Friday, September 22, 2017

Another weird Tolkien pop culture reference - the GANDALF trial

When I recently got the editorial comments back for my review of Okja (dir. Bong Joon-ho) for Science Fiction Film and Television, the only tweak they required was some clarification on the A.L.F. (Animal Liberation Front). My review, they said, made it sound as if Bong had simply created the group for the film, when in fact it is a very real, clandestine, leadership, world organization for animal rights.

Yeah well, er, um. . . . I won't admit this to THEM, but I actually had no idea that it was real. Somehow, despite all my background research on the film, it never once occurred to me that Bong might be using a real organization to help his protagonist. (*embarassed*) Anyway, after some quick googling, I tweaked the review accordingly. During the course of this googling, however, I stumbled upon something called "the GANDALF trial" from the U.K. in 1997. 

Now, no need to panic -- everyone's favorite wizard is by no means guilty of any high crimes or misdemeanors. Instead, GANDALF is the acronym -- and they tried really hard to make this work -- for Green Anarchist and A.L.F.. The wikipedia entry for this head-scratching event is here. In short, a number of animal rights activist were jailed for conspiracy to commit property damage. The acronym was the brainchild of their defense team, and it just goes to show how strong an environmentalist message could be read into The Lord of the Rings

A weird sidenote -- surely, methinks, I must have casually encountered information about this before, somewhere. Maybe I'll have a look through Patrick Curry's criticism again, since he's the best known environmentalist Tolkien critic, and he tends toward comprehensiveness. Still, this is the first time the GANDALF trial seems to have registered with me.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Oh, an encyclopedia article on aliens in Stephen R. Donaldson

So, Stephen R. Donaldson's one of my favorite writers, someone on whom I did my undergrad senior thesis. (I went to Kent State, where he got a MA, and they have a nifty SRD special collections.) Well, recently there was a volume asking for articles on the aliens in the work of various writers/tv shows/movies. The story of this volume is rather interesting. Mike Levy, a quite well-known sf and fantasy critic, tragically passed away recently, and his widow asked the fantasy scholar Farah Mendlesohn to take over this book he'd been contracted to write. (Together, Levy and Mendlesohn recently wrote a fantastic book on Children's fantasy literature; the cover itself should win an award.) Well, Dr. Mendlesohn wasn't that much familiar with aliens, according to her own admission, so she outsourced the writing of many of the essays and individual encyclopedia articles. I volunteered to write an article on aliens in SRD, and she just green lighted me.

I'm excited about this. Donaldson deserves to be more widely discussed than he is, and even here his sf Gap series is unfairly neglected in favor of his first two Covenant trilogies. Plus, I've always thought his Amnion were a super cool idea for aliens -- one of my personal favorites. Moreover, SRD's continuing concern for human nature  (and an alien species that runs counter to everything he imagines human nature to be) is a nice contrast to the many theorists, most often strangely enough in the humanities, who consistently deny the coherence or morality of any concept such as "human nature." As might be imagined, I'll be bringing up some notions of posthumanism to be on the discussion.

I already got a draft done, and it should be finished in a few days.

There but for the Grace of the Job Market Go I

If life is inherently random, the academic life is randomness squared. With parts of Texas (including half of Houston) underwater because of Hurricane Harvey, and the same with Floria due to Hurricane Irma, it's hard to avoid thinking about the fact that half the academic jobs for which I applied last year were in either Texas or Florida. I actually had two job interviews in Texas, one in Tyler and another in Houston. Had fate brought me to Houston in particular, I'd be an evacuee right now. As it is, in the desert it's been weeks since I've seen rain.

Best wishes to everyone weathering the storm(s).

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Scientia et Humanita Issue 7 has been published!!!

Okay, okay, technically, the print version of the journal came out several months ago. Yet, due to various technical foibles, the online open access version has just been put up here. Okay, technically, the print version has been up for a few weeks, at least the full pdf version and the individual articles . . . but lacking the editor's introduction. Now, though, everything's fine and dandy. Issue 7 can be found here.

I'm very excited about this issue. Not only was this my first tenure as editor in chief, overseeing all aspects of production, but we had a quite nice mix of authors this year -- see my editor's introduction here for more details. Included in this year's issue:

  • "Corpus Christi, Superstar? Decoding the Enigma of the York Mystery Cycle"
    • by Hillary K. Yeager, grad, English
  • "Self-Leadership Strategies and Performance Perspectives Within Student Aviation Teams"
    • by Christopher R. Bearden, undergrad, psychology
  • "Does Criminal History Impact Labor Force Participation of Prime-Age Men?" 
    • by Mary Ellsworth, grad, econcomics
  • "Playing Games as Cultural Expression: Mah Jong, Chess, and BourrĂ© in the Works of Amy Tan and Tim Gautreaux"
    • by Sara Hays, grad, English
  • "Bram Stoker’s Anxieties Concerning the Emancipation of Women"
    • by Rebecca Clippard, undergrad, Japanese & Spanish
  • "The Impact of the HOPE Scholarship on High School Graduation in Georgia"
    • by Muhammad A. Yadudu, grad, economics
  • "Policy Analysis on Youth Aging Out of Foster Care"
    • by Calista Barberi, grad, social work
  • "An Analysis of Euroskepticism’s Influence on Britain’s Vote to Leave the European Union"
    • by Kayla McCrary, undergrad, international relations

We had a record number of submissions this year (25) but only accepted 8 articles, making this our most competitive issue yet. Nice mix of grad/undergrad  as well as mix of disciplines. It also may be our best looking issue yet, since  we did extensive proofreading and layout-checking.

Major innovations accomplished under my tenure:
  • re-vamped our main Scientia website.
  • re-builted our website
  • Composed a Scientia style guide
  • Developed criteria for accepted articles from the social sciences and natural sciences
  • Formalized my criteria for acceptance of articles, which'll be useful for future issues
  • instituted a new process of proofreading that sees both editorial, staff, and author proofs 

Fun stories:
  • One of authors, when I asked which citation style she was using, replied, "APA . . . I think." (Okay, that counts as a horror story.)
    • In fact, judging from this year's issue, APA is apparently the hardest citation style for anyone to get right.
  • When I asked our layout editor why, for her contribution to the issue, she wasn't using the hanging indent formatting for her works cited page, we both realized that, somehow, she never realized that function existed in Word. Instead, she did hanging indents by hitting "enter" and tapping the spacebar 5 times.
  • When we had one econ article unfortunately not make it past faculty review, our reviewer suggested Mary E. as a possible replacement. She revamped a class presentation into an awesome article in the few weeks just prior to us going to press.
  • Chris Bearden, our undergrad winner of the Deans' Distinguished Essay Award, also gets the informal award of "Most Improved Essay in Shortest Amount of Time." He managed to do an unholy amount of revision to his article in only 10 days. He's also a veteran who's just been accepted into the MA program for psychology at MTSU.
All in all, I'm extremely proud of all our authors and staff -- the amount of work everyone put in to make this a quality issue was immense. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Heading to Kalamazoo!

Looks like my abstract has just been accepted for the 53rd International Congress in Medieval Studies, held in Kalamazoo, MI. Even though I'm not a medievalist, I'm super excited about this. This conference always has a large number of Tolkien panels, and I have the great good fortune to share panel honors with not one but two Tolkien scholars with whose work I'm familiar. First is Jane Chance, certainly in the top 5 of All-Time Tolkien scholars, and the person who's largely responsible, so I gather, for the large Tolkien presence in this conference over the years. The other is Andrew Higgins, who co-edited the scholarly edition of A Secret Vice with Dimitra Fimi -- a book that I reviewed for JFA not too long ago. My review was strongly positive, of course (they did a good job), but the expectation of meeting a person whose work I reviewed is somewhat nerve-wracking!

Anyway, this conference is still a good long ways away -- May 10th-13th, 2018. That'll just be after spring semester. I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, September 1, 2017

British Fantasy Novelist Joe Abercrombie . . . sigh.

So, a whiles back during the writing of an article on Glen Cook (a personal favorite), I realized that I just didn't know much about fantasy lit written post-1980s and -1990s. Which makes sense -- that's around when my reading habits greatly diversified. Still, it was hard to make a case for Cook's uniqueness when I hadn't read several of the most recent writers he's been compared to, so I recently made a foray into Joe Abercrombie, known for writing a "grimdark" type of military fantasy.

Anyway, reading Mr. Abercrombie has caused me a severe case of eye rolling.

I've read Before They are Hanged (2007), the second novel in his First Law trilogy, and half of The Heroes (2011), a stand-alone novel set in the same universe. That was enough for me to get a sense of his style and literary character. My thoughts:


Sometimes, a writer simply tries too hard to be sardonic, cynical, and world-wise, and that's the impression Abercrombie gives. There's tons of observations of the sort, "war is awful, terrible, horrific, pointless, wasteful, devastating" and so on, but also a simultaneous sense that war is the one arena of human experience that gives its participants a special insight into How Dark Things Really Are. Neither Glen Cook nor Steven Erikson, for example, ever succumb to that temptation, but Abercrombie's books seem to revel in it. 

That ethos gives off the strong sense that Abercrombie's First Law books appeal directly to teenage boys struggling to form an identity amid a nascent sense of masculinity. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- since roughly half the world's population has to go through the experience of being a male teenager, a category that includes myself, that sort of fiction is useful. The problem that emerges, however, is when someone outside that very narrow age window tries reading the book. Unlike Cook or Erikson, I just didn't see anything that could potentially appeal to full-grown adults.

In fact, Abercrombie reminded me, not of any other fantasist I know, but of a very popular writer of military historical fiction: Bernard Cornwell. I once read three of Cornwell's Sharpe series of books, which were well-written and well-researched but which all followed the exact same formula. Abercrombie isn't a formula writer in that sense, but he made the same appeals: the knowledgeable and competent military male who has to wage a constant struggle of incompetent or clueless military personnel.


Really nothing to write Middle-earth about here. Only about a half dozen countries with pretty clear real-world analogues, whose sole purpose seems to be constantly at war with one another. The plot,  as well as the characters if they appeal to you, are the only sources of interest here.

Also, the names tend to suck. Sometimes I suspect him of delving into various central and Eastern European languages for his names. For example, my wife says that Crown Prince Ladisla is actually a Czech name ("Ladislav"), and some of the others suggest similar connotations, but I'm unfamiliar enough with those languages to really say for sure. Regardless, many of the names also just seem made up out of the blue.

Another thing of note. Abercrombie has his "Northmen," a standard fantasy analogue of Vikings and berserkers and whatnot, but his major country, loosely based on Western Europe, is called "The Union," which is as jarring a name as I could imagine. If that name sounds weirdly modern (and the technology in Abercrombie is all medieval), that's probably because it is. The Union's major military figures talk and act straight out of 19th-century military history -- just think of "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General." This may be entirely subjective, but Abercrombie's historical mishmash just constantly irritated me.


Once I got past all the irritating things, I did think quite well of Abercrombie's narrative skill. By the book's end, his literary mannerisms and cliched tropes still irritated, but Before They are Hanged is certainly not the slog it could have been. 

That said, you'd also have to accept that this book is all plot. Abercrombie doesn't seem to have anything interesting or worthwhile to say (or for a critic to write about), and I have a limited patience for reading plot-only novels. Hence reading 1 1/2 of his books seems enough for me -- if you've read one, I suspect, you've read them all, kinda like with Bernard Cornwell.

All in all, I can understand some of the popularity of Abercrombie's books, but he hardly seems to belong with the major modern fantasists.

Monday, August 28, 2017

A Look at Frederick Pohl

Frederick Pohl's one of those names in science fiction who's frequently referenced (he's a grandmaster, after all) but whom I know virtually nothing about. Recently, I gave him a try after reading his Huge-winning short story "Day Million," the awesomeness of which motivated me to try some of his other work.

First I tried The Space Merchants, one of sf classics that Pohl co-wrote with C.M. Kornbluth. It's clearly a riff on the rising of post-WWII American advertising and consumerism, and of course I kept making unfair comparisons to Mad Men. Even without that complications, however, I can't say that the novel itself impressed me too much. It had a nice premise (i.e, in a world dominated by advertisers, one company is tasked with getting colonists up to the inhospitible planet Mars), but it had that slapdash quality that marks so much early sf. The writing in the second half in particular had that hurry-up-and-let's-get-this novel-over-with quality that reeks "sub-par."

Second, I went for Heechee Rendevous, the third book in Pohl's Heechee Saga. (I should have started with Gateway, I know, but I didn't have that one around.)  Anyway, Heechee Rendevous didn't have the same slapdash quality as The Space Merchants, and I really liked the science fiction bits -- i.e., the human race has discovered a whole bunch of left-over technology from the far-advanced Heechee, who disappeared centuries ago, and humanity's finally going to meet them in this novel. The real problem, though, are all the non-sf bits. . . . meaning, of course, the 200 pages smack dab in the middle that blather on about the main character Robinette Broadhead's personal life. It wasn't bad writing, I suppose, but Pohl's character simply didn't have anything interesting to say or show. When Broadhead finally becomes a computer program in order to avoid death, a sf-idea that unfortunately had only tangential relevance to the drama of actually meeting the Heechee, I just kept hoping that someone would reboot the computer. Basically, Heechee Rendevous wasted about 2/3rds of its length as it delayed getting to the main source of narrative interest, the actual rendevous with the Heechee.

I'll probably try Gateway at some point, but I suspect Pohl will just be one of those classic sf writers whom I never warm to personally.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Orientation Complete -- Classes Tomorrow!!

Well, the first day of classes is tomorrow. Am I nervous? Not about the teaching, at least. Although it's been about a year and a half since I've been in the classroom, once you've done it enough, stage fright is no longer really a factor. Plus, I've done plenty of conferences and presentations (and dissertation defenses!) in the meantime. 

I'm actually more nervous that I've minded all the relevant Ps and Qs in my syllabus; the modern syllabus is akin to rocket science, and I keep frantically double-checking things to make sure all the required tidbits are there.

But I'm already half in love with my new program -- and, needless to say, we've just met. I hinted at this before, but the UA Writing Program is really doing some wonderful things. Many of the pedagogical practices they've incorporated, as might be expected, reflect some of the best current theories and practices of rhet/comp theorists. On a more nuts & bolts level, our college's provost just recently signed off on a new $1 million dollar allocation to reducing FYW course class size to 19. Nineteen! That's almost unbelievable for a state college. Ohio State's writing program fought and scratched to get its freshman comp courses to 24; Middle Tennessee State U capped class size at 22 but had a rough 5/5 load for lecturers. Here at Arizona, it's only 4 classes, meaning that we have less than 80 students to teach.

Of course, at that kind of funding, the university expects a quantifiable increase in the composition skills of students. That's exciting too, because I'd love to be apart of a project that might help universities re-evaluate the workload placed on writing instructors. There's a little bit of self-interest involved, too. Because of this new level of funding, the program managed to hire 22 new lecturers for this year -- including yours truly. The funding, however, isn't guaranteed. But I really think the experiment will work, and I can't wait to start.

Something else that gave me the warm fuzzies -- a few years back, the U of A was a major participant in National Adjunct Walk-out Day. After hearing that, what's not to love?  Go . . . wildcats? Okay, now that I've double-checked, that's definitely the right mascot, so . . . go wildcats!

Monday, August 14, 2017

First Day of Orientation at the U of A!!!

Actually, this was an optional meeting, but I wanted to acclimatize myself to the university as quickly as possible. The department textbooks advocates a genre-based, rather than a process-based, approach to writing, so that's a bit out of my comfort zone & I needed as much info as possible before composing my syllabus.  Anyway, a few observations:

  • 95% of the people there were GTAs -- only 5 new lecturers. Should have expected that, I suppose, but I didn't.
    • Speaking of the GTAs, they're quite the young pups. Given that my doctoral program had a slight higher average age for incoming grad students, I'd forgotten what 23 / 24 year old grad students looked like!
  • People are really friendly. I'm really going to enjoy here, I think. (But I already knew that!)
  • Much of the pedagogical and rhetorical information on which this writing program is based is familiar to me from MTSU's teacher training. So, while they're'll be a learning curve, it's going to go pretty quickly.
  • We have a nicely laid out, institution-wide attendance policy and late-work policy. I love when things are nicely laid out like that -- saves so much stress in case there's ever a grade challenge. (I've never had one, but it's a worry that comes with the job.)
  • Strangely enough, based on absences, faculty actually have the ability to drop students from their courses. It's a matter of managing enrollment, but I've never heard of something like that. There's a lot of wiggle room, too -- we may drop students based on attendance. Given that ambiguity, I'll be trying to avoid using this option as much as possible, except in cases of otherwise certain failure of the student.
I have another optional orientation meeting tomorrow, then the big mandatory one on Wednesday. Looking forward to both!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Tolkien and the 1954 Nomination of E. M. Forster for the Nobel Prize

Now that I've received the official word, I'm pleased to announce the appearance in the fall of Mythlore of my essay, "J.R.R. Tolkien and the 1954 Nomination of E. M. Forster for the Nobel Prize in Literature." 

As you can probably tell from the title, my theme is that mysterious case of why Tolkien would have nominated Forster -- whom we never knew he admired -- for literature's highest prize. To my knowledge, only two scholars have even discussed that situation at any length, both bloggers: Jason Fisher here and John D. Rateliff here.

Basically, I have two contentions. The first revolves around possible literary reasons for Tolkien's nomination. Verlyn Flieger has previously posited that Tolkien could have been influenced by Howards End, but I'm placing my money on A Passage to India. Although postcolonial issues did not occupy much attention in Tolkien's own writings, he certainly knew about such things himself (having been born in S. Africa), making him aware if nothing else of what colonialism did to subjects and rulers alike. He has a telling passage in one of his letters where he describes the English as quickly losing their "generous" sentiments when they reside in the colonies for any length of time, and that's basically a plot summary of A Passage to India. The second major factor, though, is Forster's awareness of the tension between the universal and the particular --i.e., a universal citizen with no overwhelming allegiance to any one country, and the citizen of one particular to the exclusion of other countries. Tolkien, like Forster, sympathized with the universal perspective.

I think my second contention, however, is even cooler. 

Basically, Tolkien didn't make his Nobel nomination in isolation. Two Oxford colleagues, F.P. Wilson and Lord David Cecil, joined him in nominating Forster. Analyzing the Nobel website suggests it was one nomination letter signed by all three individuals, so the question is, why did they collaborate on this? 

My hypothesis is that they were helping C.S. Lewis get elected to a professorship up in Cambridge, which was also happening in early 1954. Tolkien and Wilson, incidentally, were both electors for that chair, and we know that chair was being created specially for Lewis. I think their nomination of Forster, one of Cambridge's most prized writers, could have been a bargaining chip to help smooth the creation of that chair.*** Unfortunately, there's no hard evidence for my hypothesis, but I think I make a compelling case out of what information we do possess.

So, look for details of that in the next issue of Mythlore.

*** The title of my piece, incidentally, hits a slightly different angle from the one my wife wanted me to adopt: "Inklings Scandal Uncovered(!): The Old Boys' Network in Action."