activity. What it does. According to such a synchronic definition, I’m a teacher and a scholar; a professional; a member of the professional class. Position is diachronic. Where one stands, culturally, is not about the now of activity but about the history of position. Claims of working status are placed in the present — as I think they should be, since studies of class are inescapably political and aimed at remedying contemporary inequalities — while positional claims are necessarily based upon a historical foundation.

In other words: I’m not a working class academic because I’m an academic. And my commitment to political change is based on that awareness of difference. For me, to claim working class status would be to endorse an inherently conservative position, a position that privileges and celebrates a cultural identity rooted in the past, rather than to pay attention to my own labor and the classroom labor of my students. And I refuse to misname my own work, because I refuse to misname the work of my students. Economic change isn’t about who we’ve been: it’s about what we do.

I am not working class. We work.

Eldritch Elder Gods

I dropped in to see my attorney, and in the context of our billable discussion I happened to idly mention something I’d seen in the news about Kevin Federline.

She spat her ice cube back into her tumbler of bourbon.

“We don’t speak that name round here,” she said.

End of discussion. The receptionist hastily showed me out, with security behind her.

I should have known better. I’d seen my attorney’s library; her editions of the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, Justin Geoffrey, the Livre d’Eibon, Remigius and Della Porta, De Vermis Mysteriis, even a facsimile of fragments from the Philetas translation of the Al-Azif. Living in western Massachusetts, with Miskatonic less than two hours away, I should have known better.

I got on I-90 and pointed my car east.

You’d never expect to find a department of Media Studies at a school like Miskatonic, not when its library’s restricted collection is its chief draw, and especially not in a haunted and gambrel-shrouded tiny New England town like Arkham. But there it is, the newest building on campus, all glass and steel in a weird almost non-Euclidean geometry, not curvy like Gehry but just off in its angles.

“Oh yes,” a TA whispered to me. We were talking, quietly, in her cubicle after I’d found not a single professor with an open office door. “K-Fed’s not the only one. They have titles, you know. And ranks.”

Me, clueless: “Ranks?”

Her, impatient: “Ranks. Principalities, powers, virtues. You know. Dominations, thrones, cherubim, seraphim.”

Me: “No. I don’t know.”

Her: “The ranks of angels. Only these aren’t angels.”

And the TA, whose name I swore I would not print, told me of the eldritch elder gods from the shining rhombus beyond which black gulfs lie, and their avatars.

Bono the Unspeakable. The Sentient Toxic Mist that is Nicole Kidman. Steve Jobs, the monstrous nuclear chaos who dances in the madness outside angled space. Katie Holmes, Bride of He Who Must Not Be Named. The Many-Tentacled Toad-God Jon Stewart. Gretchen Wilson, who is The Key and The Gate. The Mother of Knives, Martha Stewart, who is also The One Who Rends Veils. Bill O’Reilly, The Father of Abominations. The Source of Uncleanliness corporeally embodied as Jenna Bush. Chris Rock, the yellow-scarved High Priest Who Is Not to Be Described. The tenebrous daemon-sultan Kato Kaelin, with his great and terrible Herald and Envoy.

And beyond these, there are names one dares not write.

I must type quickly, now.

My Dinner with Terry

Last week, Terry Eagleton gave our English department’s annual Troy Lecture on the Humanities and Public Life. It was a great talk, and I was one of the grad students who got invited to come along to the faculty dinner with Eagleton afterwards, which was excellent as well, though I’ll cop to being star-struck and tongue-tied. But Eagleton was charming and funny and brilliant and intensely charismatic, and I’m glad to have gone to both the talk and the dinner, especially since my dissertation work owes so much to the theoretical inheritance — via Eagleton and others — of his mentor, Raymond Williams.

His lecture focused on two terms: terror and tragedy. Terror, of course, in its modern rhetorical deployment as “terrorism,” and tragedy in its literary sense. The term “modern” is essential, according to Eagleton, because terror (as a political idea and a philosophical concept) and modernity are “twinned at birth”: the word “terrorist” was first used by Edmund Burke in reference to the French Revolution, the founding of the first modern bourgeois state. But — of course — in that case, terror was the Jacobin state. As Eagleton put it, “Terror has an impeccable bourgeois pedigree.” He pointed out, as well, that our contemporary rhetorical references to “9/11” have their own predecessor in the September 11 death of Salvador Allende in the coup d’etat that installed General Pinochet and Milton Friedman’s Los Chicago Boys 28 years earlier. (Yes, again with the economics — but with Eagleton, the first and second Paris Communes, Friedman, and Chile, how could it not be?)

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