this is for all book lovers

A huge thank-you to Curtis , who pointed me to Jon Udell's Library Lookup site. Jon's done some amazing development of bookmarklets (tiny pieces of JavaScript) that work wonders. Simply go to his site, find your libraries in the lists, and drag those bookmarklets to your browser toolbar. Then, when you're at Amazon or other book-related sites that use ISBNs in the URLs for individual book's description pages, you can simply click on your bookmarklet to find out if your local library has it! Works for public and university libraries, can be customized in various ways. Awesome. I love it when technological experimentation leads to real practical results.


yay! it's the last day of classes!

no matter how much I like my students -- there comes a point in the semester (usually about 2 1/2 weeks before the end of term) when I just don't want to see them anymore.

And, inevitably, if you teach 2 or 3 classes in a term, some become "good" classes and some "bad" classes -- it's all relative. But there is one group I'll be especially glad to wave good-bye to.

Of course the full-on celebration of summer can't quite start yet, since I still have papers and exams to grade, stacks of papers to weed through and file, and meetings to attend. But I'm going to leave the office tonight after my last class with a spring in my step . . .


yet still more book lists

Little Professor offers Crescat Sententia's alternative reading list, which does have many more quirky faves of mine on it. But, to add a bit of context to this ongoing list swapping: from Daniel Traister's website, here's extracts from Allan Massie's essay comparing an 1899 list of "100 best novels," with a 1999 "100 books of the century." Just to point out the ever-fluid nature of all attempts to fix the canon (in both senses of the word).

that book list

Will Baude at Crescat Sententia points out a problem with the latest literary meme "the list's bad tendency to list plenty of good authors, but without listing their best books." I certainly agree -- why Mill on the Floss and not Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda? Why An American Tragedy and not Sister Carrie? Etc etc. As I noted before, I'm not a fan of such lists when they're used in a prescriptive manner -- as in, "the best books" or "you must read these to be educated." But I like to see people on blogs actually commenting on the interest in reading Ibsen's other, less famous plays, etc. If the list game gets a few people to read a few more books -- well, that's never a bad thing. For myself, my list shows my gaps -- I haven't read the famous Faulkners; I'm saving Proust for my midlife crisis; and I'm weak on the Russians. I knew all that before -- but now the blogworld knows that too. Whatever that means.

a grate fear

So, everytime I have to park near a drainage/sewer grate (which I frequently do in front of our house, and I had to at yoga tonight also) I think about what would happen if I dropped my keys and/or cell phone down the grate. Now, I never have (thankfully). So is this just acknowledging my clumsiness? or a manifestation of a paranoid or controlling tendency? and will thinking about it cause me actually someday to drop my keys down there?

I've seen enough movies etc where people crawl through the sewers, rats run rampant, etc -- plenty of images in our culture about the dark underbelly of the city. And hey, I read Les Miserables at a young impressionable age. (it's actually pretty exciting for preteens, all that filth and suspense). Maybe I can just blame my fear on 19thc literature. (hah!)

but really, is this just my own paranoid fear or do other people think about it too? I mean, I drop my keys probably once a week, somewhere -- at Starbucks, at my office door as I'm managing my armload of stuff, etc. Is the grate just waiting to get me?

"lightweight publishing"

Elizabeth Lawley has a very interesting piece on how/why she blogs -- among many other things, she points to two features of blog writing: " the informality of lightweight publishing and the immediate distributed peer review and feedback". I like her term, "lightweight publishing" - because the power of the web is that potentially people can read your words, even if that's not why you got into it in the first place. And today (as compared with 8 or 10 yrs ago) it's easy and even sometimes free for anyone to create a nice-looking blog with very little effort, thanks to built-in templates etc. The significance of that is real -- when I first taught students HTML about 5 yrs ago in a writing class, you could see the thrill as they learned to create sites that looked good. This is an image culture after all.
"Lightweight" is often perjorative in our culture (which tends to value "deep", "meaty", or "strong" things) but it's perfect for this medium -- or at least a certain kind of writing I'm beginning to think of as blog writing -- the type I like to read, and hope at least sometimes to write. Something beyond "private journal writing" but not necessarily as argumentative, polished, or constrained as publishable academic writing tends to be. Inbetween, and basically ephemeral. Though as someone interested in the history of print ephemera, I'm glad the web leaves some traces. (and has its own archive!)


another book meme

from The Little Professor , here's another book meme travelling the blogosphere. Reminds me of the humiliation game in one of David Lodge's novels where people go round the room naming the book they haven't read -- most points for the most humiliating. (when I've played I usually win with King Lear.) (nope, can't explain why I never read the whole play -- though I've read all the history plays, which nobody wants to read.) Though in this case, which is more humiliating? the ones you haven't read, or the ones you read but can't really remember?

to play: post this list on your blog, putting titles you've read in boldface.

Achebe, Chinua - Things Fall Apart
Agee, James - A Death in the Family
Austen, Jane - Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James - Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel - Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul - The Adventures of Augie March
Brontë, Charlotte - Jane Eyre
Brontë, Emily - Wuthering Heights
Camus, Albert - The Stranger
Cather, Willa - Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chaucer, Geoffrey - The Canterbury Tales

Chekhov, Anton - The Cherry Orchard
Chopin, Kate - The Awakening
Conrad, Joseph - Heart of Darkness
Cooper, James Fenimore - The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen - The Red Badge of Courage

Dante - Inferno
de Cervantes, Miguel - Don Quixote
Defoe, Daniel - Robinson Crusoe
Dickens, Charles - A Tale of Two Cities

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor - Crime and Punishment
Douglass, Frederick - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore - An American Tragedy
Dumas, Alexandre - The Three Musketeers
Eliot, George - The Mill on the Floss
Ellison, Ralph - Invisible Man

Emerson, Ralph Waldo - Selected Essays
Faulkner, William - As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William - The Sound and the Fury
Fielding, Henry - Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott - The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave - Madame Bovary
Ford, Ford Madox - The Good Soldier

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von - Faust
Golding, William - Lord of the Flies
Hardy, Thomas - Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Hawthorne, Nathaniel - The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph - Catch 22
Hemingway, Ernest - A Farewell to Arms
Homer - The Iliad
Homer - The Odyssey
Hugo, Victor - The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hurston, Zora Neale - Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous - Brave New World
Ibsen, Henrik - A Doll's House
James, Henry - The Portrait of a Lady
James, Henry - The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz - The Metamorphosis
Kingston, Maxine Hong - The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper - To Kill a Mockingbird

Lewis, Sinclair - Babbitt
London, Jack - The Call of the Wild
Mann, Thomas - The Magic Mountain
Marquez, Gabriel García - One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman - Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville, Herman - Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur - The Crucible
Morrison, Toni - Beloved
O'Connor, Flannery - A Good Man is Hard to Find
O'Neill, Eugene - Long Day's Journey into Night
Orwell, George - Animal Farm

Pasternak, Boris - Doctor Zhivago
Plath, Sylvia - The Bell Jar
Poe, Edgar Allan - Selected Tales

Proust, Marcel - Swann's Way
Pynchon, Thomas - The Crying of Lot 49
Remarque, Erich Maria - All Quiet on the Western Front
Rostand, Edmond - Cyrano de Bergerac
Roth, Henry - Call It Sleep
Salinger, J.D. - The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William - Hamlet
Shakespeare, William - Macbeth
Shakespeare, William - A Midsummer Night's Dream
Shakespeare, William - Romeo and Juliet

Shaw, George Bernard - Pygmalion
Shelley, Mary - Frankenstein
Silko, Leslie Marmon - Ceremony
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Sophocles - Antigone
Sophocles - Oedipus Rex
Steinbeck, John - The Grapes of Wrath
Stevenson, Robert Louis - Treasure Island

Stowe, Harriet Beecher - Uncle Tom's Cabin
Swift, Jonathan - Gulliver's Travels
Thackeray, William - Vanity Fair
Thoreau, Henry David - Walden

Tolstoy, Leo - War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan - Fathers and Sons
Twain, Mark - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire - Candide
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. - Slaughterhouse-Five
Walker, Alice - The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith - The House of Mirth

Welty, Eudora - Collected Stories
Whitman, Walt - Leaves of Grass
Wilde, Oscar - The Picture of Dorian Gray
Williams, Tennessee - The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia - To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard - Native Son

OK, so there you have it. What a weird list -- 2 Faulkner, 2 James, and 4 Shakespeare -- why these doubles, and not others?

It's an interesting game to play -- especially as a reminder of how narrow one's reading becomes the deeper one gets in the profession. But I'm not a fan of such lists -- the "great books" canon sort of thing -- exactly what I deconstruct in my classes and in my writing. But it'd be interesting to find out who first posted this one and where s/he developed the list from.


the 23/5 exquisite corpse game

Thanks to Evelyn R's link to languagehat , who posts a couple of good examples, here's a great updating of the "grab a book and turn to p23" meme we've all seen on various blogs lately. More examples are posted at the source of the corpse variant: Incoming Signals . (For the geekly curious, LaughingMeme offers an autopsy of the original meme's spread.) I've always been a fan of Exquisite Corpse games (for another interesting variation, check out Fotolog Exquisite Corpse -- an ever-changing visual collaborative experiment).

So here's how to do it:
Take the nearest six to ten books from your shelf.
Open them to page 23, and find the fifth sentence.
Write down those sentences and arrange them to form a short story.
Post the text in your journal along with these instructions.

So here's what happened with my shelf. Not so much a "short story" as some kind of meditation about interpretation:

During the time between ending one project and beginning another, I always have a crisis of meaning. Pardon me if I doubt whether you will ever produce a great poet from your choirs . . . or a great philosopher, or a great scholar. The cygnet finds the water; but the man is born in ignorance of his element, and feels out blind at first, disorganised by sin i' the blood, -- his spirit-insight dulled and crossed by his sensations. First, this myth of genesis involves an important separation between reading (in the ordinary sense) and writing. [*]The system of language displays itself as a theater of verbal and literal figures. The meanings and effects of any single image are always adjacent to this overloaded and plural sensory environment and to the observer who inhabited it.

My six books and a disclaimer:
(1) bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom
(2) Thomas De Quincey, "Joan of Arc," (essay pub 1847) quoted in Tricia Lootens, Lost Saints: Silence, Gender, and Victorian Literary Canonization
(3) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book 1, lines 815-19. (Penguin ed.)
(4) Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production
(5) Jerome McGann, Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism. *Disclaimer: the first two words of this sentence actually read "In Stein, the system of language..." but I elided those to create a bit more fluidity.
(6) Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century

Like Language Poetry, such exercises remind us of the mind's amazing capacity to forge connections between disparate objects. (though of course books grouped on a shelf together might be expected to have some connecting thread either in subject, time period, or at minimum, the owner's interest in them)

I'd love to see other literary critical "corpses" -- don't know if this version's been spreading among that small subgroup of blogs or not.


one bad apple; or why I despise plagiarism

So I've been dealing with a plagiarism case the past two weeks. Frustrating, as all such incidents are, for a variety of reasons: she's a student I've had before, so I feel extra-insulted; it's not just one assignment, but also many of her weekly informal response journals have been copied from the web; and it means I have to deal with various levels of the university bureaucracy -- which don't hold much hope of discouraging her activities, since it also turns out she's been caught in a colleague's class before. A serial plagiarist.

Part of my response is to think of this as a symptom, or an unconscious plea, signifying that she shouldn't be in school right now -- I know she has health issues, personal issues, family issues -- but so do most of my students who DON'T cheat. Part of my response is anger & frustration: how dare she insult me by copying in stuff from Sparknotes and think I won't catch it? I know all the arguments about how we live in a culture of increasing laxity about cheating (whether it's textual or financial) -- and my lecture about how plagiarism is ethically insupportable at the beginning of every semester is probably the most "old-fartish" thing I do. But as someone who believes in the power of critical thinking, and in the power of language to help us think more deeply and express our thoughts -- there's something deeply offensive about trying to pass off someone else's words as your own. It seems terribly sad to me that she plagiarised her informal thoughts about the books. I mean, all you have to do is write two paragraphs of just about anything and I'll give you credit for it.

The worst part (and this might be enhanced by my end-of-term exhaustion) -- one bad apple spoils the bunch. It's hard to focus on all the wonderful students who are trying hard to make sense of new books and ideas, when the one bad one draws so much time, energy, attention away. I'm mad at her for spoiling the community formed during those 90 minutes, for breaking the compact or trust we've formed over the term.


teaching persona

At Making Contact there's a very interesting discussion going on about whether or not the use of "fuck" is appropriate in the classroom. The original posting was in response to a perceived "political correctness" issue on her campus, and students complaining about a swearing colleague.

Since I've already commented there, I'm not going to repeat all of what I said. But I just have a hard time accepting that there's a pedagogical value to repeatedly using the word "fuck" in class. If it's in the text -- fine. If a student says it in discussion, then you've got "a teachable moment". But it's different if the teacher is just spouting off.

And frankly, I just don't buy it when people say "I can't help it". After all, we all perform different aspects of ourselves to different audiences. Who I am in the classroom is necessarily different than who I am in other contexts. As a teacher of literature, my responsibility is to use language carefully and precisely -- and in such a manner that will help my students think critically about texts and ideas. If they are shocked, offended, laughing nervously, or overly relaxed because they think I'm "cool", their emotions tend to overrun their analysis. I make jokes, speak in slang, do all sorts of things at deliberate moments to wake them up, or to make a point -- but "fuck" is off limits. Partly because I certainly don't want them saying it to me.

Thinking of an example in my own department: I have a "potty-mouthed" colleague who reportedly focuses on scatological examples in a kind of immature way during lectures. I wouldn't know this first-hand, not being a student. What's weird is that he doesn't act that way with his colleagues. Or, not so weird: we're his peers. To perform your outrageousness, your defiance of convention, by swearing or talking about poo in front of a lecture hall, is either an aggressive display of power, or a really immature bid for attention. Not that it can't be both at once.


our monthly $

thanks to Bag and Baggage I found this explanation of the recent news that Netflix subscriptions are going up in price. We were sad to get that news --though as loyal netflix customers, I don't think it's really going to change anything. We might have to drop to the 5-at-a-time instead of our current allotment of 8. We also have tried Greencine -- it's sort of like the Working Assets of movie rentals: good-hearted, lefty-friendly -- but too expensive for the truly bohemian budget.

Netflix is one of the best inventions of the past couple of years. Drastically improved the quality of my life. Right up there with the Swiffer . So I'm willing to spend the extra few dollars to keep Netflix going I guess. Though the article suggests that the problem is partly a factor of success / increased size. How big might be too big?

movie notes: Intermission

Saw Intermission a few days ago -- right from the start, there's enough surprise built in with the formulas to get you hooked -- it's a sweet blend of romantic comedy, crime caper, midlife drama... And the ever-fabulous Shirley Henderson is in it too. She always gets cast as someone's sister, or someone's quirky friend -- I guess because of her pointy chin? but I've always thought she was great (see her in Trainspotting, Bridget Jones, 24 Hour Party People, and many more). Cillian Murphy's good as well.

Why is it that cuss words sound so much better with a strong Irish accent?


academic life/work

Curt at Occupational Adventure writes that "we often have a tendency to believe that work and non-work are two separate silos - each to be lived by what amounts to two different people. Nonsense! The reality is, we are a whole system, and everything is interconnected. We don't exist in work silos and life silos. Work is a piece of us, just as non-work life is a piece of us. "

I'm always interested in reading new suggestions, plans, etc, for defining one's goals, managing one's time, and generally improving the quality of one's life. But for an academic, one of the frustrating things about most such books or systems is that they assume a defined work space, and/or work schedule -- which academic work doesn't always have. So Curt's comments about the intertwined nature of our work selves and our life selves make sense to me intuitively as describing what brought many of my friends and colleagues into this crazy business in the first place: that in researching, creating, and teaching, we can integrate our intellectual passions with our day-to-day existence on the planet (and hopefully in a purposeful manner).

But why is it that the cultivation of guilt is such a feature of academic life? At any social or even departmentally-required-social function, you'll hear someone say "I really shouldn't be here, I should be working on my paper about Mesopotamian Limericks" or whatever. Sometimes that's a form of boasting. But often it's just an eruption of the collective sense of overwork and frustration. There are so many things that can get in the way of sustained intellectual output, which is difficult to measure anyway: which is more important, the day I write 3 pages, or the day I think of 3 new project ideas?

(Similarly, the academic cult of martyrdom: "I'd love to learn fencing, (or go to Paris, or whatever) but I have to finish my book (or get tenure or get promoted) first." )

Even early on in graduate school, my frustration with these aspects of academic culture led me to focus on creating a balance between work and life, work and play. It doesn't always stick, like now, at the end of the term. But maybe I have to move away from thinking about balance towards thinking about integrating the two even more solidly.


the less exciting side of marriage equality

There will be protests/rallies in favor of marriage equality on April 15 (tax deadline day) in many cities sponsored by www.dontamend.com .

Although getting our message out to the tired cranky people turning in their 1040s at the last minute might seem counterintuitive, I think it's a good idea. After all, we're not simply fighting for wedding ceremonies and the pictures of long-term couples saying their vows in front of family and friends -- the moving, pretty, emotionally satisfying part of the marriage debates -- it's also about the other, less picture-worthy stuff: gym memberships, hospital visitation rights, health insurance, social security benefits for the bereaved, and yes, taxes. Sure, there's workarounds for some of those things -- but not for all of them. And why should we have to go though a big hassle for the "family rate" for *anything*?

My gf and I both teach on Thursday night, so we can't be there for the rally in our city. But in spirit, I'm there.


mantra from Thich Nat Hanh, via my Anusara yoga teacher Greg:

(inhale) I am calm
(exhale) Present moment
(inhale) I smile
(exhale) Wonderful moment

a lovely thing to try on Mondays


grade inflation

Princeton's recently reported decision to institute a quota for the number of A and A- grades allowed for each section has been attracting a certain amount of attention (see for instance Freedom to Tinker and The Little Professor ). Like them, I see it as a misguided step. I'd be curious to know where the impetus for it comes from -- for instance, at Large Urban University, the sciences and social sciences frequently assert /complain that the grades are higher in humanities courses. However, class size (we have much smaller courses) and work process (much more one-to-one faculty-student attention -- comments on papers vs multiple choice tests) would seem to have a huge impact on the grades given. In my own classes, for instance, effort and improvement over time (learning to write a decent thesis statement, or learning to scan a poem properly) count for far more than discrete empirical bits of knowledge. Which therefore requires different kinds of grading methods. But try telling that to someone in sociology...

When insituting a quota for As, do they also plan a quota for Bs?

And how important, ultimately, is a GPA anymore? That's a real question. Certainly in our graduate admissions, GPA doesn't count as much as the GRE, writing sample & rec letters -- precisely because we know how fuzzy and unreliable it can be. But I don't know how that stands in law school, business school, or the sciences.


movie notes: Christina Rossetti watch

Finished the DVD of About Adam tonight -- I'd Netflix'd it based on seeing the box at the local Blockbuster one night -- imagining it to be just the typical romantic comedy -- perfect for an evening after teaching my grad seminar, when my brain is jello. Well, imagine my surprise, when two of the characters start quoting Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market ! Turns out one of the 3 sisters is writing her MA thesis on "Hysteria and Lust" in Victorian women writers -- she quotes Wuthering Heights while in bed, that sort of thing. A bit over the top in the repressed-to-expressed transformation, but still, Christina doesn't get a lot of screen time these days.

And actually, in all other respects, I quite enjoyed the film -- interesting pov structure, and way more sex-positive than the usual romantic comedy genre allows for. And, it's set in Ireland -- a very different view than most films tend to give.

I'm always fascinated by film portrayals of academics and/or thesis writers...the woman in Lisa Cholodenko's recent film, Laurel Canyon really got to me -- secluding herself, the pressure to write . . . few films can really stand to portray the agony of the writing experience (without totally navel-gazing, like Adaptation).


the NYT vs yoga

The NYT recently ran a piece on Bikram yoga, marshalling various physical therapists and medical doctors who gave little soundbites about how exercising in heat can be bad for you, how flexibility can be bad for you, and how yoga in general can be bad for you. Honestly, it's amazing that anyone reads any health reporting in the mainstream media these days. So cautious and so contradictory as not to say much at all.

So, just to make it clear where I stand: ANYTHING can be bad for you if done improperly, to excess, or with the wrong goals in mind. The corollary to that precept is that NO ONE PLAN (routine, prescription, diet, etc) will suit everyone. Once people can get out of the false empiricism encouraged by the ever-present "polls" and "studies" reported in our media and recognize that most traditional medical systems and folkways include systems of categorizing people according to metabolic type, maybe some real education can happen.

I feel fortunate that I was able to see my way beyond the traditional Western medical system over a decade ago -- to research things on my own and keep an open mind about different modalities for increasing and improving our overall wellness.

Personally, I really enjoy the Bikram series -- but it's not the only type of yoga out there, and it's certainly not for everybody. The heat can be very intense, and some body types are just better equipped to deal with it than others. But what the NYT describes doesn't match my experience at all. All the teachers I've encountered go out of their way to watch new students, to offer adaptations for those with injuries or limited range of motion, and to encourage a gentle approach to the postures. Personally, I've found the Bikram series to offer a wonderful blend of physical benefits (less knee pain, greater flexibility, improved range of motion in my shoulders) and emotional/spiritual/mental benefits: the yoga works on you, through you, beyond your conscious mind's attempts to control the situation. By focusing your attention on the extreme conditions of the physical, you free up your spiritual resources so that other transformations occur.

It makes me angry to see reporting like this, which is so obviously slanted against its purported topic from the beginning. But it also seems like the last gasp of the establishment -- after all, in the past ten years yoga has gone from hippie to trendy to completely yuppified -- so why even bother trying to turn people against it?


tenure blogging

Somehow it seems fitting that I discover the world of academic's blogs the same week that I get tenure. If only I had known that my "tribe" had such a presence on the web, I might have been caught up in blogs before. I guess the blogs I'd stumbled across before were either techno-geeky or very teenagery -- both of which I understand, but don't fully identify with -- but this seems to be my way "in" to this part of the webworld.

Not that I always want to identify as an academic -- partially or fully. Yet I know from long experience that academe is one of my primary communities--one in which, despite the hierarchies, backbiting, and petty games, also offers incredible freedoms and the opportunity to live in such a way that sometimes the interior encounters the exterior life.

If I'd found all this before, perhaps the process (grad school, tenure) would have been easier. Blogs were just beginning midway thru my PhD. But, on the other hand, I've never had any trouble finding ways to procrastinate...

So, it's fitting. I'm creating yet another online identity (having a few already) at the same time that I get the chance to develop another sense of who I am as a tenured professor.

my first entry

So here I am finally in the world of blogging. I say "finally," although it hasn't really been that long (a couple of days?) since I've actually been considering it.