Sunday, January 28, 2007

NYT Sunday (Academic) Book Review; or, Thomas Mallon, we Hardy knew ye

My apologies to those who kept checking in this past week only to see my ursine shout out to friends back in Chicago. It was a busy week here at the Kingston office: in addition to teaching (my students and I read Francis Bacon this week), I had job talks to go to (our department is hiring); and on Friday, I subbed in a graduate seminar on the topic of "close reading."

While the weekend couldn't come fast enough, how dismaying it was to turn to this Sunday's Times Book Review, to read yet another surge of anti-academic sentiment in the Gray Lady.

In this week's prefatory editorial column, titled "Up Front", the Editors introduce, indeed valorize, the critic Thomas Mallon in the following terms:

“The only really bold thing I’ve ever done,” Thomas Mallon insisted in a recent telephone conversation, “was to give up tenure at Vassar and start trying, in my mid-30s, to live the kind of life I might have had in my 20s.” Although his aim was to be a novelist (his first, “Arts and Sciences,” was published in 1988; his seventh, “Fellow Travelers,” is due in May), it was literary journalism, not novel-writing, that set him free from the constraints of academic prose. Mallon’s informed but accessible style, evident in his cover review of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy, has been a feature of his contributions to the Book Review, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and other publications for the past 20 years — and in “Doubting Thomas,” the column he wrote for GQ magazine through much of the 1990s.

Because, you know, we literary scholars are just a bunch of uninformed, inaccessible cowards, cleaving to the "constraints of academic prose," if not the shackles of tenure, and living unfree, unfulfilled lives. So much for liberal education, eh?

But you know who's really bold and free? Claire Tomalin. In Mallon's review of Tomalin's biography of Thomas Hardy, Tomalin receives the following ringing endorsement:

Tomalin herself examines the novels with the confident judgments of a critic, not the hedged and sometimes overawed appraisals of a scholar. Appreciative of Hardy’s genius, she still finds his body of fiction “exceptionally uneven.” “Tess,” the novel that made him rich, remains by Tomalin’s measure an awkward production in spots, and yet it “glows with the intensity” of Hardy’s imagination. In a fine example of biography’s usefulness to criticism, Tomalin notes that what Hardy called Tess’s “invincible instinct towards self-delight” was a quality the novelist “himself possessed in very small measure,” and thus, perhaps, judged all the more laudable in his heroine. “Jude the Obscure,” written when he was in his mid-50s, reprised Hardy’s earliest “theme of a penniless young man with ambitions and radical ideas.” But so inexhaustible were his feelings on the subject that even today, as Tomalin puts it, “reading ‘Jude’ is like being hit in the face over and over again. ... It was Job retold for a godless world that offers no final consolation or redress.”

Mallon concludes his review on the following note:

[Tomalin] has visited each important locale of Hardy’s life, noticing the large and seemingly simple things academic scholars often miss: “Most of his characters are prodigious walkers. Tess and Jude both walk themselves through the crises in their lives, and Jude effectively kills himself by walking in the rain.” This is an observation that helps readers to square the circle of recognitions, to remember Hardy as a writer whose books they would once finish with the sudden need to get up from the chair and out of the house, to walk, alone, filled with the ancient surefire feelings of pity and fear.

Those of you who followed the post-MLA "academic blog" debates may recall that I had mused whether blogging might help intervene in discourses such as these. I'm still thinking about that topic, as Carrie Shanafelt awaits a long-overdue response from me over at the Valve; and I have much to say here, about Mallon's claims here, and the Times' claims for him, and what they imply and assume about our work.

For once, I am going to resist the urge to be overly didactic, however, or to perform a "close reading" of these passages, and instead put the questions the Book Review raises out to my readers. . . is there no such thing as bad press, when the press misrepresents scholarly work to the general readership, indeed our own consumer base? What do you think of Mallon's claims and assumptions here -- in what ways are they valid, in what ways unmerited? Do we turn the other cheek, take it lying down?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Interplanetary Orthography

I watch precious little TV these days, but am working on the laptop in the same room with my son, who is watching Christopher Reeve's first Superman movie (Ollie was Superman for Halloween).

Remember the scene when Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) “interviews” Superman on her balcony – in her negligee? She inquires what planet he’s from; he responds.

Lois Lane, taking notes: “So that’s Cripton, with a c, r, i . . . ?”

Superman: “No, actually, it’s Krypton, with a k, r, y. . .”

Because of course superheroes from other planets use the same romanic alphabet we do.

Spousal Limitations on the Campaign Trail: Or, is X the new Y?

Hillary Clinton's official announcement, that she is entering the race to become U.S. President number 44, has journalists trying out all sorts of ways to represent her relationship to number 42 -- or more specifically, deciding what facts about her marriage are relevant to reporting the campaign.

For numbers 41 and 43, the relationship was technically straightforward -- father-son -- though, as Maureen Dowd likes to remind us, psychologically fraught, having eventually played an untoward, if not grotesque, role in shaping U.S. foreign policy. For x-chromosome Clinton (née Rodham) and y-chromosome Clinton (né Blythe), the journalistic options are thorny from the outset: at what point in any given article does one note her marital status and mate? Must Monica Lewinsky appear in every item? Would it not be perverse, in these years when U.S. and Iraqi citizens are dying to settle the Shrub's old scores with Dad, if the 2008 campaign became a replay of Bill Clinton's impeachment trial?

Seeing in every weighty public matter its funhouse mirror image in pop culture, I present yet another link to The Onion: "Kevin Federline, Wife Divorce." My favorite bit? The part where the unnamed "spouse" is defined as "a 24-year-old entertainer who worked as a singer and foreground dancer at Federline performances." Foreground dancer! Priceless.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Superfluous Letters

Because my work concerns alphabetical letters, I must post this link to Bill Poser's post on Language Log, on Saudi Arabia's ban on the letter x.

English has its own checkered history of attempts to expunge particular characters from the alphabet. The first aspect of the language humanists attempt to reform, spelling forms the grounds of the sixteenth-century English standardization movement. In 1568, Sir Thomas Smith writes the following on the letter c:

Now tell me what you make of it. Does not this letter seem to be an Hermaphrodite, neither male nor female, and yet both and neuter, a monster among letters, not a letter; an example of ignorance, not art? For art is founded on certain rules and on the constancy of nature. But this c which we use, or rather abuse, in our common pronunciation of Latin, I know not what letter it is, nor what it is. For if s is a letter, and k is a letter, as the Latin alphabet (which you wish me to follow), shows; what force or power is left for this vagabond c, but to be a sort of monster or Hobgoblin, appearing now make, now female, now a serpent, now a crow? And by such willful impostures it is driving out both s and K from their houses and lands. So that these two letters might lawfully sue it under the edict Unde Vi, and I doubt not that if the Praetor be just, c will be easily convicted. What do you think?

And on the letter q:

I cannot understand what this letter means. For if we take k for the sound which when joined to a makes ka, and when joined to u makes ku, what is q doing, or what purpose does it serve? If I were the Prince of Grammarians, with authority to make eternal laws, valid throughout the whole world of Romans and Germans, I should cast out q as beggarly and intruding, and wrongfully and unnecessarily occupying the space of a real letter, and should command its exile far away; as Sarah did to Hagar and Ishmael as soon as Isaac began to grow strong. Q is really a slavish letter, deformed and decrepit, powerless without us as its staff, and with it no better than k. Do you think I am speaking my mind clearly? . . . I shall therefore soon make an end of this and other letters, and you shall at last be released and purged. So listen. Whatever q is like, we have it, always walking before its u like a proud maidservant.

Linguistically, or in principle, Smith objects to "superfluous letters," letters that represent sounds designated by other letters. As you can see here, however, Smith depicts superfluous letters' transgressions by way of the Old Testament (Saudi Arabia's ban is religious in basis) as well as other violations of social rule, be it gender (c is a hermaphrodite), status (the letters usurp others' rank), or property (they displace other letters from their rightful place).

Smith proposes a new English alphabet, one in which each individual letter corresponds to each and every individual sound, or phoneme, in English speech. Needless to say, Smith and the subsequent spelling reformers are unsuccessful in their bid to regulate English writing in this way. As we spell some words phonetically, some according to etymology or language of derivation, systemic variation remains a feature of English ortho-graphy, or "right writing."

We nonetheless owe to this footnote in the history of the English language -- a footnote I converted into a dissertation, and coming soon, a book! -- the first pedagogy developed to teach English (schoolmasters such as Richard Mulcaster propose teaching English as a subject of learning, versus rewriting the alphabet), the first dictionaries ("hard word lists" are initially published as spelling guides, to fix extant spellings in print), and the enduring notion that "spelling counts" -- not only as a (dubious) measure of language ability (my daughter has just started taking "spelling tests") but also a mark of one's advanced literacy, or place in lettered society. To be a "good" or a "bad speller" says something about you, something that may or may not square with how "well read" you are or your general facility with language.

In early modern English lit, the most explicit reference to the movement appears in King Lear, at the end of Kent's harangue to the impertinent servant Oswald, or one banished figure wishing to banish another: "Thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter!" (2.2.64).

For those who are interested (what, you don't find it fascinating?! I know, I am the *closest of close readers), I've written at length on the recent bumper crop of spelling bee entertainments, and how they gesture to this peculiar chapter in English language history: here, in an online review of The 21st Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which supplies more of the history of the American spelling bee; and here, on Akeelah and the Bee, which asks why spelling, why now, in this era of standardized tests and No Child Left Behind.

And I am repeating myself utterly here, but must follow up that Language Log link with one to the Onion's report on the letter D, who pulls his sponsorship of Sesame Street when a new gay muppet, "Roger," joins the cast. It still cracks me up.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Early Modern Surges

After so many posts related in some way to my own self-fashioning (via blogs, nametags, Facebook, etc.), it was liberating to bang out a fairly straightforward and relatively inconsequential post on sports.

That said, I admit to burying the day’s highly consequential lede. The Beckham signing was announced the day Congress took aim at the U.S. President’s “surges,” also known, though little recognized, as the 21,000 flesh and blood men and women who will put their lives on the line for a war unsupported by two-thirds of the citizens who front the monies that fund those soldiers’ salaries as well as said unsupported and tragically mismanaged war. Whew. Also the same day I taught “new world narratives” by Walter Raleigh (about Guiana), Francis Drake (Nova Albion, or San Francisco), and Thomas Hariot (Virginia).

Welcome, then, to this term’s edition of “What century is it?”

Last term’s game was played the week I was teaching Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and Bob Woodward’s State of Denial (2006) came out. As I noted then, Woodward’s portrayal of Bush among the flatterers echoed Raphael Hythloday’s observation that sixteenth-century foreign policy gets perverted by courtier self-interest.

This week, Raleigh’s tract administered the most potent dose of das Heimliche. When I prepared my students for the reading, I called attention to the two contradictory gestures framing the title: “The Discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana, with a relation of the great and golden city of Manoa (which the Spaniards call El Dorado).”

“Discovery” suggests dibs -- that is, that Raleigh and his fellow journeymen “discovered” the region in such a way they can lay claim to it. Of course, we all know Europeans didn’t unearth territory that had already been there, indeed inhabited and civilized. But what’s amusing about Raleigh’s title is that it initially purports to report the discovery of Guiana, only to acknowledge, eventually and parenthetically, that the Spanish got there first – and already named the place. The subsequent tract will call on Queen Elizabeth I to send “surges” of British troops to reclaim – and one would imagine, rename -- the territory for England.

Raleigh does not begin the treatise so transparently, however [btw, I’m working with the excerpt in the Norton Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Volume, eighth edition]. Rather, the tract begins rather innocuously as a personal eyewitness account of the region. Raleigh waxes poetic that “we beheld that wonderful breach of waters which ran down Caroni; and might from that mountain see the river how it ran in three parts, about twenty miles off, and there appeared some ten or twelve overfalls in sight. . ." Sounds luverly, dunnit?

Only further in does Raleigh's survey of the landscape begin to take on a whiff of recon. Amid references to "hills so raised here and there over the valleys, the plains adjoining without bush or stubble, all fair green grass," Raleigh notes "the ground of hard sand easy to march on either for horse or foot." What begins as pastoral reverie becomes increasingly military in outlook.

Indeed: sand . . . uranium, WMDs. Far from a comprehensive and objective assessment of the region, the evidence is hand-picked to support Raleigh's proposed mission for England to colonize Guiana. Writing “I never saw more beautiful country nor more lively prospects,” Raleigh's choice of prospects is significant, for it reads doubly, to refer both to peaks in the landscape, and to prospects for England, were British troops to set foot there.

Raleigh proposes the Guiana mission in particular because he claims the gold found there will fund the operation. He launches a new paragraph, “I will promise these things that follow, which I know to be true,” and proceeds to report that “The common soldier shall here fight for gold, and pay himself, instead of pence, with plates of half a foot broad, whereas he breaketh his bones in other wars for provant and penury. Those commanders and chieftains that shoot at honor and abundance shall find there more rich and beautiful cities, more temples adorned with golden images, more sepulchers filled with treasure, than either Cortez found in Mexico, or Pizarro in Peru.”

Gold, oil. You do the math.

The narrative progressively surges to where Raleigh assures the Queen that, “if there were but a small army afoot in Guiana, marching towards Manoa the chief city of Inca, he would yield to her Majesty by composition [or by voluntary contract; my italics] so many hundred thousand pounds yearly, as should both defend all armies abroad and defray all expenses at home.”

Small army. “Greeted as liberators.” Pay for itself. ‘Nuff said.

While most of these narratives were written in the sixteenth century, I chose to use these texts to launch the second, seventeenth-century-based term of my year-long survey of Renaissance Prose and Poetry, not only to work the “new term,” “new world” angle, but also to flag nuances in the term “empire,” a word central to Raleigh’s title and mission, and etymologically and conceptually related to empiricism, a concept our class will discover in seventeenth-century prose authors such as Francis Bacon.

When Bacon proposes new territories (e.g., the “New Atlantis”) for learning, he works the “new learning,” “new world” angles himself. The so-called “father of modern science,” Bacon is concerned to “discover” and rename modes of knowledge previously claimed, indeed cornered, by the humanists viz. classical rhetoric. Bacon writes: "men began to hunt more after words than matter; more after the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses, and the varying and illustration of their works with tropes and figures, than after the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention or depth of judgment." Substituting "things" for "words," Bacon demands that learned men redirect their attention from the study of language and devote their study to "things" and "matter."

As I asked my students in my first-day-of-term overview, what role will language nonetheless play in advancing this new brand of “learning”? After all, The Advancement of Learning (1605), the treatise Bacon writes to introduce this new mode of knowledge, is written to King James I, specifically to implore the king to direct his “magnanimitie,” aka reach for his cheque-book, to fund Bacon's new mission (the groundwork, in fact, for the Royal Societies).

But as we see in Raleigh’s treatise, as well as the obfuscations of the neo-cons, facts aren’t facts, strictly defined, when summoned in the service of a fundamentally rhetorical exercise. Traced to the Latin imperium, and thus to imperre, or to command, both empire and empiricism presuppose the use of language to survey the available data -- and then summon the troops.

In this light, there is something more to take from the report of Sir Walter Raleigh, “stupid get.” For, far from proposing neo-con notions that the arrival of the British military will result in a healthy restructuring of the region (a "domino effect"), Raleigh is eventually quite blunt (after his cagily worded title) that the purpose of the mission is to fortify British rule: “For whatsoever prince shall possess [Guiana] shall be greatest, and if the king of Spain enjoy it, he will become irresistible. Her Majesty hereby shall confirm and strengthen the opinions of all nations as touching her great and princely actions.”

“The opinions of all nations” confirmed, that the U.S. cannot be trusted to act in the world's interests, can someone please tell the President to lay down his Camus and pick up a couple of these Renaissance strangers?

Words and things. Liberal education indeed.

Post Post-script, Jan. 15: Two things. First, I haven't blocked out those long quotes (MLA style) because I'm having an issue with block quotes in Blogger (the subsequent text gets misformatted for no reason). More important, I suppose I should note that I did not teach these texts through the lens of the Iraq war, but through the lens I described when referring here to my teaching. I teach modes of analysis (how to think -- the *many ways -- versus what to think), and my primary allegiance is to the (course) material. I clarify that because, after all, I was the one who made a big stink about how blogging represents our work. In that respect, I concede that the blog -- and here I actually mean *this blog, versus blogging in general -- remains extra-curricular, in that it offers the opportunity to settle any unfinished business I may have with a text, business that's relevant, and hopefully compelling, to a general readership. It's all a work in progress, when you think about it.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Going Hollywood (or, from the MLA to the MLS)

Long before I got tongue-tied at the MLA and was featured in the Chronicle for beginner's mistakes, the most popular (i.e., visited) series of posts in la Jardiniere concerned English football and the 2006 World Cup. It is for those readers who've hung around since then (and who must be wondering what all the fuss is about "academic bloggers" and "academics who blog" -- what, is that like shirts and skins?), that I post the following -- to me, utterly unsurprising -- news: David Beckham -- Soccer Spice -- has signed with the L.A. Galaxy.

I don't watch a lot of TV these days, but with my significant other being not only English but also a former professional footballer, "GolTV" is on a lot in our house. The other day I walked through when the channel was running a Biography-type special on Becks -- at the point when he signed with Real Madrid, after a brutal locker room bust-up (for which Posh Spice was blamed, Yoko Ono style) with Alex Ferguson at Man U. I looked at the clock and saw time remained in the show -- but noted to whomever was in the room (perhaps to myself), "Well, nothing more to show. That's the peak. It all goes downhill from there."

Afforded precious little playing time on a star-studded Spanish side, and limping home from Germany this summer after a piss-poor performance as England captain (only to be asked "not to return" ouch to the national side), pretty boy Becks has seen better days.

I have a certain fondness for the skirted one. First, it took guts to apply himself, as he did, to proving his service to England after that boot of Diego Simeone at the 1998 World Cup (a match-turning red card that should have taught Rooney to keep his cool in the pretty, but malevolent, face of Ronaldo). In addition, as my son's "special needs" became more and more apparent, said spouse and I would black humor ourselves by musing, "well, maybe he's the next Beckham" (where Becks hath not the gift of gab, my son has a language disorder and is also exceptionally athletic).

On the matter of Beckham's MLS signing, I will repost here what I wrote about the league shortly after the U.S. team's dismal sending off from the World Cup. Responding to Robert Weintraub's post-mortem in Slate, I wrote:

Finally, a sound assessment of the state of affairs. Weintraub doesn't trace the problem back to AYSO, as I did, but gives a credible account of how MLS contributes to U.S. disappointments abroad. He points out that, if we are going to build a truly competitive national team, US players should not be pressured to support the MLS (by playing in it), but instead be encouraged to play in the European leagues, in which the competition is stiffer -- and faster, as I have pointed out (i.e., watching the MLS is like watching the European leagues play in slow motion). What he also could have pointed out is that European players look at the MLS as we do Florida: the place to wind out their (slower, less agile) golden years. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a European player say he looks forward to moving to America (with his riches) to "retire" in the MLS . . .

I was thinking of Becks here when I wrote that last line, and toyed with the idea of predicting outright that he would follow such a course. No matter. That the most image conscious football star of the modern era would end up in Hollywood has been long written in the stars.

Which doesn’t mean that such a move -- from the top of the English Premiership to the top of Serie A to . . . the bottom of the Western Conference of the MLS – isn’t bittersweet, and to European football fans, fairly galling. (I spent a dozen years in Chicago, from the year Jordan, that other number 23, returned and triumphed, to win the Bulls three more titles, through his second retirement and less than enchanting reappearance as . . . a Wizard. At least Chicago is finally rebounding, slowly but surely, after those long post-Krause travesty years. Thanks, Pax.)

But let's also look at the Beckham deal from the perspective of the MLS. The MLS will only pay $400K of Beckham's salary, the maximum for the league. A.E.G. (a major sports conglomerate based in L.A.) and Adidas ("impossible is nothing") are ponying up the rest of the dosh. Still, the numbers they're talking are staggering for a (cough cough) U.S. soccer player. Can the league really afford him, even with such backing?

I know many would say that the league cannot afford *not to have such a star signing. The most immediate comparison, of course, is to Pele and the New York Cosmos. But while Pele helped boost attendance at professional soccer games by 80% between 1975 and 1977 (source: ESPN), even the King couldn't save the North American Soccer League.

"Impossible is nothing?" For U.S. soccer? It remains to be seen.

It also remains to be seen whether Beckham's star will shine as bright in a city where just about everyone lives to see and be seen. The Ono myth a hard one to quell, of course Posh is being pegged for the choice of destination (kinda hard to see the Beckhams in Kansas City). Ever so "euro" in fashion and outlook, it will be interesting to see how the family takes to life in America -- and if and how America takes to them.

Were Beckham's star power to fade like his famous crosses, might the signing end up crippling the league?

Post post-script, Jan. 12. Weintraub has since written, and skeptically, on the signing as well.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I Have a Cunning Plan

I admit that I'm repeating myself here, by turning into a post a reply I gave to a comment on my MLA nametag bit below.

See, it's only the MLA where I haven't worn my nametag. I do at other, smaller conferences, especially those in my field. There, where the groove tends to be more casual and the feeling more "we're all in this together," I see the nametag as functioning more aptly to generate conversation. I'm thinking of GEMCS (Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies?) here (not the RSA, which is pretty formal), where a tag-sight is more likely to prompt an introduction -- precisely because there is a more palpable *context for such an overture.

Anyways, the last GEMCS I attended was in Orlando, and naturally I took the kids (to that most unnatural of family destinations). Back in the hotel room, my daughter, who sees in every flat white surface an opportunity to "tag" herself, took the initiative to decorate my nametag. Colorful marker. Flowers. Stars. A couple princesses, no doubt.

I didn't wear the nametag afterwards, but wouldn't it be a hoot to customize one's MLA nametag -- you know, pimp my ride?

Imagine the looks!

Looks that would show up the very phenomenon of MLA nametag decorum.

It's a plan. And I invite you to join me. (See you in Chicago . . .)

Getting a Dose from the Doctor (but then feeling better about it)

Turns out the audience members at that MLA blog panel thought my post-panel question was as lame as I did. Dr. Crazy, over at Reassigned Time, blogged my query thus .

Feeling (as I've written) as though I misrepresented myself and my interests, I tried to post a comment, but Dr. Crazy's comment function is on the fritz, so I corresponded with the Doc via e-mail instead. We've since had a very positive exchange (noted here by the Crazy One), and I, for one, am glad to have made the connection.

Here's what I wrote:

This is going to sound like splitting hairs, but I never used the word "count" in my question. What I did say was "how do I get my blog on my tenure file?" It was a cheesy, misworded way to end what I felt was going on too long (i.e., my own question; I should've thought about it more, but took the opportunity I thought I otherwise wouldn't get. L'esprit de l'escalier. It happens.).

In all honesty, I couldn't care less about getting my particular blog on my particular tenure file. The holy trinity (research, teaching, and service) is going perfectly well for me thus far.

Rather, what I'm really interested in -- long term, in the big picture -- are "surges" (if I may use such a loaded term) of anti-academic sentiment that see the tenure system itself as the root of all evil (especially in the humanities). Academic freedom is a pretty hard sell to parents ponying up 50K a year, or to corporations funding new football stadiums and research facilities, in a political climate where sneering at "tenured radicals" has become increasingly acceptable, if not de rigeur.

It's in this light that I do believe blogs perform a valuable service (as I wrote) in demystifying academic labor for the general public, and I'm all for the idea of blogging as service.

I also fully respect any academic's wish to sort out his or her blog from his/her academic persona. By all means, post anonymously, and raise a "Don't Tread on Me" flag in the banner. Up until I started working here [at my university], I saw my own blog in just such terms -- as an escape pod, if anything.

But in speculating whether blogging might have something to offer us _as scholars_, I am wondering whether the technology might be used -- and yes, valued -- to generate form(s) of "publication" other than those we typically produce, ones which would perform the "service" of rehabilitating the humanities in the public eye, while *also serving as an additional outlet for research. Something for us, and to get the NEH off our backs (or at least on our side).

I make no secret of the fact that I really don't know what that could possibly look like (which is probably why I fudged my MLA question). As Flavia points out to me -- and I agree (again, something I was going to get to) -- the "group blog" seems to be the going thing where "scholarly conversation" is concerned (and how hilarious was it when David Greenberg claimed to have "invented" it for TNR??).

I'd like to get a group blog going, for sure. Or I think. But I also like to post on idiosyncratic things, like the relationship of the Beatles to humanist imitatio or J.K. Rowling's deaf ear.

So, no, I don't have any answers, just questions. But my questions are more thoughtful and less crass than I represented them in Philadelphia. No, I don't care about "counting" -- in fact, what I *object to is the way in which _market values_ -- both academic and commercial -- have infected the way we think about our work, to enumerate and tabulate it in (indeed) such crass ways. We are constantly having to *prove our value, and the value of our research -- to one another, and to the culture at large.

If blogging can play a role in intervening in that phenomenon, then, by all means, count me in.

As a final question (the one I could have asked -- woulda coulda shoulda): why is it, do you think, that when speaking on blogging in a professional forum such as the MLA, people seem to feel the need to "relate" it somehow to some historical antecedent, in "eighteenth century tabloids," "nineteenth century newspapers" or what have you? (Hell, I write on sixteenth century print -- why not trace it back there?). I read that impulse, that attempt to "historicize," versus saying blogging is "marginal" -- as a contradiction. That is, one the one hand, they're saying -- look, blogging is so important it has ancestors -- it's "scholarly," legitimate because historical . . . on the other hand, nah, it's just marginal, part of my personal time (bug off). Which is it going to be? And for that matter, why participate in panels at the __MLA__??

Much more to say, but I've got a big day at the office. Thanks to all of those who have been weighing in, here and elsewhere.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Curse of the Blue Pencil

Spend a lot of time editing, either one's own writing or others' (in my case, student papers), and the impulse to tweak becomes hard to stifle.

Exhibit A. Scholastic has released the title of the final tome in the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.


Scratch, scratch.

My inner ear wants to hear "Harry Potter and the Hallows of Death."

Prosodically, I find the latter more pleasing: Har-ry Pot-ter and the Hal-lows of Death. J.K. Rowling is shooting for trochaic pentameter; where iambic pentameter places the stress on the second syllable, in the trochee the accent falls on the first. Thus Har-ry Pot-ter and the Death-ly Hal-lows.

The trochee is often considered a "childlike" meter, one frequently heard in children's verse -- or, say, in William Blake's "Ty-ger, ty-ger, burn-ing bright." But what makes Blake's line scan is the broken foot at the end of the line, the way our eyes and ears are forced to pause on the final word: "bright."

In this sense, and semantically as well, I think "Death" would punctuate the title -- and thus the series -- in more arresting fashion.

But grammatically . . . what's with the gruesome choice in "Deathly"? Technically speaking, the word functions as an adjective describing the "hallows." To all appearances, though, it looks like an adverb -- the OED has entries for both parts of speech -- and therefore (or once again) seems out of place.

In his book On Writing, goresmith Stephen King updates Samuel Johnson's epigrammatic "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" by noting, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." In my first year of graduate school, in fact -- filled with good intentions -- I had a professor who observed that I had a "adverb fetish."

He was right; and King is right, too, that a well-placed adverb effectively [sic!] modifies. Used to excess, adverbs say you're trying too hard. Better to Strunk and White and come up with a more precise verb.

Might we nonetheless divine precious narrative clues from J. Ro's awkward wording? After all, I know she and Steve share a mutual appreciation (as reported by King in Entertainment Weekly. Yeah, I get around).

The third book (the one with Lupin) being my favorite in the early Potter series, I stopped reading after the fourth, though I enjoyed Mike Newell's film version of that entry. Known for his comedies of British manners (e.g., Four Deathly Weddings and a Funeral), Newell wittily captured the indignities of English boarding-school life.

Nevertheless: might we surmise from the title that someone (who shall not be named) will be taking the adverbial path to hell?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Welcome to the Margins

As I noted below, my winter break was punctuated by my partaking in the MLA (the festivus for the rest of us, indeed: it is held annually in the week between Christmas and New Year's). I presented my paper on the first English literacy textbooks (part of a three-part panel -- a trilogy -- on "The History of the Book"), and attended other panels, some in my field of early modern English literature, and some on (drumroll) . . . the academic blog.

I had thought that the visibility of the genre in this year's program would herald its arrival as a legitimate academic medium. After all, I myself have speculated that profs might utilize blog technology (blogology?) to commune on matters related to teaching -- that the convenience, immediacy and *reach of a blog post would enable us to confer, in near real-time, on pedagogical conundra (or crises). Even more, I have noted how blogs offer a study in contrast to the way we (academics) ordinarily communicate through publication. The path from research (to draft to submission to editing) to publication is protracted and obstacle-strewn; a blog post appears quick as a pixel.

I thus attended the MLA panels hoping to hear how we could develop the academic blog to exploit its reach and immediacy (on the one hand) and to render the medium a legitimate forum for scholarship (on the other). That is, obstacles exist on the way to publication in order to preserve the integrity of the academic product; but anyone with a keyboard can produce a blog post, and write just about anything they like.

Philip II of Spain really wrote the works of Shakespeare!

See? Just like that.

Though he would likely credit others with this distinction, the poster child for the academic blog is one Michael Bérubé, the Paterno Family Professor of Literature at Penn State (and please, Professor Bérubé, tell me you work that title in your own pedagogy, with line calls such as "first paper? First down!" and "How do we write a list of works cited? Let's consult the playbook. . ."). Busy completing my own PhD (touchdown), starting my first tenure-track job (free agent no more), and acclimating my young family to life in Ontario (a two-point conversion), I confess I have not yet read Monsieur Bérubé's books, and should (I will). Where he writes on the academic profession and the place of the intellectual in contemporary society, I specifically conceived my own dissertation to trace the idea of an English literary persona -- the man [sic] of letters -- to the emergence of English as a literary language (. . . in the sixteenth century). In fact, this very blog complements, and means to update, my scholarship by reading its findings through a contemporary lens.

In person, Bérubé cuts an interesting figure; the best word I can coin is dashing. Dashing because witty and charming; he has charisma, no doubt, and works it. But dashing also because he speaks at speeds that suggest he is already late for his next engagement. His prose-style rangy, glib, and diffuse, Bérubé himself is a study in contrast to the ponderous, stentorian English professor, the stereotypical man of letters. A vital advocate for our profession, and vocal champion of the academic blog . . . Bérubé views blogging as incidental, nay "marginal" -- *his word -- to scholarship.

I blame myself for my disappointment in hearing this. You see, I had the temerity to ask the first post-panel question, and while rangy, glib, and diffuse, my question was no doubt unwieldy and unfocused. I launched it in terms of how we represent academic blogging to our own colleagues in the department, and eventually (I know, groan) wrapped it up by asking "how I get my blog on my tenure file." What I was really interested in -- a touch of l'esprit de l'escalier here -- is how we might view, and value, blogging as a legitimate form of academic labor, beneath, though in some way beside, the holy trinity of research, teaching, and service.

You reap what you sow, however, and my pithy conclusion about getting my blog on my tenure file prompted Bérubé's equally pithy (though no doubt more humorous) response, replete with a witty replay of run-ins with his more ponderous colleagues (i.e., "Michael, I see you have a [get out yer finger quotes here] 'web-log'"). But while Bérubé had noted in his talk the role academic blogs play in demystifying academic labor for the general public (a point I had also made here), he responded to my question by saying that he considers the blog "marginal" to his "other work" -- potentially an "aspect of service," but chiefly part of his "personal time."

I was surprised to hear him conceive the arrows going only in one direction -- that is, from academia out to the public sphere. And while I don't wholly disagree with him, given the lack of stop-gaps in place to qualify blogging as scholarship (never mind gnarly issues concerning copyright and intellectual property), I would like to see this new medium of the public sphere generate new, and vital, ways for us to communicate as scholars -- that is, to have the arrows point the other way as well. It remains to be seen whether and how this could happen, and I, for one, will continue to mull on that question here.

For now, however -- and this is a special welcome to those who might be coming here from the Chronicle (in which my blog is featured, in fact, as having grown increasingly incidental to my academic life) -- welcome to the margins.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

New Term Resolutions

Classes resume on Monday (where does the time go? gotta do something about that holiday getting the way of my holiday), and this weekend is devoted to preparing for the new term. More than selecting readings and plotting assignment dates, the task involves surveying last term: assessing what worked, what didn't, and revising accordingly.

If I have a thesis for what I plan to do differently in my teaching this term, it could be summed up in Hamlet’s advice to the players: “suit the words to the matter, the matter to the words.”

In this respect, the first matter of concern would be the syllabus. I am hardly the first professor to go “off-syllabus” (I hope!), but I learned that what it means to go “off-syllabus” – that is, how it matters to the class – depends on how you conceive the syllabus itself, and thus the whole course. As I reported to Jim Lang at the Chronicle, I entered fall term subscribing to the notion of syllabus as contract. That is, I used the syllabus not only to lay out the dates and assignments, but also to spell out the learning objectives for the course – what students should know (content), and know how to do (skills), by term’s end.

I found that these two functions came into conflict, as in going “off-syllabus” –- aka, “getting behind” on the readings –- I felt that we were getting behind for good reason, that is, to fulfill the learning objectives. Indeed the most intellectually productive classes were those when we were, technically speaking, most “off-course”! So I do plan to rethink the number and pace of assignments . . . dare I say, assign less reading? (hear the cheers from southeast Ontario!) and so “suit the words to the matter” more effectively in that document.

But I also plan to use the occasion of “going through the syllabus” (in the first days of class) to advance the notion of syllabus not as contract, but as thesis. For as we teach our students, a thesis is an argument, a binding idea, or initiative; but a thesis is always provisional, contingent on the discovery of new knowledge, evidence, even new frameworks or contexts for understanding -- and therefore perpetually subject to revision.

We'll see how that flies (students can be relentlessly litigious).

The second matter of words in need of reform pertains to the discussion groups I assigned for my lectures. At the university where I teach, discussion groups are not a matter of course for lectures. Operating from the philosophy that knowledge is produced through conversation, I felt that discussion was important to the operations of the course, and so broke the class roster down into groups, and set aside time for groups to meet during class time. Alas, as I conduct my lecture as a large-scale seminar –- that is, class discussion is a vital component of the lecture period –- I found that the students who regularly contributed to those discussions were the ones who chiefly contributed to their groups. In this way, the class was only repeating itself on a small-scale (and not progressing), and, worse, that we were losing precious class time to the logistics of changing course mid-lecture, i.e., to reassembling into the small groups.

Heading into the last class of term, I had prepared a survey for my students to assess how much and how well they were learning (in fact, I reproduced the “learning objectives” from the syllabus on the survey to this end). I had this hunch about the groups mirrored back to me and confirmed, as students frequently noted that the groups were “not working.” But they also frequently enthused about the large-scale class discussions!

Going into the second term -- for others, new courses (my courses are year-long) –- I find myself in the position of having to revise my own thesis about the place of discussion in the course. Will I eliminate the groups? Rework them? I don’t know yet (that's this weekend's task). But I am learning, or re-learning, that dialogue is a means, and not an end in itself, and, as I have seen in my students’ writing -- another "matter" of "words" –- just because some students do not contribute verbally to the class does not mean they are not vitally engaged.

In short, I have to have the courage to go back on my own word(s).

The students’ astute responses to my survey, while humbling, give me the nerve to reverse course –- and even more specifically, to re-order my lectures. For many new professors, “writing the lectures” takes up most of their time, as they are assembling and framing material (much matter indeed), in ways they never have had to before. I learned from my students that I was frontloading in my lectures the material that they already knew. I thought I knew what I was doing; that is, I was working from the rhetorical premise of moving from the known to the unknown. But I was also inordinately concerned that students were “getting it,” in that I devoted the initial class time to reinforcing material, to make sure they had learned it before we moved on to new ideas. So anxious was I to review, in fact, that I would typically end up rushing through the new material (“we had to get through”) at the end of classes, when both the students and I were least fresh. Thus one student sagely pointed out to me that s/he would prefer to hear the new material when she was most prepared to digest it. (Indeed words cannot express, in fact, how much I learned from their assessments of how, and how well, they were learning.)

Students are prepared to learn when they enter the class. Just as important, they want to learn new ideas. What a humbling discovery! And, in retrospect, how obvious. But a discovery which dictates not only that I reverse the order of my lectures, but also . . . relax. The students are getting it – they’re learning – move on.

Of course, Hamlet might not be the best inspiration here. After all, he hardly achieves his own learning objectives in failing to determine, from Claudius’ reactions to the play, whether the usurper had in fact murdered his father. Did the words suit the matter, the matter the words? We don’t know, because he doesn’t.

Maybe he should’ve handed out a survey?

Friday, January 05, 2007

Close Readers at the MLA

Why do we wear nametags at the MLA?

I've just returned from the annual convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the umbrella organization for academic professionals in the fields of language and literature.

This is my third MLA in a row: last year I had job interviews (conventionally held there); the year before, I presented a paper on English lessons in Shakespeare (I can trace my current job to that paper: amen); and this year, I presented my research on the first textbooks printed (in the sixteenth century) to teach English. It went very well, thanks (indeed, many thanks to those who were in attendance, who fielded such great questions).

Conference participants receive their nametag as a form of receipt upon registration. To my knowledge, however, the nametag itself is only needed, or tendered for show, to enter the "book hall," a quasi-marketplace where academic publishers vend their goods at a discount to convention registrants.

And yet, hours after the book hall has shut and every panel has wrapped for the day -- nay, every waking hour of the conference, in hotel lobbies, at restaurants, in coffee houses, and all along the street -- you will see Spanish teachers and Wordsworth experts with nametags dangling from their necks.

(An easy mark.)

Far be it from me to reproduce stereotypes about the anti-social character of academics, but we are not the glad-handing type. That is, when I imagine conventions in other industries, I presume that the nametag performs an essential function related to networking. The MLA, indeed any academic conference, means to foster communication between members of the field. For better or for worse, however, our field comprises individuals who relish their solitude while they read, or write, or conduct research. The chief mode of communication at the academic conference is the panel presentation, in which three or more speakers stand at a dais to read prepared papers to an assembled audience; a question-and-answer period is mandatory, but perennially (and often sadly) brief. Finally, no protocol exists for one faculty member (or graduate student) to approach an unknown colleague with a hearty, "Hi, I'm Gwynn, from the Kingston office. I see you're based in New Haven. . ." No, that's not the done thing: wouldn't be seemly.

Such meetings of the minds a dream deferred, what happens is that MLA nametags incite close reading -- not too close, mind you, you don't want to get caught -- as we surreptitiously eye the names and institutions displayed on oneanother's chests. . .

I know: as if furtively contemplating ces documents du décolletage is any more seemly? (Nay, I know not seems, madam.)

In my reading of the phenomenon, the MLA nametag provides the opportunity either to say to one's familiars, "I was just on the elevator with Stephen Greenblatt," or, if you're Stephen Greenblatt, to show that you are (and go up and down the elevator?).

I'm picking on Greenblatt arbitrarily here. For all I know he doesn't wear a nametag; I haven't worn mine, but chiefly because I felt I didn't have a name worth reading (which is to say, worthy of reporting). That the book hall is the one place where just about everyone drops in at one point -- wearing their nametag (dems be da rules) -- speaks volumes about our professional character(s), in that we visit the hall not only to purchase our stock, but also to consume one another (most discreetly), and see how we stack up.

In that sense, the MLA nametag does more than prompt close reading. In a field that rewards scholarly individuality and distinction, the nametag gives us a name, which is to say, an identity, at a convention whose calling card could be professional anonymity, if not anomie.

Each year, the MLA attracts tens of thousands of academic professionals. At any given time, there might be a hundred different panels in session on an equal number of different topics. College and university departments hold their own independent receptions, and thousands of job seekers arrive for their job interviews. Finally, conference participants are housed in a dozen hotels throughout a given city (this year in Philadelphia; it was supposed to be held, pre-Katrina, in New Orleans). Far from convening its members so as to promote collective identification, let alone effervescence, the MLA is positively post-modern in its scatteredness, and must send many of its participants home feeling alienated to the operations of the mother ship.

In this respect, the MLA nametag grants its wearer an essential badge of belonging, a symbol of attendance, in ways that compensate (as a form of receipt) for his or her otherwise benign neglect. Read between the lines and the nametag says, "not only have I registered, but I have also arrived. You can see it, right here. Right here on my chest."

In a field so preoccupied with the powers and limits of language, if not with naming itself -- from Platonic nominalism to Renaissance self-fashioning to post-modern identity politics -- I find it charming, even sweet, to see so many individuals proudly brandishing the kind of sign they might otherwise parse or deconstruct (as I have).

No, I didn't wear my nametag in Philadelphia.

Maybe next year.