Month: July 2006

Endings and Startings

Tonight’s my last night in the old Massachusetts apartment, into which I moved as half of a couple five years ago. My attorney dropped by this evening to spend some time with Tink and Zeugma, muttering dire imprecations and something about separation anxiety. Tomorrow morning I’ll take down the cat tree, scrub and vacuum, pack up the last few household items and the girls, and head four hours south.

And all of this still feels more like an ending than a beginning. I suppose that’s partly because I haven’t yet closed on the new house and I haven’t yet started the fall semester, and so this is a process of finishing things and closing things off, without that emotional sense of the opening-up of possibility.

Last things to put in the car tomorrow? The philodendron. The birdfeeder. And the girls in their cat-carriers.

Government Property, Public Property

The arriving faculty workshop at West Point continues, with an interesting briefing several days ago from USMA’s intellectual property attorney. The primary point of the briefing had to do with contracts and copyright, and it was this: any intellectual property I produce while at West Point in my official capacity as a faculty member, government employee, and representative of the United States Army does not automatically inhere to me as it would under conventional copyright law. Instead, inasmuch it is produced in the service of the United States Government, it is immediately released into the public domain.

Yeah. Wow. And, given my views on intellectual property, I think that’s pretty cool, although the IP attorney’s acknowledgement of the forthright application of institutional hegemonic force was a little unsettling: most of the time around here, they hide the iron behind velvet for civilian faculty.

There are other implications, as well. Ethical regulations make very clear that I can’t use my position as a West Point faculty member to push a book or an essay, which of course would seem obvious until one raises concerns (as I did with the IP attorney) of context and venue: essays published by West Point faculty in Military Review carry considerably different appeal and considerably different connotative freight from those published in Rethinking Marxism.

The thing that’ll be most difficult for me to get used to, however, is that I won’t be able to ask my students — plebe cadets, this first semester — to make a choice about the status of their essays as intellectual property. Anything they write in and for my class is instantly released into the public domain, and they therefore don’t have to engage with the concerns of choice, motivation, and textual ownership that have lately been so important to me.

Unless, of course, we begin to productively blur the line between work performed in an official capacity and work performed in a personal capacity. Like an institution-wide cadet blogging initiative might do.


My Day at School

And so flew we did.

Helicopter overflight of West Point.

Helicopter overflight of West Point.

Helicopter overflight of West Point.

Helicopter overflight of West Point.

Helicopter overflight of West Point.

Helicopter overflight of West Point.

Do I love my job?

O yes I love my job.

(Explanatory addendum: a portion of my work day today consisted of a military helicopter overflight of the West Point campus and ranges and surrounding areas. Our point of departure was that helipad on the Hudson, and — as the cockpit view might indicate — we enjoyed some sharp banked turns and low flying, as well. And yes, I don’t think I could have asked for a better bunch of new colleagues.)

PKD, Adapted

Collin beat me to the review, so I’ll simply say: if you’re a fan of weird fiction, Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly is worth your time. I saw it with my attorney as my final Massachusetts art-theater moviegoing experience, and it was very, very good. In fact, I’d say that the movie version pulled together the incoherencies of the original text in much the same way that Blade Runner extrapolated from and pulled together DADOES.

It’s a movie that knows all about drugs, and the tweaks and former tweaks who see it will well appreciate the ethos and deeply paranoid logic with which it constructs its paranoid anti-drug and anti-paranoia theme. I’ve heard some sci-fi fans complain that the movie fails in that it neglects to replicate the suffocating dread and paranoia of the book, but frankly, those fans are missing one of the movie’s big points, and one of PKD’s book’s big implicit points as well:

Drugs. Are. Fun. That’s why people do them.

Which, in and of itself, constitutes the lure of addiction, and its danger. The movie, in following the book’s indictment of the drug culture and its horrible casualties, would be deeply dishonest if it didn’t show why people do stuff like Substance D. (It also nicely encapsulates the reasons why “Just Say No” is an ineffective campaign to attempt to sell to teens: the logic of “Just Say No,” as the movie indicates, actually creates desire.) The comedic and comedic-paranoid moments in the movie, in the way they get you to laugh along and see (and even empathize with) the skewed logic of intoxication, humanize Arctor and his friends, and that’s what gives the movie’s final act its emotional punch.

Check it out.

Regimentation, Part 1

I’ll be teaching sections of English 101 — “Composition” is the course title — at the United States Military Academy at West Point this fall. The curriculum is a bit regimented, but it’s surprising in the freedom it offers instructors, as well.

Grading standards are highly explicit and non-negotiable: it’s made quite clear exactly what is and is not permissible, and as one might expect, there’s a strong current-traditionalist influence in the standards’ attention to error. Cadets are expected to “develop the capacity to organize facts and ideas in a persuasive, logical argument and demonstrate … their ability to meet appropriate standards of organization, substance, correctness, and style in writing” (Department of English Mission and Policies). So: an argument-focused course, with the familiar updating of three of the five canons (inventio, dispositio, and elocutio become content, structure, and style), and an unsurprising generational split in faculty attitudes towards error and how to work with it.

Read more

Charlie Foxtrot

Everything that could go wrong went wrong, in spectacular fashion.

The floor guys neglected to tell the contractor that they decided to go with slow-drying polyurethane varnish rather than fast-drying water-based varnish on account of the fact that the floors are pine, which changed our timeline from today to next week. That, coupled with the knowledge that the movers were coming today with my stuff, was cause for panic, as was the phone call from the bank that they wouldn’t clear to close on account of them not liking what they saw in an old inspection, which the attorney should never have forwarded to them anyway. The refrigerator is broken and the part that I’m supposed to fix it didn’t arrive today, so I’ve got rotten chicken triple-bagged in the rollaway trash can and still stinking up the back yard, with trash day not until Tuesday. And to top it all off, five o’clock rolled around and my household goods never showed up, and since the Army’s civilian offices don’t work weekends, it’ll be Monday until I find out where they are.

Fortunately, I think I’ve got the bank problem resolved — I had my inspector send them an email saying the place is fine.

And, in a weird way, having the stuff in limbo with the movers is sort of a good thing, since it gives the floor guys more time to finish.

But yeah. I was on the phone all day today, frustrated and angry. And the back yard stinks.

Internet in a Box

O internets how I have missed you.

There have been some, er, unanticipated connectivity difficulties in my ongoing move from Williamsburg, Massachusetts to Highland Falls, New York. Today, I was happily able to remedy some of those difficulties, and put the internets in a cardboard box.

The internet in a cardboard box.

That would be my DSL modem and my wireless base station and accompanying cables in the midst of my contractor’s sheetrock work. A good bit of sheetrock taping got done today, but not as much as I’d like.

The study, with bare sheetrock.

It’s looking like a neck-and-neck race between the contractor getting the sheetrock up and taped and sanded and painted and the movers arriving with my household goods. The finish line is around noon on Friday.

The contractor showed me this weekend that he can hustle when he needs to. Which is a good thing, because Friday’s going to be one charlie foxtrot of a day if he doesn’t. And he knows it.

The dining room, with the kitchen beyond.

And that little slice of yellow wallpaper through the doorway is where I’m camping with my air mattress through all this. My 12 x 12 kitchen, complete with clock radio, laptop, and clothes hung in the pantry.

C’mon Friday.

Where to Find Me

It was hot and humid in the Hudson Valley this afternoon, but despite the haze, the view was worth the picture.
West Point and the Hudson River, from above

The building where my office is, Lincoln Hall, is circled. (Click on the picture for a bigger, non-circled version.) For scalar clarification: the building is five stories high.

Those buildings off at the very far right edge are the library and, a little lower down, you can just see the edge of some of the cadet barracks. They include a dining hall that seats 4,400.

Function and Motivation

A question for comp folks: in what (likely various) ways do we understand the link between the function of writing and the motivation for writing? How do we connect what a piece of writing does to why the author wrote it?

As you can probably guess, this is a question that evolved in the discussion during my defense yesterday, and I’m still trying to find ways into it.

The later portions of my dissertation rely heavily on the diverse motivations Yochai Benkler charts for engaging in commons-based informational production: intrinsic hedonic rewards (i.e., pleasure), market-based rewards (i.e., material gain), and social-psychological rewards (i.e., recognition and/or affirmation). I think we can apply those motivations to writing, as well: people write for pleasure, for gain, for recognition, and for affirmation. But during my defense yesterday, one of my committee members suggested that there are also what she called “performative political” motivations for writing: one can write in order to perform and enact political change. (The performance is in getting other people to see you do it and prompt an enacted reaction from them; the enactment is the work of actually doing it.) And I totally agree: one reason to write is to change the world around you.

I’ve also tried to synthesize some of the work of Mariolina Salvatori, Peter Elbow, James Britton, and Janet Emig to try and talk about the diverse functions of writing. Britton talks about the expressive function, writing that is close to the self and does something for the self; the transactional function, writing that works to get things done; and the poetic function, writing that is essentially belletristic. I don’t think Britton’s taxonomy is adequate either in completeness or specificity, but Emig adds in the notion of writing to learn, which seems to carve out a space between the transactional and the expressive. And we could probably even throw Aristotle into the mix here, and talk about writing to determine future action, ascertain or prove the nature of past action, and engage in present-tense praise or blame, all perhaps as sub-categories of the transactional. So, yes, the notion of function could certainly use some sorting-out and taxonomizing.

But there are two big questions here:

  1. How do we express the link — if there is one — between motivation and function? (Would constructing a rigorous denial of that link open up interesting possibilities?)
  2. Can writing ever be done entirely for its own sake? What would that mean, and what would that look like? What motivation might one have for engaging in writing for its own sake?

I’d especially welcome examples folks might come up with.

The Edwards Boys

Today was a big day for the Edwards boys.

David finally had his parole hearing in front of the hearing examiner this afternoon, who will report to the parole commissioner, who will put his findings before the parole board. I was na├»ve in thinking there’d be some news today — no such luck. Still, it sounds as if the parole commissioner has taken an active interest, and that’s a good sign.

So I’m keeping my fingers crossed for him. He began his time in prison about when I began my time in grad school, and I hope he’s close to finishing it.

Which brings me to my other news.

I was totally nervous at first, in giving that introductory 10-minute statement, and I know it showed. It didn’t help that it was hot in the room, and that I was in suit and tie: if you’re going to do it, I figured, might as well do it right. Cuff links, even, for the reason that they were the ones that my dad’s father, M. R., wore at his college graduation. He was the first one in his family to go to college, and Aunt Ida, the only one in his family to come and see him graduate, gave him those cuff links.

And I bet M. R. wasn’t ever as flushed or shaky as I was.

But I got through that 10-minute intro, and — in what I felt was a moment of glory — managed to work in a reference to Gilligan’s Island. After that, the rhythm took some getting used to, me finding my footing with my outside reader first, who was a generous questioner, and who at the same time made me question some vital connections I hadn’t considered. Her questions weren’t easy, but in the way she both made me re-state some of the arguments I was making and made me extend them, she got me to pin down, out loud, concrete points of reference for the defense, and in so doing opened up directions of investigation.

After that initial moment, I felt like I found my rhythm, made the connections, followed through on trains of thought. And felt secure enough, in several instances, to say, “I don’t know how I would do that,” or, “I don’t know how I might predict that.” Because I do know this stuff — this topic of my dissertation — better than anybody else, which also means that I know the bounds and limits of my knowledge. And I had those bounds and limits pressed at and tested today.

And I passed.

And to everybody who showed up or offered their support, at the defense or in the halls or on the blog or elsewhere, thank you. Y’all so rock.

The Doctor, as they say, Is In.