Sunday Links: Land of Little Rain

Driving up to Santa Barbara the other day, I was stunned by how dry everything was. The hills cutting through Calabasas weren’t just brown, they were radiantly brown. It was as if they were screaming. I’m not sure if their screams were taunts (“we’ll be bringing you some fire real soon, you bet”) or pleas, but this drought we’ve been experiencing here is unnerving. While the rest of the country has been dealing with polar vortices and abominable snowmen, California is just drying up. It’s a less obvious and romantic way to go, but it’s happening nonetheless.

But we’re soldiering on here at TGR, bringing you prose straight from the land of little rain. So for your no-football Sunday pleasure (relax, it will be back next week, and hey, there’s always the NBA), we present the following:

  • Slate‘s “Photo Blog” is one of their better regular features, and the current offering is particularly good. David Galjaard’s series of photos of Soviet-era Albanian bunkers is an important reminder that while the Iron Curtain might have fallen a couple decades ago, the terror it brought to the people and the land is still influencing events on a global and local level. I am currently reading Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread, his impressionistic study of Soviet crimes, and the death and torment it details is so vast and sadistic that it begins to blur. These Albanian bunkers though are decaying physical monuments to tyranny, a word used too often in American politics to describe minor squabbles about 2% variations in marginal tax rates. Koba knew tyranny, folks. Neither Barack Obama nor Paul Ryan are it.
  • And, right on cue, here’s a great example of defining tyranny down: an Atlantic piece called “The Tyranny of the College Major.” I’m pretty sure the author, Humboldt State philosophy professor J.W. Powell, didn’t write the headline, so I’ll give him a pass, but come on, Atlantic. That faux pas aside, the article is a pitch for basically inverting higher ed: instead of having a common major and a grab bag of GEs, a school would have a common “Great Books” style core, and then students would undertake 3 minor-load fields of study. I find this idea appealing, but it’s a pipe dream for all of the reasons Powell lays out in the piece. Still, I am all for making college harder and less obviously utilitarian. Maybe then big businesses would stop using universities as free (free to them, that is) job training, and our economy could be a place where folks who don’t want to go to college but who are still totally fit for white-collar work aren’t doomed.
  • I have been writing some film criticism lately, so I was pleased to stumble across (or Twitter across?) this short Richard Brody post on The New Yorker‘s website about the role of the film critic now that more information about more films is readily available to anyone with Internet access (so most people who’d want to read film criticism). I particularly like the following observation: “The rise of independent filmmaking has given rise to its own downside: the writer-director, in that order. Many of the worst independent films are marked by the sense that the filmmakers, who wrote their own scripts, became directors largely to protect their scripts and to transmit their content to the screen as purely as possible. In classic Hollywood, it was the producer who kept directors bound to scripts, and the great Hollywood directors were always those who—regardless of what the credits say—had a great deal of input in the scripts and even changed them on the set, in spite of possible resistance from producers. In the decadent form of independent filmmaking, such constraints are self-imposed.”
  • Sarah Kendzior, whom Ryan has written about before, is a fantastic writer. I don’t always agree with her, and I get the impression that her politics are more radical than my own, but her latest post for Chronicle Vitae is spot on. The role of academic publishing in the higher ed labor market is not talked about enough, especially in light of the fact that it seems to exist solely to prop up the tenure system at this point. Most academics aren’t making money off of their UP monographs, and they usually end up getting read by maybe a dozen people. Meanwhile, activities like blogging, creative writing, popular press publishing, and journalism often don’t count towards tenure and promotions. Higher ed needs to undergo a lot of pretty fundamental transformations in relation to how it allocates money, but another major change that needs to happen is within departments themselves: they need to encourage their faculty to think of themselves as teachers first, as public writers second, and as academic researchers (a very distant) third. Crazy, I know. This kind of thinking is probably why I’m not on the tenure track. Frankly, I’m happy not to be.
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