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.

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.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Heroes of Psychoanalysis

While reading Daniel Pick's The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind I was amazed to read about the experience of psychoanalyst, Walter Langer, who was a patient of Anna Freud in Vienna in 1938 and helped the Freud family escape the city following Hitler's annexation of Austria.
  "On one occasion," Pick writes, "the Freud family's maid Paula, told him that his analyst had been taken by the Gestapo for questioning, but the analysis resumed the next day, 'as if nothing had happened.' " (Gifford interview with Langer, cited in Pick, Pursuit, p. 40).  You can read the relevant section of Peter Gay's Freud biography describing how she managed to get released and the impact of this event on her father  here

 To me, it's a heroic example of dedication to one's work and a testament to the significance of strong relationships between analysts and patients. One could certainly understand if Dr. Freud had decided to cancel or perhaps reschedule, after departing from town.  I wonder what the impact was on Langer that he had this sense of priority in his analyst's life. Or perhaps I am being overly dramatic, ahistorically imagining a consciousness of Nazi brutality in 1938 Vienna, reflected by present-day knowledge of the Holocaust. After all, her father, Sigmund Freud did not want to leave his home at all - until this incident finally convinced him that it was time to go. Gay's bio does say that Anna Freud suspected that she might be "casually deported or shot" simply if she was waiting in the hallway at the end of the day instead of being interrogated.

This story, showing the seriousness with which good therapists take their work and how committed someone can be to a patient, is a good corrective to stereotypes of therapists we often see in popular culture. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Anxiety Index: New Edition

Thanks to a colleague at the City University Of New York for letting me know about the  chemical plant fire in Marietta which she read about yesterday in The Guardian.

Yesterday's Atlanta Journal Constitution notes that this was not the first fire in this particular warehouse
According to the local police an EPA investigation found that the smoke from the fire was not toxic.....but there may be some concern about run-off from the water hosed all over the place while it burned for ten hours, as reported by WSB:
Water was pumped on the building for 18 hours, which could have environmental implications. Because of that, the EPA arrived on scene Saturday to investigate.
“There's been a substantial amount of runoff. All the chemicals have run off into sewer rivers and lakes monitoring that as we speak," Ingram said.

On that note, here's a link to Tom Lehrer singing for the anxiety index way back in the day.

Reading Challenged

It's summer, so why not start blogging again? Like most other academics, I've made a somewhat ambitious summer plan. I'm reading for my book-in-progress the cultural history of anti-fascism (on left and right). I'm also updating the syllabus for my fall class on American Studies theory which I'll be co-teaching with a newly minted English PhD, who's awesome and much hipper to current theory than I am. I'm doing an 8 minute talk on representations of prison in pop-culture, which will involve a lot of TV watching with a note-pad. For fun, I've decided to participate in this book challenge set up by blogger, Megan Troup.
  So here's the start of my summer reading list for research, teaching and play.

Book project related :
Ian Kershaw, Hitler: Hubris & Nemesis; Bob Altemeyer, Enemies of Freedom, Eric Fromm,Escape from FreedomDaniel Pick, Pursuit of the Nazi Mind,  Ron Hansen, Hitler's Niece, and other stuff too, including whatever's related to my drafted chapter on the New Left and 1970s-1990s anti-fascism, which brings us to things like Mark Rudd, Underground, stuff about Wilhelm Reich, and even punk rock; as well as some pieces about right-wing anti-fascism including perhaps by and about the dreaded Ayn Rand whose Social Darwinism, romantic ideology, and love for monumental architecture leads to some interesting parallels with you-know-who. But there's only so much one can read in one three month period.

Teaching related:  Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual; Anne Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings; Sharon Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism, Kelly Oliver, Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human; Jodi Byrd, The Transit of Empire; Sarah AhmedThe Promise of Happiness; Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics; Sender, The Makeover, HoSang et alRacial Formation in the 21st Century

and then there's list for the Semi-Charmed Kind of Life Summer Book Challenge (which is at least backdated to May 1, so I can count stuff I already read).  I am drawing from my existing work-related lists as much as possible while trying to include some fun reading in there.

5 points: Freebie! Read any book that is at least 200 pages long.
Louise Penny, A Fatal Grace (Armand Gamache #2) (just finished)
10 points: Read a book that was written before you were born.
Fromm, Escape from Freedom
10 points: Finish reading a book you couldn't finish the first time around. (You must have at least 150 pages left in the book to use it for this category.)
Blush, American Hardcore (just finished)
 10 points: Read a book from the children’s section of the library or bookstore.
Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy
15 points: Read a book that is on The New York Times' Best Sellers List when you begin reading it.
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
15 points: Read a historical fiction book that does not take place in Europe.
Susan Choi, American Woman
15 points: Read a book another blogger has already read for the challenge. (Yes, you will have to wait until the first check-in to choose this book! So no one will be able to finish this challenge in only one month; sorry!)
20 points: Read a book with “son(s),” “daughter(s)” or “child(ren)” in the title. No other words will count—including kids, offspring, etc.—so please don’t ask. :)
 I could read Becker's Hitler's Children which I will need to read eventually, but I don't know if this summer is the time for it.
20 points: Read a book that was/will be adapted to film in 2014. (Here are 16 ideas to get you started, but I know there are plenty more options.) 
Ron Rash, Serena (for fun) or in keeping with last chapter of the book, Veronica Roth, Divergent
25 points: Read a book written by a blogger. (Submitted by Jessica of The Tangerine.)
  ????? (I"ve already read Corey Robin's excellent The Reactionary Mind)  perhaps Jeff Sharlet, The Family or Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide
25 points: Read a biography, autobiography or memoir.
Kershaw, Hitler: Hubris
30 points: Read a pair of books with antonyms in the titles.
Goodlad et al, Mad Men, Mad World (finished paired with Erich Fromm, The Sane Society OR Dean Spade, Normal Life

My question to you, random people on the internet, is - do you know of a blogger who writes about fascism, animal studies or affect theory so I can double-dip? Like dude, when is this guy's book coming out?