Academia

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”).

How to plagiarize well (tips for my undergraduates)

Ideally, of course, this tip could be summed up in four simple words: Just Don’t Do It.

But you know that already. The syllabus tells you not to do so. Pretty much every instructor you’ve ever had since high school has told you not to do so. And yet, in spite of all that, you may someday find yourself in what we might call the Triple-P Problem: you’ve Procrastinated, and now you’re Panicking, so you turn to Plagiarism and hope against hope that I will somehow fail to notice that the words I’m reading aren’t your own. The odds are pretty good, however, that such hope is misplaced, since the same procrastination problem that has put you in this particular pickle also means that you don’t have time to cover your tracks especially well. So I’m going to share a few basic tips with you — all based upon actual mistakes that your predecessors in my classes have made over the years — so that you don’t follow in their footsteps and wind up with a bright, shiny F on your transcript.

  • Don’t plagiarize from the course readings. The odds are pretty good that I’ve done the course readings myself. You can, in fact, pretty much count on it. Which makes the odds pretty good that when I read long passages from those same readings in your paper, I will recognize them and know exactly where they came from. If you’re going to steal someone else’s words and try and pass them off as your own, it would be wise to steer clear of sources that you know that I have read myself. [Bonus sub-tip: If you're foolish enough to steal from readings on our syllabus, at least pick one that we haven't specifically focused on as an example of a pathetically weak, unsupported argument.]
  • Don’t steal from sources that I’m likely to be familiar with. Obviously, this is much trickier than avoiding stuff on the syllabus, since you don’t know what other books and articles I might recognize. But if your paper happens to contain some unusual turn of phrase that (a) will be widely recognized by scholars in the field as a key concept in an oft-cited work, and (b) isn’t a phrase that an average person is likely to have come up with independently, then you run a high risk of getting caught. [Bonus sub-tip: Don't give your paper the same title as a famous book on your subject.]
  • Don’t steal from sources that are too far afield. This would seem to contradict my previous tip, but it’s important to strike a proper balance here. If you’re relying on a source that is too far removed from the actual subject at hand, it will almost certainly jump out at me as unusual (at best) or suspicious (at worst). You need to find a comfortable middle zone between “too close” and “too far” that won’t raise either of my eyebrows. [Bonus sub-tip: In my classes anyway, stick to readings from humanities disciplines. When your paper on contemporary mass media (of the non-digital variety) is filled with technical jargon from computer science, I see red flags right away.]
  • Don’t simply cut-and-paste your borrowed prose. I know. It’s quick. It’s easy. It saves you lots of time, and time is precisely what you don’t have lots of. But it also makes it very easy to spot the bits of your paper that have been lifted from elsewhere, especially if you don’t bother to adjust your fonts so that everything matches neatly. [Bonus sub-tip: When copying from an online source, take extra care to do something about any hyperlinks you're bringing along for the ride. When small phrases show up in your paper underlined and in blue ink, it's extraordinarily easy for me to know what to Google so I can find your original source.]
  • Don’t use prose that doesn’t sound anything like the way you actually speak or write. If you are prone to uttering simple, short, declarative statements, a paper filled with elaborate, flowery, multi-claused sentences is probably not going to be convincing. It’s also wise to steer clear of borrowing from sources that use lots of specialized jargon that you don’t understand, since I’m not likely to believe that you actually wrote that sentence about “the precession of simulacra” yourself if you haven’t been prone to saying such things out loud in class already. [Bonus sub-tip: If you don't know how to use semi-colons correctly, don't use prose from other people that employs them extensively.]
  • Don’t submit a paper that you haven’t actually read. Again, I know that actually reading what you turn in will slow the process down, and you simply don’t have a lot of time to spare. But this is a very important step. If I suspect (but cannot prove) that you have turned in a plagiarized paper, the first thing I will ask you is if you can tell me about your thought/work process in writing the paper . . . and if you haven’t read the stuff you’ve handed in as yours, then the game is up. [Bonus sub-tip: If you've been crafty enough to have someone else write your paper for you, it's extra important for you to read what they've written before I do . . . especially if your ghost writer has spelled your name wrong on the cover page.]

If you’ve actually followed all the steps above, then there’s a halfway decent chance that I may actually believe that what you’ve handed me is something you have written yourself. Congratulations! Of course, at this point, the odds are also still pretty good that what you’ve handed in doesn’t fit the assignment well enough to earn a respectable grade. And you’ve done as much work (and maybe even more) trying to cover your tracks as you would have had to do in order to write the paper yourself. But now you may squeak by with a D instead of an F. So it’s all been worthwhile, yes?

Hackable syllabus 2.0

Over winter break, I did something that most of my peers would — rightly — describe as insane. I took a course that I had just finished teaching, which I was scheduled to teach again this semester, and I more or less redesigned it from the ground up. The normal thing to do, of course, would have been to take my fall syllabus, change all the dates, and be done with it. Maybe if I were feeling especially ambitious — or if I knew something had bombed abysmally — I’d have swapped out a reading or two. But even for someone (like me) who rarely teaches any course precisely the same way twice, this was an extreme overhaul: i.e., the sort of thing I might do if the gap between the two versions of the course was a few years. While I used the same required text, that only kept the first two weeks or so of readings intact. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a completely new course.

tt_4291.jpgSo why the radical renovation? There are probably many reasons (and my dubious grip on sanity may still be one of them), but one of the biggest is that the fall version of the course was the latest in a long line of “experiments” I’ve undertaken with what I call a “hackable syllabus” . . . and it seemed to me that the main pedagogical goals I’d been trying to achieve had never actually come to fruition, and so the time had come to rethink the nature of that experiment.

The experiment in question originally grew out of a summer grad seminar on “Communication and Critical Pedagogy” that I taught towards the end of my time at USF. In the midst of one of those seminar discussions, when we were talking about the need to give students a significant measure of control over their own education, I decided that my previous efforts to do such a thing had been too superficial — e.g., letting students select from a pre-determined menu of assignments, or giving them flexible due dates for papers — and that I needed to embrace this philosophy more fully. Coincidentally, for reasons I can neither recall nor explain, sometime that same summer I also heard about a game called Nomic. I’ve still never actually played the game, but its fundamental nature — it’s essentially a meta-game, where you play the game by changing the rules of the game as you go along — struck me as something that could fit very nicely with my newfound desire to turn as much of a course over to my students as I possibly could. And so the hackable syllabus was born . . .

On its surface, the hackable syllabus looks incredibly complex — which is probably necessary, but also probably one of its major flaws. In practice, it’s much simpler than it appears to be: students can propose changes to almost any and every rule on the syllabus (including the reading list, due dates, and the graded assignments), the class as a whole discusses and votes on proposals, and proposals that are voted into place become part of the course rules. Most of the apparent complexity lies in setting up a fair and reliable mechanism by which the rules can actually be changed. The actual process varied slightly from one version of the syllabus to another, but the underlying core — propose rule changes, discuss them, vote on them — was still pretty simple . . . yet, time after time, students routinely got hung up on the mechanism in countless different ways, and never, ever really took control of the syllabus at the level I had hoped they might.

To be sure, they had good incentives to do so. Every hackable syllabus contained deliberately cruel and unreasonable rules that students needed to locate and vote out of existence, lest said “bad rules” come into play. And every successful rule change resulted in the authors of said change earning an extra point tacked onto their final course grades. Still, over seven different courses, each with slightly different versions of the hackable syllabus, a consistent pattern emerged: students would eliminate all the bad rules (though, typically, they would only do so after a false start or three), they would tweak some extraordinarily minor aspect of the grading policy (e.g., eliminating penalties for late arrivals and early departures), and they’d be done. No one ever tried to change the reading list. No one ever proposed a different sort of graded assignment be added to the menu of options. Once they’d freed themselves of the need to bring impossible-to-find yoga mats to class (and so on), they were perfectly content to leave the core of the course — i.e., what they had to read and write — up to me.

Of course, this “failure” was never really my students’ fault. At some crucial level, I always knew that, and probably should have done something about it sooner. If nothing else, by the time students wound up in one of my hackable syllabus courses, they had all experienced 15-20 years of education where they had routinely been handed a set of readings and assignments on Day One, and that was that. So of course they never raced to revise the reading list or to envision new assignments: never having been asked to do such a thing before, the odds that they would suddenly take such an initiative were slim to none.

So that radical rewrite of my fall syllabus was all about finding ways to encourage this semester’s batch of students to help build our reading list. (Encouraging them to craft new types of assignments is a goal that will have to wait for some future course. Baby steps, people. Baby steps.) I gave them a syllabus where the first month’s worth of readings was all lined up. After that, each week has a theme and one starter reading in place . . . and it’s up to them to come up with enough other readings (or videos, or audios, as they see fit) to bring us up to ~100 pages/week (or its audio-visual equivalent). There are collective sticks for falling short of that page-count target, and individual carrots for helping to reach it.

And, so far anyway, it seems to be working. We’re currently two weeks deep into the land of “Student-Provided Readings” and the group has hit the target both times, and put some worthy material on the table for us to read and watch and discuss. We’ll see how it goes for the next ten weeks or so but, to this point, I’m feeling pretty good about that “insane” decision.

[Bonus for any of my spring 2012 undergrads who happen to be reading this: Cut-and-paste any full entry from this blog and send it to me in an email. For every full course week left in the semester after your email lands in my inbox, I'll add 0.5 points to your course grade and shrink your Take-Home Final by 50 words and 0.5 points. You're free to share this information with your classmates if you so choose . . . but not on the course website. If news of this bonus ever lands there, the bonus goes away, and all previously awarded benefits will be taken away. P.S.: Perhaps needless to say, this is a one-time-only bonus for anyone who happens to collect it.]

Lies we tell our students

It’s the start of another semester, so I thought it would be a good time to share what has become a standard part of my Day One spiel for my undergrads. I’ve taken to giving some version of this, no matter what the course actually is, partially because Day One is a good time for us all to reflect on the bigger questions of what this whole “higher education” thang is all about . . . but also because it helps to set up the more course-specific stuff that always follows this about active learning and the need for my students to participate in what we’ll be doing for the four months that follow. But enough preamble. On with the show.

You have been cheated. Misled. Lied to. By the U. By your high school. By your grade school. By your parents. By a lot of people. You’ve been cheated in many ways, but the ones I want to talk about are these:

  • You’ve been lied to about what your tuition buys you.
  • You’ve been lied to about what your education is supposed to be for.
  • You’ve been lied to about what you should expect from your courses.
  • You’ve been lied to about what your role in getting an education really is.

Big Lie #1. Show of hands, please. How many of you are paying for your own education? [Wait for it.] Sorry, but you’re wrong. This is not your fault. You’ve simply been trapped in one of the Big Lies that universities (among others) tell on a regular basis — and have started telling more and more over the past decade or two. You are, of course, paying good money. But you’re not paying for your education. Universities aren’t actually in the business of selling education — though they certainly want you to think they are — because education can’t actually be bought and sold.

Put simply, education is what happens when you learn something you didn’t know before. Ideally, that still takes place all the time on university campuses . . . but when it happens, it’s got nothing to do with what the university is actually selling. You can, after all, go sit in one of the big lecture halls on the West Bank from 9-5 all day every day for the next four months — most of the time, no one will know that you’re not actually registered for whatever courses you’re witnessing — and you can learn an awful lot simply by paying careful attention to lectures you haven’t paid a dime for. Similarly, you could take a copy of my syllabus (or anyone’s), go find all the readings for free in the library, and learn a great deal without ever writing anyone a check. In fact, you don’t even need a syllabus. The university library stacks are open to the public. Go in. Pick a floor. Start reading. Do that for 8 hours/day, 5 days/week, 50 weeks/year (i.e., as if it were a regular job) and you’ll get yourself a pretty impressive education.

What you get when you spend your tuition dollars, however, is not education. Rather, what you get when you write out that check to the U is the privilege of being evaluated and — if you meet a particular set of standards — of being credentialed. Ideally, you’re being evaluated on things that the university is helping you learn. But you don’t get an automatic refund if you don’t actually learn anything — nor do you get charged extra if you happen to learn more than what’s on the syllabus — because what you’re really paying for is for people like me to assign you a variety of tasks and then judge you on how well you perform those tasks. In the eyes of the university, if you actually get an education along the way, that’s great. Ideal, even, since it helps them keep that Big Lie in place. But the university isn’t selling education any more than health clubs sell fitness. In both cases, your money buys you access to the institution, but that’s it. Whether you actually get fit or educated depends on what you do after your check has cleared and you can’t get that money back.

Big Lie #2. You have been told that your education — particularly your college education — is the ticket to a Good Job. There’s a very tiny shred of truth in this, at least insofar as a college degree will make it more likely (though by no means guaranteed) that you’ll wind up with a job that pays you an annual salary rather than one that pays you an hourly wage. Eventually. Bearing in mind that “eventually” may still mean 10-12 years from now. But there’s much more to a Good Job than good pay. Lots of people, after all, make very good money working jobs they actively hate and that give them ulcers.

More importantly, that college degree hasn’t automatically translated into a Good Job upon graduation for at least 25 years. This sad truth is even sadder because it has nothing to do with questions of actual merit, skill, or brains. Most of you — even the best and the brightest of you — will graduate without a Good Job in hand . . . or even on the horizon. Again, not your fault. There simply aren’t enough Good Jobs for all the new college graduates who enter the job market every year. This was true even before the economy went into the toilet. But it is even more true now.

I still keep in touch with some of the best students I’ve had. People who I know are brilliant, articulate, creative, motivated, etc. People who I’ve written letters of recommendation for. People who will almost certainly succeed at anything they want to . . . if they’re given the chance to do so. As far as I know, none of these students from the past 5-10 years is actually unemployed right now. But most of them are still trying to find jobs that are more than placeholder positions that help pay the bills until they can find the career that they really want for themselves. These people aren’t lacking Good Jobs because they’re uneducated or unqualified or unmotivated. Far from it. They’re lacking Good Jobs because there simply aren’t enough of those out there.

Mind you, this is not necessarily the end of the world. There’s a lot to be said for taking some post-graduation time to breathe, to find yourself, and to figure out what you really want to do with your life — even if that means working a not-so-good job (or two) and living on the cheap for a while. Except, of course, that you’ve been told for most of your lives that the real reason you should go to college is so that you can get a Good Job. So you’ve been fed unrealistic expectations by people who really should know better. ‘Cause the non-connection between “a college degree” and “a Good Job” has been true ever since I graduated from college . . . way back in 1986. Which means that it’s been true for at least as long as most of you have been alive. Probably much longer. I was fed this big lie too, after all. And while I wound up with a Good Job in the end, that process still took about ten years after I finished my B.A.

Connected to Big Lie #2 is Big Lie #3: that the quality of your education is measured by your “grades.” That you should be worried about bringing home a report card filled with As (and maybe a B or two), because a high GPA demonstrates that you’ve gotten a good education . . . and that a high GPA will help secure you a Good Job.

Trouble is, in the long run, no one really cares about your GPA. But especially not future employers. When it’s your job to produce a presentation that will help your employer land the big contract that will keep your company afloat (and keep you employed) for another three years, your 3.8 GPA isn’t going to write a kick-ass presentation for you. It won’t guarantee that you’re able to write a kick-ass presentation. It won’t help you keep your job if you write a weak presentation. You will actually have to be able to write that kick-ass presentation.

Perhaps more to the point, the quality of your education isn’t measured very well by your grades at all. A grade simply demonstrates that you were given a set of tasks and someone evaluated you on how well you did those tasks. But it’s possible (for example) to learn a great deal but perform poorly when tested . . . or to ace a test without retaining anything meaningful about the subject after the test is done. In the former case, you’ve got a good education but a lousy grade. In the latter case, you’ve got a lousy education but a good grade.

Put those pieces of the puzzle together and most of you have been led to believe that the most important thing you should expect out of a course is a grade. As a kid, your parents are proud of you if you get As. They’re disappointed when you get Cs. And, typically, they’re much more likely to go to parent-teacher conferences and ask questions about your test scores (how can we help him get better grades?) than about the content of the curriculum (we think that it would enrich her life as a citizen of the world to learn French; where can we find a tutor for her?). It doesn’t take long before most children learn that they, too, should worry more about their grades than about their education.

Big Lie #4. Most of you — most of us — grew up in educational systems that were designed to produce good grades rather than active, engaged, productive citizens. Your average public school system, for example, gets extra funding when its standardized test scores go up, rather than when its graduates go on to become brilliant scientists or ground-breaking novelists. And so most school systems focus their energies on training students to produce good test scores. Which essentially means that you’re trained — from a very early age — to sit still, shut up, do what people in authority tell you to do, and regurgitate whatever they say on tests and exams and essays. Whether you actually learn something that matters is secondary to whether your school district’s test scores are higher than those in the next county.

And so you’ve also been lied to about the role that you should play in your own education. Which is not the role of the passive spectator who memorizes facts and figures and spews them back. There are contexts where rote memorization is valuable and important . . . but if that’s all you’re doing, then you’re not being educated: you’re being indoctrinated. A real education requires you to be actively involved. It requires you to participate. To ask questions. To engage in dialogue. To be challenged by ideas and opinions and worldviews that are different from your own. It requires you to analyze. To synthesize. To create.

These are the sorts of things you need to do routinely in the “real world.” A large part of what it means to be an adult, after all, is that you’re on your own, you’re independent, you’re taking responsibility for your own well-being — and those are difficult things to do if the major lessons you’ve been given on how to cope with the world are to sit still, shut up, and do what you’re told.

Now I’d be lying if I said that this course, all by itself, can erase all those Big Lies. We’re together in this classroom for a grand total of about 48 hours over the next four months . . . which is not a lot of time compared to the 20 or so years of lies you’ve been fed about how you should simply sit still, shut up, and do what you’re told. But, with any luck, this class can be a start.

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.

November notable nine

Nine days late, I know, but it’s been a busy week or so.

  1. Mocha. She’s still with us. Believe it or not. She’s had a couple of spells where she stopped eating for a few days, and I thought she was ready to go . . . but then she’s suddenly rediscovered the joy of kibble.
  2. In like a lamb, out like a frozen four-pack of lamb chops. Our slow arriving fall treated us mellow and fine deep into the second week of the month, when we had highs in the 60s . . . and then we got walloped with 6-10 inches of snow. By month’s end, the city had already declared its second snow emergency of the season, and we’d all forgotten what outside temperatures above freezing felt like.
  3. The American Studies Association conference. I got to escape some of those early sub-freezing days by flying off to San Antonio for the annual ASA meetings. And, as scholarly gatherings go, the ASA is routinely much more interesting and enjoyable than the annual ICA and NCA confabs. It didn’t hurt that I got to wear sandals for four days in mid-November without putting myself at risk of frostbite. I did struggle to find anything that resembles good beer in San Antonio . . . but the margaritas made up for that.
  4. Town Hall Tap. My fave brewpub in town anywhere opened up a new location at 48th and Chicago in south Minneapolis. And, not surprisingly, it appears to already be a huge success. The official opening happened at 3 pm on a Friday. By 4, the place was standing room only. By the time I left that night, the wait list for tables was about 45 minutes long. The opening was even sweeter for me, thanks to the unexpected pleasure of not one, but two different former undergrads — neither of whom I’d seen in years — spotting me and making a point of saying how much they’d enjoyed the classes they’d taken from me.
  5. The collapse of the Cowboys. It was not a good month to be a fan of Washington’s professional football team. An embarrassing loss to a bad team (the Vikings). A humiliating loss to a good team (the Eagles). A squeaker victory over a mediocre team (the Titans). On the other hand, it was delicious to watch the Cowboys self-destruct so thoroughly. Even more delicious to have The Onion capture the joy I felt so perfectly.
  6. Apple pie. Thanksgiving found me baking my very first ever pie. From scratch, no less. The filling, if I do say so myself, came out quite nicely. At least in terms of its taste. A little more cornstarch would probably have helped it firm up a bit. The crust, on the other hand, needed some serious help. Again, it tasted fine. At least insofar as it stayed intact, since the bottom crust basically disappeared during the baking process. Perhaps it melted into the filling. But there was little to no there there when it came time for dessert.
  7. A kind mention. Proud as I still am of Elvis After Elvis, I also don’t figure it gets much attention these days. It’s nearly fifteen years old (as a book, anyway), and so it’s well past the usual “freshness” date of an awful lot of scholarly volumes. So I was quite surprised to stumble across the brief shout-out for it in this interview.
  8. Bettye Lavette, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. Wow. Just wow. Worth it for the opening track alone (a stunning cover of an otherwise little-played Beatles track called “The Word”), but the rest of the album is awfully sharp too.
  9. Mavis Staples. Also wow. Only this time for a live performance at The Cedar. If the opportunity presents itself to see her in concert, run (do not walk). You will not be disappointed. Promise.

October notable nine

As before, these are in no particular order . . . except for #1.

  1. Mocha. Given the unhappy prognosis for her long-term health back in March, she stays at the top of this list for every month she remains on this side of the topsoil. The past week or so, she’s actually seemed a bit perkier. And the slow, perpetual nose bleeds that had made my living room floor look like it had been decorated by Jackson Pollock with a one-dimension palette have slowed down as well. If she’s still with us this time next month, I’ll have had to go back to the vet twice to re-renew the prescription for her meds. And, given how she seems to be faring right now, I’m not gonna be surprised if I have to do that.
  2. A long delayed fall. We knew it couldn’t last. And it didn’t. We saw our first snow flurries of the season here in Minneapolis last week. But earlier in the month, we were still rocking temps in the 80s. Not just fleetingly, but for several days at a stretch. Patio dining was still feasible — and comfortable — more than halfway into the month. And when those sorts of days aren’t likely to roll around again until April, every little extension of the summer is a glorious thing.
  3. Lake Wine and Cheese. Newly opened, and a short four-block walk from my house . . . and with a marvelous selection of craft beers and microbrews. If I didn’t have a fridge full of beer I brewed myself, this place would tempt me to part with a bit more of my take-home pay than would be wise.
  4. Town Hall Brewery‘s Fresh Hop. Speaking of places where I spend money on beer, it’s tough to top the stuff THB brews and pours on a regular basis. But it’s extra tough to top their Fresh Hop: a once-a-year, get-it-while-supplies-last batch of hopped-up ale made, just as the name implies, with hops picked fresh off the vine . . . or at least as fresh as possible, given that the vines in question are still 1000 miles or so to the west.
  5. Washington, 17, Philadelphia 12; Washington 16, Green Bay 13; Washington 17, Chicago 14. On a day when my lifelong football allegiance were sorely tested (i.e., the day when, for the second year in a row, my team lost to the otherwise woeful Lions), I need to remind myself that we had a winning record for October, that two of our three wins came against teams that made the playoffs last season, and that the season is still far from over.
  6. Teaching via IM. Once every year or two, I’ll have a moment when I think I know what I’m going to do in the classroom that day . . . and then, at the last second, some wild idea pops into my head for something totally weird that I should do instead. I can’t predict or control those flashes of inspiration, but I’ve learned to trust them. ‘Cause they often wind up working much, much better than whatever I’d originally had planned. This time around, the course was “New Telecommunication Media” and one of the two readings on tap was from Shayla Thiel-Stern‘s book on adolescent girls and instant messaging. And I’d been prepared to lead the group in our usual conversation about the issues raised by the readings for the day — until I realized that it would be far more productive, at least with respect to one of the topics at hand, to hold our discussion using IM. Or at least a primitive, pre-digital version of IM, where our entire conversation took place using the whiteboard at the front of the room. It took my students a little while to warm up to the idea . . . but, eventually, we had 3-4 separate threads running on the board at once, and we were able to have a much smarter, much more embodied discussion of the material at hand than we ever would have if I’d stuck with my original lesson plan.
  7. So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities. Yes, it’s one of those videos that has already been around the world about 40 times, thanks to Facebook and listservs and such. But that doesn’t make it any less funny. Or sad. Or true.
  8. Chastity Brown @ the Kitty Cat Klub. This show was already down as a “must-list” for this month’s Notable Nine, and I figured I’d be able to find some suitably representative performance already online to give folks who’ve never had the pleasure a sense of what went down at the KCK on Oct 16. But, o frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! I found a clip from that very show. Enjoy.
  9. Paul Beatty reads Slumberland. A last-second addition to this month’s list. But that’s because I only became aware of this video in the last hour or so. If you haven’t read Slumberland yourself, run (do not walk) to your nearest independent bookstore, buy a copy, and stay up all night to finish it. While you’re at it, do the same with his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle. But if your nearest independent bookstore is closed at the time you’re actually reading these words, you can whet your appetite by watching the video below.

September notable nine

Lots of people do Top Ten lists of one sort or another. But do we really need to fetishize the number 10 simply ’cause that’s how many fingers most of us are born with? And do such lists really need to revolve around hierarchical rankings? I don’t think so.

So here’s my “notable nine” for September 2010. These aren’t necessarily the best — or the worst — things that happened to me this past month. And they’re not presented in any clearcut order. They’re simply nine slices of my life from the past 30 days that deserve some sort of recognition.

  • Mocha. The old girl is still with us. She is now fourteen and a half. She was diagnosed with a tumor in her snout in March, and there isn’t anything to do about it that will make it go away. The tumor has grown large enough that it’s reshaped her face a bit. She’s got a perpetually slow-dribbling bloody nose. She’s stopped eating cheese and seems indifferent to treats. And yet, she still gets a pep in her step when it’s time for a walk, and she’s still a pretty perky pooch overall. Not sure how much longer she’ll hold on, but she’s here now. And that’s good.
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  • Tank. People have asked if I intend to bring a new dog into my life once Mocha decides it’s time to retire to the Land of Fat Squirrels With Broken Knees (aka, Doggie Heaven). And I don’t know for sure. Mocha will be a very tough friend to replace, after all. But for the next 8-10 months or so, the question is moot, as I have temporary custody of “my” former cat (back when that “my” would have been an “our”). And she’s as adorable as Mocha, though she fancies herself to be a cruel and vicious killer.
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  • Mom. I shared a brief Mom anecdote in this space a couple of weeks ago. There’s no fresh update since then (which is good . . . or as good as it gets, anyway), but my trip to DC back then lingers for me still.
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  • Billy Bragg. He played live at The Cedar on the 8th. And was amazing, of course. Even if he didn’t play the tune below.
  • Hops. When I moved into the new house a little more than a year ago, I decided that I needed to expand my homebrewing adventures a bit by growing my own hops. So back in March, I planted a couple of hop rhizomes (calm down, you crazed Deleuzeans) on the south side of the front porch . . . and they appear to be almost ready to harvest.
  • Theme Time Radio Hour box sets. A few years ago, Bob Dylan started hosting a weekly satellite radio show. I’ve never heard it live, and have only heard one episode in full. But I know enough about it to know that his playlists — which revolve around a different theme every week — are a glorious potpourri of old country, folk, blues, r&b, soul, gospel, and then some. And, thanks (I think) to the quirks of how UK copyright law treats compilations of recordings of a certain age, there are three separate labels (Ace, Chrome Dreams, and Mischief Music/Music Melon) that have each released a series of multi-disc sets drawn from Dylan’s radio show. There are a handful of duplications across the collections, but nowhere near enough to make any of them redundant. And, between them, that’s 22 discs (so far?) chock full of musical delights.
  • Washington 13, Dallas 7. I was born and (mostly) raised in DC. And while I was never even remotely close to being an athletic child, I was still a straight boy. So it was almost inevitable that I would become a fan of the team with the most heinous nickname in all of US sports. And I’m a very loyal sports fan. So that allegiance still holds. Even without the nickname problem, this has not exactly been an easy cross to bear for the past decade or so. ‘Cause the team has disappointed on the field far more often than it’s provided moments of glory. So it was awfully fine to see them open the season with a primetime beatdown of the Cowboys. The two games they’ve played since have not ended so happily. But it’s always good to watch the Cowboys lose. Always.
  • USBank. Over the past several years, I’ve toyed with pulling my money out of USBank and finding somewhere else to put it. A different bank. A credit union. A shoebox hidden in the freezer. Anywhere. That interest-bearing, mile-earning, no-fee checking account I opened when I first came to Minneapolis has gradually morphed into a no-interest, points-for-gifts-I-don’t-want, $20-per-year checking account. And they closed the branch on campus right across the street from my office. Grrr.
    But then I went and did something stupid. And, much to my surprise, USBank made it right.
    Several months ago, I realized that my favorite brewpub has dartboards. Real ones, that is. Not the cheesy electronic ones. And so I started carrying my darts in my computer bag, for those occasions (and it’s happened more than once) when I was at Town Hall and had someone to beat at darts with me. Being prepared like that was smart. Forgetting I had my darts in my bag when I tried to fly to DC to visit Mom, however, was not so smart.
    Fortunately, I had arrived at the airport with time to spare. And the TSA agent who took me aside was very nice. He said that I could go back to the “dangerous” (my word, not his) side of the security checkpoint and get the customer service office to mail my darts home for me. The “customer service office,” however, turned out to be the airport branch of USBank. Who not only mailed me my darts, but they did so for free. And, evidently, they do that for everyone, not just USBank customers. My darts were waiting for me when I got home.
    Even more impressive? Two days later, there was a handwritten note in the mail from the teller I’d dealt with: “I hope your package arrived safely, & I’m glad we were able to help.”
    None of which guarantees that I won’t still move my money at some point. But even big, greedy, penny-pinching corporations can still do nice things sometimes. And it’s good to acknowledge it when they do.
  • Reclaiming the University. In response to this dispiriting-looking event, the Faculty for the Renewal of Public Education (of which I’m a proud member) and the Education Action Coalition MN organized a much better conversation. Our event rocked, and was very well attended. Their event pretty much lived down to my already low expectations.

No one knows . . .

My friend Elena likes to tell a story about grading student papers while some Jacques Cousteau special was playing on the TV as background noise. While she was gawking at what her charges had managed to do to logic, reason, and the English language, Cousteau was commenting on one of the eternal mysteries of the sea. I’m not sure (and I don’t know if Elena remembers) just what bit of maritime biology Cousteau was talking about, but the phrase he used — “No one knows why they do what they do” — rapidly became our standard response to whatever baffling student behavior manifested itself in our classes.

I’m teaching two courses this semester. Both of them are filled to capacity, which means that students who want to get into either of those courses either have to hope for a fortuitously timed drop by someone currently in the class, or they need to ask me for a permission number to get added to the roster. Since registration for spring courses began a couple of months ago, I’ve probably had two dozen queries along these lines. Most of which have been pretty straightforward and easy to handle: the student in question sends me an email, asks about one of my two courses by name, and I tell them I’ve added their name to the relevant waitlist.

But I’ve also had at least half a dozen queries by students whose requests to get into my course ignore “little” details like specifying which course they want to join. At least three queries from students who don’t provide me with their full names (’cause, of course, there’s only going to be one Chris or Elizabeth or John who might show up in my classroom (either of them) on Day One). And at least two queries from students expressing a strong and profound interest in taking my course . . . in an email that’s actually addressed to the instructors of three or four different courses that the student in question wants to get into.

No one knows why they do what they do, indeed . . .

PS: How did I forget to include this bit? About 25% of the students who I’ve written back, asking for (a) their full name and/or (b) the course they want to join, have never written me back again. I suppose that’s good. If you have a hard time answering either of those questions, after all, you’re going to have a helluva time with an actual exam or a research paper.

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.

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