Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Countdowns and Optimisms

Everything in its place! I have a shiny new depaul.edu email account. I have all my funds ready for disbursal (see you in September, monies!), and workstuffs mostly figured out. I have a class schedule chosen with care. All I need is a student ID card. Hopefully this one will look less like a mug shot or a janitor's ID card. (Thanks for that, Aurora U.)

All these little things make it more and more official to me that school is starting again. But of course the BIG thing is the classes. I am chomping at the bit to get back to school, and my classes sound so awesome it's making the anticipation agonizing! Here they are:

ENG 402 History of English Prose Style
A survey of alternative theoretical approaches to the study of style, followed by intensive study of changes in the conventions of English prose from the Renaissance to the present.

ENG 472 Literary Criticism
Study of the theoretical foundations of literary criticism, exemplified by major texts from ancient Greece to the present.

I feel a little silly for not taking an actual "literature" class my first term, but these two classes fulfill core requirements of the program and they get me pretty excited. So there. Although, we need five period courses so I can't put off the actual novels and poems after this first quarter!

402 has me excited because I am a sucker for style, and I have never formally studied any "theoretical approaches" to it.

472 has me excited because I have had only minimal directed reading in criticism. I have done so much outside of class, but I've only formally read criticism for two undergraduate courses. To have a whole survey of lit crit that puts everything in its place and calls each thing by its name, well that will straighten out my ping pong brain a little for sure. Plus we will be a group of graduate students who can actually talk about what we're reading. Amazing! Think on't!

As if I wasn't already stupidly excited enough because of my course descriptions and the possibility of much more than a glimmer of intelligence among my classmates (and there's two more months of waiting left even), I just looked up my book lists. Here is a small sampling:

Prose of the Victorian Period (Wistful sigh.)

Death of Moth & Other Essays (Woolf!)

Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Didion, who also had her humble start as a copywriter and shares some of my views on the prose styles of men and women. I haven't read these essays, and I'm excited to get a woman's take on "counterculture" after all the Kerouac I've absorbed.)

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (The flap says it contains a "staggering" variety of criticism, which probably means it weighs 20 lbs. Hopefully the staggering factor won't cause me to fall over backwards on a lurchy "L" ride.)

There are a few more, but not too many. These are 10 week classes. Then we get to take ONE intense class for the whole month of December. Or nothing at all. I think I can dig it.

Exhaaaaaale.
Some comfortable DePaul students, as depicted on the English Dept's website.

The Instant Expert

"Easy as pie."

As a graduate of a writing-intensive English program, I've certainly learned to quickly evaluate internet sources, and to do swift research using article databases. I've also learned to write in different voices. Even voices that are not my own. This "skill set" has enabled me to make a living of writing articles about some things I should know nothing about, and some other things I might like but on which I am no expert. I just become one, for a day.

I just finished an article on car insurance claims. I also wrote on African Christmas traditions this week, and today I begin building a website's copy (from scratch) all about how to buy the right nursing scrubs and medical diagnostic supplies. All of these things are easy to research, as the information is somewhat static and can be found by visiting manufacturer's sites, government sites, and searching free article databases. Of course the clients know much more than I do about the topics I write on, but they don't have the time to write articles and blogs, and many of them don't have the writing skill. This is why so many companies will outsource articles, site copy, press releases, and even blog writing. Many of them, unfortunately for their businesses and for internet users, will outsource to India. Those copywriters get paid about $10 per article. Per crappy article, that is. A better idea? Send the work to an internet marketing company in the US whose employees not only write damn good English but know all about SEO. Tell them a few points about your company, and turn them loose. That's what most of our clients trust us to do. And we deliver pretty consistently.

My personal favorite (I've written on this before) is writing "History of..." and "How to..." articles, for databases and Squidoo. From an SEO perspective this creates a huge pile of meaningful content filled with many alternate search terms, and Google will like it because it is informative and doesn't speak of any product. That's why I like writing these too. I'm no salesperson. I get to write about history and ideas, not products and services. Plus I get to look up funny pictures of nurse hats and space dogs.

Yesterday, a new social media client turned down the blogging part of our social package -- this was the first time this has happened. They thought a blog written by an outsider could be nothing more than generic commentary on their industry, totally boring and irrelevant. We don't have our fingers on the pulse, and how could we? I didn't take it personally, but I did want to argue with them a little. For God's sake, don't they know I'm the Instant Expert?! Of course, if a company has the resources and time to write its own blog, that is probably best. It will be a uniquely sincere blog. But social media has added another element to the internet research arena, and these days it seems quite possible to keep a finger quite close to the pulse of an unfamiliar industry, even one that is constantly changing, simply by following your Facebook and Twitter communities. Many of your Facers and Tweeters may be idiots, but they post links left and right, and some of the smarter ones post links to informative blogs, which in turn gives you access to the entire niche blogosphere of the industry! I do the whole social package for one of our child companies, and I have learned everything I need to know to keep people excited and "liking" and clicking all day long just by watching what they talk about and what they care about. So even in a very targeted industry, I think the wonders of the internet, including the new constant stream of social information, make it very possible for an intelligent person who is a good writer (and who can write like she gives a damn about chef pants or wrought-iron curtain rods whatever the fuck) to write like an expert on just about anything. Just give me a few hours. You'll see. Instant expert.

I didn't really need the extra work with grad school starting, but the rejection of my proposal for creating some excellent industry-focused bloggery just got me to thinking about this weird thing I do for part of my job. Being an instant expert can be fun, but it can also be exhausting, and somewhat dishonest. All marketing is somewhat dishonest though, I suppose, so the least I can do is continue to deliver the marketing message along with some useful information, some wit, and some proper grammar.

I have to run now. The "blood pressure devices" need work.

Related posts, in case you want to know more about online marketing with words (recent English grads...looking for work?):

The SEO-cret is Out: a very old post, but pretty funny

Can't Buy Me Words: an angry post on the value of good copywriting, after getting dumped by a cheap client

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sweet Pile of Mine


Summer is not the best time to read things. When you live in a cold place like I do, these three months of the year are the only time to be incessantly out of doors, submerged in water, and/or scantily clad. Summer in nature's nondescript Illinois is not the most beautiful thing in the world, but it is damn better than winter. And reading serious stuff is hard to do when everything's wet, sandy, or smeared with sunscreen.

This summer I have tried my best to keep some books on the table. I mean literally on the table. My coffee table is where my pile lives. My sweet, sweet pile. I mostly look at it, or through it; sometimes I read from it. The result of keeping a sweet summer pile like mine is a bunch of half-read books. Bookmarks, receipts, and random card-like items of sentimental value stick out of each volume, all curiously right about the middles of the spines.

In past years I have written on "summer looking," which I think is what actually happens when we try to "read" in the summer, and on "winter reading," which I think should replace "summer reading" as the title (and intentions) we give our list of need-to-be-read tomes. Let's be honest, unless you have a pressing outside requirement to read things in summertime, like a fall comprehensive exam or a September GRE date, most of us forgo most of our intended summer reading in favor of more shut-eye, more sun, or more of doing nothing. And those volumes we do take up, well, we can certainly absorb some things from them by sweat-aided osmosis, but I highly doubt we are processing the texts with all the proper brain-centers functioning.

Here is my current pile rundown, with some notes.
  • The Delighted States: A conceptual sort of book on what happens in literary translation. Weird stuff, steamy stuff, it's fun so far. The back cover is even up-side-down, like the back of a manual in two languages.
  • Rhyme's Reason: A manual on poetic meters and other poetry terms recommended by a grad student friend. I'm hoping it will help me to appear not quite as ignorant as I am, since I'm good at memorizing the vocabulary of a thing (the thing being poems).
  • Ulysses: I don't think I have to explain why this one is still sitting in a pile.
  • Great Expectations: I don't have to finish this one I suppose, because obviously at this point I've already read it. But that was fifteen years ago. In 2008 I read some Hawthorne I hadn't read in twelve years, so I know there's much to be gained from rereading as an adult (what was first read as a juvenile semi-delinquent), even just for fun. For some reason I'm finding Dickens really funny.
  • The Kristeva Reader: I probably don't have to explain why, in summer, this one still sits as well. Heavy stuff man, when your mind's all expanded and shit.
This seems awful, as many of these books have been there for a month or more. Though in my defense, of course there are more books that have been skimmed in the warm months, or re-opened to reference something. The five books listed here are just what happened to be on the table today (sandwiched with an issue of Better Homes & Gardens, and a notepad that has yet to accumulate many notes). With literature students, a good portion of our books are always rotating off the shelves to the tables and desks and back, and in and out of our lives.

Now, I am not saying that it's impossible to read outside, or in repose, or even with one eye shut. I read a bunch of Bishop Berkeley lying in my front yard, meeting all those conditions. Victorian novels, as I've mentioned in the seasonal reading posts referenced above, make for most excellent outdoor reading. It's just impossible to read Kristeva like that. Not to mention the difficulties of making notes while the book is held overhead to block the sun. You'd need a space pen.

When the cold months come back around (and there are so many of them) the books will no longer collect dust, and while they will still form a pile quite often (required reading usually sets about 4-5 books in motion at once), their miscellaneous bookmarks will march steadily toward the back covers, without much interruption. In the fall and winter the body is covered, the mind turns back inward, and the intellect seeks stimulation from books; the same intensity of stimulation which was once sought by the skin from the sun, water and breeze.

I poked around some other readers' blogs while writing this. I am disturbed by all the summer reading lists. Even after blogging on this three years in a row, no one has taken my recommendations! I am sure many of those summer list books will be held over for when school starts again. The more you do, the more you can do. But when there's nothing to do? Enjoy it.

So, what's in your pile?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Student of Literature: Profiles and Perceptions

Yes, we really read like this sometimes.

The other day I heard a radio commercial for a phone or cell carrier (can't remember which) where the "main character" was a young lady literature student. The phone people poked a bit of fun at our kind, and I wondered why they would use that tactic. Perhaps mostly young students are interested in phone gadgetry, and the kind of students who would buy a phone that does everything for them short of wiping their asses would most likely be the kind who would get a kick out of making fun of literature students. So they know their audience. But the literature student had that fancy phone, and she used it to do literature student sorts of things, like email a presentation on "17th century literature" and download music from her new favorite fictitious indie band "Windy Horse." She had a little voice, not a hint of a popular girl accent, didn't mention anything about "friends" or "my social life," and sounded shy even though she had the social balls to go alone to a ticket-line camp out. Yep, that's us. Maybe we were the target after all.

The preceding representation of a literature student was pretty accurate in my opinion, even if it makes certain assumptions about us -- in the case of this commercial, about undergraduate English types. Through searches on grad student profiles (it's good to know what company you'll keep if you get into a school) I have seen a lot of the shy-seeming, artsy, Windy Horse fan types (which is probably close to my type), but I have also seen Barbie-esque all-American lit students who surely have more than a hint of that old valley girl accent lurking in their diction, as well as youthful Lilith types with sleek hair and prim clothing and the most proper diction, who look like they would skin you alive with their pearly teeth if you bungled a line from Shakespeare. The Barbies (no disrespect intended, they're just strangely beautiful and blond for lit students) usually mention in their bios something about pop culture and women's lit, nothing too deep, but very culturally relevant. The Liliths usually throw in some Latin along with references to literary obscurities, expertly written with an air of "you should really know what this all means or you have no business coming anywhere near me or this program," and even though I usually know what they're talking about it still pisses me off. These girls probably snicker audibly in seminar when the Windy Horse girls stumble over a pronunciation during their French lit presentations. Finally, there is usually a manish cultural critic chick of some kind, who will at some point go hardcore postcolonial and/or feminist on every WASP male student (and every woman who doesn't "represent").

"I can't believe how she butchered La peau de chagrin. What an ass."

I have to include the boys here too. Besides the average Joe looking fellows who you wouldn't know were bookworms unless you rifled through their messenger bags, there are of course the guys who have looked like nerds since high school, will always look like nerds, and will probably don elbow patches to celebrate their first tenured term. Boys don't give away as much with their looks as girls do, and I doubt their competition takes the same ugly form. I bet they are fierce with their words, but unlike the girls have probably removed ad hominem from their rhetorical arnsenals. But there is one sort of "type" that pops up on some university "people" lists -- the hipster. Hipsters are everywhere, but seem especially rife among the lit student population, and you can spot them a mile away. Half-beards, messy hair, plaid shirts, moody photos and interests always in film or inimitably moody authors who they will try their best to imitate. I hate to use such a well-known stereotype to classify them, but there they are, plain as day, just serious-ing away! There are curiously no jocks to complement the Barbies. Ken is probably over in the engineering department.

"Why doesn't Barbie swoon at my Tolstoy interpretations?"

Of course, my silly characterization of grad student populations is based on looking at the equivalent of literature student Magic cards or Pokemon cards. "My Victorian poetry absorbs and destroys your Marxist interpretations!" "My level three theory skills trump your level one fiction writing powers!" I have to snoop around somehow, or I have no idea who I'll find when I get there. Even if I have misconceptions about who's there, I like to nurture my own reliance on appearances.

So this is how the grad students of lit look from the near-outside. Not so different from how they look in pop culture. But how much of what we think literature students are is just made up? Perhaps some of the biggest differences between lit students and everyone else do not actually lie in our personalities -- because smart people and unsmart people, lit students and science students, probably all share some basic types and traits. Maybe the biggest difference, the difference that causes some people the most anxiety, is just the difference between someone who lives a typical lifestyle (with which we are all familiar through acquaintances and through popular media), and someone who lives the life of a scholar. This is why we are so different. Not because we dress in old clothes or don't cut our hair right or listen to weird music, but because we don't plan on ever working regular jobs again, we spend all our time reading and writing, and we like to be at school! And finally because when we are finished with our own schooling, we will probably stay at school. These few things are strangest things about us to most people.

There are so many jokes in popular culture (and even going around universities) about how useless the English degree is. The truth in this is that if you want to do anything having to do with literature and get paid for it, you will need more degrees. Or you will have to teach high school, which everyone thinks of as a normal job (and they will be so proud of you, and will stop calling you just to ask "When the hell are you gonna be done with school!?"). As some kind of sick but funny icebreaker exercise, an old feller philsophy professor of mine went around the class on the first day and asked us all our majors, so he could tell us what terrible things would become of us. I was told I would be able to ask "Would you like fries with that?" in four languages. If I "take the MA" (as Woolf calls stopping at that degree) with no intention of entering the corporate world or of slaving away at a non-profit, that could happen I suppose.

Another commercial airing around here last year called into question what anyone does with any kind of traditional degree. "Only career degrees can get you a career!" they screamed. They threw some examples up on the screen like "BIOLOGY...what will you do with that? Be a BIOLOGIST?" (Um, yeah probably!) They suggested some similarly obvious but somehow unbelievable outcomes of traditional degrees, and ended with "ENGLISH...what will you do with that? Become an ENGLISHMAN!?" Okay, that was kind of funny. But no, I don't plan on becoming an Englishman. That might hurt, and the paperwork would be mountainous.

So I'm pretty sure the general non-academic, non-humanities-interested population has absolutely no idea what the hell we do. They might be able to characterize us based on appearances, like I've done with my potential future classmates (my characterizations are slightly tongue-in cheek of course...I think some people fully believe in the stereotypes they've made for us), but as for what we A) actually give back to society and B) what we actually do to earn money, they will probably continue to think of as A) completely pointless and B) nothing at all. We're all going to starve.

Literature, painting... it's all the same shit.

AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL DIGRESSION (you know I can't resist): My family is proud of me, and they are luckily so removed from academic life that they believe without question that I have everything under control (and I mostly believe that too). My parents did not attend college and, like me, have worked since they were fifteen years old. I think if they had had some higher education or had entered the corporate world they would be far more concerned about what Englishing can or can't "do" for me. I have friends studying in the humanities whose parents are better off than mine, if not highly educated, and these students are contstantly asked to show some kind of measurable humanities-related "results." They have been discouraged from grad school -- their parents (or spouses) think it's time for them to work, overlooking the possibility that these students' particular types of degrees could serve them far better if supplemented with more degrees. As for me, my dad (a lifelong truck driver) does give me the "What the hell are you still doing in school!?" line once in a while, but at this point he knows that I will be there much longer before I have a job as an "Englishman," and that I'm doing okay getting by in the meantime. It has been a hell of a road (with hairpins turns and even a couple of jack-knifes) to become a first generation college student, and even a graduate student. I skipped a generation with that one. In some ways I feel like some of my fellow students who haven't had to travel quite so far have had a much harder time with familial intervention because their parents are more focused on financial success than mine ever were. (Plus I get to offer up the comeback "I'm paying for it so it's none of your business!" But I haven't had to use it much.) END DIGRESSION.

Popular perceptions of literature students, like many stereotypes about careers and personality types, are probably mostly harmless. The only people who really care about what we are really like are similar people with similar interests, or people in other fields who have some understanding of what we do and perhaps admire us just a little for it (to think!). The only people who really need to know what we actually do and how we will make our little bit of money (for that's still a touchy topic in America anyway) are ourselves and our future families. Most of us know the risks, know the kinds of jobs we can or can't get, and know we will not be paid as much as other people who have been in school for ten or so years. Call us crazy, but we like our literature, and we were prepared to make all these sacrifices going in, even if society sees us as silly, impractical, and kinda far out man.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Get your hot careers right here!"


After a three-year stint at a for-profit art school (that ended in a certificate in something nebulous, not a degree), I started telling my friends (and myself) "Never go to a college that has a commercial." At the time, even though my negative recommendation made some big assumptions, most colleges that a "college-bound type" would even want to attend wouldn't have had commercials anyway. The only colleges with commercials were the ones who budgeted for such crassness: for-profit schools. Once I delved into the workings of for-profit schools, whether they had constantly airing commercials or not, I discovered some ugly truths that made me feel certain my continuing campaign against them was a good thing. However, in recent years, advertising (and, similarly, commodification) has become more entrenched in society than ever. Today traditional non-profit colleges as well as some prestigious universities and even publicly funded schools have begun to advertise on TV, radio and billboards.

For-profit schools have commercials because they are businesses. When they are "founded" (or more accurately, started up) an advertising budget is something they already have in mind. Thanks to the high tuition they will charge and the private assistance they will not give out, they won't have any trouble funding or paying themselves back for their commercial spots. Their TV ads reach every level of the population, college bound or not, and convince them they can do anything if they just get a degree in nursing, chefery, fashion, or even better, advertising! Their student populations grow rapidly, but the drop-out rates do too. The students who stick with it will not likely "earn their degree in 3 years!!!" because they will be coaxed (or coerced) into changing their majors more than once, and convinced to take classes they don't need. At some point, many will just leave, degreeless and in debt. The kind of students these schools attract -- lower income, poor secondary education, caught between careers with a family, first generation students with no precedent for what college is supposed to be like (that last category was me) -- do not have the power in their "word of mouth" to do much about all this, especially as the TV ads multiply and accreditation requirements get looser and looser. (My art school, whose credits could transfer nowhere at the time I left, is now nationally accredited to give BAs because they added a shitty Comp 101 and Earth Science class.)

Traditional, non-profit schools, i.e. private liberal arts colleges (where I finally did get a real degree in a real discipline!) do not start up every day, and many of them are already long established. Advertising was not in the original "business model" back in 1887 or whenever, and while these schools have had to adapt to changing educational marketplace (blah!), they usually have done so by hiring real live recruiters, getting a website, using focused, opt-in direct mailings based on SAT or GRE scores, etc. This is all a kind of advertising, but it is very different from a TV commercial. The colleges are reaching college-bound seniors and potential graduate students, not the general TV-absorbing public. The non-profit colleges may not get as high a financial return on their traditional recruiting methods as the for-profit schools will with their radio-blasting ads, but they do get students who match the school well, and who will likely complete a degree there and become a future asset to the school, whether through publications, volunteerism, alumni donations, or just by association. (I wonder if Bard College uses the line "Study at Steely Dan's old school!" Probably not.)

But as I said, the marketplace has forced many traditional non-profit schools to make their break into television advertising. Some of them focus this on adults, some on the general college-bound population. They do not use lines like "earn a degree fast!" or "start your dream career." They focus on personal qualities of the potential students, use more realistic imagery of people in many disciplines (not just "technology" or "nursing"), and they never, never yell at you.

I was surprised when my new school (as opposed to "my old school"), DePaul University, a well-respected and very large private university, began advertising to adults. I will have to break my own rule, I thought, and go to this school with a damn commercial! The commercial was not really aimed at me however, even though I am by most accounts a non-traditional student, because I am in a very traditional discipline. The commercial was for potential returning students and other older people who already have jobs. Continuing education and professional graduate studies are experiencing a huge influx of these kinds of students, and I can't blame DePaul for jumping on the bandwagon. In fact, they are probably doing these people a service, if they can get through to them, by saving them from the for-profit schools that might otherwise snatch them up in a moment of career-change desperation (University of Phoenix is probably the biggest "desperate professional adult" snatcher). At DePaul they can receive all the government aid they are due, apply for assistantships and other student work (or continue their regular jobs thanks to flexible class schedules), and be encouraged by caring faculty to finish their degrees and get back out there, and back home to their families. All of this and a solid degree, for about the same price (less if the student has awards) as a for-profit degree that might cause noses at job interviews to instantly turn up, while the quite probably unsubsidized student loan interest for the U of Phoenix tuition just accrues and accrues...

One Cracked blogger calls it "Asshole University"

So I let DePaul slide with their appeal to professional adults. Then this week, I saw a commercial for Loyola University, another good private school, aimed at potential undergraduates! They talked about doors of opportunity, showed their signature red gowns at graduation, and people both young and old opening the "doors" and trekking along Lake Michigan. It wasn't all that bad. The verbiage, like in DePaul's commercial, was about personal potential, not careers. No one said how long the degree would take, or where you would go afterward. They didn't promise anything but an education.

Perhaps that -- the education -- is where it's at. That is to say, if you are considering school because you want an education, then you will likely end up at an institution that offers just that. Education provides the tools and mindset and confidence you need for whatever "career" you might have in mind, not just the ones that are "hot." And if you're looking for an education, then it's likely that whatever you want to do with yourself you probably don't think of as a career -- I certainly don't. It's more like a life path or something cheesy like that. A bunch of English degrees do not guarantee my future way to make money, but they do give me a good chance at my future way of being. But if you are in this for a career, a way to make money, and nothing more...well then expect to pay a lot of money for that, and to not really be fundamentally changed by your experiences (unless you count becoming someone who's fundamentally pissed off).*

*I shouldn't be such a jerk. I'll qualify that last sentence in the last paragraph by saying this: if you have a definite career goal in mind and nursing school, for instance, will get you there, any school that teaches what you need in any kind of environment can probably give you the tools for your career. I know some successful graduates of design colleges too. Between COD and Aurora I was even offered a swank-ish graphic design job just because of my ad art certificate and portfolio (which I turned down because full time Englishing would not be compatible with 40 hours of corporate work, not to mention the soul-sucking factor). My problem with these schools is that they don't just invite that specific potential nurse or potential ad artist population to apply -- they invite everyone who's ever put on a band-aid or owned a sketchbook, accept every one of them, and then take a lot of their money.

Finally, I have noticed that publicly funded schools, especially community colleges, have begun airing commercials and posting many billboards within their districts. I don't know where to start with the budgetary concerns this might cause some people (our local tax dollars funding billboards!?), but on the whole I think the community colleges are exactly the kind of schools who really need to start advertising. DePaul and Loyola jumped on the bandwagon to corner a certain segment or two that they may have lost to unscrupulous schools. Community colleges, on the other hand, are losing a huge portion of their potential students to these schools, because they have the same target -- students who are not prepared for or who do not wish to attend university. It is true that in some areas the for-profit schools are actually taking on the spill-over that the community colleges are not equipped to handle. This is a particularly bad problem in Colorado, where new career colleges are sprouting up and getting dubiously accredited every day, while the state/municipal schools struggle for funding. But here in Illinois, even during horrible economic times (we are second in empty pockets only to burgeoning California), many of our community colleges are striving to expand by advertising, building up, going after more funding, and making small tuition increases to cover some of this. They don't want the for-profits handling the spill-over, and I don't blame them. The Chicagoland area is blanketed with career colleges, both local and national sorts, and so are our TV airwaves.

One billboard I often pass says, "College of DuPage. A great value." It's kind of funny, but it's true. College of DuPage is one of the best, if not the best, community colleges in the midwest. They are doing their part to let their potential students know that you can go there for little or nothing with aid, and get the same certificates and associates degrees that would cost you your ass at the for-profit school down the street. While C.O.D. ("College of Dreams," "Cod State"...) doesn't have shitty BAs and BSs to hand out like many of the for-profit schools have somehow managed to become accredited to do, they can grant you an AA or AAS that will transfer you right into a state or private school with junior standing -- because the state of Illinois says so. I got my humble re-start at College of Dupage, paid NOTHING to go there for two years and earn all my gen eds (thanks, Uncle Sam), and transferred to a four year college without a hitch, knowing what I wanted to do there. And because Aurora University is a non-profit school, I continued to get every form of financial aid the government allows (not just loans -- some for-profits only give loans), as well as generous private grants from the school. If only the people at home on the couch knew that they could do something like that (or even just go to the community college to get their nursing or electronics AAS!) maybe some of them would give it a go. And not go into debt, even if the whole school thing doesn't work out.

I have yet to see any commercials for Ivy League or sub-Ivy League schools. They are probably resisting as long as they can. The only local schools that make this sub-Ivy category are Northwestern University and The University of Chicago. Their claims to fame are their top-tier traditional graduate programs; programs which don't need advertising. Potential students already know about them, and covet places in them violently! More applications to read doesn't seem like something these schools really desire or need.

So I'll begin at DePaul in the fall, a school that has "a strong emphasis on recruiting first-generation university students [that's me!] and those from disadvantaged backgrounds while striving for academic rigor," and I will strive. While I have some fears that my classes might be a mixed bag of academic English types like myself and publishing career seeking women drawn in by TV commercials, I'm sure it will all turn out okay. They may have run an ad, and it may rub me the wrong way a little, but they are certainly not profiting off of me (unless you count the possible intellectual dividends...ha!). Go Demons.

Viam sapientiae monstrabo tibi

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Sans Serif, etc.


I'm doing some blog renovations -- sweat equity you know! A fresh coat of paint, a bigger title for curb appeal, and better balanced columns to make sure the blog-roof doesn't cave in.

It was fun to move everything around, just like rearranging a room where the furniture's sat in the same corners for five years without budging. But this is the internet, so my blog's two years of sameness were an eternity. Goodbye cobwebs, hello flying birdies!

I had no reservations about changing the look of things, but to be honest I spent far too long toggling fonts for the body text. As ye olde student of English, it was exceedingly difficult to part with the serifs on the Georgia font I'd used all this time. You can still see the Georgia in the title and the post titles, but the body is now sans serif. Despite the fact (it is a fact!) that serifed text is easier to read in long passages (the letters sort of flow together), that may not be true on the computer screen. Any extra business going on with the text seems to make the eye work harder, even if the business is a conventional serif. So I toggled and toggled, and ended up with Arial, the internet darling. I don't like to look at it, but it might make someone stick around a little longer when I start to get long-winded.

Beyond cosmetic appeal, I've been wanting to renovate for the sake of organization and moving on to some blogging more befitting my educational standing. Not that people with one degree in English (that's not very many English degrees these days) can't let loose all kinds of words in public view, but I want to make this blog/place a little more easy to navigate and to get something out of, both for myself and anyone who reads it. I have no intention of calling for a personal moratorium on "rants and observational nonsense," but I hope to build up enough academic stuffs here to make those occasional rants and non sequiturs appear as comic relief rather than lapses into idiocy. So I'm going to redo my labels so they're more specific, and that might take even longer than the sans serif/serif text toggle.

I feel a little like I'm letting my social marketing and search engine optimization knowledge get too close to my blog, but smoke'em if you got'em right? I'll also be tweaking the subtitle and other searchable junk. My only reason for wanting to be "findable" on the internet is to make meaningful connections with like-minded students, readers, funny people, and other real life human beings, in the hopes that we can learn from each other. To use a horrible word, the "blogosphere" can be a great place to learn and interact. I have no interest in "watching the social web (which includes blogs) monetize," a line which seems to be the web 2.0 profile equivalent of "long walks on the beach."

I renewed my MLA membership today which is no longer quite as "pointless" as I used to say. I changed my school, updated my status to graduate student (which means I get to pay almost nothing! there was no undergrad discount), and joined some discussion group about teaching literature. All these things make me stupidly excited, as does every little step toward going back to school. It will have been a long eight months away once I get back there! And hopefully then I will have things that actually should cause excitement to get excited about. (Actually I've learned to stop apologizing for my over-excitements about things -- I should instead take some kind of satisfaction in knowing I'm a person who mostly crazily appreciates what she can come by through her efforts.)

Finally, I'm putting my moody between-schools face away, and donning the glasses again. See you in class, ya'll. Or stop by here anytime, and sniff the fresh paint.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Imagination v. Nonsense

"Hi, we don't make any sense. Would you like us to rescue you?"

I watched a few Qubo cartoons with my son this past Sunday morning while we ate waffles and berries, and I got to wondering why some kids shows (and books) entertain and teach about life with such great imagination, while others use complete nonsense to try to convey some more serious message. Almost everything on PBS Kids is appropriate and even amazingly instructional for intelligent children, but some mornings they do pledge drives or international news or some other non-kid programming, so Qubo is his weekend breakfast backup channel. Qubo is a mixed bag of cheap crap and creativity. I think it airs all the PBS Kids rejects (Qubo is a joint-network-owned attempt at something like PBS Kids).

*Before I get started I apologize for bringing up kidisms and kidstuffs so often lately. I know some of you probably don't want to hear about it. I'm trying to keep it to the cultural and philosophical sorts of questions that can arise when you're a split academic/mom personality like myself. I promise I will have much more scholarly things to say after the summer (and I will be totally ready for time away from Qubo and PBS!). But if you are still annoyed, despite my well rationalized disclaimer here, let me remind you that you were all children once. Wouldn't you like to think that someone (maybe even your own dear mother!) thought your child-self was a peach? That you were great enough to write about? Yeah, I thought so.

Without further ado, here is what happened on Rescue Heroes this Sunday:

The Rescue Heroes (thick, giant-footed men and women who are perpetually outfitted in firefighter gear no matter what the rescue situation) are flying over the Pacific in their futuristic jet plane (it can hover!), followed by a backup crew of Rescue Heroes who are curiously all black and are flying in a helicopter. Tidal waves keep coming, and they have to fly up and out of the way of the tidal waves. No explanation is given for why tidal waves keep appearing. Maybe at the very beginning of the show (I missed it) there was an earthquake or something, but they never talk about it. They just keep saying, "Here comes another tidal wave!" as if tidal waves are some weather or tide related phenomenon we have no way of understanding, and they just keep coming and coming! They never called them tsunamis either, which I think is what we're supposed to be calling them nowadays to prevent this kind of confusion. All this time, another Rescue Hero was on the sea floor in a submersible, with Rescue Dolphin close at hand. (Rescue Dolphin apparently dives miles below the surface of the ocean.) The tidal waves swept them all around under the sea.

After saving some Americans who fell off a tiny sailboat (and sank all the way to the bottom of the ocean in their spiffy sailing clothes, but that's okay it was only like 30 feet down), the Rescue Heroes get the call that the next wave is headed for an oil rig, and then onto annihilate the entire coast of Chile. They never explain what happened to the fourteen men on the rig (they were going to rescue them but got sidetracked by some dramatic backstory), but the rig does get destroyed. Now how are they going to save the entire coast of Chile? With bombs! They decide to set off three bombs on the ocean floor (which might not actually be so deep now that they're closer to the coast, but I highly doubt it's only 30 feet under) to create their own counter-tidal wave! Yes, that's what we do when tsunamis start mysteriously multiplying -- we send lady scuba divers to the ocean floor with three little bombs, and stop those nasty tsunamis right in their tracks.

While the lady scuba diver (who required lots of coaxing to be able to scuba -- she had a bad experience once and was shaken, like any female would be...) places a couple of charges, a great white shark bumps into her and swims off with one of the bomb bags stuck to his tooth. Of course, they radio Rescue Dolphin right away. "Stop that shark! Get the red bag!" Rescue Dolphin speeds toward the shark, blindsides him, and the shark gives up the bag. As if.

Finally, they set off the bombs and the Chile-bound tidal wave is put to rest by the amazing Rescue Hero wave. They had to act fast too, so Rescue Dolphin, scuba bomb lady, and her assistant ducked into a nearby sea cave during the blast. (I'm sure that would have provided sufficient shelter while near-nuclear-magnitude bombs were set off.)

So the main lesson of this show was that we should get back on the old horse even if we've had a bad spill. That is, the girl who was afraid to scuba was the main event and her scuba bomb planting was the triumph. It took me awhile to figure this out what with all the tidal waves, rescue dolphins, shark attacks, men left to fend for themselves on a doomed oil rig... Those things were all just the "imaginative" story to go along with the lesson. They kept cutting to closeups of the girl's face and flashbacks of her scuba snafu (acronym time!), and I just kept thinking "WHY is this as important as the tidal wave? Why do I care about this?" The only safety message amidst all this fun was, "those people on the sailboat aren't wearing their lifejackets!" I think that is the last thing we need to be concerned about in this destructive nonsense-fest.

I can't believe how much room it took to explain all that, but I just kept thinking of more idiotic things that happened on that show.

What the Rescue Heroes do is not imaginative, but just simply lazy, ugly, nonsense. And it is presented seriously, as if children should be listening to the details of it, and believing it. Of course surreal and unreal things happen on other shows, but these events are not presented in a confusing way. Kids know they are just for fun, and that kind of use of imagination is healthy.

A Qubo show that is the complete opposite of Rescue Heroes is Gofrette. This is a very silly show about a cat and his bird and dog friends. The cat has a talking refrigerator, and little creatures live all over his house and help him figure things out. This show makes almost no attempt at instruction, but I think it is infinitely better programming than Rescue Heroes. Occasional safety messages mixed in with dubious values, horrible drawings, and ridiculous premises that violate all laws of nature and physics are not what I call quality TV (an oxymoron?). Gofrette and his colorful talking animal friends, who once saved the day by plugging up a bursting dam with the talking, burping refrigerator, are much more my speed (and my kid's).
Now that looks like fun.

The best kind of children's entertainment happens when instruction and imagination are a perfect blend, and neither the kid nor the parent really thinks about what's being taught. Some PBS shows are good at this, but even the best of them are usually more instructional than not. Word Girl and Martha Speaks are obvious lessons in vocabulary, Curious George is an obvious lesson in X causes Y (always followed by a most annoying caveat about how "this is a cartoon so don't do what George does").

I think the only way that the entertainment/imagination/education combo can really be perfectly balanced is in children's literature. Whereas the act of watching TV is not in itself beneficial to anyone, the act of reading (or attempting to read) is inherently instructional, especially when the reader is reading a little beyond his or her level, or rereading with a new eye (situations which are almost always the case for children). Silliness can go through the roof, if the silliness is presenting the child with new ideas, bigger words, or tricky rhymes and tongue twisters. Even books with messages for kids, i.e. A Fish Out of Water ("don't do things just to find out what will happen") do not necessarily come off as didactic because they are so silly. The child is even challenged to see a story like that as an allegory (no one's fish is going to get as big as a swimming pool, but I bet Junior can think of something similar that could really happen), rather than a direct cautionary tale. If the Berenstain Bears want to teach you, say, about cleaning your room, well, then Brother would just get in trouble for not cleaning his room. Where's the fun in that?

The best of kids' lit with "messages" imparts values about the self, and not moral ones. Dr. Seuss is the king of those kinds of messages, as well as total silliness in the form of rhymes and rhythms and repeating word shapes that help kids almost effortlessly build reading and pronunciation skills. "Kids can spot a moral coming a mile away," he always said. Seuss does, however, bury some obvious commentary between the lines for the grownups who are reading along, and not just political messages either -- he seems to be telling us, "don't discourage imagination your children, don't belittle their ideas, and work along with their reading and speaking problems." He was also known for saying, "Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them." It's almost like Dr. Seuss lurks there behind the fuzzy treetops and furry landscapes, floating in those deep turquoise background washes, just watching the parents for any child-stifling moves. His is a specter I don't mind.

I do mind horrible rhyming, and that will be my last "nonsense" complaint for the day. Throwing rhymes around, especially near rhymes (which some desperate rhymers of children's lit will do), doesn't do any good for helping kids to read. And they're not even fun for non-reading purposes if the kid can't get the rhythm of them! Some authors have no concept of meter -- they just put two words that rhyme on the same page at the end of a couple of lines. You can tell they're trying to rhyme it, but it doesn't work. Jamie Lee Curtis, bless her brick shithouse body, is not very good at this. We have It's Hard to be Five (received as a Christmas gift) and on some pages I have to stop and repeat myself or wrangle the words into ugly pronunciations or stammer in between them to get the rhymes right. She is not the worst (at least she writes about funny things, and doesn't scold), but she is very inconsistent. I can't quote the worst here because I take one look at them in the store and lodge them firmly back on the shelf where they can wait, and eventually pollute some other child's library. There are complete nonsense rhymers, and there are Dr. Seuss imitators among them, and the lot of them have obviously never studied poetry of any kind.
She may pose nearly topless, but her rhymes are not bottomless.

There are other good authors out there, mostly oldies, who don't all write in anapestic tetrameter or its cousins. I just get so stuck on Seuss (and "Theo. LeSieg" of course) because he has something for so many age groups (the ancient, longer, non-rhymed stories are my favorite, i.e. The King's Stilts). Margaret Wise Brown (mostly baby books) uses very simple rhymes and the most brilliantly simple word choices (see Goodnight Moon for gems like "Goodnight nobody. Goodnight air..."). P.D. Eastman's books with birds in them (Are You my Mother, The Best Nest, Sam and the Firefly) are some of the boy's favorites. And I'm sure you've all read all of these. The oldies are the goodies -- it seems today's children's literature, like today's grownup literature, and all of today's television, is mostly pretty bad. (And now I want to do a quick writeup on weird kids books you may not have read yet!)

My son is currently stuck on the Martha Speaks series of books, which predates the PBS cartoon and therefore I do not object to them (I might otherwise!). On Sunday, after the terrible Qubo cartoon, we went to the library for some brain-cleansing and my five-year-old performed his first library catalog search. He wrote out MARTHA (so he could figure out how to spell it first, and he did so on his own despite the fact that he still pronounces it "Marfa" -- how their little brains work!) on a piece of library scrap paper with a stubby library pencil, hunted and pecked the keys, and clicked on "Title." Even if he doesn't become a career student like his mother, I hope he at least continues to spend more time at the library (or at least with books) than in front of the TV. Especially those damn Rescue Heroes.

Martha speaks because she eats alphabet soup, and the letters form words in her brain. There are many philosophical (and scientific) problems with this, but I will ignore them for now.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Not Quite Medieval

Charlemagne -- Definitely Medieval

After expressing my annoyance at art which signals the end of an era being classified as part and parcel the era itself (that is, I don't think Alternative rock is Classic rock), I realized I actually have a more general objection to any fin de siecle art, trend, or custom being lumped with its pre-fizzled, pre-reactionary, or pre-self-aware predecessors. For instance, I can't abide lumping the 15th century with the Middle Ages. (And I mean fin de siecle in the general "end of an age" definition, not the late nineteenth century dandies n' decadence definition. I'm lately trying to use period words in every way they can be used!)

By the 1400s (for those of you who can't keep your centuries straight...better get that taken care of!) The Italian Renaissance and even the Northern Renaissance were well underway, and while your run-of-the-mill (haha) peasants still led quite medieval lifestyles, there was a lot of rebirth going on too! First, I think defining that century as Medieval has something to do with an Anglo-centric view. Since the 15th century English were still living in pools of cultural and actual feces (with a few major literary exceptions) while some of the continent flourished and rose from the muck, that somehow means everyone from that century gets to be confined to what people mistakenly think of as "the dark ages." The English are envious of other people's progress.

Another reason the 15th century comes up whenever someone wants to show something Medieval is because people are very unfamiliar with what actually happened in the incredibly long period we call the Middle Ages, and once you go back in time past, say, the 13th century, it just becomes mind-bogglingly long ago and quite scary and disgusting to think about. The 12th is perhaps my favorite medieval century (except for those pesky crusades), full of jousts and chivalry and no sign of a plague, and the 13th is medieval life at its high point -- you know, giant cathedrals, more crusades, increasingly overblown religion and all that. That is probably why people know so much about the 13th to 14th century (since those cathedrals took a century to build), and their customs, garb, etc. Even though I don't find those centuries all that exciting, they were the apparent high point before everyone died horrible pustule-ridden deaths and something completely different had to happen. (Also, people like Gothic stuff because it's pointy and vampiry, so they remember that High Middle Ages trend trend better than they remember the smoother, Romanesque cathedrals that predate Heaven-piercing spires.)

My pic from inside a Romanesque cathedral in Metz, France.
They are known for their Gothic one, but I thought this one was nicer!

However familiar we are with those latter centuries of the Middle Ages, the myths and stories people most associate with the Medieval date back far earlier than that. Arthurian Legend in particular dates from the end of the Roman Empire! Think about it -- the fall of Rome led to the first Medieval Dark Age (which is an age without progress or much history being recorded -- the periods of the middle ages cannot all be referred to as "the dark ages" as people sometimes do), which lasted from about 500 to about 750 AD. Who the fuck knows what went on back then?! Besides a few students who might vaguely utter the word "Feudalism?" in a quiet, tentative upspeak, I think most of us don't know, and we don't want to know. Anyhow, Arthur, a legendary figure whom our Anglo culture exalts, didn't even speak English. He spoke some Celtic-Latin garbledygook, and actually defended Britain from those nasty Anglo-Saxons, the very blokes who would bring us our precious language! Yet there Arthur is on the Disney screen, speaking 1950s English, wearing 12th century clothes, and squiring for 12th century knights. The dude was, according to legend, king in the 6th century. That's like the year 500! Yikes. (Monty Python gets a little closer to the mark by putting Arthur in the 10th century, which is cool because it's well before 1066, and that makes a lot more sense. Ya'll English majors know what happened then, right? A bandmate of mine's address is 1066, and he wonders why I always say it resoundingly, "Tehhhhnnn Siiiixty-siiiiiix!")

Now Arthur, cathedrals, and all of that stuff is quite medieval even if it all happened in vastly removed centuries. I do wish it was more common for kids (and college students) to learn a little more about all the sub-periods of the Middle Ages, and to understand that many centuries in that long millennium were not very dark, but actually quite light with literacy, culture, and even technology (the metal plow by golly!). We spend gobs of time learning details about the Greeks and Romans, yet the next millennium gets skipped over and generalized. The millennium when our language came into its inchoate existence, the millennium when Catholicism and art did the same, the millennium when more and more (important) people started to read! It must have been an exciting millennium.

As exciting as the 15th century may have been, it was a century of returning to classical ideals, a rebirth of art and culture, and the beginnings of a flourishing economy in many areas. That is exciting of course, but it is not necessarily medieval. It's the end of an era and the beginning of something new. The full-blown "Renaissance" as we know it (which is problematic anyway because it started at different times in different places) makes it on the charts by the 15th century. That century was in fact transitional, and sometimes referred to by scholars as Late Middle Ages, but it certainly was not "all medieval and shit" the way some movies, books, teachers, and most kids think it was. If you want medieval, think the year 1000. Now that's medieval.

---------------------------------------------------

A note on "medieval":
Medieval means "middle age," as in the age in between when anything super-intelligent and progressive happened, I guess. Medi = middle. Eval = age. Please do not say (or worse, write in an essay) "the Medieval ages." You are in effect saying, "the middle ages ages" which really doesn't make a whole lot of sense. So that crazy place that calls itself "Medieval Times" is really saying "middle ages times." I try not to write "Middle Ages" because it's not as cool sounding as "medieval," and I kind of get a kick of of the fact that "medieval" is a lot harder to spell.

A note on capitalization:
Even folks like me with silly degrees still struggle with when to capitalize. This is particularly difficult when you are talking about a period. The name of the period, when used to refer to a period that has a loaded name like "The Enlightenment" or "Romanticism" is often capitalized, and it is also often capitalized when referring to work that is characteristic of that period, such as Enlightenment philosophy. Other words, however, never end up getting capitalized. We don't capitalize "existentialist," perhaps because it is not as tied to a period, but it is sort of a movement and I could see people wanting to capitalize it. Medieval is not often capitalized, probably because it is most often used as a very general adjective ("Look at that nerd in the medieval dress. Doesn't she know this is the Renaissance Faire?), and because the length of time it covers can't really be defined the same way shorter periods can. So while we have Romantic poetry, we also have medieval poetry. However, there is a need to capitalize medieval when you write on i.e. "Medieval England". In that case it's a big, loaded, proper name. When in doubt, the best thing to do is look for a handbook! (Or even Google it. I just tried typing in a few different "Do I capitalize...?" questions and it served up some decent sites.) In the end, some of it is preference, and you probably won't fail because of a capital "M" on the wrong type of "Medieval."

How to get schooled in the Medieval:
At college, it is covered in the first chunk of your usual freshman "Western Civilization" class, and it gets glossed over. But you can choose to take the class with a prof whose interests include medieval stuffs! Look up their bios, or just ask. I took it with a Chinese woman whose expertise was in early Medieval England. (I also took French with a Chinese woman. I think they must encourage all sorts of studies in the schools over there!)

As for medieval literature, If you are an English undergrad, there is usually a class that covers early English texts and spends a semester on that middle-millennium plus a little more, sometimes stopping right before or at Shakespeare. It will usually begin with Beowulf, which can be a treat at the college level. This class is also a hideous glossing over because, when you think about, it you read Old English, Middle English, and Elizabethan English all in one semester! Other survey courses at the undergraduate level usually only cover two or three centuries (which is still a hideous glossing over, but not quite as bad). I took "Anglo-Saxon to Renaissance Literature" as one of my period courses (I took three even though my school lamely only required ONE) after I'd taken the mostly medieval history class, and everything gelled wonderfully. I also took a "Medieval Manuscripts" class as a special topic, but that's just because I like smelly old books and I like visiting the Newberry Library's manuscript rooms.

I'm not a Medievalist nor do I plan to become one, but the stuff is quite fascinating once you learn a little more about it, and like I said, it's not all "dark." Oh yeah, did I mention the Middle Ages didn't start in the 15th century?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Not Quite Classic

A long time ago I wrote about the word "modern," how many meanings it can have, how confusing it is to keep those meanings straight and how they often overlap. I had become frustrated by it while studying "early modern" philosophers.

A much less lofty area of "study" has struck me today with the abuse and confusion it afflicts by having appropriated the word "classic." Classic rock is what got me to thinking about all that's Classic. And not so Classic.

Classic has been used to refer to several kinds and periods of philosophers, and then you've got your classical, which is best known because of classical music (mostly unrelated to rock music, unless you're Ian Andersen, and completely unrelated to classical civilizations), but then you've also got your classical influences in art, your Neo-Classical art, and those classical civilizations (also referred to as "antiquity") which are really just your ancient Greeks and Romans and no one else. Sheesh!

Now I wish I had the resources and the genius to prove to you that there should be a Classic Rock canon (like the Western canon, complete with dead and aging white dudes, only it would totally rock), but I may never get there. Other people have probably attempted to set the rules for one. Of course this assumes that there should be canons of anything, at all. Well I, for one, believe there should be, so we can skip over that argument (for now) and just be left with the wondering about how we would go about selecting the rock canon.

If we're going to canonize, then we might as well periodize. Periodizing is far trickier than it sounds. You can't just cut things up by date. Art, literature, rock music, whatever have you, is categorized by style as well as roughly by date. These two considerations (and often location as well, which isn't as important with rock music since it's mostly an American/British hodge-podge) go into the making of a period. Notice we don't refer to "late 19th century writers" as much as we do to "Victorian novelists," nor do we talk much about "early seventeenth century literature" but rather "Elizabethan drama." Same goes for those I already mentioned, "modern poets," or more snazzily, "the moderns." We don't call them "early twentieth century writers from both Britain and America." The period or, more realistically, the category we put the literature into gets a loaded name (i.e. Romantic) that means so much more than a period or a genre or a location. The style and influence of the thing in question is probably the most important factor in how it is categorized. Yet, we can't look past the time factor completely. If something in a particular style is separated by many years from its influences, it becomes a "Neo-" this or that, or gets its own shiny new period name.

The point of that last paragraph (it started to get away from me I tell you) was that Classic Rock is something of a rock period name, and it is a confusing one. Rock is more commonly (than literature) classified almost completely by style when we want to get specific, even though the people who know the styles know they come from certain periods. Motown, Doo Wop, Jazz Fusion, Heavy Metal etc. The term Classic Rock, by contrast, sounds as if it is seeking to classify rock by a time period -- but Classic Rock also refers to a certain broad style, even if that's not apparent in the "period" name. And of course, within that period there are many, many types of styles or maybe rock genres that we can name. For instance, arena rock, folk rock, the rock opera, Southern rock, and (perhaps paradoxically) progressive rock, are all Classic.

But that kind of variation is to be expected when you classify by time period -- within what everyone calls Enlightenment philosophy, there are different schools sharing some basic aims, i.e. Rationalists and Empiricists, yet there are contemporary philosophies that no one would ever call "Enlightened" even though they happened at the same time. Similarly, not all popular music contemporary with what we call Classic Rock earns that illustrious label. Sometimes because of style (The Cars are "Classic," Depeche Mode is not), sometimes because it just sucks (or gets overlooked) and doesn't ever get played again. Just like with literature, where not everything makes it into the classroom or even the library, not everything will make it onto the radio (our rock classroom) or into the record store (our rock library). So since it refers to a period, but not everything in that period, and since it keeps stretching that period as it sees fit, the word "classic" has become almost as confusing as the word "modern"! Especially when I start to hear fucking Red Hot Chili Peppers on my go-to Classic Rock station. I adamantly exclude them from the canon.

So I'm going to say this -- Classic rock is a period/style of rock. It is not a never-ending moving-wall time period, and it is not just anything with guitars in it that's started to collect some dust. You can call your car classic when it's 25 years old, no matter what kind of jallopy it is. (The rock stations are not even waiting that long to effectually canonize the jallopy music of the 1990s!) So someday somebody's Chevy Tahoe will be classic. That's okay, a GM product is not really art. But "Classic," with a capital "C" as applied to rock music, should come to mean that fixed but blurry-edged period of rock (mid-sixties to mid-eighties perhaps?) when it was gelling, developing, experimenting, doing its best, throughout its golden and silver ages (which some rock scholars and DJs will define). Most of it deals with simple subjects, uses simple instruments (at least for the core of the band), and appeals to the same parts of the brain/crotch. Some of the later stuff (and progressive rock, as the name suggests) is more complex, and makes attempts at reflecting on itself and the world. This is the end of it, as it was with the end of classic visual art. Self-awareness, once achieved, ushers in new eras and disconnects the artist from what's become tradition. The Police are a good example of this I think. (And "Classic" Sting is my favorite English teacher turned rock star. Are there more I wonder?)

They're here to warn us about the dangers of standing too close to older men,
and to let us know we should try to get out of Suburbia before some Scottish
dude gets eaten by a loch-monster.


So Classic Rock rose from artistic striving, through oblivion and self-indulgence, into self-awareness and subsequent self-destruction. Rock after the 80s became over-indulgent once again, but in a trite way. We get our Grunge, our Alternative (to what?) music. I listened to all of that stuff, having been a "tween" and early teen in the early '90s. It was good to me, but I knew it wasn't the same thing as Led Zeppelin or The Who. After a few years of that grungy stuff (some of which is played once in a great while on my station, and I forgive them for some of it) I stopped listening to new rock music altogether, unless you count weird shit that would never be on the radio. Many serious rock folk agree that the end of all decent popular rock music happened around 1996 or 1997. The recognition of that date might be what has caused the 60s-70s-80s stations to start including the early '90s in their line-up. If Nirvana's the end of an era doesn't that make it Classic? I don't think it does. Maybe we can call it Post-Classic. And now we're in a Dark Age!

Anyhow I need to do the work to make a more complete case for this if we are ever to decide on a basic Classic Rock canon. Until then (whenever then might be) I will continue to be offended when U2 or REM interrupt my listening with their whiny, unclassic, tunes, (whining seems to be big thing post-1980s) and I think I still may write a nasty letter asking for the removal of the Chili Peppers from those hallowed airwaves vibrating at 97.1MHz, those imagined wavy lines who usually carry to my waiting ears some groovin' bass line or some soaring tenor vocals. Scrub them clean of the filth of Anthony Keidis!

Today on The Drive (the aforementioned 97.1 FM) the DJ told a story of The Kinks' Ray Davies having to fly back to London from New York right after recording Lola, because the BBC was making them dub over "Coca-Cola" with "cherry cola." Today the studio (if there was any studio involved) would text him on his cell, he would go to the hotel and sing the new line into his iBook, then email it to London to be digitally patched over, leveled out, and anti-aliased all to hell to cover up any noticeable change in quality. But Davies had to fly back to London to re-record a tiny piece of magnetically stored sound so the engineers could carefully splice and tape it back together, all to ensure that the rock n' roll was not audibly tainted by capitalism. Now that's Classic.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

One Thing Leads to Another (!)


My past two posts led straight to this post. In The Hours there is a line about "an overabundance of punctuation" on a fruit cart's signage. In the last post I accidentally (shamefully!) hit the period key four times instead of three and had to go back and edit the post, just to truncate the hideously elongated ellipses I'd created. Overabundance of punctuation can be quaint in real life, but on the computer screen it offends me violently.

Even those funny vendor signs with their gratuitous exclamation marks and completely unnecessary quotation marks don't use that many marks. Three is the usual upper limit. Three is comfortable to look upon, even if it is somewhat meaningless. Though it could have some meaning -- I think we could handle reading exclamations at three different volumes or intensities. But our minds could hardly hold more than three significantly different intensities of an exclamation like "FREE!" "FREE!!" or "FREE!!!" Three is also a nicely proportionate number, a golden sort of number. And the three-mark exclamation tail rarely exceeds the length of the word it is amplifying. So we accept it.

What is it about the keyboard that makes us over-punctuate beyond that acceptable three-mark limit? It is faster to type a dot or question mark than to write one. Some frantic urge takes hold when the typist realizes the ease with which they can cause extra drama by asking someone a multi-questionmarked question. Again, a triple question mark might look cute. Like someone's teasing -- "Hmmm???" But go beyond that limit, and the marks become hostile! "WHAT????????"

The ubiquitous Facebook status update (which has a very high character limit) is of course my bane when it comes to this crap. People's updates are filled with things like "LMAO!!!!!!!!!!!" and "Why didn't my mom show up tonight????????" Just like the caps lock stick that seems to have affected so many keyboards since the dawn of the internet (or is it a disease of the fingers? lock-pinky?), most punctuation keys now seem to be suffering the same dire affliction. Just imagine if the quotation marks got stuck! That would make less sense than just about anything. Communication disaster lurking right next to the carriage return key.

Finally, I must complain separately (AND AT LENGTH!!! there I go) about the period key. This poor key is more often used to make ellipses than it is to make periods these days, and is therefore probably now known as the "dot" key. Which is not what it was intended for. I think, to save me from catastrophic teeth grinding, we should just put an ellipses key on the keyboard at this point, and be done with it. Then the three-period limit would be there in the binary, and no one could fuck it up. Not many seem to understand that ellipses, when used sparingly, are a perfectly acceptable form of punctuation, but only if you use three periods! A key for that would prevent mile long ellipses tails that routinely burn my eyes out of my skull with their multiplying dots. People use them in overabundance, like the extra question marks, to create more drama I think. But it doesn't make the goddamned "imagined pause" any longer. It just makes it look like you REEEEAAALLLY ("..................") have nothing to say.

A note on well formed ellipses: I have several friends who successfully use ellipses (and only three dots at a time! cheers!) but those dots are not as easily flowing for me. It goes back to the committed writing thing I guess. If I have second thoughts that make a prefatory or postscript disclaimer necessary, so be it. If I have to fall back on parenthetical "asides" to explain myself, so be it. So I may write more, and confuse often with all my parentheses, but for some reason I've made it a personal writing goal to keep ellipses at bay as much as possible. Part of that is because I think they can be powerful when used sparingly. Part of that is because I think Virginia Woolf was absolutely awesome at using them and I have anxiety of ellipses influence. But there are some very good reasons to use them. If you are unsure of something and want to share that you're unsure, if you have not come to a conclusion on something and therefore cannot be committed about what you've written on it, if there is more to say but little time or space, or if you are actually writing one of those above mentioned imagined pauses (of the non-goddamned sort), ellipses are your friend! And they are the friend of those who read them -- if they want to fill in the blank a little, know that you just ran out of time, or be less offended by something you have to say to them that you don't want to hammer away at by ending your sentences with those stark, lonely, naked single periods!

(And here I think of Principle Skinner, whose audience did not know he was resigning until he made his "speech act" sentence official by saying "period" aloud.)

So go forth, fellow keyboard whackers, and whack a little more lightly. Economy of punctuation could possibly make your message so much more meaningful than a string of ten exclamation marks could ever exclaim.

More German Pretties

A brief and mostly useless overview of German aesthetics, Part One!

The German philosophers who were most hung up (they totally ate their hearts out) on aesthetics were those of the Romantic era. Germany had its Romantics too! Not the same lovely, sad, super-poetic drowning kind we find in England, but if you want to think of the word romantic in its own everyday sense, these passionate Germans (hybrid philosopher-poets, though they had their straight-up poets too) really were some of the least ponderous and least solemn of their race, and some of the most open and vulnerable German writers (as much as philosophers can be). They delighted in ideas and possessed a unique mix of optimism and concern for the "aesthetic" of their day. They are important, I think, partially because they have been so overlooked. When we get started on aesthetics, we turn to the solid, more rigidly argued (or at least drier) texts of the classicists and idealists -- Hegel, Kant, or even Schiller -- most often. Then when we uncover philosophy (contemporary with all this reason!) that plays at being art, and artists who play at being philosophers, perhaps we just don't know what to do with all of that.

The above mentioned sensitive fellows I am rereading, but there are other Germans I'll have to go back to eventually as well.

As I reread these eighteenth-to-nineteenth century Germans I'm reminded of their fin de siecle-to-twentieth century descendants, as well as their rational contemporaries. I won't get too far into these unromantic aesthetic philosophers here because they're all over the place, but here's a rundown. If there's some approach you've had in mind, maybe one of these guys can help you with it, or at least provide some entertainment (Nietszche is probably the only one of these that can be read "for fun"). These guys all link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (sorry Wiki fans).

Schiller, early on, believes an "aesthetic education" can lead to political equality and participation. He reminds me of an early American thinker. Kant gets to aesthetics in one of his critiques and attaches it to morals (yuck!), which is nothing beautiful, although some of his ideas influence our Romantic fops (were they fops? I don't know...). Hegel, in good Hegelian form, ties his aesthetics to his already overburdened geist-wagon. Art is a function of things already in play, not a cause of them. Art does advance, which is nice n' all, but for Hegel it eventually becomes kinda useless, as did his early friendship with Schlegel the hopeless Romantic (Aww, Hegel-n-Schlegel woulda made a cute pair!). The previous three philosophers were roughly contemporary with the Romantics. The following three came after. Nietzsche is pretty crazy on aesthetics and mostly loves on/hates on Wagner's operas and Christianity to explain his quasi-divine theories. He has a point, however, that society is becoming too analytic, but he thinks the way back to synthesizing all our human parts is by subjecting ourselves to lots and lots of tradegies. And by keeping women in their place, of course. Heidegger, alchemist-like, melds aesthetics and ontology and other deep stuff. He uncovers a beauty dangerously close to the pith of all existence and does some violence (what he usually accuses technical language of doing) to some romantic German poetry (actually its more like violent love-making) to show us how art opens up the world. Then Adorno throws some big 2oth century monkey wrenches into the capitalist aesthetics machine! Sounds fun huh? But back to the Romantics. As I read along maybe I'll post some similarly condensed summaries of their thoughts to show how varied even the old fellers' studies of aesthetics can get -- studies from before art ever went haywire and before Marxism ever entered the water supply!

Suggested "non-Romantic" Reading, in roughly chronological order:
  • Here's something on Kant again -- you probably don't want to read Critique of Pure Judgment unless you're into that sorta thing
  • Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man
  • Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics, mostly the introduction
  • Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, usually conveniently stuck together despite being miles apart
  • Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought contains lots of art/poetry essays, but I can't really tell you where to start with that dude.
  • Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, which performs "a dialectical double reconstruction" of the history of art, according to Stanford. Sounds scary (it is scary reading sometimes) but it does something important, and helps immensely with all the philosophy-as-art/art-as-philosophy confusion I mentioned a couple posts back.
I am amazed by my philosophy professor who taught these texts last year, and commend my classmates who stepped up and wrote on everyone from Adorno to Holderlin and I know spent many late nights re-re-re-re-reading at the library ('cause I was there too). Though I think teaching some of this stuff must be way more frightening than reading it.