Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A Message from the Past

The Ghost of Christmas Past sent me an alumni relations letter today. I think it's a jpeg from the early 90s. I was tempted to dust off my old 386 and see if it would look any better in Windows 3.1 - what do you think, readers?

Is this a sign that my overseas alma mater is so short on cash that they've gone back to their old store rooms and unpacked the old Apple IIs? Should I be sending them whatever I can spare out of my below-the-poverty-line stipend? Only time will tell.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011


I read this article about the attack in Liege today. Not that I think anyone over there will ever find their way to our little corner of the web, but first let it be said our thoughts are with you.

But I study language, and the language in the article said something I couldn't ignore:

"The latest victim to die was an 18-month-old girl whom doctors had fought for several hours to save."

They fought for several hours.

It's a common enough phrase. When doctors work all-out, we say they're fighting to save a life. But who are they fighting?

I think it was Laurence Lessig who pointed out that in Western culture, we wage war on everything. In America especially. War on Drugs. War on Poverty. War on Homelessness. War on crime. We're fighting hunger, fighting sickness, fighting inequality.

So when we say the doctors were fighting to save an 18-month-old girl, who do we say they were fighting? We don't say it out loud.

I'm not sure why we don't. Maybe it's out of fear, respect, or wonder at our own tenacity. Those doctors, if they were fighting at all, were fighting the one thing some people might say we have no right to fight: death itself.

I don't say that.

I'm not saying I want to live forever. But I sure wouldn't mind pushing back the inevitable for a few hundred years. Maybe even a few hundred years past that. You never know, we may be the last generation to ever have to die. Technology's progressing. If the singularity arrives I'll give you a call.

Talk about a bottom-of-the-ninth home run that'd be: the real shot heard round the world.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Sprint to the Finish

Sorry we haven't been posting more, dear readers. Who would ever have thought teaching and taking classes (while, in Vaulting's case, holding down a full-time job to boot) to take such time? Nevertheless, as we all enter the home stretch, the sprint to the finish, we'd like to take a moment out of our schedules to wish you all the very best. Unless a miracle takes place, you'll hear from us some time after the 21st of December. Good luck to you all.


V & V.

Friday, 11 November 2011

"Happy Veterans' Day"

Every now and then I'm struck by a major cultural difference between the United States and my home and native land. November the 11th is certainly one of those times. Today I spent half an hour watching the services going on in Ottawa, because there wasn't anywhere here paying attention. Judging by one comment I saw on Facebook today, I feel as though perhaps I wouldn't have wanted to go anyhow.

"Happy Veterans' Day" it said. I think that's missing the point.

Today isn't a day for flag-waving, for patriotism, for nationalism. In Canada we call it "Remembrance Day," and it's a time for just that: remembrance.

We remember those who served: those who died and those who lived, forever changed by the service that we asked of them. We remember that war is not glorious, it is not heroic, it is not fair. We remember that those of us who have not fought are ourselves in some measure responsible for the suffering of those who have. We remember that there is no price we can pay, that there are no words we can say, that can make up for their sacrifice. We cannot repay that debt with simple gratitude. We remember that war is and should be a measure of last resort, and we weigh its consequences with heavy hearts.

But it is right and necessary that we do this. Attention must be paid.

We do not say "happy" anything.

We say "we remember."

We say "Je me souviens."

Thursday, 10 November 2011

"Medieval" my foot: a rant.

You know what really irks me? What really gets under my skin? When people can't be bothered to think about the words they're using. Most specifically (and thoroughly unsurprising), for me, it's the improper use of the word "medieval". It's a word near an dear to my heart.

So that said, what's got me rolling is this paragraph from an article linked to today by Boingboing.net:

It's a blog post called "Medieval Marketing" by a fellow named Grant McCracken, a research affiliate at MIT, and the author of a book called Chief Culture Officer. The problem with this article isn't that it's wrong. That I really can't say. Mostly, I think the article was about modern advertising techniques. Or perhaps post-modern ones. Past "form follows function" to the enticement of a mystery. Lovely.

But as far as I can tell, it's got nothing to do with the medieval. The only place the word even shows up, apart from the title, is in this paragraph:

The medieval world took for granted that the universe was filled with secret messages, placed there by God and the correspondences on which the world was built. What did not come from God or nature was made by man in the form of emblems, icons, and insignia insinuated into public life. The home of Sir Francis Bacon was covered with arcana. Only people with a keen eye and a university education could make sense of it.

Take note of those links in there, too. I preserved them just for you. Have you looked? Do you know what I'm going to say next? Please, allow me:

Elizabeth I was not medieval. Sir Francis EXPLETIVE Bacon WAS NOT MEDIEVAL. A book called "The Comely Frontispiece: The Emblematic Title-page in England, 1550-1660" is not nor cannot be in ANY WAY ABOUT THE MEDIEVAL because one of the ways we've decided where the modern era begins is WITH INVENTION OF THE EXPLETIVE EXPLETIVE PRINTING PRESS.

deep breath

Look, I don't know if this guy's ideas are valid. The ones about marketing and culture probably are. But come the heck on: if you can't use the word "medieval" right, just leave it to the experts, will you? And please, leave the Dan Brown schlock out of it too. Sub Rosa my ass.

This rant has been brought to you by the Foundation for Stress-Free Graduate Students, the letter 3 and the number Q.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Dispatch From the Department of Redundancy Department

Regarding a minor but persistent annoyance:

"Compare and contrast" -- let's stop saying this, shall we?

The former means to examine similarities and differences, and the latter means to merely examine the differences.

Unless you really want the differences twice, please stop asking your students to do both. I'm tired of having to explain to smart-alecky students that yes, it is completely redundant (if agreeably alliterative) to use both.


Chief Pedant
Department of Redundancy Department

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Quick: write about something that isn't politics!

I've been having trouble not posting about political things recently, as you may have noticed. So instead, I'm going to post about a book I read recently: Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story". I'm going to try not to include snark, but I'm sorely tempted.

See, the thing is, the book is an absolute darling to the critics. The New York Times called it "a book that not only showcases the ebullient satiric gifts he demonstrated in his entertaining 2002 debut... but that also uncovers his abilities to write deeply and movingly about love and loss and mortality." Salon.com said it is "a high-wire act, pulling off a novel that’s simultaneously so biting and so compassionate... Shteyngart, while unfailingly shrewd and funny, wasn’t always this tender." Ron Charles, writing for WaPo, says "This may be the only time I've wanted to stand up on the subway and read passages of a book out loud."

And I really, really didn't like it. At all.

And I've been trying to figure out why.

Shteyngart has created a New York of the (supposedly) near future, where consumerism, techno-centrism, and solipsism rule. The story follows the day-to-day life of one Lenny Abramov, son of Russian Jewish immigrants, living in an America on the verge of economic (and moral) bankruptcy. Dollars come in two varieties: regular and Yuan-pegged; a cheerful cartoon otter decorates the US embassies of the world, with the caption "The Boat Is Full, Amigo!"; people of all creeds and colours spend their time glued to a device called an äppärät (read: more engrossing iPhone) ordering clothing from clothing stores named "JuicyPussy" and "AssLuxury"; the "younger generation" speak in abbreviations like JBF (Just Butt-F*cking) and TIMATOV (Think I'M About To Openly Vomit); books, sorry "bound, printed, nonstreaming media artifacts", are only for the old, because the kind of literacy needed to enjoy Tolstoy is over.

It's satire, though, and so this is supposed to be okay.


See, the way I think satire is supposed to work is, well, take my favourite example: Swift's "Let's Feed Irish Babies to the Poor" (known more properly as his "Modest Proposal"). In it, Swift adopts a point of view opposite to his own and magnifies it to the point of absurdity to make it clear how batsh*t insane this idea is. So he's not saying "hey, let's take those Irish babies and feed them to the Irish poor -- it'll kill two birds with one stone" he's saying "this is this kind of crap you d*ckheads are proposing and it really has to STOP." See also: Steven Colbert.

And if that's the way this book were operating, I think I'd be more on board with it. This book takes all the things that old, curmudgeonly people are afraid of about the current pace of progress, all the "get-off-my-lawn" crap like "kids these days don't know how to read", "kids these days have no attention span", "kids these days are too sexualized", and "kids these days are crude disgusting excuses for human beings", and turns them into a reality. Turning those dials (as Nigel Tufnel might say) "to eleven" makes those criticisms seem ludicrous.

Because, let's face it, they are ludicrous. The future is scary as hell, but it's also promising as heck. Thanks to the primarily text-based web, more people read than ever before. And if it's not the classics, then it's in new modes of literacy -- in the creation and distribution of videos, images, memes -- hell, we're even crowdsourcing science-fiction storylines and selling them to movie-makers now! We're remixing, redistributing, reinventing ourselves every day and it's not shallow, it's not coarse, it's not in any way a lessening of ourselves as a culture. It's bigger, it's better and it's way the hell scarier than that. It's NEW. And that doesn't always mean "out with the old," but it does sometimes mean a shift away from it.

Which is, I think, the problem I have with this book. You see, I don't think it's satire. I think I wish it were satire. But I've met Gary Shteyngart, and I don't honestly think it is.

I think the way the creation of this book went was that he took all the things he didn't like about our culture -- the misogyny, the consumerism, the solipsism, the growth in what only a member of the New York Literati could call "illiteracy" -- and yes, he turned them "to eleven". But he didn't do it to prove the absurdity of fearing them. He did it to try to show that the misogyny, consumerism, et al. were absurd. He's not saying that being afraid of change is absurd; he's saying that the direction our culture is headed in is absurd.

And I like the direction our culture is headed in.

Because I don't think we're anywhere near as consumerist, misogynist, technology-addled, over-sexed, and terrified of human contact as he seems to. Having seen him speak in person I believe he actually links technological culture -- blogging, vlogging, tweeting, facebooking, and so forth -- with a crippling, world-changing solipsism, and with the consumerism, misogyny, and "illiteracy" that accompanies it.

But I don't think his book can ever support it.

In person, he spoke of the death of journalism, of how something great was being lost. He spoke of how, in his book, everyone's a broadcaster -- but they're broadcasting inane garbage to nobody, because everyone's so involved in their own lives that they never actually listen to other people.

In the book, there are "Media" people (always with a capital-M) who broadcast in real-time from their äppäräti to tens of thousands of viewers. But try as he might to suggest that this is about too many broadcasters and not enough viewers (or, as he repeatedly said to us, too many MFA-endowed novelists and not enough readers) the novel shows something different. To me, anyway. To me, it shows a digital world where news has been democratized. Where the censors can't stop local news about local protests getting around, because they can't block every feed. Where an ordinary schmoe can get the eyes and ears of ten thousand viewers with a glorified iPhone for five minutes to rant about politics, society, or culture.

I guess what it comes down to is that I'm optimistic about the future, and this book couldn't be further from it. I guess I don't find it very funny because I think it's over the top for the wrong reasons. And I guess I feel like even Shteyngart can't paint a picture of a future I won't like.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

"On the Eve of Change," or, "What I Wish I'd Hear From The Mouth Of A Politician In America"

Sometimes, when I'm bored or frustrated, I take a little time to practice my rhetoric and polemic. I think to myself, in a perfect world, what would my ideal political candidate say in a speech? And then, because I'm me and not someone sensible, I waste an hour of my life writing that speech. As Vaulting has said (even today) "You have some weird hobbies." And so, without further ado, a political speech by no-one and to everyone, promising the world and asking for patience.

*Our hero, the POLITICIAN enters STAGE RIGHT. S/he stands at the podium before a crowd.

POLITICIAN: When soon-to-be president John F. Kennedy took to the podium in 1960, he spoke about a “new frontier,” and also about the old one. On a July night, he stood in Los Angeles accepting the Democratic Party's nomination for the presidential candidacy, and he tapped into something beautiful and something brutal, something that at once spoke of the proud age of the country and of its future: the very myth of America.

*The POLITICIAN pauses, then continues.


“I stand tonight facing west on the what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch 3000 miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West.”

He called upon all Americans, who he said “stand today on the edge of a new frontier... a frontier of unknown opportunities and paths, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats... For the harsh facts of the matter are that we stand on this frontier at a turning point in history.”

He was talking about the long and sometimes regretfully executed “twilight struggle” of the cold war. For Kennedy the forces that posed the danger were external. The forces of communism. The forces of dictatorship. The forces of despotism.

*The POLITICIAN looks meaningfully at the crowd, and continues.

POLITICIAN: But today we stand on a different precipice. We stand at another turning point.

Today there are two visions of the West fighting for supremacy. On the one hand we have fear, and we have greed, and we have the relentless individualism that characterizes not only “what's mine is mine” but also “might makes right”. We have the idea that we don't owe anyone anything because we did it all ourselves, on our own.

On the other hand we have an older, more dignified vision of the American Dream. We have the America of the last century that said to the world with open arms, send us your tired and poor, send us your huddled masses yearning to be free. Give them to us, because they are like us. Give them to us so that we might help.

For Kennedy, the forces that posed the danger were external. But today things are different.

Today the new frontier we must bravely face is inside ourselves. Today the new frontier is one of compassion. Compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves. Compassion for the sick, the old, the tired, the unemployed. Compassion for a broken America yearning to be fixed.

And we can fix it.

But it can't be done in half-measures. We can't just put a patch on things and say “that'll do”. We've done that too many times of late. Fixing America isn't something that can be done overnight. It isn't something that can be done with a single bill or a single election.

Kennedy was asking America to gear up for a long twilight struggle, and so am I. But this isn't a struggle that can be won with backdoor deals and tradecraft, not with guns and not with fear. Today I'm asking you to settle into the trenches and fight for the restoration of a Compassionate America. An America that sets the bar higher for what its citizens can expect. An America that treats the downtrodden with respect. An America that asks more of itself. An America filled with good, honest, hard-working Americans that says with open arms to each other and to the world, we're in this together.

*The AUDIENCE breaks into applause, and the POLITICIAN puts up a placating hand before delivering a final line.

POLITICIAN: It's time to face that new frontier. Let's do it together.

*There is much APPLAUSE and also HEAD SCRATCHING.

*EXEUNT OMNES, pursued by A BEAR.

It's been a long day.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Liberty is one of the 99%

Today, you may have noticed a lot of stuff going down in a city near you, all tied up with the We Are The 99% movement. So I thought I might share something I learned recently.

When the Statue of Liberty was being built, there wasn't a lot of support from the people up top. They desperately needed 100,000 dollars to build something for the statue to stand on. Grover Cleveland, then mayor of NYC, vetoed a bill to provide half that money. Congress couldn't get its act in gear. The next bit is actually from Wikipedia:

The New York committee, with only $3,000 in the bank, suspended work on the pedestal. With the project in jeopardy, groups from other American cities, including Boston and Philadelphia, offered to pay the full cost of erecting the statue in return for relocating it. Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the World, a New York newspaper, announced a drive to raise $100,000 (the equivalent of $2.3 million today). Pulitzer pledged to print the name of every contributor, no matter how small the amount given. The drive captured the imagination of New Yorkers, especially when Pulitzer began publishing the notes he received from contributors. "A young girl alone in the world" donated "60 cents, the result of self denial." One donor gave "five cents as a poor office boy's mite toward the Pedestal Fund." A group of children sent a dollar as "the money we saved to go to the circus with." Another dollar was given by a "lonely and very aged woman." Residents of a home for alcoholics in New York's rival city of Brooklyn (the cities would not merge until 1898) donated $15; other drinkers helped out through donation boxes in bars and saloons. A kindergarten class in Davenport, Iowa, mailed the World a gift of $1.35.
As the donations flooded in, the committee resumed work on the pedestal. In June, New Yorkers displayed their new-found enthusiasm for the statue, as the French vessel Isère arrived with the crates holding the disassembled statue on board. Two hundred thousand people lined the docks and hundreds of boats put to sea to welcome the Isère. After five months of daily calls to donate to the statue fund, on August 11, 1885, the World announced that $102,000 had been raised from 120,000 donors, and that 80 percent of the total had been received in sums of less than one dollar.

There are two competing visions of the American Dream right now. One says from the tops of the skyscrapers and from the ignorant masses hiding behind their television screens: "I have what's mine because I earned it. I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, and if the poor are too lazy to do it themselves then they have what's coming to them".

The other proclaims in the poet Emma Lazarus' words, as she has done since 1886, at the very gates of America: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

I don't know about you, but I stand with Lady Liberty and the 99%.

Friday, 14 October 2011

A little Amazon Kindle Bleg

Look, Amazon, we're friends, right? You and me, we go way back to when you started offering paper books for free delivery while I was a poor student. Love the random crap I can buy from you, and the stupid but entertaining ways we netizens can use your feedback columns for ironic and/or comedic hyperbolic ends.


Stop trying to get me to buy a kindle by "improving" it. I don't care. I don't want an always-on cellular modem on it. I'm not too picky about touchscreens, though I guess they're nice. You want me to buy a kindle, here's what you have to do. It's pretty simple:

1. Let me read in any format I choose and buy books for it from wherever I want.

2. Agree that when I buy a book on a kindle it becomes MY property, not YOURS under license.

3. Don't use it as an advertising platform. When I put down a kindle, I don't want it to decide this is an opportunity to sell me something. Anything. Even if it's the BEST. NEW. WHATEVER.

That's about it. Until such time as you can announce these things in a way that causes me to believe you, stop sending me the ads. They won't work.

Sincerely yours,


Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Religion, Emotion, and Sex

It's the end of a rather long day. Mostly good, but long. And I ended my workday about ten minutes ago* by anonymously editing a student essay. I work as an online tutor, helping kids with their essays. It's all legit, we don't edit for them, we just offer suggestions and draw examples from their work to illustrate it. We try to make them better writers, rather than to improve their one specific paper.

But anyhow, I sometimes get personal response narratives that are very, well, personal. And for me, the most freaky kind is when they write about a personal religious experience. I was trying to put my finger on why while responding to this student, trying to come up with a reason to tread more lightly when talking about the personal salvation offered to him/her by Jiminy Cricket**, when it hit me:

Writing about personal religious experience is like writing about sex.

The reason it makes me uncomfortable isn't because I study the devil all the time and have begun to sympathise; it isn't because of the rampant hypocrisy inherent in so many iterations of the religion that always go unmentioned and uninterrogated in these types of narratives; it's that they're so. damned. intimate.

Learning about someone's faith is like learning what they look like naked. For some people, profoundly good, intelligent people who nonetheless are still strong believers, it can be like seeing a classical nude. For people who are major religious figures it can be like seeing the pin-up performativity of a porn-star. For raging hypocrites like the TV televangelists it's like looking at a nude by Lucien Freud.*** But for people who obviously haven't given it a lot of thought, but who nevertheless feel like sharing their profound truths, it's like catching some poor unsuspecting sod with his pants down. It can be a little embarrassing.

The challenge with writing about personal religious experience is the same as with writing about sex. If you're going to be earnest and truthful, it's going to be like sex between two normal, non-moviestar people. It's not a bad thing,**** but to the outside observer it's going to be very intimate, and probably more than a little too much information. The challenge is to provide enough information for your readers to follow along, even to emotionally engage, without strapping them down six inches from the action and forcing them to watch.

So, next time you feel like writing about your Road To Damascus moment, just try to use a bit of perspective, a bit of tact, and a whole lot of circumspection. Otherwise we're going to have to start an award ceremony for you, too.

*9:35pm - don't let anybody tell you students don't work hard, I've been up since 6:00am and working since 7:30am.

**Not his real name.

***To me, anyway. I really hate his paintings. He really knows how to make naked people look ugly.

****Indeed, I do believe sex between non-moviestars to be a Very Good Thing.

Monday, 10 October 2011

An Announcement

Before the announcement, a note:

As many of you know, Vaulting and I cherish our pseudonymity. We don't hide our real identities flawlessly, by any stretch, and many of our friends in the land beyond the internet know who we are. We think of it as an agreement between friends -- and so many of you are our friends that we very much want to share this news with you. That said, this announcement will in all likelihood let many more of our readers know who we are. If it does, you probably know us well enough that we've decided it doesn't matter that you know. But please: if you do figure us out, keep our little secret. The last thing we want is to have to moderate our opinions on here to protect our future job prospects.

And without further ado:

After nearly four years and many travails (and travels) together, the lovely Vaulting and I have agreed (on no set timeline, and after a customary exchange of jewelry) to become partners of a most intimate fashion. That is to say: we're not entirely sure when or how, but we're definitely getting hitched! :D

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The 99%: Not just the tip of the iceberg this time.

@JeffreyJCohen from over at In The Middle (among other places) asked yesterday how medievalists and early modernists could "show their support" for the #occupy movement taking place now in many cities around the US. We decided on a hashtag or two (#occupythemiddleages and #occupyhistory) and decided to post on them.

His post @KarlSteel's #occupythemiddleages post is up here and actually has something to do with the middle ages. Mine really won't.*

Mine's trying to answer the question: "Why a hashtag?" Or, if you like "Why not change your facebook picture, for all the good it'll do?"


First, I think a hashtag is about communication of more than just a single monolithic idea. Certainly it moves the way a solidarity meme does on facebook profile pictures -- everyone turn your picture green to support... a free.. Palestine? -- but it carries with it more meaning.

Take the symbol of the cross in Anglo-Saxon England (yeah, I went there): the cross itself is a symbol, like a hashtag. You can carry a cross, put up a cross, bury a cross, paint a picture of a cross -- and the weight of the monolithic idea behind it will make it symbolic. A really great cross, of course, will be something like the Ruthwell or Bewcastle crosses, that is to say, covered in "texts". (I have to use the Derridan Scare Quotes (DSQ) because I firmly believe that everything is a text, including the images on the R'well & B'castle Crosses.) Take them as a crude metaphor for the difference between a fb picture meme and a hashtag: the fb picture meme can only carry the monolithic idea, it acts as publicity without nuance. The hashtag can carry links to in-depth analysis, that is to say, to the other 99% of the story.

What I'm getting at is that we're not just interested in the headline, because that's what part of the problem has been all along.

This is the first time I've seen a protest movement like this one. It's got nuance, subtlety, and no central focus. The general idea, the headline, is that the American population who are in the lowest earning 99% (that is to say, not the mega-rich) are a little sick of all the rules, all the laws, and all the interest, being geared toward the top earning 1% of the population. But if you want more, you're going to have to talk to just about everyone concerned. That's why I'm not going to try to explain to you what Occupy Wall Street is about. Because I can't. But here's something I can do: I can set up a hashtag, and we can all use it to link to things that help us understand, help us make meaning out of the growing discontent.

Here are just a few:

The movement's (semi?)-official tumblr feed, "We Are the 99 Percent"

Occupy Wall Street
Occupy San Francisco
Occupy Houston
Occupy Boston
Occupy Seattle
Occupy Los Angeles

Religion In American History's post on the phrase "Church of Dissent"
Mother Jones' Occupy Wall Street Protests Map
boingboing.net's Occupy Everywhere post
A Clever Guy's Response to Fixed News' Attempts to Entrap Him
A News Story On Los Angeles Giving OccupyLA It's Official Support

And, as always, the ever-updating Wikipedia Entry for Occupy Wall Street

Educate yourselves. The symbol is only the garden gate.


UPDATE: it also occurs to me that an unfocused hashtag is the perfect reflection of a movement with no center. Life's like that sometimes. :)

UPDATE 2: originally this post claimed the link was to a post by J J Cohen, when in truth it was one by Karl Steel. Mea culpa.

UPDATE 3: added two more links: one to the movement's semi-official tumblr feed, "We Are the 99 Percent", and one to Religion In American History's post on the phrase "Church of Dissent"

Sunday, 2 October 2011

On Methodologies, or, Trying To 'Make Up' With Theory

It's a Sunday night, and I'm frankly out of things to read until my visit to the Library tomorrow (I know, I should have planned further ahead, mea maxima culpa). So instead, I'm going to bleg about how capital-T theory and I have never really gotten along, and how I'm trying to make up with it.

Friends of mine know that, as a medievalist interested in the written word (and one who doesn't currently blog at In The Middle), I've had trouble with what I call Capital-T Theory. At first I thought it was because it wasn't necessary. I mean really: did we already know so much about the so-called "middle ages" that we had recourse to fall onto reader response criticism or psychoanalysis? We didn't even know how it was responded to when it was written, let alone know enough about who confronted it to bother trying to psychoanalyze them.

But, live and learn (and get forced into Theory classes during grad school) and you find yourself in awkward positions. No, I don't know what Agamben said about it. And when I tried to look? He lost me by trying to redefine the word "gesture" as something other than, you know, a gesture.

So of late I've been trying to get back in Theory's good graces. Our Theory, who art in the English Department, etc. etc. be thy whatever. Forgive me Theory, for I have sinned. And so forth. Genuflection, prostration, et al.

Because that same professor who made me rethink the word "criticism" has made me rethink Theory.

What I want, the thing I think I need more of in order to teach, is tools in my toolbox. And my lack of knowledge of Theory has always been a spanner to my plans, if you will (talk about mixing your metaphors). And this professor of mine has got me realizing that without Theory, I'm cutting myself off from a lot of useful tools.

What she's said is simple: take Theory, use it, and bury it as far under the surface of your writing as you can. It enriches your arguments, underpins them -- but the Theory isn't the point. Theory is a means to an end, and unless you couple it with language that allows for easy communication, that end isn't reached.

This isn't to say that Theory that tries to break out of the current paradigm by redefining language itself isn't useful. I mean, it might be; I have no idea. I haven't figured out how to understand it just yet. But I won't come out and say it isn't useful just because I haven't figured out how to use it.*

Take Authorship Theory, for instance. In 1968 Barthes declared the author dead. And I get what he meant. I get what he was reacting to, and if you hold aside the broad, sweeping generalizations Theory likes to make, I can even find it useful. He pointed out (for you medievalists who don't know) that "Lo," and I'm paraphrasing in quotation marks, so sue me, "Lo, we cannot ever know the authorial intention, and who gives a F**k, anyway? All we can know is the reader's reception."

And then the next year, in French, I think, Foucault pops up and says "Well, I mean seriously guys," and this is a direct quote. No really. "Seriously guys, like, what is an author anyway?" And so he redefined the author as something we can't really reach. But since we still try, he said we should think about the author in terms of the way we ascribe authorship to texts. The "author as function" or, if you will, the "author-function". The thing we create to take the place of the unreachable author. Fair enough.

About twenty years later a fellow named Alexander Nehamas pops up and says "hold on, dude. The author can't just be anybody. He's got to be plausible, at least." Basically, the author has to be someone the writer of the text could actually have been. For example, we can't just say Jesus wrote everything. That would be weird. And, you know, hard on Jesus.

So what does this mean? If I'm writing about the Beowulf-poet, how does any of this matter? Well, on the surface, not a heck of a lot. We know we don't know who wrote Beowulf.** We know, thanks to the peculiar integration of history and literature found in Anglo-Saxon studies, that any trait we ascribe to the poet is more a reflection of ourselves and what we need in a Beowulf-poet, than of the actual person (or persons) who wrote the damn thing. But it can help in that, through Theory, we can become aware of our own modes of thought, and more accurately render a reading of the poem and of the poet, knowing full well that what we strive toward isn't the poet him- or herself, but the closest construct we can manage. It can help us in thinking about the audience, in the recognition of the unknowability of the audience of the poem. By calling them the author-function and (as per Kathy Cawsey) the audience-function, we can more accurately name what it is we construct around the few relics of the past we have left for study.

Foucault seems to have been worried that when we read a poem and know that it's by Shakespeare we imbue it with a meaning, or at least a potential for meaning, beyond what we might otherwise ascribe to it. The same, I think, is true of Anglo-Saxon authors: from assuming the texts in Junius 11 are by "Caedmon" (as has been done in the past) to creating a persona for the Beowulf-poet, we must be cautious in our creations so as not to alter the fragile remains of the texts we have left.

And so that's why I'm trying to get along with Theory these days. Because sometimes -- when I understand it -- it gives me an insight that helps. Something that helps me to get at the text in a way that lets me get out of my own way. And God knows I need as many of those as I can get.

*I'm still working on questions like: 1) Why are we still using Lacan's psychoanalysis in English departments when people actually working in psychology wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole even when it was written? and 2) how are you supposed to get through to the paradigm you're trying to change if you opt out of it and thereby sever communication with it? But these are questions I'm trying to deal with. If you know the answers, comments below, please :)

**Thanks Rumsfeld. Known Knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns... probably the smartest and dumbest thing the man ever said (at the same time).

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Funding drama

This is a long post; I apologize.

Those of you on Twitter may have seen yesterday's ridiculous drama. In trying to comment on it today, I realized I need more than 140 characters to adequately describe the situation (as best I understand it). Basically, as you may recall (I know, it's been a while since I've made an appearance on the blog), I started my PhD program last month. I'm taking one class as a part-time student, working full-time at my admin job on campus, and - here's the sticky part - working part-time as a teaching assistant.

The TAship was given to me as merit-based funding. Funding is hard to come by - I believe I'm the only first-year to receive a TAship this year, and it was one of their best packages. I was offered a GAship for the 2nd semester, too, but since it only offers tuition remission (no stipend), I turned it down. I was encouraged to take the TAship, though, and was told that I could absolutely do part-time coursework, TA, and work full-time. Since I really wanted (and still want) the experience, I accepted the TAship.

At the time (and, to be honest, even now), I felt a certain amount of guilt in taking the funding package. As I said, it was a rare offer, and the fact of the matter is that I don't need it. I have a job that pays me well and covers my tuition, and I'm only a part-time student; I don't need the TAship's stipend and tuition remission. But they made the decision to offer it to me, knowing my situation, and so I put my own ambition first and accepted it. (though I will point out that I would have gladly given up my job to be a full-time student and dependent on said funding if they'd given me two semesters of stipend, instead of just the one)

So despite the challenge of juggling what amounts to two full-time jobs, all of which require significant amounts of brain power, I've been managing it and everything has been going well. So, of course, it all blows up.

I spoke to the dept admin yesterday since I hadn't seen a paycheck yet. She spoke with the admin of the college, who Flipped. A. Shit. Apparently, it is absolutely 100% not allowed for a student employee to also be a regular employee. I knew this was technically true, but I figured they'd work around it. No. So now the shit has really hit the fan, and by mid-afternoon, the dept head is calling me and warning me that I'm about to lose my TAship.

Whoa, hold on.

When this all started (only yesterday morning), it was a logistical problem: it was a case of the uni physically not being able to pay me both as a regular employee and as a student employee. There are ways around that. But before we could get to that solution, the entire matter had escalated, and suddenly the dean is involved and saying that we're going to have to wait for the provost to decide.

Decide what? Because now this isn't a problem of logistics, it's a problem of "we shouldn't have given funding to a full-time employee who doesn't need it." Moreover, they've given one of their best funding packages to a part-time student. Bad PR all around. So, as far as I can tell, now they'd like to fix this error. Even if they can't manage a complete fix, they’re certainly not going to pull any strings to get this sorted out in my favor.

The major problem for "fixing" this is that I've been teaching since the start of the semester, and that even if they could give the funding to someone else, that someone else will likely be in a similar position: a part-time student, working full-time somewhere else. And that's assuming they can even find someone who's in a position to accept the TAship.

Once it became clear that this was a more serious issue than just logistics (about the time the dean got involved), I made it clear that I was TAing for the experience. If it comes down to it, I'll TA without the stipend. The response was "Thank you, but that doesn't solve the problem."

How does that not solve the fucking problem?

There are so many angles to the situation that I think it'll be weeks before anyone is able to make a decision. There's the fact that they can't pay me as a student employee; there's the fact that they gave the funding to someone who doesn't need it. There's the issue of pulling a TA from a course well into the semester; and there's the issue that they can't separate the funding (the stipend and tuition remission) from the service (TAing).

There’s an entire other part of this story, having to do with my work supervisor, but I’ll cover that in a separate post. But as things stand now, I'm waiting to hear back from the provost about whether I'm "allowed" to work full-time, be a part-time TA, and do coursework. As I said on twitter, how is this anyone's decision but mine?

It's fairly likely that they'll refuse to pay me as a TA; it's quite possible that they'll refuse to let me continue as a TA at all. But from my perspective, those are the most complicated solutions to the problem. So simplicity might win out in the end. But I promise: if the provost tells me I’m not “allowed” to continue, s/he and I are going to have a serious discussion, and they’re going to have to explain to me how the politics of this justify taking away my funding, taking away my teaching experience, disrupting my students’ education, throwing another PhD student into the position mid-semester, and leaving the prof and other TAs to clean up the mess.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

A Few Thoughts on "Criticism"

I've been mulling over this idea for a while, and it resurfaced recently when one of the professors at Gothic Revival U brought up the tendency of scholars -- especially younger ones, but not solely -- to feel as though they have to tear down other scholars' work, and not just in order for their own to be heard. Lord knows I've been guilty of this myself in the past (especially when it comes to the nebulous, sometimes solipsistic fringes of capital-T Theory land, where I tend to react out of frustration).

But it occurred to me again that it's built into the very way we think about secondary and tertiary analysis in my discipline: we call it Criticism.

It's come to mean and in many ways be synonymous with analysis, but it also seems to carry the connotation, at least emotionally, of being critical, as in a negative, claws-out, destructive manner. We have two meanings for the word critical, of course. We call it "critical thinking" when we mean "analytical", but it may be telling that we now as a culture have to use the word "constructive" to qualify criticism as the helpful kind.

And so I wonder if maybe we can decide, en masse as it were, to change the terminology we use, and maybe in that way, change the way we think about secondary scholarship.

I think I'm going to do my best from now on to use the phrase "Analysis" where others use "Criticism" in my discipline. I think at the very least it'll help me remember that even if I think a piece of scholarship is straight out of Loony-Tunes Land, that I can learn something from it. That doesn't mean there won't be times when I analyze and conclude that an element of an article, or an article in general, isn't helpful to me, but I think it will help me, and hopefully others, to remember that maybe we're not here to be critics. At least I'm not.

I'm here to learn.

So now if you'll pardon me, I have some Literary Analysis to perform ;)

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Respect for Alcohol Begins at Home, at School, in Our Philosophy, Horatio.

Tenured Radical has a post up today about "Twelve Steps that institutions could take to reverse student alcoholism", which is interesting, but I think misses a few things.

First, there's the mention of a couple of terms that I'd like to contest:
I remember a young friend telling me about a category at a women’s school they called “LUGs,” which meant “Lesbian Until Graduation.” We might add to that category “AWACs,” translating to “Alcoholic While At College.” Although only a few of these students will go on to be genuine, professional alcoholics, this period of alcoholism still has a dramatic impact on their ability to learn, remain organized, be healthy and mature as intellectuals and workers.

I think that "AWAC", just like "LUG", is a very problematic term, and the very fact of its coining bothers me. Alcoholism should not be equated with irresponsible drinking. The two are very different things. To suggest that "when they realize that holding down a job and being a drunk is a skill few can master" an alcoholic will recover is, I would think, offensive to the people who actually struggle with alcoholism. While alcohol abuse is a hallmark of alcoholism, not all alcohol abuse is alcoholism. I would go so far as to say that if the realization that being drunk affects your livelihood is enough to stop you drinking, you're probably *not* an alcoholic, and never were.

This isn't to say that I don't think some of the things TR is suggesting are good ideas. I think asking responsible drinkers to counsel irresponsible ones is a great idea. But I think we need to not only look at it as a campus problem, but as a fundamental flaw with the way the United States deals with intoxicants.

First: the age of majority. It's patently absurd to suggest that a person is mature enough to vote, be in pornography, and own a gun years before they can consume alcohol. It's patently absurd to ask anyone caught within that space of time to respect that space. They don't, and they won't. "Under-age" drinking will continue until some logic is applied to the age of majority in this country. It gives drinking a social cache that makes drunkenness a sign of adulthood.

Second: making drinking illicit drives it underground and prevents any kind of education about responsible approaches; as well as education about catching alcoholism-like behaviour early. As far as I'm concerned, telling young adults that drinking is bad and banning it until the age of 21 is about as logical as abstinence-only education -- and about as effective, too.

So yes, do those twelve things on campus. Do your best to reduce problematic drinking. But don't call it alcoholism, and don't really expect it to change until you stop making it sexy by outlawing it.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Reader Recommendation

Hello early semester readers!

Just read a review over at Religion in American History of John Fea's new book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and it definitely sounds worth reading/assigning to young historians. My favourite part?

"The Christian nation debate is not really an intellectual contest between legitimate contending viewpoints; it is instead a manufactured controversy akin to the global warming debate. On one side are purveyors of a rich and complex view of the past (including most historians who have written about the founding era). On the other side is a group of ideological cranks who have created an alternate intellectual universe based on a historical fundamentalism."

Go check it out. Even if you're not interested in the book, it's a good blog :)

Sunday, 11 September 2011

A Note to Those Attempting Old English Pronunciation

In fact, only to you who hail from parts of North America prone to palatalization and nasalization of your vowels:

While the pronunciation of "Hwæt" does rhyme more with "cat" than with "what", this is only the case if you speak like Dr. Gregory House. If your normal pronunciation of "box" resembles in any way the spelling "bee-ax" suddenly Old English epic poems seem to begin not with "What!" but with a sound more fitting for a millpond than a meadhall. I promise you, that though there may be much in Old English study open to interpretation, no Anglo-Saxon scop ever called to attention a horde of drinking men by quacking like a duck.

Sincerely yours,

A Concerned Party

postscript: One day, I will have internet at my home again. For now, I'm in a cafe next to a laundromat, blogging while Vaulting does more productive things.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Radio Silence

The Casa de Vaulting and Vellum is picking up and moving across town today, to a place without internet until Thursday. Just in case you start to worry.

Wish us luck.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

In Case of Hurricane...

I have always lived inland. By which I mean that the idea of a hurricane has always been Something That Happened To Other People, and usually to Other People South Of Me. And yet Vaulting and I live just far up the coast enough that I'm decidedly unsure if my complete lack of concern about the impending Augustpocalypse is because I'm right (it's going to be a bit of a brutal storm, one not to go out in, but since we're renters and have nowhere else to go we might as well live it up and have a Hurricane Party) or because I'm wrong (my lack of experience in these matters will get me killed). I'm obviously banking on the former, but I suppose I'll make sure to unplug everything before we reach ground zero -- or before ground zero reaches us, that is.

In the meantime, there's an episode of Project Runway I haven't seen yet -- and I don't want to die with PR left unwatched.

See you after the party.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

On Tenure in America

I warn you, this is a bit of a long post for me, but I think more relevant to the academic world than most of mine, so:

Yesterday, Dean Dad over at Confessions of a Community College Dean published a post about the cumulative load of student loan debt. One, you should read that post and also check out the worrisome chart.

Two, he said something that irked me.

"Among the blogs, you’d get the impression that the biggest problem facing higher ed was its overreliance on adjuncts. Put differently, you’d get the impression that colleges are too frugal. The preferred alternative usually offered is a dramatic and sustained increase in labor costs. From whence the money to pay these increased costs would come is usually left to the imagination. "

I responded in the comments thusly:

"Come now, you know this isn't what we're griping about, nor a fair description of the solution. The problem is not an over-reliance on adjuncts so much as the replacement of full-time tenured positions with underpaid adjunct ones. We just want the number of full time with benefits teaching jobs to remain the same, not decrease in favour of part-time, no-benefits jobs. This shouldn't be described as a "dramatic and sustained increase in labor costs" so much as "keeping up with inflation" -- tough, I know, but certainly not as outlandish as you're making us sound.

Now I'll admit, I may not have spent more than five minutes responding, but today I have more time, and lucky commenter "Anonymous" at 6:11am gets that time spent on her or his response.
"Vellum: what I'd like to see is some statistics. Which schools have lost faculty positions, and how many? At my own institution, I can say with certainty that no faculty have been "replaced" with adjuncts. In real terms, the size of the department has increased significantly in the last ten years...just not as significantly as the number of adjuncts. DD's assumption (which seems in the main correct) is that more people are going to college and instructional loads are increasing, and that we can meet that increased burden with either expensive tenured faculty or inexpensive (in the short term) adjuncts. That's not "replacing;" that's just not increasing. If you can point to a department that had 20 full-time faculty a decade ago and only has 10 today, of course--in a discipline that hasn't seen drastic reductions in students taking classes; The Classics department at SUNY Albany, for instance was clearly not the victim of the contingent labor market--that might help ground this discussion in the facts."

I can't believe I never looked this up for myself. That's lesson one. You read statements like "the percentage of tenure and tenure-track faculty has shrunk to almost a quarter" and "the trend of tenured and tenure-track faculty lines being replaced by adjuncts will likely continue" and you think that across the board, retiring tenured faculty aren't being replaced with new tenured faculty.

That isn't exactly the case.

Yes, I'm sure it's happening in some places, but it's not the whole story. The whole story is both better and worse.

According to these data from the AFL-CIO, between 2001 and 2009 in the US, the total number of tenured faculty, that is, the total number of people with tenure at an institute of higher education, went up in every named category: Professor, Associate, Assistant, Instructor, Lecturer. That's the good news.

The bad news is that untenured and non-tenure-track jobs are becoming a larger part of the whole. While the data seem to only show a slight shift in the population as a whole so far, from 32.6% of the workforce in non-tenured/non-tenure-track jobs in 2001 to 35.9% in 2009, the discomforting thing is where the new jobs are being created. Of the roughly 87000 new teaching jobs reported from 2001-2009, nearly 60% (58.6%) were in non-tenure/non-tenure-track jobs.

Now, I'm also dubious as to how many "temporary" (read: adjunct) staff the Universities would report for this survey, and I can't find much data on that. It could well be that these are only non-tenure-track "full-time" positions being charted, which would leave all the tens of thousands of adjuncts unrepresented in this study.

This doesn't mitigate the way adjunct faculty are being treated. Nor does it really address the decreased quality of education when the economics of the situation are driven by such a lack of government funding that tuition is actually seen as a major source of budgetary income (seriously, in the rest of the western world, that idea is just loopy -- but then in the rest of the western world, you don't have to pay $20,000-$40,000 a year in tuition for a BA, either).

What it does suggest is that even though the pool of qualified PhDs is getting larger by the year, and even though the job market is getting more intensely competitive such that only the very, very top candidates get tenure-track positions, there are more tenure-track positions created in the US every year.

And that should be some small comfort to us all.

Even while we prepare to flip burgers with our non-Ivy PhDs hanging behind us on the wall.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Mid-August "We're Still Alive" Post

Hello, you few kind and gentle readers who still bother to have us in your feeds. Hello, hello.

It's August, and that means the terror of September is starting to settle in: I'm scrambling to conquer all the reading I meant to do this summer, and Vaulting and I are mentally preparing ourselves for our first semester of "TA-ing". Meanwhile we're trying to fit in seeing all the friends we haven't yet at the weekends (I haven't done so much wonderfully touristy stuff in North-East Metropolis in the past year as I have in the past two weekends!) and today I start packing for the move across town. That's right, even though things are lovely and wonderful in this apartment, we have to move (through no fault of our own). But at least we have a place, we've managed the down payments, and we have flatmates. Anglo-Saxonist Flatmate is remaining with us, although since Chaucerian Flatmate went off and got married (and give up living with us? silly man) we've since replaced him with a new character, who I suppose, seeing that she doesn't study history in any way, we shall call Present-Tense Flatmate. Present-Tense is cool and of-the-moment, and aside from occasionally making Vaulting and I feel somewhat old and boring (while she goes out clubbing and we sit at home playing skip-bo or watching Sports Night on Netflix) she's quite nice and we're happy to have her.

As for the blog and social media, I'm trying to stay on top of my Twitter feed, but I feel as though I've let my google+ account fall by the wayside. I couldn't be bothered with facebook, I'm not sure I'll be able to be bothered with the new facebook. Such is life. Finally, because I found them interesting once I figured out where to look, here are the top ten search terms that directed people to this blog. Some making more sense than others.

In no particular order, they are (with commentary):

1. a world lit only by misconceptions
(one of my finer ideas)
2. afghanistan one bullet costs $80,000
(not sure if that's accurate but that sounds rather pricey to me)
3. are bruce greenwood and sam neil related
(a damn fine question if you ask me)
4. badass canadian logger
(aren't all Canadians badass loggers?)
5. badass vols pic
(...no idea what they were looking for... maybe a picture of badass voles? though to be fair, I've no idea if a vole can even be badass. Maybe a skink or a stoat...)
6. bsg stands for
(Big Scary Giant - the BFG's douchebag cousin)
7. christianity survived depite medieval christians not because of them
(I think you mean "despite")
8. diana gabaldon movie
(oh god, I hope not)
9. hyperbole world lit only by fire
(that wasn't hyperbole, I really believe it to be the worst book ever written by a mammal with thumbs!)
(okay that might've been hyperbole)
10. museum salary negotiation
(and rounding out the final spot, someone looking for practical advice from Vaulting. Well they sure as heck weren't going to get it from me.)

Hope all your Augusts are going well!

Sunday, 7 August 2011

On Angry Blogging and the Use of the Second Person

Vaulting and I had very different reactions to this post about street harassment over at feministe. I wanted to explore why.

(A note for readers: I'm not certain why I reacted so negatively to it, but I'm pretty sure it's not because I think the lousy excuse for a human being who said "nice legs" while running over her foot was in the right. Just saying.)

See, Vaulting said I should go read the post because it encapsulated well the frustrations some women experience with their treatment on the street. There is (in my understanding of things) a problem in our society whereby many straight men think it's somehow their birthright to comment on a woman's appearance, usually in a way that claims a space and makes a woman (or, indeed, all women) into trespassers, welcome or otherwise.

Nevertheless, I couldn't read the post.

I started, but by the fifth-ish paragraph the animosity started to get to me, shortly after that I started to skim, waiting for the author to address me-- or, indeed, address anyone who wasn't the douchebag who ran over her foot. But it didn't happen. It left me feeling upset. Right to the very end, "you" meant "him".

And that's where I think the problem lay. There's a danger, I think, in using the second person when you're angry and blogging. Think of anger as a gun: when you're blogging, "you" is your reader -- the problem is, in this case, "you" is also who the gun is being pointed at. So even though the article was addressed to the fellow with his head so far up his posterior that he was wearing it as a hat, I had a hard time dissociating that "you" from the one that meant "me". That meant every bit of anger meant for him hit me, and resulted in my inability to continue reading the post long enough to empathize with the writer.

Maybe I'm "thin-skinned"; maybe that's it. All I know is that by the time I was halfway through, I felt done with being sworn at and blamed, and stopped reading. Maybe the blogger actually thought that the chauvinist-bicyclist was an every-day feministe blog reader, but I doubt it. I think in this case, and perhaps in many cases of angry blogging in the second person, our author has shot her arrow over the house, and hurt her readers.

What do you think, dear readers? Have you ever second-person angry-blogged? What were you aiming at? What did you hit?

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Maybe I'm a little late to the party but..

I only just read this description of Congress, supposedly by Samuel Clemens. After seeing their actions over the past two years, I'm fully prepared to describe it as "accurate":

"Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself. Simply suppose you were a member of Congress. And suppose you started-up what you believed to be your faculties, and worked out the draft of a law to cover the needs of some industry or other which you did not know anything about. What would you do with that draft - submit it to somebody who did know something about it, and get instruction and advice? Yes?

It is natural to think that; but the member of Congress proceeds differently. He drafts that law to cover a matter which he knows nothing about; he straightaway submits it to the National Asylum, who are similarly ignorant concerning the thing; they amend-out any accidental clearness or coherences which may have escaped notice; then they pass it, and it presently goes into effect. It goes into effect. and of course it begins to confuse and hamper interested parties, because they do not understand it. But this has been foreseen, and has also been provided for - in a most curious way. Each public department at Washington keeps a minor asylum of salaried inmates whose business it is to invent a meaning for laws that have no meaning; and to detect meanings, where any exist, and distort and confuse them. This process is called 'interpreting.' And sublime and awe-inspiring is this art."

Anyone know anything more about this passage? I'd love for it to actually be by Mr. Twain.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Congressional Cowardice

Kevin over at Lowering the Bar has a hilarious but accurate explanation of what congress is planning, so that nobody but Obama will be blamed for raising the debt ceiling -- something regrettable that nobody disputes needs to be done.

The long and short of it? Well the phrase "approval-by-veto" should probably ring alarm bells, anyhow:

In other words, Congress would approve a resolution of disapproval in order to force the President to disapprove that disapproval, which would turn it into an approval, one that Congress knows it would be unable to re-disapprove. That would leave us with the interim approval-by-veto, so that the limit would somehow end up being raised even though neither branch would have actually cast any vote in favor of anything.

Oh America, this is why nobody takes you seriously anymore.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

I think you mean "pro bonobo"

Just for fun: Legal Questions Raised By Success of Monkey Photographer at Lowerin the Bar.

Happy Thursday, everyone!

Friday, 1 July 2011


In his latest post, Dean Dad says: "I was a denizen of college radio in the late 80’s, just before the music we played broke out as “alternative.” In those days, a new release by R.E.M. or The Replacements was a Very Big Deal. (I vividly remember the disappointment when Don’t Tell a Soul came out.) It was a blast, but it was the kind of blast that relied on a specific historical moment." It's not the point of his post, but it reminded me that I hadn't listened to the Replacements since High School.

You know what?

I'm still in love with that song.

Also, Happy Canada Day, all you lucky Canucks :)

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

And I quote: "Jeezus Motherfucke" (i.e. Rage Post)

Because I lack the appropriate language for the rage I feel as a cyclist in this city, may I direct you to this somewhat dated post by Comrade Physioprof. In my case, substitute "parking in, double-parking in, standing around in, jogging in, or otherwise obstructing the bike lanes" for the bit about slides, and those who perpetrate such crimes (with appropriately colourful descriptions) for "electrophysiology douchefuckes". Also, add appropriately vibrant metaphors for cyclists who can't, it seems, see the colour red.

That is all.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Mondays, and imagining funding

Monday mornings at the Vaulting workplace generally aren't a lot of fun (as my twitter feed will tell you, given my copious use of the sarcastic #happymonday). All those things I put off dealing with on Friday are waiting to be resolved - and usually much less patiently than they were the week before. Further, it seems that everyone else I work with views Friday afternoon at 4:45 as the perfect time to send out urgent requests for information/changes/crisis resolution. I'm sure as hell not in my office at 4:45 on Friday, so this leaves me with a build-up of urgent demands in my inbox on Monday morning.

tldr; Mondays suck.

Every once in a while, however, the weekend will serve its purpose, and I'll arrive at work on Monday morning with a fresh perspective and renewed incentive to get shit done. This morning was one of those mornings, kind of - though the get-shit-done motivation was more of a get-this-out-of-my-hair motivation. This morning's drama, which has been hovering over me since a grant closed last week, was salary relocation.

Scientist Boss has a lot of grants. My entire job is managing his grants, and only his grants. To compare, my admin colleagues all manage grants for at least 5 scientists, and usually more, versus my 1. The sheer quantity of SB's grants makes for a lot of work, but it means the one thing we don't worry about is money.

It does make for a royal pain in the ass when it comes to salaries and stipends, though. For every grant that provides enough money for a postdoc salary or a grad student stipend, there are a whole host of issues. Grants, even multi-year grants, end. The grant that just closed was only a grant-year end, so there's another year coming. That money was supposed to show up on the first of the month. Like all grants, however, it hasn't shown up yet. So I'm left with several salaries to relocate until said money appears - which could be this week, or August.

As I mentioned, this morning was a get-shit-done kind of Monday, so I've resolved the issue for now. But every time something like this happens (which lately has been at least once a week), I'm reminded of the distance between funding in the sciences and funding in the humanities.

To keep things simple, let's just look at PhD students. In my science dept, every student (there are a dozen in my lab alone, to give you an idea of the number) gets a full funding package - tuition and an RA position that pays more than I was ever paid prior to getting this position. In the art history dept that I'll be entering this fall, one student a year gets a full funding package - and it's for about $10,000 less than the sci students get. The rest of us are given one of a very few TA gigs or an unpaid RA position that covers tuition.

I know there are many reasons why there's so much funding kicking around the sciences, and why sci grad students are paid so much more than their counterparts in the humanities. But I do wonder what we could do in the humanities if we had access to even a fraction of what sci folks get. Imagine having regular, realistic access to grants that provide $10,000/yr for travel, and allow for you to have two well-paid PhD students as research assistants. What could you accomplish? What research could we get done in a year? How much more would we have to show?

SB's salary comes from grants, so I suppose it makes sense - but his teaching load is less than 1-1. What could we do with that extra time?

On the other hand, as humanities folks, we don't have to worry about getting enough grants to support our salary and the stipends of all our students. And one year of weak research/publications/grant applications isn't an unmitigated disaster. But it's an interesting thing to consider.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Good Points and Straw Men (Or, The Rhetoric That Reduces)

This originally started in my head as a response to an e-book vs. paper book post on Historiann's blog, "Codex Rules, Kindle Drools. (And I told you so)." I posted a comment responding to it, but cut myself off because I could go on all day. Digital publishing is a bit of a hobby horse for me, so I thought I'd continue here. But now I'm here, I think I've said it all before. What's interesting to me right now as I think of it is the way we approach arguments here on the interwebs (and, sometimes, in scholarship). It's the question of posturing that shows up in disputation from Plato down to the present: how do you restate your opponent's argument?

See, when Historiann wrote this: "The only good argument for e-books that I’ve seen recently was from my commenter Susan, who noted their usefulness to people with failing eyesight. That’s not a trivial usefulness, to be sure–but for most scholars, codex [her term for paper publishing, I'm assuming] is still the superior technology. Plus: they aren’t fatally damaged if you take them to the beach or try to read them in the bathtub, and they’re still supremely easy to annotate with a pen or pencil and awesome Post-It technology."

My thought was this: "What a straw man argument is this. But lovely rhetoric."

There's a trope in argument (the source for which I've just spent an hour looking up -- I assume it's in the Rhetorica ad Herrennium, but I can't find where) where one seems to agree with one's opponent on a minor point in order to show that the major point is untenable.

This is something that rhetoricians have been doing for thousands of years. If you go back to read Plato's Symposium, you'll see that it's all about restating your opponent's argument in such a way as to control the outcome. Control the definitions, control the argument, control the outcome. To a degree, we do this instinctively; it's a part of our process of analysis. In reading an argument, we make judgements and react -- not to the initial argument, but to the judgements we have made of it. But sometimes in restating our opponents' arguments in order to refute them, we restate them in such a way as to make them easier to knock down.

Intentional or not (and it can and is used intentionally by some) it can also have a tendency to reduce the scope of an opponent's point of view to something that can be easily overcome: for instance, reducing all the arguments for e-books to "well, they're good for people with bad eyes". Straw men don't fight back.

So that's what this post was going to be about. But I realized as I was writing it that it's just as much about how we treat each other here in the blogosphere.

Case in point, this post, by Larry Swain. It's sparked a lot of debate, during the course of which feelings were hurt and misunderstandings abounded. Most of it, I think, has to do with not what was said, but how and where, and the the ways in which the things that were said were understood and reframed for comment.

Larry's post, if you haven't read it, was well-meaning (and, as it would seem, easily misconstrued) advice to both graduate students and professorial types alike in the wake of K'zoo 2011. I'm going to try to stay away from commenting on the content of the post, because it's not what I want to discuss. Part of the problem with the situation was that a long discussion of the post went on here, at In The Middle in the comment thread to a response by J. J. Cohen. And, as sometimes happens on the interwebs, nobody thought to inform Larry that a discussion that, while ostensibly about his post was in many ways about him, was taking place in a public forum.

Vaulting pointed out to me this morning that the same thing happened re: medievalists.net a while back, and my response was that they didn't have the option of commenting on that site because (if I recall correctly) comment threads weren't enabled there. To me this seems more like a certain post I wrote in 2009 which touched a few nerves. While I meant to discuss a trope in scholarship, a reference to Jeffrey's phrase "originary geotemporality" gave it at least the impression (unintended, I hope you'll believe) of a personal attack. Especially because it was in my own blog, and not in the comment thread to his.

Which leads me back, by a circuitous route, to my main point: as bloggers, where we choose to address a point can be as meaningful as how. Starting a new discussion on one's own blog (as I suppose I'm doing right now) is a way of reframing an argument. Whether we mean it or not, it has an effect on the discussion that can be taken in different ways. Without the full text to which our posts refer, our readers are left to interpret based on those reduced parts of it we have selected to discuss. That's why this post isn't about what Larry said, or what the commenters on Jeffrey's post said he said, or what Larry's follow-up post said they said he said. I'm reframing the issue as about reframing the issue, or at least I'm trying to.

I, of course, would urge that we give each other the benefit of the doubt (and the benefit of rebuttal) but that won't always happen. But as recent events show, it's at least important to remember that the blogosphere (such as it is) is a discussion -- sometimes a heated, frustrating discussion, but a discussion nonetheless -- and that there's a whole new rhetoric of (dare I say it?) geotemporality that comes into effect. Where and when we post is a rhetorical choice in itself.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Post-Kalamazoo Roundup!

Now that Vaulting and I have returned from an excellent Kalamazoo (and had time to recover. Slightly.) there are a number of things I'd like to address. And I'll get to those in good time. But first, I just want to say thank you to everyone who made it fantastic: the presenters in Vaulting's session and my own, the random people who asked all the right questions, the old friends we saw and perhaps drank too much with, and the Richard Rawlinson Center, the University of York, Early Modern Europe, and the mead brewers (sadly now defunct) for providing a proportion of that "too much" free of charge :) I'd also like to blow a great big raspberry at those who lose all interest in you once they realize you're nobody special: to borrow a phrase, "bitter kittens, you ain't so special yourselves." So, here's a brief list of highlights, lowlights, and othermoreconfusinglights of the conference, some or all to be covered at greater length later (I'll leave it to you to decide what's what):

-Doctor Who audiobooks
-The astounding, insane price of petroleum products
-Sharing a bathroom with someone you *actually know* (and like)
-Ethernet (for one) in cell block H
-American Continental Summer for two days followed by English Winter for two days
-Books I can't afford because I'm poor
-Books I can't afford because the used bookseller thinks none of us have heard of abebooks and amazon
-Books I can just barely afford and must buy because it has a chapter that replicates almost exactly what I'm doing OMGWTFBBQ (and now he's writing self-help relationship books.... O_o)
-Very Cheap Amazing Books
-Free Swag
-Sessions run by Venerable Scholars
-Sessions run by Venerable Scholars in part as a 3-day roast of Patrick Conner
-Sessions run by less-venerable scholars who are my friends
-Sessions run by my friends
-Sessions which piss off the Society for Stuffy Old Art Historians (would you like to run a session? Please send us your CV)
-Eminent Scholars who ignore one's nametag
-Eminent Scholars who read one's nametag in order to learn one's name (and not one's social status)
-Eminent Scholars who ask if they can accompany you to lunch in order to further the conversation you're having with them
-Young scholars who engage one in conversation in order to (obviously, blatantly) chat up one's friend
-Drinking in strange (and possibly illegal) places
-Really, really, *really* hilarious waitresses
-Really nice people who show one where to print things before the computer lab opens (which happens to be at the same time as your session)
-The Dance
-Jon Jarrett and Heptarchy Herald headbanging to Bohemian Rhapsody at The Dance
-Half-price books at Powell's on Sunday morning
-Goodbyes to people you saw
-Apologies to people you didn't
-Days of recovery

As I said, some of this will be written about, some not. But it all really happened. I think.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The 5am Post!

I'll tell you what's amazing. Everything. Everything's amazing at 5am.

Well, no, probably not really. But trust me, get little enough sleep and you'll think so too!

Time to head off to Kalamazoo!

Wait, where's my coffee...?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Good news

As some of you saw on Twitter, I was accepted into a PhD program last month. I'll be starting at Northeast Metropolis University (NEMU) in the PhD in Art History program this fall. I am, to say the least, delighted.

I'm in the extremely fortunate position to already be an employee of NEMU, so it didn't actually matter if I got funding or not - worst case, I do my PhD part-time for free (thanks to NEMU's 100% tuition remission for the first course/semester. The 2nd course, should I ever be so brave, is 90% covered).

In the end, I received what amounts to a good funding package for NEMU humanities departments, but which is unfortunately still a shit deal. I'll be TAing this fall for a pretty nice stipend, but the spring semester funding is only a graduate assistantship for 10 hrs/wk in exchange for tuition remission - no stipend. And there's no guarantee of funding in future years (and it sounds as though there definitely won't be any TAships available for my second year). So, for obvious reasons, I'm keeping my job and taking classes part-time - except for this fall, when I'm somehow going to juggle a full-time job with a 20 hr/wk TAship and a graduate course.

Assuming there are enough hours in the week, this is probably the best possible outcome. I like my job, but more importantly, it pays very well - more than I'll make in academia for the next 10+ years. I don't mind keeping it and studying part-time, but I had been concerned about what this would mean for teaching experience. However, now that I'm TAing a semester, I'll be at the top of the list for future semesters. I'll also be able to teach summer classes. So if all goes well, I'll have a few strong courses under my belt by the time I have to confront the job market.

In the meantime, I'm focusing on saving as much of my income as possible. Once I start the program, my loan payments will all be suspended, and the interest on all but one will freeze. (Can I just say how excited this makes me? My only monthly payments will be rent and my car!) The one that will keep generating interest is, of course, the largest one, but by this fall, it will be more or less equal to my fall stipend. And that's where my stipend will be going. By Christmas, my unsubsidized loan will be gone, and with it, my highest interest rate. And I will have paid off more than half of my MA degree.

Not bad for a first semester PhD student.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Credit Cards

This started out as a comment to Tenured Radical's post, "A Graduation Guide for the Age of Living in Debt". It got a little long, so I've moved it here. But you should go read her post first.

On the topic of credit cards, I'd like to add my two cents: namely, that with a little self-control, a credit card really can be a good thing. Without a credit rating, you can't get cable. You can't get internet service. You can't get a cellphone plan (pay-as-you-go is an option though). You can't get electricity. I know these things because as a Canadian coming to the US, I had to rely on others for these things. Oh I had a Canadian credit rating, but that means diddly south of the border, it seems.

This is what happens when you have a Social Security Number, but no credit rating, and you try to get, say, internet, electricity, etc.:
VerComStar: "What's your SSN?"
Me: *gives SSN*
VerComStar: "Hmmm.. is there anyone else in the household?"

At this point the options are "yes" and you go get them, or "no" and you don't get service.

I had been working in the country legally on that SSN for eighteen months, but because I had no US credit cards, I had no US credit history. Then four months ago the lovely folks at CapitalOwned offered me a parasitic high-interest mastercard, which I took.

I proceeded to use it for one purchase a month, setting aside the money to pay the bill the moment I spent it. When we switched internet providers a month ago, lo and behold: I suddenly existed.

Here's the thing: you don't need to carry a balance to get a credit rating. If you buy one thing on it a month (preferably something you were going to buy anyway, like groceries) and pay it off each and every month, then voila: easy credit score. You exist.

Of course if, as so many young people today, you think that credit cards are for "buying now and paying later" then please, for your own safety, don't get one. And for everyone else's safety, maybe don't leave the house.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Canadian Elections (My Bully Pulpit)

Well I'd say I'm surprised, but I can't, because I'm not. For those of you not in, from, or familiar with Canada, they just had an election. Here's the rundown, out of a parliament of 308 seats:

Conservative Party: 167
New Democratic Party: 102
Liberal Party: 34
Bloq Quebecois: 4
Green Party: 1

On my Facebook wall this morning I woke up to comments like this:

"Just remember for the next 4 years that we are not hostages, we are not victims and we will be neither silent nor polite. We will scream."


"momentous day for the NDP, and yet still a sad, sad day for Canada"

Let me say this now. The Conservative Party went from a minority government to a majority one, because of the same arrogance you can see in these posts. Me, I vote Green. I'm dead chuffed Elizabeth May (leader of the Green Party, for those of you who don't know) got her seat. But neither will I weep for a democratically elected party winning a free and fair election. I'm not arrogant enough to think that just because I don't share the prevailing political opinion (yep, that's right: they won; they prevailed) that it's a "sad day for Canada."

So the rich will get a little richer, the poor will get a little poorer, and we'll waste a little more money than we otherwise would have on the military. And even then, it was the Liberal Party who bought those broken-down diesel subs (yeah that's right, diesel-powered submarines) from the British for an arm and a leg when they last had a majority, so wasting money on the military isn't just a Conservative trait, I guess.

For those of you in the US, just remember: this is a Conservative Party that cannot help but espouse single-payer healthcare, has admitted that it was wrong to push for entry into the Iraq conflict (which we didn't join despite their best efforts), and who has given me, a poor student, money every year because I'm poor. Which is to say that every political party in Canada makes your Democrats look insanely right-wing. The Conservative Party just less so. Oh and most of them don't hate gay people, either.

So I'm taking a wait-and-see approach. I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm not going to like the bills that come out of Ottawa for the next few years, which is why I didn't vote for them. But the Conservative Party just won a fight it didn't start, because the leader of the Liberal Party made the same mistake as those people who are shocked by the outcome this morning: they confused their own political beliefs with those of the country as a whole.

I don't like it, but I can live with it.

Guess I'll just be writing more petitions for the next few years.


And I may have a drink to the bloody nose the separatists got last night, too.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Let Us Rise Up As One

Let us gather under a single banner, a great nation of people with dignity, self-respect, and education. Let us band together and unite! Let us all, now, rise up and in one voice, unilaterally declare to the world this single, unalterable, unassailable fact:


They really aren't. Please, if all you have on from your waist down is leggings, wear a longer shirt. Anyone who's that interested in that level of detail regarding your physiology is probably not the kind of person you want to be sharing it with.

Just say it with me people.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Salary negotiations

In honor of Equal Pay Day (the day to which women would have to work to make the same amount that men made in 2010), I thought I'd share my negotiating experiences. Dr Becca wrote an interesting post on the topic, and I think it's worthwhile to share our experiences.

My first experience negotiating wasn't really for a starting salary. I had been working at now-defunct museum. The situation was messy, because the woman who had hired me was long gone. When I was hired, I had agreed to shit hourly wage for a 90 day training period, with the promise of a shiny salary after that.

It was a pretty good deal until she left; then, simply raising the 90 day issue was sticky. However, I was in the best possible position to negotiate: I had nothing to lose. I was living with my mother and tearing through my savings as I tried to pay the bills with my $10/hr, 28 hour/week job. There was no way I could continue there, essentially running the museum, without a substantial raise.

With that in mind, I decided that my finances required about $35,000/yr. When I suggested this, I was told flat out that it wasn't possible. Considering that the museum closed barely a year later, I believe it. They offered me $24,000 instead. Honestly, that would have paid my loans but there's no way I could afford rent on it.

So I wrote a letter outlining the many things I had done for the museum and the many plans I had for the future. I told them that, given my financial commitments, I simply could not accept their offer. I could compromise to $29,500.

If they couldn't give me that, then please consider this my letter of resignation.

Needless to say, they agreed to my terms.

But for a full week, I felt sick every time I thought about my negotiation. Dozens of times, I had nearly decided to take the $24,000 - even though it wasn't really an option. But my need to be "nice" and agreeable was at such odds with my demands that it was one of the hardest things I've ever done.

Surprisingly, it was much easier to negotiate the second time around - for my current job in academic administration. I had been doing the job as a temp before Scientist Boss decided he wanted me permanently. I had an informal meeting with my supervisor (we didn't even close the door), wherein he examined the salaries of everyone else in the department, calculated the importance of my job vs theirs, and announced that he could offer me the very nice sum of $xx,xxx/yr. (you'll forgive me for not waving my salary all over the internet)

My first temptation was to accept and run; I'd been living on what amounted to half that, without benefits, and here was literally double my salary with benefits up the wazoo.

Fortunately, I'd done my homework: I knew what the salary range was, and where my starting salary should fall. However, I'd also spoken with HR, and they'd quietly informed me that I could expect the very lowest value in the range - probably because they actually saw my disturbingly empty resume, which Scientist Boss and my supervisor never did.*

Anyway, I was sorely tempted to accept immediately. Instead, I said, "I was going to suggest Offer+$1,000." There was a moment of silence; then Supervisor nodded and said "We can do that. I'll tell HR to offer you New Offer."

So that was that. I figured HR would lowball me and we'd negotiate a little, so I was ready to play hardball when they called. Instead, they offered me New Offer and asked if I would like to accept, deny, or think about it. "I'll think about it," I told HR-man cheerfully - simply because I was taught never to accept immediately. Let them sweat a little. Unfortunately, it was poor HR-man who did the sweating. "Oh. Um. Ok. Is there any reason... why?" he asked. I think he honestly feared for his job - probably because this was supposed to be a done deal, and I was being hired at the behest of Scientist Boss, who is kind of a big deal. "Oh, I was just thinking more like New Offer+$1,000," I told him. I'm still not sure why I did, except that... I could. There was no "lose" in the situation.

So HR-man spoke with Supervisor (who probably wondered at my strange negotiating strategy); Supervisor approved the New New Offer; and I accepted (to the almost laughably intense relief of HR-man).

And that's how I negotiated a $2,000 increase in my starting salary. And I've got to tell you - if I could do it, as a temp who completely lucked into the position in the first place, without experience, a safety net, competing offers or even a reason why, you can too.

Of course, I had Scientist Boss behind me - I probably could have successfully negotiated for even more, given that he wanted me and he's the top scientist at NEMU - but I never had to play that card. All I did was keep a calm, neutral attitude, and say that I expected/wanted more. I could have given a lecture about the reasons why I deserved that extra $2,000, but all I actually had to do was ask - and then wait for a response.

Knowing that it's all right to ask, and knowing when to keep your mouth shut, are damn useful life skills.

*For the record, though my resume is shockingly bad, my academic CV is pretty kickass. Also, Supervisor did eventually see my resume, but all he had to say about it was "Seriously? You have a degree in Medieval Studies? That's kind of... cool."

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Things to Read

A new book is out by Professor X. Not the one from the X-Men comics, but rather the author of an essay in the Atlantic in 2008 entitled (as is the new book) "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower."

The essay, in case you missed it when it was first published (as I must admit to having done) is about the problem inherent with pushing everyone and their mother into college: some people can't do it. Professor X is an adjunct who teaches evening classes to the unlikeliest of college English students, people for whom an argumentative literary analysis is so far removed from what they'll ever be asked to do that it's almost comical. Does he think that society benefits from our policemen having read Of Mice and Men, our social workers having read Plath's poem "Daddy"? Perhaps not so specifically, but yes.

And when all is said and done, my personal economic interest in booming college enrollments aside, I don’t think that’s such a boneheaded idea. Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of value to anyone.

Yet he can't shake the feeling that something's wrong with admitting to college courses the students whose existence many wish to deny: those who simply cannot pass -- who cannot even acquire the skills to pass. The students for whom it is, in all honesty, a complete waste of time. Yes, they exist. And he laments it:

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

I am the man who has to lower the hammer.

To stop me from citing the whole goshdarn thing, here's a link to the article.

And for as long as it works, here's a link to the NYT's review of the entire book. From the sounds of it, it's probably a worthy, if depressing read.

And of course I can't go without citing what may be the most wrong yet giggle-inducing simile from the NYT article, so here it is in full.

Yet many reacted angrily to Professor X’s article (he prints some of the nastier letters he received here) as if he were proposing — to paraphrase Paul Fussell in his book “Class” — the beating to death of baby whales using the dead bodies of baby seals. [emphasis mine]

I think that a) I need to read Paul Fussell's book "Class"; and b) I need to read Professor X's book "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" -- if only to read those letters.

Have a pleasant day, all.