Class Report: SPCH 275, 28 February 2018

For the first class meeting of the session, discussion focused on introductions to the course, the instructor, and foundational concepts of rhetoric as applicable to public speaking. The course project and its assigned topic received attention, as well. So did upcoming assignments:

  • Discussions, due online before 0059 on 5 March 2018
  • Week 1 Homework, due online in two parts (PDF and Word file) before 0059 on 5 March 2018
  • Week 1 Presentation, due online before 0059 on 5 March 2018

Submission guidelines for the assignments are in the course shell.

The class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Room 108 of the San Antonio campus. The course roster listed seven students enrolled; five attended, assessed informally. Class participation was good. No students attended Monday office hours.

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In Response to Michael Harris

On 9 February 2018, Michael Harris’s “I Have Forgotten How to Read” appeared in the online Globe & Mail. Harris opens by giving something of an anecdote of struggling to read a novel, using that story to segue into a discussion of the ways in which he perceives reading shifting, both as a practice and as a feature of prevailing culture. He asserts, using selected quotations and a disarming anecdote about one of his nieces, that the distracted interruption facilitated by online reading, with its ready access to additional information and expectation that success is measured in clicks and visitors, is becoming–and for some, has become or has always been–the expected, demanded form of attention. Harris is careful to note that digital environments are spurring more reading, in terms of time spent looking at words and of the number of words seen, but he also notes that reading is increasingly seen as a utilitarian concern, rather than a means of immersion.

Harris offers much worth considering in the piece. For myself, in my own experience as a reader nurtured in print who revels ineptly in the digital, many things ring true. While my daughter does prefer the “big TV” Harris describes his niece as rejecting, she is decidedly digitally native, preferring to sit with multiple screens going, each showing different images–and somehow tracking all of them. And I, who more than once said (accurately, I might add) that I had spend more time reading than doing anything else but breathing–and that only because I breathe while I read–find that I am more and more prone to click from tab to tab to tab than to sit with a book in hand, or a journal, or even a magazine or newspaper. When I do sit with print media, I tend to skip around. And even now, as I write this, I have four separate windows open, two of which are internet browsers, and I have open eleven separate tabs. (One is the tab where I write this blog; another is a tab for Harris’s piece. The rest are ephemera.) I am having to struggle mightily not to click back and forth among them–or to look at other devices I have ready to hand from a nearly pathological need to be available and in contact.

As someone who struggles still to retain some semblance of an identity as an intellectual (as I have noted), I find myself grappling with points Harris raises fairly often. His comment that “The deep reading that a novel demands doesn’t come easy and it was never ‘natural'” is a prominent example. When I teach, I mostly teach English, and that means much of what I try to get my students to do is focus in ways that they are (mostly) not well trained to do and to which they are rarely, if ever, disposed. And, frankly, most of them will not need to apply the skills of deeper, more careful reading that I would have them develop–although the patience involved may well be of sue to them, and attention to detail serves well in most any endeavor. Too, if, as Harris asserts, “A cynical style of reading gives way to a cynical style of writing,” then it is also the case that cynical styles of classroom practice will (continue to) emerge–with effects to come (more abundantly) for research. For if it is not of immediate use and gratification, why would any of us attend to it?

Enjoy the piece? Care to help me do more of them? Kick in, maybe?

In Response to Erin Bartram

On 11 February 2018, Erin Bartram’s “The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind” appeared on her personal website. The piece traces Bartram’s realization that academe has little or no place for her and her evolving reaction to that realization. For Bartram, the painful feeling of failure that accompanied a final rejection from the tenure track first manifested as self-castigation; her later recognition of the strangeness of that manifestation leads to an interrogation of the circumstances that drive those who leave academia to blame themselves for the failure. Bartram also looks at the conditions of the post-ac life that has scholars without institutional support still work–often at substantial cost to themselves–to contribute to human knowledge, and she asserts her own refusal to engage in such. She then notes the still-present senses of disconnection and de-identification that have come with her departure, concluding with a few bullet-pointed editorial asides relevant to her discussion.

I was introduced to the piece through a re-Tweet from one of the luminaries I follow, and it has since received some substantial attention from more than one source; I am not the first to comment on it, certainly. I am also not the first to talk about what she discusses–the strangeness and pain of leaving not a career but a vocation, and one that takes up most waking and many sleeping hours over many, many years. I have discussed it, though, here, here, here, and likely elsewhere. Thus, as I read Bartram, I find myself nodding in agreement again and again.

Flatly, she has the right of it–even though my own conduct does not bespeak my deep agreement with her, since I continue to teach and to make some small contributions to scholarly endeavors. (Speaking of which, contributions to the Tales after Tolkien Society are always welcome.) The scholarly work I do is done from love of the thing and of some of the people involved in it (you know who you are), and for such loves, I am willing to exert myself–but only to a point. Love of other things and other people, though, come first, and the demands of working life to support them do much to keep me from doing more scholarship than I do, and more writing. And the teaching that I still do–because I am paid to do it–is a side-venture, something that my employer and I both recognize is an ad hoc series of short-term commitments–a job, rather than a career or the calling that I, Bartram, and others have recognized the life of the mind as being.

I mean to continue doing as I have been doing, to be sure; as long as I need the extra money, I’ll be working side-jobs, and as long as I get some joy out of what I do, I’ll keep doing the writing–here and elsewhere. But Bartram is right; I am being exploited that I do so, as are others who do as I do. It is one thing if we who do it know what is happening. It is quite another to pretend otherwise.

Care to help keep the lights on here? Go hither!

Class Report: ENGL 216, 21 February 2018

For the final meeting of the session, class time was given over wholly to the course’s institution-mandated final exam. No other activities were conducted on site, although the classroom, Rm. 107 of the San Antonio campus, was made available at the expected time, 1800.

The course roster listed seven students enrolled, unchanged since the last meeting; none attended. Student participation was as would be expected in such a circumstance. As noted in the previous report, office hours for the week were canceled against the instructor’s daughter’s birthday.

A Bit More about My Own Writing

My writing is the subject of some of the writing I have already done, as will be obvious to any who have been reading what I post in this space. Some pieces of old wisdom suggest that it should be the case:

  • Writers are urged to write what they know, and I probably know more about my writing than anyone else does (I think I’m the only one who has seen every word); and
  • Those who teach writing are exhorted to frame the work of writing as a means to learn more, and I write about my writing either to expand upon subjects I have already considered or to try to figure out how I think and feel about things.

It will be no surprise, then, that this is another bit of writing in which I contemplate my own writing. Maybe it will be useful to others. I don’t know.

In any event, one thing that I face every time I sit down to write of my own volition is the worry that what I write will not be the kind of thing anyone wants to read. And there is some substance to such worries; I am able to see the readership statistics for this webspace and others I maintain, and I am not exactly going viral with any of my posts in any of them (again, for those I do for myself; those for which I am paid fare otherwise, which I appreciate). So I am concerned that I am screaming into the void rather than speaking into the ether.

The thing is, the low use numbers do allow me to see that more people look at what I’m doing when I do more (somewhat tautological and common-sensible, I’m sure–but how common is common sense?); I see more views when I put more writing out for others to see. And if I am trying to be seen in my writing–and I have the sense that all writers who write of their own volition do so are in some way trying to be seen–then it is to my benefit to do more writing, even if I am worried that few or none will read it. I can only make the attempt; that is all that is given me to control. How or if it will be received lies outside my power.

I continue to nurture the hope that what I write will be seen, and that, being seen, it may be of some help to some person or other. Whether that comes in the form of helping to flesh out corpora so that scholars in various areas can do the work they do, or in the form of some random reader stumbling across my writings and needing to read exactly the words I have written, I do not presume to forecast–or any other thing. But I do hope, as I perhaps should not, that the fact that I have written something will matter to someone–even though I worry, always, that it will not.

Help allay the worry. Throw me a bone.

In Response to Douglas Dowland

On 4 February 2018, Douglas Dowland’s “How Academe Breeds Resentment” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education (and I am aware that there is a delay in my comments about it coming out; I have to write about it when I see it). In the piece, Dowland investigates the question implied by the title, asking “What is it about academe that makes [academics] such experts of resentment?” He then suggests several answers: the structures of academia, the inherently skeptical nature of intellectual inquiry, the exposition of relative powerlessness that accompanies progress through academic structures. After, Dowland argues both that resentment needs to be set aside–insofar as it can–as a lazy substitute for actual thought and as a means to resist the extra-academic pressures that work against intellectual inquiry and the structures that support it.

There are some problems in the piece. (That I point them out may be a bit of irony, since Dowland discusses the slide from critiquing the objects of scholarly inquiry to critiquing the scholars themselves.) One that stands out is the relatively cliché nature of some of the examples and assertions made in the piece. For example, Dowland writes:

Consider some typical targets of academic resentment:

  • A professor has been given a lighter teaching load than others, and the rest of the department resents it. What they do not know is that the professor is an alcoholic in recovery.
  • The assistant dean for international affairs is late to every meeting–obviously not pulling her weight. She is also a mother whose work-life balance requires that she answer emails during her son’s soccer games and stay up for hours of late-night internet conferencing with recruiters from time zones across the world.
  • A student misses class frequently and asks his professors for notes. The student is also working overtime to pay his last tuition installment and save up for the next one.

The passage reads in a way that echoes motivational posters, which is other than optimal. Similarly, the repetition of an already-old call to come together smacks of long-help platitudes that are long-held because they have not been–and are not likely to be–enacted, and for the very reasons Dowland cites.

That said, the argument that resentment should be set aside because it is intellectually lazy is a compelling one. There is something of a prevailing assertion that intelligence and cynicism are yoked together, and resentment is often identified as an underpinning of cynicism. (If I may borrow something of a cliché, myself, I might make a note about sour grapes.) Because it is so often seen as such, the one becomes a stand-in for the other–and it is far easier to dismiss something out of a (real or affected) jaded weariness than to actually consider it. And while the consideration can lead to a negative view of the thing considered, it can, at times, lead to a greater and deeper love of that thing–but love is hard, and the academics I have known and been are not the less human for their intellectualism; they are as prone to taking the easy path because it is easy as most any other group.

As in any other group, it is a tendency to be resisted.

Maybe, though, giving me a hand is something to be embraced?

Class Report: ENGL 216, 14 February 2018

For the Valentine’s Day edition of the class, discussion opened with questions from the previous class meeting and before. It continued with notes about style and mechanics before examining an example of student work and a professional example. Further, assignments were discussed, such as

  • Course Project: Final Draft, to be submitted online as a Word document before 0059 on 19 February 2018
  • Course Project: Presentation, to be submitted as a PowerPoint file before 0059 on 19 February 2018
  • Discussion posts, to be completed online before 0059 on 19 February 2018

Students were afforded time to complete class surveys, as requested by administration. Students were also reminded that the Final Exam will take up class next week; the classroom will be open at the regular class time, although it may be closed early if no students attend on-site.

Class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Rm. 107 of the San Antonio campus. The course roster listed seven students enrolled, unchanged since the last meeting; two attended, assessed informally. Student participation was reasonably good. No students attended office hours Monday from approx. 1800 to approx. 1900 online (office hours are scheduled to 2000, but an hour in, with no attendees, they were ended).

Students are advised that office hours for Week 8, which would have occurred on 19 February 2018 at 1800, are cancelled in favor of the instructor’s daughter’s birthday.

On Staying Late

In a recent post, I write my lament about a game coming to an end. What I did not note in that post is that I lingered in that game long after my action in it was done, not just to distill out major notes from it (because I mean to play again, and in that same game-world if not with that very character), but to hold onto the magic of it just a little bit longer. And I was able to do that in some ways; there was a lovely question-and-answer exchange as the game wound down, and I appreciate the comments those left who told me that my part in the game made their play better. I have been more accustomed to receiving negative comment than positive (and I acknowledge that I have had many negative remarks coming), so to have learned that I have helped people enjoy themselves is a rare treat, and one I treasure. (Obviously, since I talk about it when it happens.)

I often do such things, hanging onto events as long as I can. When I have gone to conferences in the past, for example, I have usually been among the last to leave, staying on-site after the event has concluded, my footsteps echoing hollowly in the conference site. (This has been particularly true for me in my attendance at the International Congress on Medieval Studies; the event runs Thursday through Sunday, and I have typically not flown out until Monday morning. I’ve gotten to see a fair number of movies as a result, but still…) And attending the conferences themselves represent something of a hanging-on for me, since I know that I am not going to be a full-time member of academe at any point. Hell, I remember staying on the campus of my high school after my last bit of contest there and walking across the quiet golf course under the light of a full moon on a cloudless night–alone, the last to leave at nearly the last time I had to leave.

That I do so is a result of my fear of missing out on things. I am usually among the first to be on site for events, if not the first, and I know that I am prone to tiring before things are complete–but the ends of things are among the most fun parts, or so I am told. All of the interesting things happen as last call approaches, and I rarely make it so far into the night. But what usually happens is that I am left with an unsatisfying denouement; the climax happens, the action falls, and the resolution is that I am alone or nearly so as things end not with a bang but with a dwindling to nothing. I become witness to the attenuated ends of things, ends otherwise unmarked and whose comings, though heralded and known, are not valued.

It becomes hard not to be depressed by such things, especially since I can rarely if ever make the easy answer–leave earlier–happen for myself. But I am trying to do better. This year, for example, I’ll only be staying at the Congress for a couple of days, rather than the most-of-a-week I’ve done in the past. I can hope that it will help me to go out on a high note, Holst’s “Mars” rather than “Uranus.”

On a Game Recently Ended

I have mentioned that I have been a fan of things at many points in my life, but far less so now than in the past. One of the things of which I have been a fan, and perhaps the closest I come to still being one, is the tabletop role-playing game, particularly Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) in its earlier incarnations. The game is one about which I have written before (notably here), and it is one with which I have been involved since the beginning of my undergraduate years–so for quite some time, now. I have a lot of good memories bound up in playing that game; I had a lot of good times at its tables, and I have made no few excellent friends from them (even if I am not nearly so good at keeping up with them as I ought to be–but that is wholly on me).

When a couple of those friends flagged to my attention a play-by-post L5R game using the older rules-set with which I am familiar, I jumped at the opportunity. It had been quite some time since I was able to take part in such a game, and longer since I was able to do so as a player, responsible only for my one character and her part of interacting with the world rather than for the whole rest of the world (because I have run many games, singly and as part of a team). And I think I did well enough at it; my character found her way into a slow-moving romance that worked out well, as well as distinguishing herself in interesting ways throughout the game, and I, as player, am told that I made the gaming experience better for the people with whom I played. I have to consider it a successful endeavor.

There is a problem, of course–the game ended.

Oh, it needed to do so. It was time. The story that the game was set to tell was told, and the side-stories that the players brought into the game and developed through it concluded–most of them well. There are seeds of more stories to come, of course, and the game itself is but one part of a sprawling narrative into which all of us who took part are, at least in theory, invited. (That I know the person who runs the overall project–and had him playing at my own table for quite a while–helps my chances, I think.) But, as with a good book or a good movie, the fact that the game has ended is something of a sadness. I grew to love the characters even as my character grew to love her peers–some more than others, and one in particular–and I will miss them and the people whose words gave them life on my computer screen and in my mind.

Having read many, many books, though, and seen no few movies, I think I am in position to say that the sense of loss is greater with the game than with those media. For, much as I love any one novel or poem, or as immersed as I get into any movie, or as thoroughly as I have explored the expanded intellectual properties that have emerged from no few of them, or as far into scholarship and study of any of them as I have gone, with none of them have I been as immersed in the narrative as I nearly always am in the RPG–L5R, in particular. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Daniel Mackay writes eloquently and at length about the phenomenon, as does Gary Alan Fine; I think they both have good points to make about the peculiarly interactive story-making of gaming communities and the bonds that form thereby.

Those bonds, more than anything else, I will miss. I can only hope that I can maintain some of them and forge yet more in the times to come.

Class Report: ENGL 216, 7 February 2018

After addressing some few procedural notes and questions from the previous class meeting, discussion turned to concerns of front matter, order of composition, and review. An example of earlier student work was treated at some length. Assignments were discussed, such as

  • Course Project: Front Matter, to be submitted online as a Word document before 0059 on 12 February 2018
  • Discussion posts, to be completed online before 0059 on 12 February 2018

Class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Rm. 107 of the San Antonio campus. The course roster listed seven students enrolled, unchanged since the last meeting; three attended, assessed informally. Student participation was reasonably good. No students attended office hours Monday from approx. 1800 to approx. 1900 online. (Office hours are scheduled to approx. 2000, but after an hour without student attendance, they were closed.)