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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Romanticizing the mundane

I'm lost as a teacher if I don't have a blackboard to chart each session's work. I use it to collect, record, notice patterns and/or discrepancies, classify, and then report on and extend student responses to our activities; I'd say that 2/3 of my aha! moments in the class come from us pointing to the work on the board and making a connection between what the students and I have written in chalk. A couple of downsides: I'm covered in chalk dust by the end of the class, and some other people (including some students) say that it takes up class time to write so much. In the future, I'd like to see how a smartboard could work for me and the students, but I'm OK for now with using that time to write in chalk.

I don't defend this practice in terms of nostalgia; it's just how I learn and teach best. I think it's useful to reformat knowledge in order to see new connections--from notes to grid when I'm making connections in a project (in the classroom or my own projects), from notes to diagram for other types of connections, from computer screen to printout when I'm proof-reading, from one genre of writing to another if I'm trying out an argument or an idea that could crystallize differently...

I'm struck by Anne Trubek's diagnosis of the decline narrative in her essay about the history of handwriting: it's spot-on for historicizing how we came to associate handwriting with character, intelligence, and, earlier on, even religious difference. I like her move of reading the nostalgic tendency in the calls to revive handwriting:
It took the printing press to create a notion of handwriting as a sign of self. For monks, whose illuminated manuscripts we now venerate as beautiful works of art (as they most certainly are), script was not self-expressive but formulaic, and rightly so. When the printing press was invented, the monks were worried about this new capricious technology, which was too liable to foibles and the idiosyncratic mark of the man helming the press. A hand-copied manuscript was for them then the authoritative, exact, regularized text. In his treatise, "In Praise of Copying," the 15th-century monk Trithemius argued that "printed books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices, especially since printed books are often deficient in spelling and appearance."

Handwriting slowly became a form of self-expression when it ceased to be the primary mode of written communication. When a new writing technology develops, we tend to romanticize the older one. The supplanted technology is vaunted as more authentic because it is no longer ubiquitous or official. Thus for monks, print was capricious and script reliable. So too today: Conventional wisdom holds that computers are devoid of emotion and personality, and handwriting is the province of intimacy, originality and authenticity.

This transition, and the associations we make with old and new technologies, played out while millions of Americans were being Palmerized in school, and the Palmer Method is inextricably linked to a new writing technology that was starting to compete with handwriting: the typewriter.

I'm less sure about the notion of typing as "cognitive automaticity, the ability to think as fast as possible, freed as much as can be from the strictures of whichever technology we must use to record our thoughts." Technodeterminist me wants to push harder on that idea, to consider that the technology we use enables different kinds of thinking rather than just records it to greater or lesser degrees. That is, my thinking is tied to how I'm doing it, and in what form. My composition classes tend to bear this out: students do different work when they reformulate exercises into new genres, diagrams, grids, sentence structures, etc. And it so happens that the computer is very useful for facilitating and storing all of these experiments--more so than the chalky blackboard, which is useful for other types of work.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Nostalgia for the Soviet police

The NY Times reports on a lifelong Russian dissident, Lyudmila M. Alexeyeva, who is still at it at 82 years old. Her specialty, in Soviet times and post-Soviet times, has been playful disruption of the police state:
On her way into K.G.B. headquarters, Ms. Alexeyeva would stop to buy a ham sandwich, an éclair and an orange. These were delicacies in the 1970s, even for the investigator, who was headed for a lunch of gray cutlets. Halfway through, Ms. Alexeyeva would unwrap her lunch and lay it out on the table.

“They reacted very nervously when they started to smell ham,” she said with a sweet smile. “Then I would start eating the orange, and the aroma would start dissipating through the room.” The effect was reliably hypnotic.

“That’s how I amused myself,” she said. “It was a way to play on his nerves.”
The most disturbing part of the story is her observation that the Putin regime exercises authority even more arbitrarily than did the Soviet Union of her youth:
New fears have replaced the old ones, though. Ms. Alexeyeva has received death threats, and last year she buried two friends who were killed. Legal risks are unpredictable, too. While Soviet dissidents could strategize to protect themselves -- knowing, for example, that prosecutors needed at least two witnesses -- their tricks are of no use in a post-Soviet justice system, where cases can be wholly fabricated, she said.

“Now they do what they want,” she said. “There were rules then. They were idiotic rules, but there were rules, and if you knew them you could defend yourself.”
this reminds me of the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara and his wife Yukiko Sugihara, who during World War II wrote thousands of visas to desperate Jews in clear violation of orders -- all of which were then honored by the meticulously bureaucratic Japanese government.

The dissident movement in Russia is small, but it's alive with organizations like "The Other Russia".

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Haphazardly informed institution

One of my favorite former Spectator columnists, Charles Homans, has a great article in the Columbia Journalism Review about weather reporters who deny climate change, as they draw faulty connections from one field (meteorology) to another (climatology):
But the disagreement, then as now, also came down to the weathercasters themselves, and what they knew—-or believed they knew. Meteorology has a deceptively close relationship with climatology: both disciplines study the same general subject, the behavior of the atmosphere, but they ask very different questions about it. Meteorologists live in the short term, the day-to-day forecast. It’s an incredibly hard thing to predict accurately, even with the best models and data; tiny discrepancies matter enormously, and can pile up quickly into giant errors. Given this level of uncertainty in their own work, meteorologist looking at long-range climate questions are predisposed to see a system doomed to terminal unpredictability. But in fact, the basic question of whether rising greenhouse gas emissions will lead to climate change hinges on mostly simple, and predictable, matters of physics. The short-term variations that throw the weathercasters’ forecasts out of whack barely register at all.

From here, he turns to the problem of scientific expertise and science literacy as it's broadcast in local news.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Exile in Guyville

RE: Katie Roiphe's infograph-tastic essay on sex scenes in Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer vs. Benjamin Kunkel, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, etc.:

Didn't Liz Phair already write this essay in 1993, when it was called Exile in Guyville? ("you might be shy and introspective / that's not part of my objective")

Let this also record my ambivalence about Liz Phair: is she the Katie Roiphe of the Lilith Fair set? The contrarianism has always seemed cynical, as though the self-conscious irony left even less room to maneuver than before; what was called honesty collapsed all interpretation into a bleak flatness.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Jan 06, 07:55:00 PM:
Furthermore, I'd (of course) argue that she totally misreads DFW. First off, the quote from his essay is from a friend of his; his own thoughts on Updike are much more reverential, though not uncomplicated. He's not exculpating his generation from narcissism or anything, just saying that--exactly because of Updike and Roth and Mailer, etc--his generation of writers have to contend with a narcissism/nihilism/whatever that, while perhaps similar in existential origin, must now be directed towards something new.

Also, the passages she selects from Infinite Jest are from Ken Erdedy's jumbled stream-of-conscious ramblings while waiting for some weed. Probably not representative of every character in a 1000+ page book. But, even if you stick with poor ol' Erdedy, the point of his (and many other character's) suffering is that it is inward-facing and self-inflicted and imprisoning and so forth. His disinterest in sex is a symptom of this. I'd argue that among the most basic messages of the book is that we can only even begin to tolerate existence by resisting those terribly addictive things which cut us off from one another. Now, maybe there weren't juicy enough sex scenes for Ms. Roiphe, but man I find the relationship between Don Gately and Joelle Van Dyne heart- and brain- and kidneybreaking, and man I'd say pretty electrically charged in the sex department. Maybe not explicit, but maybe that's because DFW was a mature author who recognized that soul-damaged characters like those two are tentative and suspicious and probably even a little afraid of exactly what was going on between them.

Just a thought.
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Jan 06, 08:00:00 PM:
Also, while DFW is DFW and his writing, while not unassailable, doesn't really need defending, isn't it a little unfair to through Kunkel and JSF (and I'd even say Chabon and Franzen, who are, you know, fine) into the mix against the elders? I mean, what's her point? Some hotshot of-the-moment dweeb who has written two books isn't as good as Phillip Roth?

Ross, again.
Blogger Unknown on Wed Jan 06, 11:44:00 PM:
I think Roiphe's choices in marshaling Kunkel and JSF for her argument reveals that she's less interested in a making a nuanced critique of anyone's writing and more interested in rehearsing the same anti-feminist contrarianism that she's been writing for years. She's addressing her writing to her friend who threw out the new Roth novel, not so much to those guys (matched weirdly by her sloppy attribution of DFW's anecdote about Updike, in which he's reacting to a friend). She sets them up as straw men to knock down. Unsurprisingly, ambivalence, indecision, discomfort, etc. are easy to knock down. So while I'm tempted to throw out, say, A.M. Homes as a (female) counter-example to her claims, I think Roiphe is cherry-picking and flattening the readings on purpose, which is a curious way to respond to a humorless feminist you've accused of doing the same thing.