End of the Week Links

Hello, everyone. This evening, as always, the Internet holds forth its treasures, and TGR is gathering some in a big net. May they stimulate you intensely.

  • Why did God systematically ruin a decent, faithful man’s life after someone dared him to? This is the inflammatory question raised by the Book of Job, and as Joan Acocella demonstrates in the New Yorker, Judeo-Christian commentators have spent millennia trying to explain how a benevolent deity could also have a sadistic streak. Spoiler alert: Nobody has done much better than David Hume’s common-sense observation that God sounds like an asshole. Makes sense. Guy did let his only kid get crucified.
  • Whether you’re talking kindergarten or college, teachers who are good at their jobs believe fervently in the existential importance of education for its own sake—whatever economic benefits it also carries. Teachers are some of the last real humanists. But can any occupation that exists in the actual world be considered a manifestation of a radiant, quasi-spiritual impulse? Many teachers would snort at that. In a post called “Hanging Up on a Calling,” Rebecca Schuman explains that the “joy of teaching/I’d do it for free!” narrative has long been a way to justify paying teachers as though their high-skill jobs weren’t extremely complicated and difficult. Teaching is an enjoyable, salutary occupation; I’m good at it; and I hope I can keep doing it until I’m old. But fuck any calling that doesn’t come with decent wages. Educators live right where everybody else does, and you can’t pay medical bills and student-loan invoices with a Love of Knowledge. The day I can’t earn middle-class money working full-time as a teacher is the day I stop being one.
  • The premise of Bad Lip Reading shouldn’t be funny for more than 15 seconds; the actual practice of BLR, in the right hands, is sometimes transcendent. The weirdly articulate quality of the nonsensical “readings” is what cracks this blogger so consistently up. Here, after another shitty whimsical GEICO ad, is a tour of the contemporary National Football League and its gladiators. “Kill Dracula at once, that’s what I would do immediately.”
  • About 90% of the content on Jezebel strikes me as lazy, tedious, and brittle (JUDGMENT BY MALE ALERT), but this anti-profile of the perpetually slim and greasy Adam Levine, whom the author compares to “an outspoken yoga enthusiast who won’t stop trying to talk you into anal,” is vital to our culture.
  • Every now and then, the novelist/blogger/sports pundit/pseudo-advice columnist Drew Magary guest-edits Jezebel for like a day, but usually (thankfully) he does most of his web work for Deadspin, and his weekly “NFL Dick Joke Jamboroo” is fantastic. This week’s edition, “On Softness,” offers a representative mix of half-ironic quippery about football, masculine panic, television, fecal matters, children, and Gregg Easterbrook’s undying pomposity. Hot takes, highly recommended.
  • As a cultural staph infection, the, uh, rapper Macklemore is making cold hard cash (from braindead teenagers and undergraduates) and some vicious enemies (among humans who have liked hip-hop for more than six months). Given the former, I’m not sure how much Macklemore cares about the latter, but Jack Hamilton’s cruel, brilliant assessment of Seattle’s most famous white MC is required reading. Some Alexander Pope-grade knife work going on here.

Shall we end with some music? Sort of. See the next post, y’all. A YouTube video link would look wonky on this page. Preview: This week’s jam involves sex-themed R&B.

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.

Sunday Links

Sorry it’s been a little while since I last posted. The eating and lazing about of the holidays were really taxing. If you’re still recovering from that kind of exertion, you can at least exercise your brain by reading some of the following pieces:

  • Many of the pundits on my Twitter feed are still discussing/making fun of David Brooks’ editorial about how his teenage pot use made him wary of the successful movements in Colorado and Washington to at least decriminalize the possession of a plant. This comes not too long after another Brooks piece caused Twitter to get all twitterpated because he frankly trounced Tom Scocca in the snark/smarm debate. His pot piece is evocative, but it’s also nicely illustrative of the blind spot many middle-class white Americans have about weed laws: for one segment of society, marijuana possession has been de facto legal for a long, long time. They take for granted that the worst results of smoking dope are productivity losses and “moral decay” (clutch your pearls, America), ignoring that the poor and non-whites have to worry about doing hard time for getting high. David Brooks is the voice of the people whose biggest concern is embarrassing themselves during a class presentation, and putting that perspective on display is a useful reminder that paternalism is the default political mode of both the rich right and left.
  • Noah Millman, the liberal art and culture critic on the staff of The American Conservative, has done something fun for the start of the new year. Instead of giving us “25 Movies to Look Forward to in 2014,” as so many other publications have done, he’s asking us to look back, and not just at 2013, which was an amazing year for film. His list of films to see again is almost all gems, but more importantly it accords with how most of us consume media now. The new is often too expensive, especially when so much of the old is available at the press of a button and for pennies a view. And art changes as we age. Every year I read The Great Gatsby to understand what my values and priorities are and how they are shifting. It’s a slightly new book each time, because I am a slightly new man with each passing year. One film I intend to revisit this year is Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, which I probably haven’t seen in 10 years. I’ve always been a huge Woody Allen fan, but I remember simultaneously enjoying and not totally understanding this move when I saw it at 21. Maybe now’s the time. What movies will you re-watch in 2014? Tell us in the comments section, or on Twitter!
  • Ryan and I have probably expended too much virtual ink on the subject of what’s wrong with higher ed, but a couple recent pieces are worth noting, as they both compare the bleak future of university education to mass retail culture. Timothy Pratt’s Atlantic article on the ways in which credentialism is fundamentally changing the bachelor’s degree isn’t terribly original, but it contains a money quote from Boston College’s Karen Arnold: “We are creating Walmarts of higher education—convenient, cheap, and second-rate.” Not to be outdone, Gabriel Kahn at Slate dubs Southern New Hampshire University “the Amazon of higher education,” where students are customers, and where online degree students prop up what was once a failing brick and mortar college. If you’ve been reading TGR for the past few months, you know what my rather un-PC prescription is for this ailment: we need to radically overhaul K-12 to make it much more rigorous so that going to college isn’t necessary for people who have no interest in doing so. At 18, you should be able to go out in to the “business world” and get a job that will eventually lead you to a comfortable life if you work hard. You shouldn’t have to take online or in-person classes that you don’t care about in order to be middle class. It’s a waste of your money and time, and it takes away resources from people who actually do want to be in college. In a saner, more egalitarian economy, we’d have many fewer colleges, many fewer college professors, many fewer grad students and adjuncts, and many fewer college graduates, because people would have the freedom to pursue what actually interests them. I’m aware that none of this will happen, but I’m sick of watching Silicon Valley, Washington DC, Wall Street, state governments, and university administrators like the guy at SNHU (though he’s hardly unique) destroy traditional education and drive young people deeper and deeper into debt and despair for degrees that aren’t worth the virtual paper they’re not written on.
  • Finally, a bit of shameless plugging. I wrote a review of James Franco’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for Southern Spaces. Read it if you like. I am also currently working on a review of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave for the same publication, so stay tuned!

America’s Text Life

While stalking the murky woods of final grading, your humble critic also foraged throughout the Internet, looking for choice edibles. Very local. So with today’s last spasm of energy, let me adduce the following links as evidence that humanity’s existential status is still blinking at “Worth Saving.” They are all about language and how we should take better care of it.

  • Norman Mailer’s critical fortunes have been on the wane for a while, though an eventual rebound is always possible for any writer whose name rang out during his lifetime. At least in the case of The Armies of the Night (1968), his fictional history/historical fiction/officious monologue about the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, this is unfortunate, because the book contains a wonderful depiction of the poet Robert Lowell, whom he found worthy of overlapping adjectives, “a fine, good, honorable man” whose “grace was in the value words had for him[.]” I love Mailer’s attention to the ethical consequences of language. As he saw it, Lowell always “seemed to emit a horror at the possibility of squandering them [i.e. words] or leaving them abused[.]” I tend to trust Mailer’s judgement on this, because in the same narrative he carefully dismantles the mid-century American version of imperial euphemism (VIETNAM WAR EFFECTIVE AND JUST). Dude spent time in the military and its profanity-rich cultural ecosystem, and guess what? “[A]ll the gifts of the American language came out in the happy play of obscenity upon concept, which enabled one to go back to concept again.” “What is magnificent,” declares Mailer, “about the word shit [sic] is that it enabled you to use the word noble[.]”
  • Years ago Paul Fussell’s Wartime (Oxford UP, 1989) drew my attention to the shit/noble point. Did you know that Fussell also wrote a slim study of Kingsley Amis? Follow that link to The Anti-Egotist (1994).
  • Dan has mentioned this essay before, so I apologize for repeating, but David Bromwich’s “Euphemism and American Violence,” published near the end of the Bush/Cheney administration, is required reading. It will always be required reading. That crew’s loathsome rhetorical productions will be classroom material for decades. Think about all those lyric villainies. Extraordinary rendition. Coalition of the willing. Axis of evil. Shock and awe. The surge. Even Richard Nixon, coiner of “War on Drugs” and the “silent majority,” can’t touch that swag. Sadly, Bromwich’s text is behind a paywall, unless you have a subscription to the NY Review of Books (duh) or are on a campus/library network that has access. As 2013 ends, let’s recall that we live in a world that is in some ways worse than what the Bush vandals dreamed up, thanks to the Obama administration’s shameful expansion of the American security state.
  • Re: the above: This is your semi-daily reminder that President Obama is not a populist with a cool iPod and a Lapham’s Quarterly subscription, but a modestly progressive, by-all-appearances personally decent member of the USA’s detached elite. In other words, not horrible like Romney, but basically Bill Clinton without the adolescent sexual habits.
  • At Slate, Rebecca Schuman has a modest proposal: abolish the essay-writing component of content-based or otherwise discipline-specific introductory college courses (e.g. Western History 101, Intro to Great American Words, Philosophy’s Biggest Hits, Musicology for Physicists, et cetera). Instead, she argues, intro classes should base their grading on oral exams, which, she argues, would force students to actually master course material, reduce opportunities for long-winded bluebook bullshit, and consequently make life better for teachers, who wouldn’t have to slog through as much coal slurry. No more papers or essay exams; just answering questions that a real person poses in real time. Paper writing would be left for later classes, where students motivated about their majors would be more willing to put in the labor it takes to produce decent prose. The article has drawn brainlessly awful hate mail as well as thoughtful discussion. It is worth your five minutes. Come on. Slate articles are short, and it isn’t like other experienced teachers haven’t also brought this up. Granted, as a comp instructor who runs a lot of first-year classes, I don’t think it’s feasible to stop assigning papers altogether. In fact, I’m generally skeptical of Schuman’s pitch, if you read it literally and not Swiftianly. When it comes to writing instruction at most colleges and universities, it would be more immediately helpful to have smaller classes, better job security for faculty, and a  K-12 system that allowed its best teachers to actually teach kids how to write and read stuff besides Instagram captions and SAT swill.
  • If you write, edit, or publish in any professional capacity, you are tight with the Chicago Manual of Style, the “Grammar and Usage” section of which is written by Bryan Garner, who also wrote the best usage guide around for contemporary English, Garner’s Modern American Usage. When it comes to that small cohort of English speakers/writers/readers who care deeply (maybe even obsess, kibbitz, spasm, and fret) about grammar and usage, Garner and David Foster Wallace are fellow travelers. (Wallace’s long essay “Authority and American Usage,” published first in Harper’s as “Tense Present,” introduced me to Garner.) The point is, I seriously fucking care about hyphenating phrasal adjectives. The second point is, D.T. Max has a cogent little post on the New Yorker‘s website about DFW and BG. Like Mailer on Lowell, Max emphasizes that Wallace’s bone-deep fascination with English usage isn’t aesthetic snobbery but a form of moral imagination. See above, David Bromwich, or Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”
  • Considering that I’m someone who is always looking for work, it would probably behoove me to be blandly professional on this blog, which pops up in Google searches.  On the other hand, I am from Virginia, I admire Thomas Jefferson, and Patton Oswalt is great:

Bang palace! (h/t Dan on this one)

  • Naomi Baron’s Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World (Oxford UP, 2008) is germane to everything if you live in an affluent country.
  • Since TGR didn’t get up a Weekend Beats post, I wanted to post a Tuesday jam. But because I’m on an Amtrak train (no big deal) right now, I can’t access YouTube content. This being the case, I suggest you listen to The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” followed by Trina’s “Pull Over.” They’ll blend, TGR promises. Stay warm for the holidays.

Saturday Links: Fighting the Bloat

We’ve all made bad choices over the last few days. Our guts are in states of revolt, and we feel encased in thin layers of booze and butter. It will take weeks of kale and green tea to make this right. Running is necessary, but so awful. Sitting. Sitting and reading is the thing. So here are some items to sit and read while our bodies try and undo the damage we’ve done.

  • If you need to feel better about the amount of wine (and other spirits) you imbibed over the last few days, this little post about James Boswell’s Book of Company and Liquors should do the trick. Boswell is one of this blog’s patron saints, along with Hitchens, Amis, Didion, Faulkner, Baldwin… The man was a spectacular writer and drinker, and an unreconstructed lech. The fact that he recorded what he and his dinner guests drank is not at all surprising, as he basically kept accounts of everything in his life, like Fitzgerald did in his ledgers. But the amount of booze he and his bros drank in a given night is just shocking. How the man made it even to 55 is something scientists should be studying.
  • John Warner’s Just Visiting blog over at The Chronicle of Higher Ed is always worth your time, but his latest post about what to do about the sad state of higher ed is required reading. He echoes a lot of what we’ve been saying on this blog for a long time, but his sense that we should do “nothing” about our schools might rub some people the wrong way, particularly progressives and libertarian technophiles who think that every problem needs an innovative solution. Warner’s “nothing” isn’t nothing though. He’s saying that we need to STOP doing the things that aren’t working, like buying kids iPads, devising “better” tests, and constantly changing our standards. How about we just focus on teaching kids to read, write, and reason? I know, sounds revanchist and crazy. Best to keep innovating, because that’s worked out so well.
  • The 92nd Street Y in New York has hosted an eclectic series of speakers and performers since it opened its doors over a hundred years ago. Now you can watch videos of over 1,000 of these events on their website. This is the kind of digital education we can get behind.
  • Good lord, the art world is shady. If you need further proof, check out the documentaries The Art of the Steal (streaming on Netflix) and Stolen.
  • Thanks to Adam Ted Jacobson for sending me this link to Thomas Frank’s latest dose of truth. Frank is that rare writer who can write a positive review of something while also questioning its entire purpose. This piece might be his most on-point yet.

I’m Not Dead Yet!

A few articles making the rounds this week capture the mixed-upness of our feelings about the “value” of writing in today’s society. According to some people, the novel has been dying for quite some, leading critic Sam Sacks to write that “[t]he vocabulary of literary ennui is now so familiar that it produces its own kind of boredom.” Most of the people poking the novel’s exquisite corpse well know that plenty of people still read on beaches, in planes, and sitting in armchairs. The novel, then, isn’t dead or even dying; it’s just not novel enough for some critics. It moved out to the suburbs and invested in some durable, comfy pants.

Now, I’m by no means saying that I think enough people are sitting around reading serious fiction. I find it particularly distressing how many young people I’ve come across in the past decade or so of teaching at highly selective colleges who not only haven’t read many seminal and age-appropriate classics (The Sun Also RisesThe Age of InnocenceBlack Boy, etc.), but can’t name a single novel of any kind that they’ve read within the past few years. It seems that many stopped reading for pleasure once they finished the Harry Potter series, and found ways around actually doing the work in their vaunted AP classes. Thanks, SparkNotes.

Obviously, this isn’t the case for all of my students, and I’ve had and continue to have some who read and write for pleasure. And many, when forced to write for or about themselves, produce thoughtful work. But landing a decent job teaching, writing, or writing about literature feels as realistic as becoming a professional athlete these days, so even kids who are passionate about literature end up majoring in something like Business (whatever that actually entails) or, if they’re smart, one of the science fields. Reading and writing are weekend pursuits, if that.

Regardless of their major, most of these young people spend a good chunk of their time on social media (increasingly Instagram and Tumblr over Facebook) and watching streaming videos via one of hundreds of services, most of which I’ve never heard of. This probably explains why when asked to write about about the status of the written word today, they often end up saying something remarkably similar to the point former USA Today reporter Chuck Raasch makes in a recent piece over at Real Clear Politics. His argument is a warmed-over mixture of Orwell, Carr, and Postman (who himself parroted a lot of McLuhan), but I liked the following passage, if only for its use of the word “devaluing”:

In the century and a half since [the Civil War], we have evolved from word to image creatures, devaluing the power of the written word and turning ourselves into a species of short gazers, focused on the emotions of the moment rather than the contemplative thoughts about consequences and meaning of our actions. Many everyday writers in the mid-19th century were far more contemplative, far more likely to contextualize the long-term meaning of their actions. They meticulously observed and carefully described because, although photography was the hot new medium during the Civil War, words remained the dominant way of communicating thought, memory, aspiration, hope.

Still (and later moving) images have been a fundamental tool of personal and group expression dating back to cave paintings. Writing itself is a stylized form of the still image, so the sharp distinction Raasch draws between the two is debatable on first terms. But I get what he means, and I think students sense this too, especially when they tell me that they don’t like writing. Full stop. What they mean is that it’s hard to write well, and given the seeming dominance of visual culture, they aren’t sure if all the work it takes to write good prose is actually worth it. In other words, they aren’t sure how valuable writing actually is and will be going forward.

If you read this this blog, you like reading and writing, and are probably old enough to know that being able to write well actually has tangible benefits in the “real” (“business”) world. It may not make you a millionaire, but it’s a skill that you can pair with other skills (and gobs of charm) to support a decent middle-class life. But it’s hard to see this sometimes, particularly when one is young, and I don’t think that a piece like Raasch’s actually helps make the case for the importance of writing, especially because the idea of writing losing its “value” seems silly when you read about the $2 million advance Knopf recently gave Garth Risk Hallberg for the right publish his first novel, City on Fire. You read that correctly. A guy who hasn’t published a novel yet is getting a solid middle-infielder’s payday. Sure, this sum could be based on future film royalties Knopf hopes to get from an adaptation, but that’s still a hell of a lot of money for 900 pages of words our culture supposedly doesn’t value.

Writing isn’t dying any more than the novel itself is dying. False declarations to this effect do more harm to the written word than Instagram or Netflix ever will. Where and how we read are changing, and the relationship between image and text is more important than ever. It is up to people who appreciate good writing of all kinds to make it clear to young people that writing matters because writing is everywhere and bound up with everything they will do if they want a stimulating career and life.

Monday Links

  • Your humble editors were lucky to have some good teachers in graduate school. One of them, Stephanie LeMenager, is about to publish her second book, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century. If you’d like to see an example of weight and erudition merged with readability, consider it. I am looking your way, university libraries.
  • Britain’s perfectly OK version (I kid, I kid) of the New York Times, the Guardian, recently posted a good 15-minute interview with David Simon, who created The Wire. It complements his role in a 2012 documentary on the drug war, The House I Live In.
  • Thomas Frank has a poignant, righteous essay in The Baffler. It is about US higher education. It is reality-centric. It anticipates what will become a significant literary posture over the next decade: melancholy shame at how we all, but especially the Baby Boomers, constitute one big benumbed “generation that stood by gawking while a handful of parasites and billionaires smashed it for their own benefit,” “it” being the incredible public-university system America put together in the mid-twentieth century with the goal of sustaining a vibrant middle class. Which the system did. For a while. A vibrant middle class being the basis of political and cultural modernity. Then billionaires.
  • Big Ghost is one of the web’s best music critics. I hope his gritty urban slang and frequent aversion to commas don’t upset my progressive white friends. (Hi, almost every reader!) Here is BG’s viciously profane, incisive reading of a Drake album.
  • Finally there is this, a thing existing on the Internet, a movie poster for something called The English Teacher, which apparently earned Julianne Moore a paycheck to spend on a new villa in Monaco. The movie looks lame and forgettable. Further, it is childish to get riled up over a movie. Nonetheless, for some reason the expression on Greg Kinnear’s face makes me want to throw a TV through a wall. He looks like he’s doing a George-Bush-during-press-conferences face. I am going to venture out onto a metaphorical limb here and guess that this film is a nominally literate cornball dipshit’s idea (to use the proper academic terminology) of what teaching consists in. The English Teacher (TET) loves leatherbound books so much that she sits on them. No time for chairs! She’s got students to inspire. And you know she’s smart, because she’s wearing glasses.