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Archive for March, 2012

Where writers sleep

V. Hugo’s Bedchamber

This is entertaining to me: Literary Style: 15 Writers’ Bedrooms

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David C. Levy of the Kaplan Test Prep agency has written an article in the Washington Post suggesting that one of the biggest problems in education (or at least in public education) is that teachers just don’t work hard enough. According to Levy, most professors are getting paid for 40-hour work weeks while they actually work only half that, and take long relaxing summer vacations to boot.

This is a popular myth, and it is both incorrect and irresponsible. Robert Farley’s response is the best I’ve read thus far.

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This post brought to you by Red Truck red, a California blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Cab Franc, and Merlot. Fruity is the word (berries, maybe plums), and fairly light. Easy-drinking. The label says “Like our hard working red truck, our winemaker travels throughout California selecting the finest grapes to craft this beautiful, bright wine.” It is, apparently, the Scott Brown of wines.*

Criticism is only as good as that which it criticizes. Actually, it’s rarely half as good as that. Nonetheless, I should note that I just this night finished the first season of Downton Abbey, and while I have my complaints (D.A. has yet to learn, as Mad Men has, that the history should always be secondary to the characters), I am more than a little impressed with this show. In fact, I am a lot impressed with this show, and some of the flaws (the melodramatic scenes, the not-quite-as-subtle-as-they-should-be romances) are to my mind really its strengths. If Season 2 is as good as Season 1, it may soon join my ‘top 5 tv shows’ list.**

Other thoughts I have on this season:

-I can’t be alone in being horrifically thrown off when long periods of time transpire between episodes. Like, Season 1 was supposed to encompass a year? Two years? I prefer to imagine that when an episode ends, all the characters just go to sleep until whenever I pull up the next episode on netflix. For the main part, that appears to be what happens (nobody ever mentions events from between shows), but there is still the occasional reference to time’s passage and I find that disconcerting. I’m told there is an even more jarring jump before Season 2 begins, but since Megavideo is down (and my illegal downloading knowledge is rudimentary at best), I’ll have to wait to see. I think this problem is probably enhanced when the show takes place in a historical period, since history (unlike, say, the time in ‘Seinfeld’) has been known to move forward. And change makes me nervous.

Maggie Smith! So much fun.

-I’m no marxist, but I have to say I’m really enjoying the way this show brings money back into emotional questions. Class, wealth, and social station are largely irrelevant to most of the other television I watch (see footnote for details), and I find it both disturbing and exciting to see a show that so overtly crashes the 1% against the 99. When I try to put a finger on it, what I love is not so much the depiction of inter-class movement (ooh look! Yon footman seeks to rise ‘bove his station!) as the unapologetic interpolation of economic questions into romantic concerns in the way that only a British period piece can do, as though money and love are not only related to one another but are in fact two sides of the same coin. Money (and I have noticed this more and more since I became an “adult”) insinuates itself into all private affairs, but this tv show is a little unique in the way it makes the potential husband’s finances (or the husband’s potential finances) as significant as his personality.

I’m not sure I explained that thought well. Let me elaborate, just slightly, by saying that what I mean is that Downton Abbey, the Abbey itself, is a possession. It’s not a character, it’s a thing, and that thing can be owned, or inherited, or accidentally acquired due to a freak iceberg accident. Matthew’s good character is very clearly separate from his ownership of the Abbey, but this show is not afraid to suggest that in many instances Who We Are can be significantly influenced by and even indistinguishable from What We Own. That each man is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of Property, wot. And as for the servants, well, they can’t quite be bought and sold, but they don’t own themselves either. And really, who of us does?

-Does anyone else ever feel like all of Lady Mary’s problems would be solved, though maybe circuitously and not without some inconvenience, if she were just to leave the estate and go for a long solitary walk through the heath?Don’t all British estates have an adjoining heath? As in, she could meet some brooding but staunch-hearted delinquent who would eventually win her love in spite of the darkness of his past. Or, possibly, she would learn the value of her own independence, and would come to a fantastically tragic end, possibly being eaten by hounds. Or she would become a pirate. The heath in your British romance is rather like the enchanted forest in your German fairy tale, and nevermind if this tv show has more of E.M. Forster than of E or C Bronte.

In sum, I’m very much looking forward to Season 2.

*When I find the Liz Warren of wines, I’ll be buying it by the case.

**A highly prestigious list (I love to make meaningless lists of this kind), which currently includes
1. Mad Men
2. Batman: The Animated Series
3. Veronica Mars
4. Breaking Bad
5. 30 Rock

Alright, that storyline actually sounds a lot like what’s happening between Mr. Bates and Mrs. Smith, but my version there would be a great deal more heaving bosoms and also at least one more ghost/madwoman/pit of quicksand.

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This post is brought to you by Old Overholt Whiskey–perhaps the best bargain available in rye , and a delight with vermouth.

At the moment, I’m serving as online teaching assistant for a class called “analysis of literature”. The students are of the usual caliber, but the required reading materials are surprisingly enjoyable. We have some Kate Chopin (“The Story of an Hour“), and some Robert Frost (“Two Roads Diverged”), and even some Ernest Hemingway (“Hills Like White Elephants”).

The first week’s essay assignment called for the students to start writing essays about literature by making use of one of a list of critical techniques. Now, I don’t imagine that the authors of this course’s textbook had any ideas of creating a new generation of new historicists or post-post-structuralists–this was, for the majority of my students, the first essay about literature they had written in many years, if indeed they ever wrote one at all–and so the list of possible critical methods was both short and amusingly simplified. My students could choose from :

  • A formalist approach, in which the critic talks about how the “tools” the author uses to make his point, such as setting, symbolism, plot, etc.
  • A reader response approach, in which the reader asks (and I quote the textbook) “what captured my imagination? Was it a feeling, an emotion, a curiosity, or an inspiration? Did it involve a desire to escape a present or past association?”
  • A biographical/historical approach, which requires the critic to do research (which is not fun) and also to spend some time speculating on the author’s motives (more enjoyable).
  • An archetypal approach, which has something to do with universal themes and mythology and I’m pretty sure neither I nor my students understood what the textbook was going for, here.

Not surprisingly (unless you are me, apparently, because I was surprised), the vast majority of my students chose the technique  labelled reader-response. However, none of them used the terms “jouissance,” “interpretive community,” or “erwartungshorizont.” Instead, the technique’s name was used as a banner under which all manner of critical atrocities might be committed with impunity. The practice of reader response, to these students, was less about the process of reading, and more about “things in my life that are sort of like the things in the story, as long as you don’t read the story too closely.” For instance, James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” produced reflections on “how I wouldn’t listen to my wife either, if she nagged like that,” and on “when I was a kid I used to pretend to be a World War II soldier in my back yard,” and also (surprisingly often) on “only God’s grace can save us from death.”

To which my complaint was (and I wrote this in the margins of the essays) that the term “reader response” is not an excuse to write an essay about yourself; you must still write about the book. That I am only interested in reading about their reactions to the text as a prelude to an explanation of what, specifically, provoked those reactions. That (alas!) being the authority on your own subjective understanding of literature does not free you from citing your sources. I did not mention to the students the somewhat more fundamental concept inherent in much of reader response criticism, that a division of “self” and “book” into separate entities is generally counterproductive for the reader, so that properly considered, you’re pretty much always talking about yourself when you talk about what you read (although the reverse is of course not generally true*). We can address the nuances of identity after next week’s essay, in which they’ll begin to tackle poetry.

I should also note that the most common response among my readers was, (again, not surprisingly) “literature is boring.” To which I responded “Indeed! How fascinating! Now tell me why, and how, and where specifically the author creates this effect of boredom. What boring literary devices are used in the process? What other boring things is this like, and unlike?” I’ll make critics of these kids yet.

*Except among graduate students.

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Alright, so in my most recent post I listed the things that were given to me by Columbia and NYU law schools as sort of bribes to induce my attendance. I was not able to be really thorough on that occasion, though, because (due to events that were only mostly my fault) I did not yet actually have my “goody bag” of things from NYU. Instead, because I failed to pick up the bag when I had the opportunity, the way-too-nice admissions staff mailed it to me. My descriptions of NYU stuff were thus based on the things I saw in other admitted students’ hands, not things I had actually as of then received myself.

Anyway, I just got the bag in the mail, and I need to report that I seriously underestimated the free stuff that NYU was handing out to admitted students. The final tally of things from NYU is as follows:

  • An aluminum thing full of peppermints, each of which is individually stamped with the NYU logo. Also, my friend the business-minded C____ pointed out that the thing that holds the mints is really designed to hold business cards. So if I go to NYU, I can carry around a set of cards that say B____: Scholar/Adventurer and hand them out at parties and social brunches and martini-filled lawyer sessions (like a boss).
  • An insulated purple coffee cup, with one of those lids that will keep my coffee from spilling when I’m on the bus or whatever.
  • A t-shirt, which was like super-compressed into a disk but then expanded into a shirt when submerged in water.
  • A bag of purple and white jelly beans (flavor not yet ascertained), tied with a purple ribbon.
  • A moleskine journal, with “NYU” stamped on the cover, in which I can write my most pretentious thoughts in the tradition of Hemingway and Oscar Wilde, and other great journal-users.
  • A purple pen, with which to write said thoughts.

Thanks NYU!

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It’s been a busy week in New York city. Attending admitted students events is both exhausting and rewarding. You have to get up a little earlier than you’d like, but once you’re there they give out way more free food and booze than you would ever otherwise be entitled to. I won’t bother to give a snack-by-snack description of the weekend, but I’ll instead just write down some of the highlights from each school.

Columbia

-Swag: A t-shirt.

-Big names: Columbia had an impressive array of professors with impressive “real world” credentials. A talk on International Law was hosted by Prof. Matt Waxman, and a mock class on Brown v. Board of Education ended with a sort of celebrity guest appearance by Prof. Jack Greenberg, who actually served as counsel alongside Thurgood Marshall (Greenberg is also known for his notable work co-writing the cookbook Dean Cuisine, or The Liberated Man’s Guide to Fine Cooking.

-Food: Good. Buffet style cheese and fruit and cookies for the reception on day one, and assorted breakfast things for breakfast on day two. Also a pretty great lunch (also served buffet style), which was further distinguished by the fact that it took place indoors. I wasn’t going to eat the really massive cheesecake they served, but then, I did.

-Students: A high representation of big brains and ivy league alma maters, but everybody seemed much more relaxed and friendly and just cool about life than I’d expected (this has not been my experience with the students I’ve met from, say, Harvard or U. Chicago law schools). At pub night (one of many nights of free booze with current students, although the drink tickets allowed only well drinks and bud light), one girl reportedly had a final the next morning. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s pass fail!” Well then, ein prozit*.

-Other student comments (paraphrased and possibly not really well remembered):

  • from D_____ my host and roommate for two nights:”No, I was always planning to do corporate law. I know lots of people who are planning to go into public interest, but that’s just not for me. I’ve got loans to pay off!” *mentions loan repayment programs, etc.* “Sure you could do that, but you’ll still have to live on, what, eighty thousand a year maximum. Is that really the quality of life you want?”
  • from second year student (also called a “2L”) M_____ at Wednesday reception: “The best thing about Columbia is that they want you to succeed. They will help you do literally whatever you want. Last summer, I did human rights work in Uganda, which was a job I never would have been able to do without their support. This summer? I’m going to be working at a group that does environmental law in San Francisco.”
  • from drunk R_____, at the pub: “Let’s be honest now. I mean,… let’s be honest. Columbia, NYU, Chicago, you can get exactly the same education at any top school. Great professors, great…whatever. But you’re not paying for an education, you’re paying for a name. Look at the rankings. Columbia was top five last year, it was top five ten years ago, it’ll always be top five. NYU, Virginia, you don’t know. People don’t know. But people will always know what Columbia means.”

-Notes: Students and especially presenters made it a point to tell us that not everybody at Columbia goes into big corporate law firms. They said this many times, and emphasized that all kinds of resources are available for those who want to do public interest work. Some of those resources sounded really very impressive, especially in terms of things like loan repayment and summer funding. On the other hand, methinks the law school protests too much: almost every single student I spoke to (and I spoke to a lot) was planning to go into a big New York law firm upon graduation. I was also impressed by the good and (for New York) affordable housing (wow! a one bedroom apartment for $1600 a month!) and the really beautiful campus.

NYU

-Swag: A goody-bag of stuff, including a t-shirt, a notepad, and a set of breath mints with the NYU logo. Also a folder, in which to keep my NYU stuff (note that this still isn’t a clear victory for NYU, since Columbia mails me some new booklet or folder or notebook just about every week. They’re damned insistent).

-Big Names: The best event was a presentation by a panel of judges from the appellate circuit (mostly) who were also NYU grads and current professors. A really fascinating group of men (Harry Edwards, John Gleeson, Douglas Ginsburg) with really fascinating jobs. Of even more interest to me was Yale Law and Literature prodigy and all-around badass Kenji Yoshino, who taught a mock class on California’s Prop. 8.**

-Legal Academia: One thing that really impressed me about NYU was that they had a whole panel on careers in Law Teaching, in which their representative professor indicated the school’s great willingness to work with students from Day One to help them develop their writing, work closely with professors on research, and eventually get jobs as law professors. In contrast, Columbia (which has a relatively similar record for placing law teachers at top schools) had a professor Green willing to answer questions about legal academia during his office hours. Green was very nice, even though he didn’t even know his name was listed in the schedule for a law teaching Q and A, but he had no real insight as to how Columbia would be better than any other top school for anybody considering such a career. Definite point for NYU.

-Food: Three meals, each more lavish than the last. Breakfast (which was assuredly not buffet style) had some kind of baked cheese souffle thing, as well as copious fresh fruit and pastries. Lunch was a delicious chicken. Dinner was just this absurd array of foodstuffs ranging from hot dogs to meatball sandwiches to wontons and dumplings, organized according to a “Districts of New York” theme (the wontons were Chinatown; don’t ask me where the other things come from). Later, I had fish tacos at the “West Coast Connection” student event, and then all the free beer I could drink (and not just bud light, either) at nearby pub. NYU wins this one as well.

-Notes: NYU was in a lot of ways the opposite of Columbia. I heard a lot less about the professors here–very little about the spectacular Washington jobs they do in their spare time, for example (though Dean “call me Ricky” Revesz was exuberant in describing all the top law-teaching talent his school has pirated in recent years from Harvard Yale Stanford Chicago and “that school to the north which we will not name”)–and a lot more about how dedicated NYU would be to putting students to work directly with those professors to achieve whatever their own specific personal goals might happen to be. It’s the company line, sure, but the attitude of the place matters, especially in a decision between two such excellent options as these. On the other hand, student housing at D’Agostino hall (aka “D’ag”) was bad. Like, shockingly bad. I’m an adult now, and I’m not at all keen to spend $1,800 a month to live in a two-bedroom apartment with rooms that look like my freshman year dorm, complete with pre-furnished extra-long twin sized beds.

*In fact, the general good-natured fun everybody seemed to be having was strangely off-putting to me. As my dad liked to say to me when I was a kid: “we’re not here to goof around, son. We’re here to work!”

**These mock classes are a curious phenomenon, since their intention, unlike most classes, is to entertain and impress potential students rather than to educate them. Professor Yoshino was, in that regard, perfectly successful. My favorite quip was when he compared the lawyering profession to that of modelling (which makes Ted Olson and David Boies the like Carmen Electras of the legal profession).

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No room for globetrotting adventurers in the ivory tower.

http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/back-from-yet-another-globetrotting-adventure-indiana-jones-checks-his-mail-and-discovers-that-his-bid-for-tenure-has-been-denied

 

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