Saturday, January 10, 2015

New Year's Academic Reading Challenge 2015

The first challenge I organized went well.  Some day I'll write a blog post about it, but most of the people who participated did all their reporting on Facebook.  Now I've learned this reading challenge idea is a "thing." I found another one at Book Riot That I like. However, if I keep doing so many reading challenges to keep myself limber and not over-specialized, I may wind up not actually doing all that reading for work that I have to do. With that, here's my......

Winter-Spring Reading Challenge 2015

Challenge Categories
Author,  Title,  date published;  pp. #
Date read
  any book for teaching/research 200 pp.

book written by someone you saw give a lecture or present at a conference

 book by a current colleague, coworker, or friend

 Academic book someone else recommended to you

 Book from a “Best of 2014” list

 book about the history or culture of a city, town or neighborhood in the United States

 academic book that’s considered a classic in your field (that you’ve never read) OR  Book that you always see cited but haven’t read.

 Book with a color in the title

Journalistic or popular book about any place outside the United States

 Special Issue of any academic journal

National Book Award Winner from before 1980

3 books related to science

 Science fiction book

 Non-fiction book about science written for general readers

Academic book about science or science fiction. (history or philosophy of science, lit crit of science fiction/utopia, cultural studies of science, or actual science for audience of scientists)

EXTRA CREDIT – Book in a genre you hate /or Double up in any category except the first “free” one.

The academic books must be at least 175 pages long
Novels must be at least 200 pages long
Books of poetry or special issues of journals must be at least 100 pp. long
Any book on the list, except where specified by category, can be a novel
Books can only count for one category, but you can switch them from one category to the other before you’re done if you like.
Only one book can be a re-read
Audiobooks are fine as long as they are unabridged and the print edition at least 200 pages long.

Books must be started no earlier than midnight Jan 1and finished no later than May 31, midnight.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Reading Challenge Update

So, my first ever reading challenge for academics has now begun. Post below to share with the group...what book are you starting with? I believe I'll be starting with the June 2014 issue of American Quarterly....

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Reading Challenge for Academics

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so with a doff of the professor's  tam and my apologies to Megan C. Troup, I am stealing her reading challenge idea to start one of my own. Troup runs book challenges over at her blog Semi-Charmed Kind of Life. I like the way she does her challenges because they're not just a number, but not so prescriptive as to require everyone to read and discuss the same book. 
Instead, she creates a set of categories designed to get readers to try new things.  I did her summer reading challenge this year, and I may also try her winter challenge. However, since we academics read for a living, I thought we could use our own challenge that included space for more specialized literature, flexed our reading muscles with some interdisciplinary categories, and allowed some breaks for serious but “fun” reads.....all the while, structuring in a bit of promotional support for our friends and colleagues.This one goes for the length of the fall semester and winter break and includes 14 books total.

   Extra instructions for people who like to read academic books, but aren’t professors appear in italics

The academic books must be at least 175 pages long
Novels must be at least 200 pages long
Any book on the list, except where specified by category, can be a novel
Books can only count for one category, but you can switch them from one category to the other before you’re done if you like.
Only one book can be a re-read
Audiobooks are fine as long as they are unabridged and the print editions are at least 200 pages long. 
To fit the framework of the challenge, books must be started no earlier than midnight on Tuesday 9/2 and finished no later than Dec. 31 midnight. 

Note for non-professional academics: In any place where it says “academic book” look for any book published by a scholar with a university press.  Look for the publisher info and the “scholarly apparatus”: footnotes /or endnotes, appendices, acknowledgments mentioning colleagues, graduate students, dissertation committees, etc.

5 points: Read any book related to your research or teaching (at least 200 pages long) (Non-professors, read any academic book)

10 points: Read a book written by a friend, acquaintance or colleague

10 points: Read a book by a former student or former teacher

10 points: Read an entire academic journal issue including book reviews

15 points: Read a book reviewed in the journal issue above

15 points: Read an academic book about a country or region that isn’t part of your research or your current teaching.  (Non-academics, read an academic book about a country or region that you don’t usually read about)

15 points:  Read a book that you always meant to read but never got to or never finished  (Non-professors, read a book assigned for a course that you never read or never finished when you were a student)

20 points:  Read a novel that was nominated for the National Book Award in 2014. The long list will be published in September and the finalists will be announced Oct. 15th.

20 points: Read a book about current events written by a journalist

25 points: Read a Pulitzer Prize winning book from before 1970 (any category). Find a list here:

20 points: Read a book with “house”, “apartment” or “room” in the title.

35 points: Read three academic books on the same general subject, one from each category: history, literary criticism, ethnography.

*** As you make your preliminary lists, post them in the comments on this post. I'll do check-ins periodically.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Profundity of Pop Music and Memory

  My husband has got me addicted to this game called Song Pop. It's a video-game of "name that tune." that plays snippets of songs and you compete against other people to click the button with the name of the song or the artist on it. I feel good if I can name the song in under 1 and 1/2 seconds. I tell myself that this is a cognitive exercise instead of compulsive-obsessive behavior.
  But that's not the point.
 The point is that one of the categories I like, I think it's "Women of Alternative Rock" includes the song Luka by Suzanne Vega. I have very specific memories of this song, which brought me to tears when I listened to it again in its entirety just a few minutes ago. So here's what I remember: I remember thinking when it came out that Suzanne Vega had "sold out" because it was an over-produced pop song and was popular. I had listened to her first album over and over again, singing along with songs like "Marlene on the Wall" so many times that I still can sing along in time to the record after 30 years without having heard it a single time since then. (This is true of "Luka" too, despite my professed scorn for it.)
    I was in Italy that summer and terribly unhappy, having broken up, reunited and broken up again from a bad-for-me boyfriend, who seemed to think that suggesting he might have a drug habit made him more attractive. This trip to Italy had interrupted my quest to "win" him back. As part of that quest, I was reading Naked Lunch, which put me in a state of cognitive unrest, trying to speak and think in Italian while ending each day with a book that was reinventing English and narrative in a most disconcerting way.
   I was staying with my father, my stepmother and their kids, and I was so constantly angry with my father, but unable to say anything,  that I once spent an entire night vomiting because of the anxiety involved in tamping my feelings down.  I had no friends there, at least no one I could talk to, and this song was playing everywhere I went.  People were singing along phonetically; it was that "American pop song".  It had the chimey guitars that REM brought to 1980s college rock. I wondered if the many people who enjoyed this song with the name of small town nearby had any idea of what the song was about. Their happy faces singing the catchy song about child abuse infuriated me.
Here are the lyrics
   Maybe the fact that it's a chimey pop song distracts from the more profound lyrics and commercializes or even exploits people's feelings. I'm never sure what it is about a pop song that I think is profound, which is why I mostly listen to music and don't feel qualified to write about it. Are the lyrics really profound or are they just manipulative cliches that we're all trained to respond to?After all, I'd seen kids like Luka on After School Specials about child abuse.  Suzanne Vega probably watched those shows too - she and I are nearly the same age. She said herself that she set up the song to incriminate the audience, to make them bystanders by the direct address "I live upstairs from you"...and thus pull them in. So, in some ways, probably, but the song really works by being somewhat understated. It's much more successful than this histrionic song about an abused child.  The refrain "just don't ask me what it was" and  later "just don't ask me how I am" seems to capture, without saying anything shocking, just how a kid might react to whatever it is that  "something late at night/some kind of trouble/some kind of fight" that the song's "you" might hear from downstairs.
    But what really happened, and what seems to happen with lots of songs, had more to do with the way that one or two lines came out of the story in the song and spoke this moment of my life under the surface of my consciousness.  I wasn't beaten as a child, but today I can remember the experience of feeling something that Luka articulates: :"I try not to act too proud". It's literally evocative, bringing a voice out from inside, or giving voice to what's inside.
    And maybe that's what it always is that creates these odd moments when we react so strongly to a song we haven't heard in years. We might hear even one line in a song that had framed or secretly resonated with some experience, and nonsensical as it may be in the rest of the song's context, the song becomes a container for these inarticulate and buried feelings in such a way that years later, hearing the song pulls up our old emotions like a bucket drawing from a well.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Scholarly Panic: Thoughts about Teaching and the notion of "Originality"

One of the hardest things that scholarly writers face is the pressure to be original.  For graduate students, who may be making their first attempts at original work, this demand for original ideas, interpretations or discoveries can be especially anxiety producing. I’ve heard stories of graduate students hiding certain library books in the fear that others will stumble upon the same ideas. I’ve speculated about and heard others speculate about plagiarism when publications come out that seem to replicate conclusions and sources that were in unpublished manuscripts that had been sent out for review. Even for more seasoned scholars, the fear is there that we don’t know what we’re doing and that our work will be replicating something else.  Given the amount of scholarly production, it seems almost impossible to imagine that we can do original work unless it’s on a subject that’s so obscure no one else knows (or cares) about it.

I’m writing this little reflective story as a way to think about how to teach students what we mean by originality and how to reduce the anxiety associated with a seemingly impossible goal.

This morning I was reading news on Facebook and followed a link to this article by Kristoffer Smemo, a  graduate student at UC Santa Barbara who’s writing his dissertation on liberal Republicans:  

I was thrilled by his analysis of the band Black Flag’s conservative ideology, because he had so clearly articulated and formulated thoughts about the U.S. hardcore punk scene, about which I had been reading as part of my research for a chapter of my book on anti-fascism.  After my initial thrilled and excited reaction to reading this sharp analysis, I had the panicked reaction of “oh no, he figured it out first!  And now… all my work on this subject up to now is just superfluous. ”

My “oh no!” reaction while understandable given the competitive aspects of academic culture is also kind of ridiculous for a number of reasons.

The reason for this reaction is based in an understanding of scholarship as a competitive endeavor in which only one person can be “the smartest” or “the first” to the finish line.  Given the fact that it’s hard to be original perceiving scholarship this way can make the experience of research anxiety producing, miserable and alienating.  If we instead think of scholarship as a collaborative human enterprise in which people working in the same area can be helpfully viewed as friends or comrades, what originality means, and how we get there becomes much less lonely and other people’s work becomes less threatening.

Here is a set of things I might say to students in order to reduce the anxiety about what it means to be original and to take some of the competitive energy out of the research and writing process.

1) Someone else will almost always have already had the same idea as you, or an even better one that you haven’t thought of yet, but that when you read it, will cause you to think:  “yes, that’s exactly right.” And, then perhaps, “Damn it, why didn’t’ I think of that?”
 It’s almost impossible to have an idea that no one else has. We’re all living in the same historical moment, and many of us are trying to figure out answers to the same problems, reading many of the same books, and swimming in the same cultural soup. So, of course we’re going to think similar things.  It would be more shocking if no one had the same idea you did than if they didn’t. It’s often the case that someone else has come to a particular question before you did. To look at this from another perspective, isn’t it nice to know that there is someone else who has thought this thing or thought it better than you? Isn’t it in fact nice that someone is interested in the same subject as you?  You are not alone and you are not crazy.   In fact, it means you are addressing a subject that matters to other people. Now, you can see evidence in the fact of this other person’s work that your work is relevant.

2)  Even if this other person has thought the same thing, or figured out this problem in a better way than you, and has even been working on this problem or question a lot longer than you have, it’s unlikely that he or she is working on all of the exact same questions that you are and about the exact same texts, historical period, or topics.  You can carry on with your work.  If it is the case that this person’s research has done exactly what you were planning to do and essentially “got there before you” that is why we do literature reviews when we embark on new scholarly projects. Aren’t you glad you found this book/article/dissertation now instead of a year from now?

3)  You have a new comrade and helper. Discovering that someone else has already answered the question you started your project with does not mean abandoning your research on a particular subject or casting that person’s work as an enemy that has to be defeated in order to prove your own originality or superiority, or hoping that no one will notice and failing to cite a highly relevant work.  The fact that this other person had already started this work before, and has thought about it so intelligently means that their work is going to be tremendously helpful and will save you  from having to do the work that they have already done.

4)  Now that this intellectual comrade has answered the question you started with, you can learn from his or her work, acknowledge this other scholar's significant contribution,  and think about moving to a question that the work raises but does not answer. There will pretty much always be at least one. No work on a subject can say everything about it, and any really good piece of work will be applicable in other ways.   There are all kinds of ways to take inspiration from another work on your subject:  whether that means looking at how an idea or fact can be seen in a different context, applying an idea to a new subject, going broader and making comparisons, going into more depth about a single detail, getting into some unexplored, but possibly related area that the other author wasn’t interested in, and in fact, continuing to treat that person as a scholarly “friend” – someone who shares your passion and engagement, and with whom you are working to build new knowledge in related areas. It makes scholarship much less lonely. This is quite different from thinking about the goal of scholarship as being to come up with an original finding in which you are pitted competitively with everyone else who is working on the same subject.

5) This is different from being so indebted to someone else’s work that you are unable to think of different questions from the ones that they have already answered and just want to repeat their insights and preach about them to others, or even that you cannot be critical of works that they have done. The only reason to write anything is because you still think something is missing from what's out there. Benjamin puts it this way,  Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.”  
  Maybe another day I'll write about the value of  enemies or adversaries - they have a role too. As Orwell's famous essay on writing describes it, writing is an ordeal. Why bother if you are already satisfied with what had already been written?  So, while the quest for originality can be anxiety producing when the purpose of your research is all about proving that you’re smarter than other people, that pressure comes off if you remain driven by your passion for the subject and experience some kind of fellowship with others who share that passion and are writing and thinking in the same area, while recognizing that each of us has limited capacities. No one work will say all that is there is to be said, and part of being “original” is actually about engaging productively with other scholars’ work, even when the initial experience of reading it can induce a momentary panic.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Usable Pasts and Historians' Fights

  I just finished reading the edited collection, Forever in the Shadow of Hitler: Original Documents of the Historikerstreit and, with some irony, my friend J and I spent part of the morning commute comparing the conservative German historians' similarity to other conservative nationalists seeking to retain national pride in the face of horrific national histories in Japan and the United States.
    If you're not familiar with the Historikerstreit, it erupted over two significant events in the mid-1980s:  one the visit of Ronald Reagan to the Bitburg cemetery and two, the publication of an article by Ernst Nolte which said, among other things, that Chaim Weitzman's declaration in 1939 that the Jews of Palestine would fight on the side of England in a war against Hitler meant that Hitler was rational in targeting Jews as political enemies and putting them in camps. Jurgen Habermas made the bold move of connecting the Nolte article to several other recent publications by conservative Germans and all of these to the rightward shift in German politics, known as the Wende, and the indignant responses came next. Richard J. Evans, (who was more recently an expert witness against David Irving at his libel trial), wrote an excellent brief summary of the arguments that places them in the context of German post-war politics and the historiography of fascism. Particularly in reading Evans' summary of the work of Andreas Hillgruber on the German army on the Eastern front, my mind again ran to comparison.
    Evans points out the problems with Hillgruber's representation of the German army on the Eastern front, drawing on the work of Omer Bartov on the German invasion of Russia, which indicates that rather than behaving as simple patriots defending their country from fearsome Russian hordes, or acting with "realistic moral responsibility"(with greater realism than the members of the military who attempted to assassinate Hitler in the July Plot of 1944) as Hillgruber argued, that the German army in the East behaved "with extreme brutality and barbarism to the Red Army...also laid waste whole areas of territory...and massacred or otherwise caused the deaths of millions of civilians as a matter of policy." (Evans, 60)
  It was hard to read the conservative historians dubbing Hitler's aggressive war as a "preemptive attack" on Russia, without thinking of the rationalizations presented for the U.S.'s 2003 invasion of Iraq, in the name of preemption, complete with its own fascist terminology of "shock and awe." Reading about Germany's efforts to come to terms with its past, I began to wonder how history a hundred years from now will judge America and how my generation will fair, as we forwarded emails and updated our statuses on Facebook, but easily returned the focus to our personal lives or careers while our country went on committing horrors in in our names. Will the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan become, like the war in Vietnam, remembered as strategic blunders with American victims, rather than as shocking, horrific examples of military aggression and war crimes? Will any criticism of the war be diverted by a mythology of the anti-war movement's betrayal of the troops? Today, our award-winning films concentrate on the experiences of American troops, and try to show gritty realism, but often wind up justifying aggression and even war crimes, and fail, as Nick Turse points out, to show the other side of the U.S. war machine - the point of view of people whose countries are under attack. He writes,
Few Americans born after the Civil War know much about war.  Real war.  War that seeks you out.  War that arrives on your doorstep -- not once in a blue moon, but once a month or a week or a day.  The ever-present fear that just when you’re at the furthest point in your fields, just when you’re most exposed, most alone, most vulnerable, it will come roaring into your world.
Those Americans who have gone to war since the 1870s -- soldiers or civilians -- have been mostly combat tourists, even those who spent many tours under arms or with pen (or computer) in hand reporting from war zones.  The troops among them, even the draftees or not-so-volunteers of past wars, always had a choice -- be it fleeing the country or going to prison.  They never had to contemplate living out a significant part of their life in a basement bomb shelter or worry about scrambling out of it before a foreign soldier tossed in a grenade.  They never had to go through the daily dance with doom, the sense of fear and powerlessness that comes when foreign troops and foreign technology hold the power of life and death over your village, your home, each and every day.
The ordinary people whom U.S. troops have exposed to decades of war and occupation, death and destruction, uncertainty, fear, and suffering -- in places like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, and Afghanistan -- have had no such choice.  They had no place else to go and no way to get there, unless as exiles and refugees in their own land or neighboring ones.  They have instead been forced to live with the ever-present uncertainty that comes from having culturally strange, oddly attired, heavily armed American teenagers roaming their country, killing their countrymen, invading their homes, arresting their sons, and shouting incomprehensible commands laced with the word “fuck” or derivations thereof.

 So perhaps U.S. patriots are not so far from Hillgruber in insisting on national identification with the average soldiers at the front regardless of their actions. I do not write this to say that the U.S. troops behaved like the German forces on the Eastern Front; of course there are significant differences. My point has to do with the nationalist impulse that insists on justifying or rationalizing the history of war in the name of preserving pride in one's national identity. As those on the left in the Historikerstreit argued, the very fact of resistance even within the military itself indicates that there was more than one "German" point of view. Similarly in the U.S., soldiers and veterans continue to resist despite the cost to themselves. Rather than following the post-war Germans'call to rehabilitate the military's reputation and expunge national shame, it is long past time that we heed another German, Erich Fromm, who repudiated imperialist nationalism as an affliction crippling human consciousness:
The average man today obtains his sense of identity from his belonging to a nation rather than his being a 'son of man'. His objectivity, his reason is warped by this fixation. He judges a stranger with different crieteria than the members of his own our idolatry, is our insanity. Patriotism is its cult....that attitude which puts the own nation above humanity....Only when man succeeds in developing his reason and love further than he has done so far, only when he can build a world based on human solidarity and justice, only when he can feel rooted in the experience of universal brotherliness, will he have found a new, human form of rootedness, will he have transformed his world into a truly human home (from The Sane Society, 59-60)

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Our Times and Contemporary Literature

   Being an academic has made me less inclined to read serious literary fiction. After hours of poring through microfilm reels in search of the occasional relevant fact, stumbling through a work of difficult theory with pen in hand, or doing a mandatory 6 hour stint in a library with two recent books in my field fact-checking over and over again, it's hard to want to come home, as I tried to do my first year in graduate school to Fielding's Tom Jones. In the age of VHS, I followed the advice of one dear friend and finished off each day of prelim-exam reading by watching a movie and drinking a glass of wine.  I did something similar when revising my book on a tight deadline one summer, knocking off at the end of the day with DVDs of Homicide.
  Before that, I was what was recently called a book girl. I always read promiscuously:  conspicuously carrying Kafka's essays with me to punk rock shows at fifteen but delighting equally in Agatha Christie mysteries read one after another during winter and summer vacations. I also recall the greatly satisfying experiences of reading what I knew was serious literature:  Pride and Prejudice and Catcher in the Rye both read during the summer in Texas; one summer in college, working in a university library and dragging home piles of things from the PQ section...Latin American and French literature in translation by the backpack load.  One year in college, when the wealthier students took off from the private New England school I went to for their expensive spring-break holidays, I decided to stay on campus reading novels (A Hundred Years of Solitude at the time)  rather than going home or to New York to visit family. "Novels?" an ex-boyfriend said, "YOU read novels?" Not a pleasure-reader, he thought I meant Jackie Collins, which is what his mother and her friends read. (No, I have never enjoyed that particular swath of bad books)
    Now, I feel very nostalgic about my pre-professional days, in high school, before graduate school, and some points in my adjunct days of riding trains between Brighton Beach and NYU, before I was working on a book and could read without being strategic about the use of my time. I often think back fondly to that 6 month period when I worked in the Hamptons, made regular trips to Canio's bookstore and read Toni Morrison, Phillip Roth, Herman Melville, and Umberto Eco either before or after going off to work in a restaurant, and those months after finishing my dissertation involving weeks spent with Heinrich Boll, Katherine Anne Porter,  Robert Graves, and William Faulkner. If I were to read this way today, however, I would need an excuse of "reading it for my book" or I would always feel like I should be using that valuable time to read some half-baked Deluezian meditation or a highly specialized book about this topic of mine. My anxiety mounts with each inch added to the "to-read" pile. By contrast, there is always time to read a detective novel, especially if it's an audiobook that can be listened to on an elliptical trainer, while driving, or doing chores around the house. These novels are absorbing and can be settled into, some deliberately cozy, but all like a familiar favorite meal, and they are not without insight into human character or social problems, and are not always so inattentive to language as you might expect.
     I'm thinking about this now having just finished reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and then reading some of the good and bad reviews. I could not deny that I liked it. I read it quickly and enjoyed it, but it didn't seem to me as weighty or deeply insightful or as linguistically delightful as what I think of when I say something is "great literature."  But what is that quality?  Is it just about the use of language?  That's what Francine Prose's negative review suggests. She attacks the prose at the sentence level and faults the sentimental ending, generalizes it to the larger problem, "Doesn't anyone care how something is written anymore?"  Similarly, Jonah Seigel wonders, if the cliche-ridden but gripping Goldfinch is a literary novel, then what makes any novel literary?  Has this category become just another genre, he wonders - "quality fiction?"  I agree that there is a problem for serious literature. I know this from friends who are writers - it's difficult to sell difficult books and find readers unless you are a star. Will Self 's  recent essay bemoaning the hostility to difficult novels and complacent philistinism traces the problem to the distracted minds called away from reading by the internet.  But before highspeed internet, changes in publishing and bookselling, as well as the middle-brow reviewing industries (Oprah, NPR) were problems as well. Too many of the criticisms of this middlebrow reading, which often come from rightly frustrated writers, attack the good-book-starved readers who have eschewed difficult literature for the ease and entertainment of the high-middle brow or the unapologetically "low" zones of commercial fiction.
     Judging from my own limited experience - of mostly American academics, who read difficult and serious work constantly, but unless they are literature professors, rarely read serious fiction - the problem is that the members of the social class for whom such difficult novels are generally written no longer feel that they have the time  to invest in reading them.