Cultural studies

A new semester . . .

. . . means not just one, but two new syllabi: one for graduate students and one for (mostly) undergraduates. (Technically, of course, these are actually updated versions of older syllabi, but there’s plenty of freshness in each of them).

And, this time around anyway, the new semester also begins with a very freshly published essay on cultural studies and history (with the shockingly off-topic title of “Cultural Studies and History”).

Found haiku of the day (grad seminar reading edition)

to uphold basic
human justice you must do
so for everyone

– Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual, p. 93

[And I know I'm sorta cheatin' the syllable count in the last line a bit, but no one really enunciates that second E in "everyone," do they?]

Resolution on a stick

It’s a cliché of the highest order — especially for us academics on the humanities side of campus — but I’ve resolved to be better about writing this year. Book writing. Essay writing. Correspondence writing. And, yes, blog writing. I’ve cleaned up my home office. I’ve rearranged it a bit to make it a more comfortable, ergonomic space in which to work. officeI’ve set myself some (hopefully) manageable goals and am trying to settle into new routines. We’ll see how this goes in the days and weeks to come, of course. But one of those new routines includes a target of 2-3 fresh blog posts each week, with a potential tie-in to the grad seminar I’m teaching this spring. So here I am, poking away at my iPad, and trying to breathe some life back into this dusty little corner of the interwebs.

And, yes, I’m aiming to blog from my iPad as much as I can. The laptop is still always an option — and it’s certainly a friendlier typing machine — but I’m also not a touch-typist, so I’ve got no indelible home-key habits or tactile rhythms to disrupt when faced with a virtual keyboard embedded in a sheet of touch-sensitive glass. The iPad is also a much more frequent companion than the laptop as I move about town (and beyond) these days. And, perhaps most crucially, several months back, I splurged on a WordPress-friendly blogging app several months ago that has simply been gathering dust in its corner of my home screen. So this piece of my resolution also helps me recoup my major economic investment in Blogsy. After all, that’s $5 that I will never, ever get back . . .

I’ll admit that when the iPad first came out, I wasn’t even remotely tempted by it. I simply didn’t see the point. I already had an iPod Touch and a laptop, and I was perfectly happy with both. More specifically, the iPad seemed to me to be precisely the wrong combination of the two: an iPod that was to big to fit in my pocket, and a portable computer that was too small and too weak to fit my everyday needs. But then I spent a lovely chunk of my July in Belgium, where I watched some good friends zip around with these light, bright, tight little machines for note-taking, emailing, game-playing (etc.) . . . and I got a serious case of Gear Envy.

And so I splurged. And, six months or so later, I haven’t regretted it at all. The iPad won’t replace my laptop as my primary computing device. I’m still too big a fan of the penguin and open source software to join the Cupertino cabal as a full-time member. And, even given all the wondrous things one can do with cloud computing these days, I’m not yet ready to give up on a machine where several gigabytes of files — from old syllabi to new music, digital photos to PDF-ified readings — are always available to me, even when I’m not online.

Regardless of what device I’m using, though, (and, truth be told, I’ve now worked on this entry on both my available options) I’m aiming to drop more text in this space in the coming year than was the case in 2011. I’ll let you decide whether that’s a promise or a threat.

January notable nine

For perhaps obvious reasons, this month’s list has been a little harder to write up. And the most important item was also the hardest to find any good words for at all. The pictures will have to do.

  1. Mocha Java, Empress of All North America. I let the old girl go on Jan 21. It was time. She went quietly and peacefully. I still miss her, of course. And I’m sure I will for a long time to come.
    mocha1.jpg     mocha2.jpg
  2. Paris. Right before classes started, I spent seven days in Europe, mostly in my capacity as Acting Chair of the Association for Cultural Studies. The bulk of my time was spent in Paris to help survey the facilities for the Crossroads in Cultural Studies conference . . . and I think it’s shaping up to be a fabulous event. Here, though, I simply want to note how weirdly comfortable Paris felt, given how awkward my “command” (much too strong a word in this context) of the French language is. If you believe my undergraduate institution, I’m “proficient” in French and German. Even then, I knew that institutional proclamation overstated my abilities to handle either language with real comfort. Twenty-five years later (and with little real practice in the interim), as I boarded my flight, I felt even less confident. And yet, on this trip, just enough of that ancient training came back to me to make me feel as if I could stumble my way through with only minimal embarrassment. With a little (okay, a lot) of practice, I might even be able to hold brief conversations about something more complex than purchasing train tickets or sandwiches. This sounds like a laudable goal for me to aim for between now and next July.
  3. Ghent. The small chunk of time I didn’t spend in Paris on that European trip was spent in Ghent. Also on ACS business, but this time to do some advance planning for the first ever ACS Summer Institute. Which I’m also very excited about. Not the least because Ghent is a wonderful little city, and will be even more exciting when (a) I have more than 24 hours to experience it and (b) it’s summer. I even found a Belgian beer (Westmalle Dubbel) that made me feel okay about spending so much time in countries where the hop-heavy brews I generally prefer are nowhere to be found.
  4. European trains. The one major blemish on my otherwise thoroughly enjoyable week abroad was a small (but expensive) curse that appeared to settle over my attempts to move around the continent (even in a small way) by train. I booked my train tickets between Paris and Ghent prior to leaving the States, hoping that this would help make things easier for me. Which it totally would have done . . . had I not misread my own timetable and missed my scheduled train to Ghent. Or had I not managed to lose my ticket for the train back to Paris in the short walk from grabbing dinner in Brussels (where I knew my ticket was in my hand) and walking back to the train station (where said ticket was nowhere to be found). The trains themselves were comfortable, pleasant, and quick. But my ability to manage my timing and my tickets was clearly beset by some bad juju.
  5. Car troubles. The flights to and from Paris were absolutely fine — especially the flight back, which was only about a third full, and where everyone got to stretch out quite comfortably indeed — or else I might think that bad juju covered just about any form of transportation I touched in January. The first time I tried to drive my Beetle after I got back into the country, it stalled out on me . . . and wouldn’t start up again. At some point, it seems, I must have hit a rock or a chunk of jagged ice or something that ripped a hole in my oil pan. Which, of course, drained all the oil out of my engine. Which, in turn, caused the engine to lock up. For good. Ouch. On the plus side, my insurance covered this. And my usual mechanic (who I’m delighted to recommend as fast, friendly, and affordable) happened to have a used Jetta they were looking to sell, and that I’m very happy with. But losing my dog and my car in the same week did have me wondering whether I’d stepped into some old-time country song.
  6. Ice dams. For folks who live south of the frozen tundra that is Minnesota, ice dams may be an unknown beast. I certainly knew nothing about them until I moved here. But they’re a plague that can beset snow-covered roofs if just enough heat escapes for some of that snow to melt and then re-freeze . . . so that any subsequent meltage gets blocked by the wall of ice that’s formed on your roof . . . and, with nowhere else to go, said meltage can then trickle underneath your shingles and into your walls and ceilings. And you can only imagine the fun that results from that. Unfortunately, my knowledge of such “fun” was not simply imaginary this year. Fortunately, the internal damage I suffered was very minor — and caught before it grew into something much more serious. Still.
  7. Lauryn Hill. Her First Avenue show could have been fabulous. I certainly wanted it to be. After I’d already dropped money on not-so-cheap tickets, I started hearing tales of other recent shows where she would wait hours to appear on stage and then perform badly . . . but I was still hopeful. But that hope was misplaced. Even at the end of a loooong day on campus, I could probably have weathered the 2.5 hour wait (doors opened at 9, with nothing but a so-so DJ to entertain the actual show started at about 11:30) if Hill had truly rocked the house, or if her band had been tight, or if her grooves had been compelling. But none of those things happened. My friend and I toughed it out till about 1 . . . but then decided that we hadn’t seen her do anything strong enough to make us hopeful that we were going to get anything better in whatever was still left of the show.
  8. Beer Dabbler. Minnesotans love their winter. So much so that they do things the rest of the country (the world?) would think are insane. Like hold outdoor Winter Carnivals in January, even (or especially) when the thermometer is well below freezing. Or hold outdoor beer festivals in the midst of that Winter Carnival. Done well, the Dabbler could have been a truly special event. Even on one of the coldest days of the year. There were lots of good breweries present. There was plenty of room in the park where the event was held. There were certainly lots of people who wanted to be there. Sadly, though, there were not enough volunteers to help ticketholders enter the park when the gates opened . . . and so the line still stretched for a full three blocks half an hour after the event began. And the Dabbler only used about a third of the actual space of the park . . . so all those people were crammed into not enough real estate. And, most amazingly, no one had bothered to actually clear the park’s walkways of snow . . . which, even for a Winter Carnival, seems like a major safety issue when you combine (a) 12-15″ of the frozen white stuff, (b) a few thousand people, (c) minimal post-nightfall lighting, and (d) what is effectively an open bar. Again, we left early. And, again, leaving early was a damned good idea.
  9. The new semester. January was (clearly) a month filled with challenges this year. But it was also the start of a new semester. And new semesters always begin — at least for me — with a certain spirit of hopefulness. Sure, the last few days before that first class meeting tend to be filled with sizable measures of stress and strain, as I try to get all the pieces in place so that Day One can come off smoothly. But there’s also something exciting about meeting a new group of students, watching them start to gel as a group, and seeing them start to wrestle with the course material in productive fashion. And, so far anyway (even more than a third of the way into February), I’m still feeling a large dose of that Day One optimism.

Crossroads 2008

Several people (including many blog-less friends not linked here) have asked me about the Crossroads in Cultural Studies conference in Kingston, Jamaica that wrapped up early last week.  And I would be hard-pressed to do better than Melissa Gregg’s summary of the event . . . except, perhaps, to simply say to all those people who wanted to know how it went: You should’ve been there.

I know, of course, that there are lots of good reasons why people don’t make it to conferences.  Not enough time.  Not enough money.  Competing obligations.  The simple need/desire to be a homebody for a while, especially when conferences fall during the gap between semesters.  So I don’t really blame my curious but absent friends for not making it to Jamaica.  Still:  You should’ve been there.

I have been struck by the multiple requests for reports — not just friendly “how was the conference?” queries, but an explicit desire for extended details (who was there? who gave good papers? what’s new and hot in the field? etc.) — from friends who would have fit in perfectly, who would’ve enjoyed themselves immensely, and (most tellingly) who have been to enough conferences themselves to know that even the most thorough “report” is no substitute for being there.  The feel of a conference often matters as much as (and probably more than) the actual content of the presented papers, or the roster of attendees, or a rundown of who said what to whom at the hotel bar on the final night.  So I’m not going to try and provide a detailed accounting of the who and the what of the event, ’cause even if I were to feel the muse and be graced with the most eloquent way to capture five days worth of conversations, I still couldn’t do the event justice.  You should’ve been there.

One of the things I most appreciate about the Crossroads conferences — or at least the past two renditions — is the degree to which they take their international-ness very seriously.  To be sure, they’re not some perfectly ideal space of worldly cosmopolitanism: the official language of the conference is still English, and the global South remains under-represented.  At the same time, Crossroads isn’t the sort of “international” conference where most of the usual suspects from the US, Canada, and northern Europe simply gather in a big chain hotel in some different corner of the world for a long weekend and have the same basic conversations with each other that they could/would have had at a conference back home.  For me, Crossroads somehow manages to simultaneously feel both smaller and larger than those sorts of conferences.  It’s smaller, insofar as Crossroads has a much more tight-knit, communal feel to it than a Hilton/Sheraton/Hyatt-style conference.  While it’s still a fairly large gathering, I’ve come away from the past two versions feeling like I’ve shared an experience with several hundred people — and that doesn’t happen at most other conferences I attend.  And it’s larger, insofar as the people you’re sharing that experience with represent a much broader slice of the world than is the norm for “international” conferences.

We do it all again in 2010.  In Hong Kong.

You should be there.

Needs some fine tuning

I’m guessing that Amazon.com’s associational marketing algorithms could use some tweaking. ‘Cause I suspect that the Stuart Hall who’s most frequently getting linked to George Lipsitz has not started publishing books on how to play guitar . . .

Dear Amazon.com Customer,

We’ve noticed that customers who have purchased or rated books by George Lipsitz have also purchased Guitar Plan 1 and 2 by Stuart Hall.

Monday randomness: Debut edition

Let’s kickstart this blog a bit, shall we? And let’s try doing so with a recurring quick-hit approach that will (hopefully) goad me to drop a fresh chunk of prose here at least once a week.

  1. A few folks have inquired about the long-promised but not-yet-delivered intellectual property tale. And I’d love to say that this has reached a point of resolution that would allow me to share it here. But, alas, the denouement that was afoot in April got postponed . . . and has since been deferred . . . and may still be a few weeks away from achieving sufficient closure to go public with the tale. But I haven’t forgotten. Promise. (Truly curious parties can always contact me off-blog for further details.)
  2. I keep meaning to write a more detailed post about the Cultural Studies Now conference — even though Ted Striphas has already proclaimed that my previous tease of a post fulfilled that duty. There’s more to say than that, I think, but it’s been a hectic month since London, and the fast approaching semester only adds to the frenzy. But this story, too, will be shared.
  3. The latest entry in my personal lifelong struggle with institutional “check one box only” approaches to racial identification came last week, when the University noted that it did not have a formal race/ethnicity code connected to my personnel file . . . and asked me to fill out this form. I was particularly amused by the last two lines:

    The University may acquire this information by visual survey. This may, however, result in the collection of erroneous information.

    I have fantasies of the University sending teams of ethnographers — all trained in the subtle art of “visual survey” with respect to racial identification — into the field to suss out the “truth” about folks such as myself who “fail” to shoehorn ourselves into a single box. And I want to be a fly on the wall for the deliberations that result from different team members deciding that different visual cues are the key to answering the question “correctly.” “Sure, his skin’s pink enough,” someone will say, “but those aren’t a white man’s lips.”

Catching up, checking in

I’ve been meaning to post about the Cultural Studies Now conference and my trip to London ever since I got back . . . but Margaret’s mother arrived for a week’s visit three hours after I got back . . . and then three hours before she left, the roofers showed up to start what turned out to be a three-day job that drove Margaret and I out of the house for much of the duration (have you ever tried to write coherent prose while half a dozen men pounded on the ceiling directly above you for hours on end?) . . . and then three hours or so after the roofers were done, the I-35W bridge collapsed . . . which has been its own distraction for the past 24 hours or so, partially for the “disaster porn” that goes along with tragedies of this sort, but mostly because of the varied and multiple rounds of “checking in” that have taken place since last night.

Sometime over the past week, I did actually manage to HTMLify my presentation from the conference, but let me save a more detailed report on the event as a whole for a later post. For now, I’m still processing the bridge collapse. So far, at least, no one from my circle of friends and colleagues and acquaintances was on/under the bridge at the crucial moment yesterday . . . but given the where and when of the situation, it’s still perfectly plausible that someone I know wasn’t so lucky, and I simply don’t know it yet. The bridge is — was — right next to campus, and I-35W is the major north-south highway running through Minneapolis. I didn’t use that bridge every day, but it also wouldn’t have been unusual for me to have done so: I crossed it at least twice last week, walked by it on two other occasions, and was more or less right around the corner a mere hour before it fell.

For me, though, I think the biggest chunk of my “there but for the grace of Elvis” reaction to yesterday’s tragedy is the fact that Minneapolis is very much a river-straddling city. Unlike, say, St. Louis or Memphis, where the river marks the line between the city and the suburbs (and not always the most desirable of suburbs either) and one can plausibly spend years living and working in the area without ever needing to cross a bridge, here the river pretty much runs through the heart of things. I’m sure there must be people in town whose lives are such that they rarely have to cross the river, but I suspect they’re the exception, rather than the rule. There are six or seven different bridges across the Mississippi that I might use on any given day for any number of reasons, and I can easily need to cross the river a dozen times (or more) every week. I’m not exactly worried about crossing those bridges again — the odds that a bridge that’s stood for decades will crumble at precisely the moment you’re on it are still pretty damned small — but I’m also mindful of the fact that I could very easily have been on the I-35W bridge at the wrong time yesterday . . . or that those long odds might’ve kicked in during any of the other bridge-crossing moments that routinely happen.

What’s at stake

As the semester winds down, my graduate seminar is reading a small stack of essays (okay, okay . . . it’s not that small a stack) about the future(s) of cultural studies. Essays that grapple with questions of what’s currently wrong (and right) with cultural studies, how we might fix those problems, where we should go from here, and so on.

Which made Melissa Gregg’s comments on last week’s CSAA conference in Canberra seem extra timely. I especially appreciate her ability to offer up an honest and modest assessment of some of the limitations of what cultural studies is able to do, while still managing to present a clear picture of why cultural studies still matters . . . and, perhaps more crucially, a hopeful vision of what it might be able to accomplish.

More “fun” with IP

Jonathan Sterne tells the story of how the nice folks at Sage recently sent him the digital offprints of an essay he’s published in New Media and Society as a DRM-laden executable file, rather than as a PDF. He’s pissed off about it — rightly so, I’d say — and ends his post by expressing what he recognizes is a probably unrealizable desire to “never publish with them again.”

I haven’t heard of the DRM scheme Jonathan describes being used by other presses, but Sage is hardly alone when it comes to journal publishers who treat their authors badly when it comes to intellectual property rights. A recent essay of mine on Eminem (PDFs available upon e-mail request) ran up against a pair of quirky IP policies in place at Lawrence Erlbaum.

On the permissions end, the press demanded that I try and secure permission (at my own expense, mind you) from Eight Mile Music (Eminem’s music publishing company) before I could quote any of Eminem’s lyrics in the essay. It didn’t matter to the press that this was about as clear and obvious an example of the Fair Use provision of US copyright law as one could ask for: i.e., I was using relevant fragments of copyrighted material for purposes of criticism and scholarship. The press didn’t seem to see any hypocrisy or contradiction in only requiring me to secure such permission for lyrics, while comparable quotations from printed materials were understood to be acceptable scholarly practice. Perhaps most perplexing, however, was that the journal in which my essay appears is Popular Communication which, presumably, is going to publish an awful lot of essays where authors will want/need to quote non-print texts of one sort or another. All that really mattered here was that the press has an established policy about quoting song lyrics (even if that policy is more restrictive than the actual law would require) and that policy wasn’t likely to change anytime soon.

In the end, I did manage to win a small concession, in that I was allowed to keep the quoted lyrics in the essay provided I could demonstrate that I had made Good Faith efforts to secure formal permission for their use. Even so, I almost regretted this semi-sensible approach to the issue (it’s only semi-sensible because I was still forced to ask for permission when I shouldn’t have had to bother), since my backup plan would’ve been somewhat more embarrassing to the press. That plan involved pulling all the quoted lyrics from my essay, and then (in endnotes) directing readers to the various fan websites where all those lyrics (and more) can easily be found: fan websites that I could locate quite easily since there are links to them on Eminem’s official website.

On the back end of the process, when it came time for me to order my author reprints, I had three choices:

  1. Paper reprints. Minimum order of 100. Total cost: US$400.
  2. Digital reprint. An official PDF file of my article from Lawrence Erlbaum. Total cost: US$18.
  3. Nothing.

I suspect the official PDF reprint might have been a bit crisper than the one I could make for myself from the free copy of the journal issue to which I was already entitled . . . but not so much crisper that it would be worth paying for it. And I simply can’t imagine paying anyone $4/copy for any quantity of my own article: those are vanity press rates.

It’s probably easier for me to completely avoid publishing with Lawrence Erlbaum in the future than it is for Jonathan (or me, or anyone else working in media studies and/or cultural studies these days) to avoid publishing with Sage . . . but I’m also skeptical about whether authors really have enough clout to make publishers change their IP policies in any significant way. Journal editors might be able to pull this off (and, to their infinite credit, the then-editors of Popular Communication led off the issue where my essay appeared with a prefatory statement about the need for more scholarship-friendly permissions policies). And perhaps a collective effort by the bulk of a journal’s editorial board might make a difference. It is, after all, the editors and the editorial board of a journal who do the bulk of the labor that the average press is going to most immediately care about.

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