Monday, January 15, 2018

First Week of Spring 2018: Completed!

After working manically on research and writing over Winter Break (more on that in a later post), the start of the spring semester really took me by surprise. I was originally assigned 3 sections of English 102, our research- & argument-orientated class in the sequence, but ended up accepting another English 101 because of some unexpected student demand. 

Have to say that, while the extra income will certainly be useful (and I still think of money in impoverished "grad student" terms), I was looking forward to the reduced workload, especially with all my writing projects in the pipeline. Still, given the general insecurity of living year-to-year on one-year contracts, I couldn't in good conscience refuse. Plus, I still do have an ideal schedule -- all four of my classes are back-to-back on a MWF.

So anyway, given that the semester snuck up on me -- and that I got that 4th class two days before the semester started -- you could imagine how I've been scrambling. So far, although I still need to tweak my major assignments for that 4th class I accepted last minute, I'm caught up.

I'm more than a little sad, though -- my students from last semester were really memorable, and part of me wishes they were still around. C'est la vie.

Incidentally, got my Student Course Evaluations from last semester. Pretty good, overall. Really good, actually, or at least so I think -- strangely enough, I don't think U of A does departmental- or university-wide comparisons like MTSU, so my data is somewhat de-contextualized. Nonetheless, judging from the quantitative and qualitative parts of the evaluations, most of my students seemed really happy. One of the skills I've especially worked on last semester was giving bad news, usually in terms of a grade, and that seems to have paid off -- I almost entirely avoided those grade-embittered students who have tended to drag my evaluation scores down in the past.. 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Scholarly Interview (sorta)

One of my students from last semester just e-mailed me, asking if I could be his "scholar interview" that he needs for ENGL 102 (i.e., the course he has to take after passing mine). I was, of course, happy to oblige. On the off chance any of my answers might be interesting, I post them here. -

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What kinds of writing do scholars in your field do?
Writing in my field (English literature) can be split into "scholarship" and "literary criticism." Scholarship is largely concerned with finding out new historical, biographical, or textual facts about a particular author or literary movements. (By "textual facts" I mean new critical editions of a work, and so forth.) Literary criticism is mostly what I do -- it's concerned with reading authors in new ways and coming up with new interpretations of authors and literary movements.


 

What writing conventions are specific to and important to your field? How did you learn those conventions?Probably the most basic convention is MLA style -- that's relatively unique to literary scholars and critics. Other conventions include the type of evidence we can use. As a field within the humanities, obviously testing hypotheses or acquiring data -- with some notable exceptions -- is outside our purview. Instead, we are expected to read an author's complete works, possibly reading things that may have influenced him, and of course exhaustively explore the relevant scholarship on that author.

Strangely enough, scholars in my field aren't generally actually trained in our conventions. Graduate students are largely expected to absorb those conventions through osmosis. For my part, although I've always been a good writer, I didn't properly internalize my field's conventions until during my dissertation research when I read (literally) hundreds of articles.


 

What was your first experience of writing a scholarly article like? What did you learn through that experience?
Well, my first published scholarly article took either 1-month or years to write, depending on how you count. The actual draft took only 1 month of manic writing. In the month prior to that, however, I had presented my topic to a conference in Leeds, England, and that experience helped me realize what needed excising from my argument and what deserved elaboration.

Even that, though, was hardly my first attempt to write the article. Two years prior to 2016, I had written -- and submitted for peer review -- a previous version of my argument. My reviewers were kind, mostly, but quite firm that the article wasn't up to snuff. Well, I then spend the next two years thinking about my argument until, after knowing the secondary literature much better in 2016 than I did in 2014, I finally wrote the finished article in August 2016. Only about 5% of the original 2014 text, by the way, survived into that final 2016 published version.

What I learned from the experience, as you might imagine, is the importance of dogged perseverance.

 

What kinds of writing do you most often in your work?
Literary criticism for peer-reviewed academic journals, largely. However, I did just do two semi-scholarly articles for The Baum Bugle, the official magazine for the International Wizard of Oz society. That kind of writing is fun because it allows me to address a different (read: non-academic) audience. Academics can be stuffy, y'know.

 

What expectations do you have for students who are learning to write in your field?
For undergrads, I mostly expect two things: (1) some original thought, and (2) close reading of the text. If you can make interesting claims while using evidence from the text and anticipating the most likely counter-arguments, you're well on your way in my book.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

My Hometown Made National News (for a sad reason)

The Washington Post did a story on my hometown . . . except the story could have made a unicorn depressed. Nationwide, 2017 was the year of the "retail apocalypse," with over 500 retail outlets closing down,*** and the WP thought my hometown mall made a pretty good example of that larger trend.

When I last visited Hermitage in May for my high school reunion, the mall's state shocked me -- about half of it stood empty. That mall used to be the main thing about Hermitage. We're one-third of three interconnected cities in Western Pennsylvania -- Sharon and Farrell being the other two. (There's two smaller connected towns, Sharpsvile and Wheatland, but the latter is basically only a steel mill -- doesn't even have its own post office.) Between the three of us, Hermitage has always been the wealthiest by virtue of its high property values and, of course, the mall. Sharon at least has a downtown, but never competed with the Hermitage mall in any serious way. As a result, our school system was the most well-funded in the district, which benefited me directly as a wee lad growing up there.
 
As the article explains, though, that's nearly all gone. Most of the mall is abandoned, and local residents are worried about a corresponding decrease in property values. Of course, this decline has been happening for decades. The loss of Amerian manufacturing had always hit Sharon and Farrell harder than Hermitage but, even growing up in the 1990s, I understood that the great number of new funeral homes being built in the area didn't bode well. The whole region had a drastically aging population, and there were no jobs around to keep young people from staying and raising families . Even now, during my home visits when I go to Panera Bread for the wifi, there's a stark contrast: the teenagers working behind the counter, and the roughly dozen customers there all over the age of 60.

---------
****Incidentally, the Kmart mentioned in the article was where I had my second job ever; I worked there two different times, once for a year and another time for about four months.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

PRODUCTIVITY REPORT: 2017 Calendar Year

So, I already do this productivity reports in August (i.e., the anniversary of me getting an academic blog), which may be found both here and here, but I decided that a "Calendar Year Productivity Report" would not only be fun but fun -- you know, give myself a sense of achievement that occurs twice as frequently as Christmas, despite the overlap in materials.

Of course, I'll only include things written within this calendar year, although some of it has been fortunate enough to be published rather quickly.

So, without further ado, here's the report:

Everything from January-July 2017
  • "Unraveling The Hobbit's Strange Publication History: A Look at Possible Worlds, Modality, and Accessibility Relations" -- now published in Fastitocalon, 6000 words
  • "J.R.R. Tolkien and 1954 Nomination of E.M. Forster for the Nobel Prize" -- now published by Mythlore, 9000 words
  • Book review of Edmund Gordon's The Invention of Angela Carter, now published in Mythlore, 1500 words
  • Book review of Jad Smith's Alfred Bester, now published in Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 1500 words 
  • One conference paper on Glen Cook, 1500 words 

 Everything from August-December 2017
  • Essay on Gender/Sexed Violence in Stephen R. Donaldson -- article under review, 14000 words
  • "PRYZQXGL: Or, How to Do Things with Magics Words" -- forthcoming article in The Baum Bugle, 5000 words
  • "Donaldson's Amnion and the Dangers of a Posthuman Future" -- encyclopedia article, forthcoming, 1000 words
  • "Review of Okja by Bong Joon-ho" -- film review forthcoming in Science Fiction Film and Television, 1500 words
Grand total? Four articles written (3 of which will be peer-reviewed), three book reviews, one encyclopedia entry, one conference paper. All of which have been wedged in between my dissertation defense and revisions, moving cross-country to Arizona, and teaching 4 classes for the first time in the fall.

Total publishable words written: 41,000.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Books that Didn't Age Well: L. Frank Baum's Life & Adventures of Santa Claus

The title says it all. I've been reading a lot of Baum books lately in prep for my short article, and I was recommended The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902) as a good introduction to many of Baum's fairy creatures. Well, the book's a bit dull and much too cloyingly sweet, but just imagine my horror when I discovered that Baum, with his customary flair for whimsy, decided to just up and insert genocide, racism, and a rationalization  for environmental destruction!

GENOCIDE

Yep, straight up genocide -- although, of course, it wasn't called that. Claus gets kidnapped by a race of evil creatures called Angwas. He escapes, but Claus's friend Ak, the Master Huntsman, visits the Angwas and tells them to stop. His reasoning? "We immortals, no less than mortals like Claus, are superior to you. Do as I say!" The king of the Angwas, naturally enough, refuses, so all the immortals decide to wipe out this race of "evil" creatures from the face of the earth. And it only takes a single short chapter!

Of course, this book appeared well before the Holocaust and even the Armenian genocide of 1919, so clearly we can cut Baum some slack here. But still -- that's why it called "not aging well."

RACISM
Oh yes, the racism, this time against Native Americans. It's nothing that unusual for the time period, mind you, but it's still enough to make me wince.  For example, Santa Claus decides to bring toys to "three little children who lived beneath of rude tent of skins," and their "parents were ignorant people who neglected them sadly" (167). Baum never once mentions the word "Indians," but the pictures make the connection pretty clear. Anyway, Baum gives these kids a Christmas tree, which makes them immensely happy for the first time, cuz there's absolutely nothing offensive about that.

DEFORESTATION
This last one is actually pretty innocent compared to the first two (ignoring, if you will, the whole end-of-the-inhabitable-world thing). Men start chopping down all the forests in the world, which you think would irritate the Master Woodman, but never fear: "I have but guarded the forests until men needed them for their use" (194).

A major premise of modern environmentalists, of course, is that the idea that nature exists for human use is immensely destructive.

None of these, mind you, are called "evil." You know what Baum does call "one [last] evil following in the path of civilization" (196)? Stoves. You heard me right. Apparently, the then-modern prevalence of stoves was causing people to build fewer chimneys, which was making Claus's job of entering households much more difficult. Luckily, Claus has some helper fairies. Glad we got that cleared up!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Stephen R. Donaldson and Tolkien

Well, just finished my monster 12,000 article (14k with footnotes) on sexed/gender violence in Stephen R. Donaldson. Sent it off yesterday afternoon. I have high hopes for it, but it was exhausting to write -- not only 2 1/2 months of labor, but a very depressing subject matter. My final draft has the phrases "sexed violence," "rape," and "assault" appear 168 times, and my secondary reading wasn't no picnic either, as you might imagine.

But anyway, I started reading the 3rd book of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and I got to think thinking about SRD and Tolkien himself. Perhaps I should preface this by saying -- and it kills me to do so, since I love SRD -- that The Last Chronicles are really, really, really bad. The first two books are perhaps mediocre; not awful, mind you, but not as fresh or captivating as either of the first two Covenant trilogies. Yet book 3, Against All Things Ending, is really a sucker punch to the soul. I tried reading it about three or four years ago, but couldn't make it past page 100. Very literally, almost nothing happens in those first 100 pages -- yet virtually every sentence is filled with heartache, anguish, and despair. Much like Patricia A. McKillip, Donaldson has always had a tendency toward melodrama and operatic extremity, but somehow in this book he has simply lost all restraint. Here's a sample paragraph from Pg 194:
Until that moment, Covenant had seemed preoccupied with pain, too hurt to react. Yet he heard her appeal. Meeting her gaze, he gave her a look of anguish, stricken and faltering, as if she had asked him to betray himself -- or her. His hair resembled a silver conflagration, as if his thoughts burned with shame.
That last bolded sentence is literally the dumbest thing I've ever read. (What does conflagration hair look like, really?). But the previous sentences are eye-roll-worthy as well. Every once in a while wouldn't have been bad, perhaps especially in a poignant moment in the narrative, but Donaldson goes on like that, paragraph after paragraph, page after page. Show, not tell!

So this combination of re-reading late Donaldson, plus my long essay, has also made me reflect on his relationship to Tolkien. For this, I'll make up a few categories and see how things go:

Sub-creation -- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Tolkien -- and it's not even close. As much as I love The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Donaldson clearly is borrowing all of Tolkien's plot structure. That's not a flaw, mind you, so long as you do it well, which Donaldson. But he doesn't really come into his own until The Second Chronicles. . . . alas, though, The Final Chronicles, in terms of subcreation, has squeezed the lemon dry. There just isn't very much interesting about his world by the third go-around.

Prose -- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Tie. Actually, I hate discussions about prose, since there isn't really a rigorous way to discuss it -- although writers clearly revise their sentences according to some theory of better/worse, critics most often mention prose only to disparage a work they dislike for other reasons. Both Donaldson and Tolkien have both been unfairly maligned for those prose styles; really, though, their styles are just fine.

Intellectual Daringness-- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Donaldson -- but this is tricky. Tolkien was a hell of a bright guy, and he certainly knew pre-modern  century English literature way better than Donaldson does. But he's not nearly as self-consciously literary as SRD. This may possible be a case of bias, since SRD's existentialism seems more far-ranging (although not necessarily more meaningful) than Tolkien's Catholicism, but I give the points to SRD here. 

Plotting-- Donaldson or Tolkien?
Donaldson, slightly, again with the caveat that his plot for the first Chronicles owes a lot to Tolkien. But Donaldson seems better able, in my able opinion, to stretch out a climax much longer than Tolkien. And SRD's greater prolificness gives him much more narrative space to write gripping stories.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Free laptop? Much love to you, U of A!

So, yes -- the University of Arizona just gave all its lecturers free laptops. This is part, I've been told, of their general effort to update the tech for all faculty, and it just so happens that lecturers are being considered faculty for the first time.

Anyway, although this move has apparently been in the works for months, we just got the announcement a few days ago. Just picked mine up, in fact. I've said it before, but it's worth saying again -- I absolutely lucked out in getting hired by such an awesome place. I mean, really . . . a free laptop.  And the exceptionally cool part is that I'd just been about to buy a new one; my current lappy is over four years old and running down.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Latest Tolkien Publication: Fastitocalon

Just received my contributor's copy of Fastitocalon, which is a European journal dedicated to "studies in fantasticism ancient to modern." The special issue is all about world-building & subcreation, and it allowed me to apply to possible worlds theory (as a branch of narrative theory) to the different editions of The Hobbit.

Basically, without delving into any gory details, I think the 1st edition of The Hobbit creates a distinct fictional world which requires study in its own right -- and this world is modally differentiated world from the fictional worlds created by the Revision Phrase (2nd edition text, 1951-1954) and the Assimilation Phase (post-Fellowship of the Ring).

Fun stuff . . . and I actually talked about submitting the original abstract on this blog little over a year ago, here.

Intriguingly, 5 of the 11 contributors were graduate students (two of the articles had dual authors). That number rises to 6 if you count myself, since I'd written my submission prior to defending the diss. 

All in all, it's a nice little volume, and I even recognize a few fellow Tolkien scholars (Robin Anne Reid, Thomas Honegger, Alan Turner, Anahit Behrooz). 

Now, shameful-secret time: I actually had no idea what a "fastitocalon" was, so some time ago I googled it only to realize that I should have known all about it already. It's a medieval sea monster that Tolkien wrote a poem about (published in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil). Kinda embarassing, I admit, that I totally glossed over the fastitocalon in my reading. Also, I belatedly realized, the monster also appears in several Final Fantasy games.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The U of A Writing Program Wins a Major National Award

Well, hot dog! A few days ago, I learned that our Writing Program has been awarded the 2017-18 CCCC Writing Program Certificate of Excellence. (The 4 Cs are the major U.S. rhet/comp organization, akin to MLA for literature people.) Since I'm such a recent addition to the university, this award leaves me feeling somewhat bemused -- especially since many lecturers, TT faculty, and administrators have been advocating hard for years to improve this program. Still, this is major, and I'm excited. Please let me gush for a moment.

Arizona's massive efforts to improve the working conditions and lives of its lecturers was a major deciding factor in the award, according to the notification we received. Really, I've been awed at the many initiatives our Writing Program has undertaken:

  • A major salary hike a few years ago,
  • Ongoing efforts for shared governance in the English Department (i.e., lecturers voting on departmental issues), a promotion plan, and three-year contracts
  • Just this year, an additional $1 million in WP funding to reduce class sizes to 19 students by hiring more lecturers -- a move that directly led to my hiring last summer.
There are a lot of other rhet/comp-y reasons for our program's being singled out, which I'll copy/paste below. (Since the announcement has already been made on the CCCC website, I'm pretty sure I'm not breaking any rules by posting this!) In all honesty, I couldn't have been more lucky to wind up in such a fabulous institution.


"The following are comments provided by the selection committee:
"The committee applauds the efforts within this program to establish meaningful, livable, stable non-tenure track positions with shared governance and opportunities for professional development. The first-year class sizes are 19. The scope of this program is huge, and even though it is largely FYW, it is FYW done well. Ongoing faculty self-assessment and required continued professional development help all instructors maintain an investment in FYW teaching. Courses that adhere around outcomes allow for different kinds of autonomy, even as careful assessment helps highlight how best to reach course goals. The program has integrated and modified many kinds of “best” practices in FYW teaching and learning, from reducing and extending support for less-confident or underprepared students to innovating with placement for all writers (including multilingual writers).
"Indeed, the committee believes that the University of Arizona serves as an exemplary model for peer institutions in a number of ways, including the following: 1) their revision of course content for the FYC sequence, beginning with a focus on a genre approach in the first semester with a focus on a WID approach in the second semester in order to improve students’ ability to transfer writing skills and abilities across contexts; 2) best practices in program placement through a DSP approach, which better responds to the needs of a diverse student body; 3) the different levels of support for a large faculty serving a large number of students, including the greatly improved working conditions of Lecturers and the both required and optional aspects of continued, annual reflective professional development opportunities; 4) the reliance on an outcomes-based approach through portfolio assessment at the course level and data-driven assessment at the program level in order to maintain continuity and quality across a large number of diverse course sections. Additionally, as a result of the number and quality of publications authored by faculty in the program, faculty in U of A’s Writing Program have proved themselves to be model teacher-scholars, not only for others at peer institutions but for the field more broadly."

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

White Male Bashing as Criticism -- the LARB review of Bladerunner 2049

So, I just finished reading the Los Angeles Review of Books review of Bladerunner 2049. For the record, I loved the film. The themes were intellectually engaging, the score impressive, and it handled its characters with intelligence and respect. All in all, I consider it an exemplary sequel.

The writer of the LARB review, alas, does not.

I should clarify that when I call this a "poor" review, I do not mean in the technical sense. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun clearly has a great grasp of film technique, and her actual writing is lucid and engaging. Instead, what I mean is the refusal to see the film on its own terms -- preferring, rather, to see in one's own ideological/political lens, and then drenching the film in invective. The discussion of BR2049 on the IAFA listserv actually made many of Chun's main points last month, but she assembled them into a single article, so I'll tackle the review here.

Her basic idea is to look for why the film has failed to connect with audiences and find huge box office returns. The obvious answer, of course, is that BR2049 is a slow, moody, atmospheric film with little action and no humor. Brilliant, but way too artsy and cerebral for mass appeal. Chun, though, comes up with a few alternative humdingers of answers that, shall we say, really grind my gears.

She pinpoints two major problems with the film. First, she loathes the film's major theme, i.e., the “obsession with and nostalgia for what is real.” In more detail, she states:
"This question of the real — one that haunts film scholars everywhere as they mourn the loss of celluloid with its alleged physical tie to events that really happened — is arguably one that audience members brought up on digital media simply don’t care about."
This objection doesn't merit much rebuttal, I don't think. The real-fake or real/illusionary binary is about as ancient as it gets, and iphones haven't changed that. Indeed, some postmodernists often speak as if the technological advances of the last few decades have superseded everything we know about humanity, but until a post-human possible future becomes a reality, human nature is still pretty much the same -- and the urge to separate what is real from what is fake ain't going nowhere. End verdict: BR2049's theme is still relevant.

The second objection requires that one be okey-dokey with excessive, blatant, and unapologetic white male bashing. Oh, like most savvy critics, she frames the bashing with progressive-sounding theory language. And, certainly, some points about the film are undeniable: there are no major non-white characters (although there aren't many major characters total), and the minority secondary characters are hardly enlightened representations (though they're not actually offensive). But, mostly, Chun's critique of the film can't be separated from generic white male bashing. A quote:
[W]ith the latest mass shootings and the rise of white supremacist male avenger, the wounded white male isn’t quite the sympathetic character he once was. What’s tired — or should become so — is the simultaneous invisibility of people of color as protagonists and their hyper-visibility as raced others.
Let's take her truly mind-blowing first sentence. First off, she's pooh-poohing the "wounded white male", aka Ryan Gosling's character K, in this film -- as if his character's existential state was rendered moot or unimportant by his ethnicity and gender. She's not critiquing his actions, mind you, which are no worse than any other noir detective's -- she's focusing her criticism entirely on his skin color and genitalia. She knows better than this, I'm sure. After all, she'd never dare describe a non-white character in a similar way.

Even worse, "latest mass shootings?" Seriously -- the hell? What do mass shootings have to do with ANYTHING in this film? Although most cases of domestic terrorism (and serial murderers!) are white males, K is neither a domestic terrorist, a serial murder, a WASP, a Wall Street-bourgeois, a redneck, a hipster, or anything else associated with "white male" you care to name. This isn't even film criticism. She's just railing against contemporary American culture, which, sure, fine, if that's what you want to do. Knock yourself out. But it's not film criticism.

As far as the second half of that extended quote goes . . . well, sigh. Look, of course Hollywood should be more diverse. No reason not to! Diversity is good for the culture, and it's aesthetically good for cinematic art in general. But you also sometimes just have to accept that art is HARD. No single piece of art will ever be everything to every one. The only thing that matters, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, is whether the art has been done well or poorly. Wilde, incidentally, had argued art for art's sake precisely because excessive Victorian moralism had castigated his own artistic productions. We applaud him because we are no longer Victorians, but we also have our own cultural blinders, political keywords, hot button issues, and such forth. BR2049, to my mind, seems like it was the best film it was capable of being. I didn't see any obvious places to insert diversity . . . and criticizing the film for transforming slavery into a "white-on-white" affair, as if that someone erases the history of real slavery, is just eye-roll-worthy.

Mainly, because art is difficult, I think critics should also acknowledge that films simply can't be all things to all viewers. Perhaps the writers and the director just didn't have the personal capacity or talent to be laudable multicultural AND tell the story they wanted to tell. Although BR2049 may not have been sufficiently progressive for some, to castigate the film -- and it's white male protagonist -- so thoroughly is really to miss the trees for the forest. A postcolonial and race critical perspective can certainly bring to light important problems, but a good critic should also open themselves up to the story the film wants to tell (rather than the story s/he wishes the film had told). I don't think Chun ever makes that effort.

Ironically, while making passing references to "numerous evocative and thought-provoking sequences," the only thing Chun truly seems to enjoy about BR2049 involves how the film itself seems to engage in white male bashing (in her view, at least.) "The desires to love, to be loved, and to be special are brutally and ironically undermined," she writes. "Is this the height of white, male individuality: being named a 'joe' by a holograph named Joi?"

I agree that the film "brutally and ironically" undermines the desires to love and be loved. Where I part ways is the seeming callousness with which the reviewer notes K's suffering. We already know that she has little sympathy for "wounded white males," cuz mass shootings. Still, Gosling's character is sympathetic, and anyone who doesn't recognize that is either a soulless jerk or a critic with a political axe to grind. I'll be nice and suggest that Chun is the latter. White males are bad -- okay, fine, we got it. But any insightful or useful criticism has to look at issues of good and evil, vice or virtue, kindness or cruelty. Gosling's character scores well on all these marks insofar as his programming lets him. To fail to recognize that because of the ethnicity/gender is to fail to recognize a good human being, K's most cherished ideal, when one sees it.