September 30, 2010

Brush up on your Shakespeare

Call it a hot topic, a pet peeve, or a hobby, but I collect Shakespearean misquotes.  Maybe it’s an extreme expression of my own Shakespearean arrogance, but I especially like when I find misquotes in historical documents or influential literature.

Misquotes fall into one of two general categories.  The first category encompasses words quoted correctly but used entirely incorrectly (the classic example of this is “wherefore art thou Romeo” (Romeo and Juliet 2.2) being quoted to mean “Romeo, where are you?” rather than “why are you Romeo Montague?”).  The second misquote category is for instances in which someone quotes words that are similar to Shakespeare but not exactly the Bard verbatim (i.e. “Alas Poor Yorick I knew him well” rather than what Hamlet actually says; “Alas Poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio…” (Hamlet 5.1)). 

Today’s offender comits a misquote belonging to the second category.  English Romantic Hannah More was not a stupid woman.  She was educated (unusual for women at that time), spoke Latin, was published several times over, and hung out with Samuel Johnson and David Garrick.  However, in her 1799 piece Structures on the Modern System of Female Education written in reaction to Wollstonecraft’s famous Vindication of the Rights of Women, Moreexecutes a grievous Shakespearean misquote.  In chapter eight, More talks about women writers and novelists.  In an attempt to demonstrate her point about the prevalent fear that too much reading turns women into rampant novelists, she cites two infamous stories: The Iliad and Macbeth.

More claims:

“The glutted imagination soon overflows with the redundance of cheap sentiment and plentiful incident, and by a sort of arithmetical proportion, is enabled by the perusal of any three novels, to produce a fourth; till every fresh production, like the prolific progeny of Banquo, is followed by ‘Another, and another, and another!’ “.

It actually took me some time to verify that this was a misquote because it sounded so familiar.  After a little research, I understood why.

More is confusing two passages from Macbeth.  The story she tells surrounding the quote is the story of 4.1 in which the Witches summon forth specters to show Macbeth the future.  After having been shown the armed head, the bloody child, and the crowned child holding a branch and being told famously “none of woman borne shall harm Macbeth” (4.1 1621-22) and “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Byrnam Wood, to high Dunsmane Hill Shall come against him” (4.1 1635-37), eight ghostly kings appear.  Banquo appears last with a mirror in his hand which shows Macbeth Banquo's progeny through the ages.  Kings upon Kings, all of Banquo’s line.  Obviously this does not bode well for the “immortal King of Scotland”.

Macbeth does use the word “another” during this sequence, but not in the way that More recalls.  Here is what he says:

Thou art too like the Spirit of Banquo: Down:
Thy Crowne do's seare mine Eye-bals. And thy haire
Thou other Gold-bound-brow, is like the first:
A third, is like the former. Filthy Hagges,
Why do you shew me this? --- A fourth? Start eyes!
What will the Line stretch out to'th' cracke of Doome?
Another yet? A seauenth? Ile see no more:
And yet the eighth appeares, who beares a glasse,
Which shewes me many more: and some I see,
That two-fold Balles, and trebble Scepters carry. (Macbeth 4.1 1659-68)

While there are many words here, we only find the barest hint of More’s “authoritative” line of text.  Macbeth uses the word “another” once in the seventh line of this passage, though he implies the word several times more.  

At first, I was satisfied with this answer, but something was nagging me.  More’s quote still sounded so achingly familiar.  It took me a moment before I realized why that was.  More seems to have conflated this speech with another, more famous, speech of Macbeth’s.  Take a gander at what Macbeth says when news is brought to him of his wife’s demise:

She should haue dy'de heereafter;
There would haue beene a time for such a word:
To morrow, and to morrow, and to morrow,
Creepes in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last Syllable of Recorded time:
And all our yesterdayes, haue lighted Fooles
The way to dusty death. Out, out, breefe Candle,
Life's but a walking Shadow, a poore Player,
That struts and frets his houre vpon the Stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a Tale
Told by an Ideot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (Macbeth 5.5 2337-2349)

(….I know that you didn’t really need to read that entire speech, but I can’t help myself.  It’s one of my favorites.)

Especially pay attention to the third line of Macbeth’s infamous sound and fury speech.  Familiar, no?  Apparently More did have a head for Shakespeare, a pretty good one at that since she remembered the particulars of an oft-forgotten bit of text.  Her recollection wasn’t perfect though because she super-imposed the words of one of the most famous canonical works onto a less-known bit of plot advancement.  How embarrassing!

I can’t help but laugh a little as the final implications of More’s misquote are that these ill-fated books by women writers are merely bits of fluff.  “Tales told by idiots”.  Far from being the enlightened pieces of literature that so frightened men of Eighteenth Century England, literate women were fated to write novels “full of sound and fury signifying nothing”.  Perhaps More’s misquote was more of a Freudian one.  After all, her primary reaction to Wollstonecraft’s work was “Rights of women!  We shall be hearing of the Rights of Children next!”.  I wish there was a more authoritative way to enter More’s mind regarding this little bit of inconsistency; it would have at least given the feminists something else to bicker about.

I think the moral of the story is (once again) if you’re going to quote him, quote him right.  More may not have had the benefit of the internet, but you certainly do!  There are plenty of free textual resources out there, and I am always willing to play dramaturge for inquisitive minds.

September 27, 2010

Attendance is Mandatory

So here’s one for you.

Why is it that society expects us to cover the butts of those who opt for mediocrity?

I’m going to preface the rest of this with a disclaimer: I’m about to say something that may not be very popular.  It may make me sound like a righteous jerk.  For that, I only have one defense.  Everyone has something that turns them surly, I’m just a little more vocal about my surliness than most of the population.

My Science Fiction professor has been having some health problems recently and was required to go in for an operation.  I’m not certain of any details beyond this about his personal health, but I do know that he is loathe to cancel class.  Unfortunately, due to operation scheduling, he was forced to miss a class session.  He requested that we do the reading and come in to discuss without him anyway.

To me, this is a perfectly reasonable request of a graduate-level course.  We should be far enough along in our careers that we, as a collective, can hold a critical conversation about a series of assigned texts.  Perhaps sustaining this conversation for the full three-hour class window is a little much, but certainly we can talk for at least long enough to make meeting and discussing a fruitful endeavor.

I know that not everyone will agree with me.  Some see the professor’s inability to attend class as a chance to catch up on their other readings, take a much-needed break, or start a weeknight evening of partying a little early.  Fine.  That’s their decision and, as adults, they are entitled to make it.

I knew that not everyone would come to class.  I knew that most people would opt not to come to class.  I did my reading and showed anyway.  There were a few other people there, enough that we could speak but certainly not even half of the class collective.

Here’s what really got me: we talked about sending around a sign-in sheet.  Then we joked about taking a picture of the assembly and e-mailing it to the professor as a “get well soon we miss you” sort of deal.  Both these suggestions were first laughed off.  When re-approached seriously, the sign-in sheet was decided against on the account that it would “get people in trouble”.

….How old are we?  Do we do the work because there’s a professor breathing down our necks?  Do we read and come to class solely for a grade and a pat on the bum at the end of the semester with a “good show” from the person running the class?  I thought the point was that we were here to learn because we loved to learn…. I thought that was why we came to graduate school.

Now I’m not saying that I’m a cut-throat snarling academic harpy.  Certainly when I need to be I exhibit those tendencies, and I can’t say I don’t enjoy the role at times.  But I do believe that people who chose not to engage in a course to the degree demanded by the professor deserve what they get.  It’s not my job to cover their bums.  I don’t feel obligated to make excuses for their mediocrity.  And I wouldn’t blame them for doing the same if the roles were reversed.  Just because we sit next to each other in class does not make us friends, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push each other to be the best we could possibly become.  Granted, if we were friends I may feel differently about the attendance sheet, but that’s a factor beyond the scope of this rant.

There is a certain degree of fellowship implicit in situational companionship.  Being shoulder-to-shoulder on the front lines of literary criticism does give us a shared experience.  Sometimes, those shared experiences create bonds.  I’ve certainly made friends in Graduate School.  However, those friends I made were not made solely based on our classroom interactions.  We talk before class, during breaks, at the pub between classes, go out on weekends sometimes, there’s time and effort that goes into a friendship.  This assumption that since we are in the same class we are united against the common enemy of bad grades bewilders me.  Yes, we can take on intellectualism together, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to abet your efforts at cheating the system.  I will haply slay the demons of textual criticism with you, but I will not help you steal from the General’s tent.

I work hard, and I work a lot.  I have a lot on my plate.  If I can make time for the readings and for coming to class, so can you.  Any discrepancies in your attendance is between you and the professor and does not involve me.  Work it out between yourselves.  If you ask nicely (and if I like you), I’ll let you borrow my notes for the day and pick up the readings for you, but I will not discredit myself to cover for the fact that you couldn’t be bothered to come to class.

I didn’t push the issue.  We didn’t send around a sign-in sheet.  I think, despite that, my colleagues may now see a glint of textual tigress behind my eyes.  Still up for debate whether that’s a bad thing or a good thing.  I’m hoping it means that they’ll try to take me down like a pack of wolves on a buffalo the next time I have some crack-pot theory about Bakhtinian narratives.  Except this buffalo has claws and breathes fire…

September 24, 2010

Making the Grade

As Henry Higgens laments in his infamous parody of Shaw's still-known-but-not-so-infamous prelude to Pygmalion: “why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?”.  I suppose in my case “why can’t Americans teach their children how to write?” is more to the point, but it messes with the rhythms and intonation enough that it’s not nearly as catchy.
Job number one (though depending on the day, any of the three jobs could be “job number one”) is as a grader for aforementioned Best Professor in the World (who, for the sake of propriety in case a member of the class should stumble upon these writings, will remain unnamed in this post… though a little detective work will lift my thin veil of professionalism and of course you could always just ask me).  The first stack of grading for this year is in and folks, it’s a doozy.
The class is an eighty-person undergrad lecture on Eighteenth-century British lit.  It’s a three hundred level course which means that it’s pretty much English majors only.  I must admit that I’m not entirely familiar with Rutgers’ prerequisite system, but I should imagine that (in theory) anyone could really take the class given enough administrative red-tape-cutting.  For the sake of demographics, it’s a fair assumption to say that these individuals are in their second or third year of college and, if not majors, at least have a marked interest in the subject matter.
The good: I have one paper in the batch (so far, I’m about three quarters of the way through them) that’s a solid “A”.  This kid knows what he’s doing, he’s got a great argument, even though the assignment isn’t a heavily weighted one in terms of their final grade he obviously put some thought and time into it.  Getting a paper like this, especially after having graded most of his peers’ papers, is like breathing fresh air after being stuck in a Gollumesque cave for ten years.  I wanted to find the boy, give him a great big hug and say “thank you for taking this seriously and making my time worthwhile.”  I truly hope he goes far in academia.
The bad: Talk about a bell curve, I would say the majority of these papers are barely passable.  It is clear to me that the students threw them together in an evening without even giving them a second read-through.  Nothing makes me twitch more than a student who obviously pounded something out and didn’t even bother to go over it again.  My time is valuable.  Despite loving this grading gig, it makes me feel used and abused when students pass in perfunctory work (as a note, I think I’ve used the word “perfunctory” in the end notes for these things more times than I can really count).  Moreover, it makes me feel as though the students are disrespecting their Professor, a man who I have infinite degrees of respect and adoration for.  Sure, my time is valuable, but his is even more so.  He’s a learned man, publishes all fricken time, always has projects coming out of his ears, I mean this guy makes me look like a slacker.  In addition, he’s an amazing professor.  He knows his stuff, he knows how to get along with students, and he knows how to teach.  The students disrespecting this man makes me want to wander into the classroom and lay the holy smack-down touting a Norton Anthology of British Literature in one hand and an unabridged OED in the other (not that I could really carry such a thing, but the thought of using it as a weapon makes me happy).  Seriously kids.  Get it together.  If you can’t learn from this man, you can’t learn from anyone.
The ugly: While I haven’t run into any purposeful plagiarism yet (usually we’re lax about quotation form for the first few assignments of the semester, so while technically quoting improperly is considered plagiarism we draw the students’ attention to it and let it slide for now), I do have at least two kids who did a copy and paste job.  They didn’t try to pass the work off as their own (I mean, when it’s the OED you’d have to be a world class idiot to try), but they didn’t put any of their own work into the paper.  I hate failing people, and I know aforementioned professor doesn’t feel any better about it than I do.  For both of our sakes, just put an hour into this assignment and you will pass.  You won’t do well as some of your peers, but at least you won’t hang guiltily on our consciences.
Honestly, the single thing that students can do to improve their English grades is simply re-reading their papers before turning them in.  Just give them a once-over.  I promise you will catch something that you didn’t see before, and that something is one less thing a grader will notice to mark you down on.  I would say, given my experience as a grader and writing tutor, that the average student paper will go up by at least half a letter grade if given nothing more than a second glance before being turned in.  Most of the problems that I notice in prose fall into one of three categories: typos, redundancy, and clarity.  Typos are sometimes hard to catch, but I see many more blatant typos than subtle ones.  Homonym use is only rarely an issue for students at this level, and when it is generally said student is aware of the issue.  Fixing redundancy is a matter of reading and saying “oh look, I already said that”.  That’s it.  Sometimes redundancy an effort on the student’s part to add length to a paper with a page or word minimum, but in that case the student is better off not repeating himself anyway.  It may be half a page short, but at least the quality will go up significantly.  Clarity is also an easily fixed issue.  Half the time when typing something the fingers work faster than the mind can.  As a result, students will begin one sentence and end it entirely differently, leave out words, etc.  Fixable.  Easily fixable.

What kills me is that this doesn’t take any writer’s know-how to do.  All it takes is a little effort and diligence.  I understand that the average college student can be under a great deal of pressure from a great deal of angles, but that understanding only goes so far.  With three jobs, full-time school, a blog, a novel project and a social life, I still find a way to re-read my work.  They can’t tell me they don’t have ten minutes to give a two-page double-spaced assignment a once over.

In any case, I’m sitting here staring glumly at several failing papers and even more cursory jobs which will earn a C or C minus.  I’m hoping that my notes on them will prove useful, but the realist in me says that the students will do what I did when I was in undergrad: ignore the notes, flip the paper to the last page, and look for the circled grade then throw the paper away without a second glance.  If nothing else, the grading process has at least taught me to appreciate the value of a good end note.

I wish I could just shake these kids.  I wish that would make a difference.  I know they are smarter than this even without having met them.  I guess all I can hope for is an overall improvement over the course of the semester, but I won’t hold my breathe.

September 22, 2010


I have a pen-pal.

This may seem like simplicity itself.  No convoluted words or phrases, no grammar tricks, no linguistic flourishes, no double-edged sword of meaning to watch the sharp edges of.  In a way, that’s really the heart of what this entire experience means to me.

I have a friend who is near and dear and lives far enough away that I don’t see her nearly as much as I would like to.  Due to my recent bout of running around like a beheaded chicken, I haven’t been as available to chat online as I used to be.  As a result, we started writing each other e-mails.  Since we are both educated grammar snobs (and had a lot of catching up to do), these e-mails were rather lengthy.  It took a few e-mail swaps for me to venture a suggestion.

Why not move this discussion to pen and paper?  It’d be fun; like summer camp.  It would give us something to look forward to, and a reason to get our mail that wasn’t bills or netflix. 

This suggestion was readily taken up and we have been corresponding in the good old-fashioned snail mail way for a few weeks now.

Sitting down to actually write a letter was a new and different experience.  How long has it been since you actually sat down to write a piece of prose?  The first thing that struck me was the sensuality of it.  The feel of the table under my arm, the sound of the pen scratching the page, the long luxurious pen-strokes which committed ink to paper.  Besides taking notes for class (which now I do on my handy dandy little netbook), I haven’t written this way in some time.  And even when I do write this way, it is very frequently short bursts of texts.  Nothing long.  And certainly nothing of consequence.  Checks and shopping lists are a far cry from letters.

The next thing that happened was I realized how much slower the process is.  I am a fast typist.  It is one of my graduate-school-survival-skills.  I can type nearly as fast as I can think.  Typing allows me also to think in short, controllable, bursts.  I have a notion and it is almost instantly translated to the pixels in front of me.  Writing is a much slower process, and one that is more permanent.  Once the words are committed to the page, there is no taking them back.  My thoughts come faster, but I must slow them down out of necessity.  As a result, they emerge more realized, more simmered, more luscious on the first round.  I find that when I hand-write, I make fewer grammar errors.  The process of marinating my thoughts eliminates the small glitches so common to writing that bursts forth at the speed of thought.

And, of course, the romantic in me continually reminds myself that this was how it was done for so many hundreds of years.  This, the writer, a pen, the page, and the writer’s thoughts.  This was the act of creation.  There were no wires, no screens, no little keys, for thousands of years.  This was Dante, this was Shakespeare, this was Austen.  And somehow, me, here, now, in 2010, sitting at my little desk with my fountain pen and found paper (I haven’t quite invested in stationary yet- anybody know of a good stationer?), is like a link back through my literary forefathers.  It is an act that connects me through the long line of genius to the origin of what I do best.  Every time I sit down to write, it is a historical act.  Like John and Abigail Adams, I am creating a record which will find someone somewhere in the world and speak to her of my own times.  In that way, it is almost a method of time travel.  By the time she reads my writing and it becomes real to her, the things I have written about will be past.  However, as I am writing them, they are present.  Noodle-cooking if I do say so myself.

In addition, the actuality of hand-writing creates, to me, some inherent value to the writing itself. The things I write are real, tangible, and that reality creates intrinsic worth unable to be found within a typed document.  Maybe the computer was the teleological result of cuneiform, and I’m not discounting its value in that, but hand-writing just seems more special to me.  Like a hand-knit sweater over a store-bought one.  There is more thought, more personality, more feeling to these letters when written than when typed.

There is no small amount of irony that I am rambling on about the worth and value of hand-written things while typing on a computer.  Even more so when one considers that the document I am currently engaged in typing will be posted to a place that doesn’t physically exist anywhere.  For the sake of crediting my argument, let’s pointedly ignore this recursive anomaly.  It’s a little too existential for me to defend or talk about right now.

In short: try writing someone a letter.  Especially if you have any interest in prose.  Have a good long mull, sit down with your implements, and let the words flow forth.  Extra points if you do it by candle light.

September 16, 2010

Come for the Third, Laertes

As you may or may not have guessed by now, I have a wide array of sundry random talents.  Usually, these are things I have learned for one of several reasons: a) I had to know it for a job at some point (I’ve had a lot of these); b) I was interested in learning it; c) it was involved in a training program/class that I attended; or d) it seemed like a good idea at the time.

My interest in swords, weapons and combat falls into column b and, I can’t be happier to say, is slowly leaking into column a.  As I announced earlier this month, I have been given the responsibility of acting as fight director for our production of Magic Time at the theatre.

Magic Time is a play about a summer stock company doing Hamlet.  The infamous Hamlet duel is enacted three times during the production.  This is exciting to me for several reasons, not the least of which being the duel from Hamlet is one of the most interesting and challenging pieces a fight director can have land on her plate. 

Everyone knows that there is a duel in Hamlet.  People come to see Hamlet expecting a brilliant display of swordsmanship at the end of the show, resulting in the deaths of the (remaining) main characters.  The characters involved in the Hamlet duel are both experienced, trained swordsmen.  The duel has got to look good or it betrays audience expectation and the spirit of the production.

Neither of the actors involved in my duel have any background in swordplay, martial arts, or dance.  This should be fun.

Luckily, we have some time.  The production doesn’t go up until the end of October so, with some diligence, I think I’ll be able to put something together that doesn’t look half bad.  That is, of course, if said actors come to me with the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time.  Inexperience I can handle, lack of hand/eye co-ordination may be a killer (in this instance, quite literally…)

In addition to the physical demands of the Hamlet duel, there are also some textual complications.  Here is the text which is spoken during the infamous fight:

Come on sir.

Come on sir. [ They play.]




A hit, a very palpable hit.

Well: againe.

Come: Another hit; what say you?

A touch, a touch, I do confesse.

Our Sonne shall win.

Come for the third.
Laertes, you but dally,
I pray you passe with your best violence,
I am affear'd you make a wanton of me.

Say you so? Come on. [ Play.]

Nothing neither way.

Haue at you now.

 [In scuffling they change Rapiers.]

Part them, they are incens'd.

(Hamlet 3739-3779)

Since the pearls and Gertrude’s death are a complication unto themselves (and don’t actually matter for my staging since they’re cut from Magic Time), I have omitted them from this passage.  What I am always left wondering is several things:

Laertes is a trained French fencer.  He attend academy there.  His form should be top-notch. Osrick admits to Hamlet before the duel that Laertes will likely best him.  However, we know from this passage that Hamlet is really kicking the snot out of Laertes.  Laertes shouldn’t look like a bad fencer, Hamlet just has to be a better fencer.  Like trying to have a good singer sing off-key, this is much more challenging than it would seem.

In addition, there are several embedded stage directions in the fight.  Hamlet hit Laertes.  It is a hit so striking that Osrick famously pronounces it as “a very palpable hit”.  However, it is a hit that Laertes at first protests.  Is this because Laertes is cheating, or because the hit was subtle enough for him to have missed it despite its pronouncement to the assembly?  The second hit Laertes admits to.  After a little smack-talk from Hamlet, the scuffle begins again and Osrick pronounces “nothing neither way”.  This asserts that, despite aforementioned scuffle containing a close call, neither fencer has actually connected.  Then, of course, occurs the famous swap-n-swipe.  Hamlet takes possession of Laertes’ poisoned rapier, but not before Laertes manages to wound Hamlet.  Hamlet then wounds Laertes.  This series of events we are brought into assurance of not only because both Hamlet and Laertes die, but also because of Horatio’s pronouncement several lines later “they bleed on both sides”.  Finally, the duelers become frantic enough that the King himself orders they are parted due to being “incens’d”.

Whew.  That’s a lot going on in a fight. 

Keep in mind as well that most fight directors get a mere few hours with their actors to choreograph this duel.  I’m in the fortunate position to have a little more time than that, but I also have a little less experience than some of the real pros out there.

Shakespeare’s actors would have had a very different attitude about onstage violence.  The average rehearsal period for a show in Shakespeare’s time was four days.  As your mind boggles about that, remember that Shakespeare’s actors were also accomplished fencers.  Fencing and dancing, two of the so-called “noble arts”, were high priorities for actors to learn and be proficient at.  They are elements frequently used in period shows, and elements that had greater meaning in the late fifteen hundreds than they do today.  Rather than being mere leisure activities, they were ways of life.  The average man walking down the street likely had a weapon on him and was also likely called upon to use that weapon several times in his life.  Remember that dueling (despite being illegal) was non an uncommon way to resolve disputes amongst the middle and noble classes.  Indeed, Christopher Marlowe died in a duel.  So four day to slap together a sword fight was really no big sweat for an Elizabethan actor.

Despite cultural differences, this does put things in perspective.  If they did it in four days, I should be able to whip these guys into shape in six weeks.

First fight call is tomorrow morning.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

September 14, 2010

A Difference of Opinion

I was going to write a nice, luxurious entry on Frankenstein.  I was going to revel in the fact that, despite being laughed at in my lit theory class for suggesting it was a work of Science Fiction, it is the first reading on my Science Fiction syllabus.  I was going to make some poignant remarks about scientific responsibility and how man can’t decide to play god then wuss out halfway through.

But now, I’m going to write about MFA students.

My program is an MA program in English.  It runs concurrent to an MFA program in fiction, writing, you know, that touchy-feely-with-a-pen stuff.  I actually know very little about the MFA program here at Rutgers other than it exists, unlike my program it’s supposed to be a terminal degree program, as a result the MFA students are offered TAships which us MA students are barred from, and that sometimes I encounter MFA students in my classes.

I have found that, with the exception of a class I took on rhetoric and the teaching of writing, I despise having MFA students in my classes.  They are trained to think about literature in a mode entirely different from how I am trained to think about literature.  They speak about literature differently.  They read differently.  And this vast difference in philosophies really annoys the hell out of me.

We in the MA program are constantly looking at books critically with a mind towards theory.  The MFA students look at works as stories.  Pretty amalgamations of words that they could have written better.  As a result, discussions about literature with these people does nothing but make me gnash my teeth and want to kill something.  Preferably something fluffy and cute that thinks it can write better than any/all of the classical authors whose works have become my bread and butter over the course of the last year.  I know, I know, discussions with individuals whose points of view differ vastly from one’s own makes one a better conversationalist and a more well-rounded person.  You know what?  I can live without it.  I like my books unadulterated by artistic frippery.

Last night, ladies and gentlemen, was the final straw.

As you know by now, I’m taking a course in Science Fiction.  The course, though listed under my program, is also cross-listed to the MFAs and the American Studies Grad program.  The majority of its students come from these other two programs and, on the whole, I would say that fellow English MAs comprise about a third of the class.

Last night we were set to talk about Frankenstein.  I came armed and prepared with arguments about Marxist critique, textual differences between the 1818 and 1831 editions, and a lot to say about humanism and minority as portrayed in the book.  The discussion we wound up having was about humanity; what makes a human?  Is the creature human?  How can we define “human”?

About an hour and a half into arguing this out, the question came.  I can still hear it resounding from the MFA side of the room, echoing in the air like some ghastly and hollow funeral dirge.  “We are spending so much time talking about this, but what practical application does it have?  I mean, this is just a book.  What does it really matter?”

I felt the “kill” toggle get thrown in my mind.  Flames burned at the back of my eyes.  I could feel demonic urges begin to overtake me and it is a good thing that a dear friend of mine was sitting between myself and the offender.  The sudden instinct to leap across the table and throttle said MFA overtook my senses and it was all I could do to keep the animalistic instincts and bay and retort with a sharp and not-at-all-well-thought-out reply which probably sounded more rude and jerkish than intelligent.

When I re-claimed my senses, my first thought was “seriously… what are you doing here?”  Honestly, I’m only about 98% certain that he’s an MFA.  If he’s not, he needs to re-evaluate his career choices.

I realize that part of the reason his little off-handed remark offended me so was that it was an invasion of outside sensibilities into my little haven of lore.  At a dinner party the other night, same colleague/friend who saved aforementioned MFA’s life made the following comment, “I think we’re a little uptight about our major because when you…” (referring to his girlfriend who will very soon have a PhD in Chemistry) “tell people what you do, they go ‘wow.’ And back off.  When we…” (referring to the rest of us English people at the table) “tell people what we do, they get that look of pity in their faces and say ‘oh… well… what are you going to do with that?’.”

It’s a battle I’ve fought my entire life.  The world doesn’t see any innate worth in what I do and what I love.  In fact, they understand it all to be a big waste of time.  But at this juncture, I understand that.  I expect it.  When I walk into a cocktail party or family gathering, I am ready to defend my choices from the outsiders. 

But I don’t expect it in the classroom.  I am not ready to throw my warlike shield before my body in the very bastion of my misunderstood life choices.  It was an affront to the companionship and unspoken understanding between us to question the validity of our presence in that classroom while sitting in the classroom itself.  It was like being stabbed in the back, a sneak-attack from a strategic position I had once thought to be well-guarded.  The expressed views are not supposed to be allowed in my citadel.

Questioning the validity of academic inquiry for the sake of academic inquiry is something I am prepared for from the real world.  Not here in this utterly unreal and utopian fantasy of folios where the coin of the realm is Foucault and Derrida. 

And for that, I say this: 

Dear MFAs,

I humbly request that you keep your ideas about the academy to yourself.  I certainly won’t go around vocally criticizing your ultimate decision to take classes in writing poetry which, by the way, is a complete waste of time and money since studies have proven that the classroom is inefficient at teaching individuals to write.  Either you got it or you don’t and the vast majority of you will suffer a lifetime of waiting tables and working dead-end secretarial jobs with the dream of someday being discovered due to your superior memo-writing skills.  Your MFA won’t even get you into a PhD program, though it may get you a job as an adjunct teaching people like you that they have a chance in this world despite your own bitterness at having been passed over time and again in the field of publishing which some young and talented student of yours may some day hit lucky and become more successful than you are.

Bite me. 

Yours sincerely,


PS: next time, you may not be so lucky.  I may be small, but I be fierce.  And I have a lot of big friends who know how to wield cross-bows.  

September 10, 2010

Cosmic Proportions

School.  Classes.  Work.  Work again.  School.  Read.  Library.  Research.  Abstracts.  Conference.  PhD applications.  More Work.  Class.  Social Life?  No.  Other Work.  Papers.  Editing.  Read some more.  Die a little.

I think that I may be just a little bit stressy.

The beginning of the semester has hit and it’s hit hard.  Of course, being sick at the starting line is a huge handicap to any runner, but with my eyes clearly set on the finish line (and frequent reminders to breathe), I think I’m gonna make it.  Maybe my tune will change when I hit the halfway-mark, but we’ll cross that monumental bridge when we get to it.

I had my first sci-fi class this past Wednesday (though the class will usually meet on Monday- what the hell, Rutgers?).  I am buzzing with anticipation for this class and the first seminar meeting was no disappointment.  We wound up sitting and debating for a good fifteen to twenty minutes after the class period had ended, and this is without even having done any reading!  There will a great deal of game-face involved in this semester.  I do love having occasion to cleverly disguise myself as an academic pit-bull. 

The Professor, a sharp gray-haired man well into his seventies, is utterly fascinating.  His name is H. Bruce Franklin and though he is more noted for his work on Melville and the Vietnam War (as two separate things, not some weird cultural hybrid), he was one of the first to be teaching Science Fiction as an academic interest.  Despite years of being laughed at by his peers and countless rejection letters for his book (as well as being black-listed in the seventies for being leftist), today he’s got nineteen published books under his belt and hundreds of articles.  He’s also incredibly interesting to speak with and one of the few people I’ve ever met who can work both sides of his brain at the same time (I guess you kinda have to in order to study Science Fiction as literature).

Anyway, class meeting one.  Dr. Franklin shared some facts which really got me thinking and have worked to alleviate some of my stress, if only for a small period of time.  Have a look at these statistics and prepare to be sublimely minimized. 

There are 200-400 Billion Stars in our Galaxy.  There are 100-500 Billion Galaxies in our Universe.

The Observable Known Universe is Comprised of the following…

Dark Energy – 74%
Dark Mater – 22%
Intergalactic Gas – 3.6%
Everything Else (including all those stars, us, galaxies, your computer) – 0.4%

As if that weren’t enough to make you feel slightly insignificant, take a gander at the temporal qualities of the universe-

The Big Bang – 15 Billion Years Ago
The Formation of Earth – 4.55 Billion Years Ago
The First Multi-Cellular Organisms appeared – 1 Billion Years Ago
Plants and Animals Emerge from the Oceans – 400 Million Years Ago
The First Humans (non homo-sapiens… Lucy) – 2 Million Years Ago
First Homo Sapiens – 250 Thousand Years Ago
The Last Ice Age – 12 Thousand Years Ago
The Industrial Revolution, Modern Science and Technology, birth of Sci-Fi – 250 Years Ago

I mentioned that Professor Franklin is a brilliant man.  He’s crunched some numbers and come up with this little anecdote to put above massive span into terms that our measly little human-brains can better understand…

Imagine that you’re a planet.  In fact, you are planet Earth.  You are, in this moment, twenty years old.  The above-mentioned incidents occurred at the following junctures in your lifetime….

The First Multi-Cellular Organisms appeared – 15.5 Years Ago
Plants and Animals Emerge from the Oceans – 18.25 Years Ago
The First Humans (non homo-sapiens… Lucy) – 3 Days Ago
First Homo Sapiens – 10 Hours Ago
The Last Ice Age – 28 Minutes Ago
The Industrial Revolution, Modern Science and Technology, birth of Sci-Fi – 35 Seconds Ago

Brings a certain serenity, doesn’t it?  A little warm glowy feeling in the pit of your stomach that really, no matter what you do today, tomorrow, in your lifetime, your problems are a mere speck of time and matter in terms of the universe.  I suppose there could be some fear that comes with this leading to a Bartlebyesque sense of apathy.  If everything is so tiny and nothing matters, then why even bother? 

The ants build a colony because they must.  Nevermind that said colony could be demolished in half a blink by a giant fifty times their size and there is nothing they can do about it.  I think, when faced with the universe, that same attitude must apply.  Would you keep doing what you are currently doing if the earth were to be swallowed by the sun tomorrow? 

A little perspective can mean a great deal.  And I think that the perspective Dr. Franklin had to offer this past week has gone a long way towards settling my already-strung-out nerves.

PhD programs, after all, are mostly made of air and thereby, while giving the illusion of something solid, are no more yielding than a dream.

September 8, 2010

Child's Play

Some things from childhood are pleasures to re-discover in your adult life.  Favorite movies, cartoon shows, toys, games, hiding places, foods (well, maybe foods are both good and bad… pop tarts haven’t exactly been the same since the seventh grade).

Chicken pox, I have discovered, is not one of these things.  Ladies and gentlemen, I have (in the past week) managed to give myself shingles.

This is merely the latest and greatest in my recent outbreak of personal health debacles.  I could elaborate on how utterly miserable it makes you feel, I could go into detail about the interesting markings that have cropped up on my body because of it, but instead (as is my wont), I am going to talk about books. 

There are certain books which one reads as a child (or should have read as a child) that are, for various reasons, truly delightful to re-visit in adult life.  Here is a short list of books that kept me company in the middle school lunchroom and that I still crack every once in a while.

*Anything from the Redwall series by Brian Jacques.  I will admit, I am utterly biased on this one.  Brian Jacques came to my middle school.  Brian Jacques read to us.  Brian Jacques was an utterly cool and wonderful guy.  Because of this, there is a soft spot in my heart for Brian Jacques.  Nevermind that the books are all pretty much the same after a while, nevermind that they exhibit some of the most blatant racial stereotyping in children’s books (all the bad animals are stoats, rats and weasels and the good animals are badgers, mice and otters?  But what happens if someone is born and rat and just wants to be a good guy?  Huh?  Take that, British mouse supremacist!) I still love this series.  It was one of the first “epic” fantasy series’ that I dug my little paws into, and I think that it has really shaped me as a reader.  Because of this book, I have, for years, wanted to try Damson Cordial, Meadowcream, ‘Marchpane, Shrimp n’ Hotroot Soup, Deeper n’ Ever Pie, oh I could go on.  Especially before or after any epic battle scene.

*His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.  This is one of those “side of the fence” books.  I first read The Golden Compass when I was far too young to understand the Christ allegory and religious discussion going on in the book.  In college, I gave it to one of my roommates to read and she railed that it had more Jesus than The Chronicles of Narnia.  I seriously had to go back and re-read it to understand what she was talking about.  Of course it was clear as day at that point, but I found it so funny that I had never seen this before.  Like any good children’s movie, this series of books will give completely different (and utterly enjoyable) reading experiences to audiences depending upon the reader’s age.  Because of that, it is definitely worth re-visiting.  Especially if you can imagine the wonder and terror it would inspire in a child who doesn’t quite understand the religious stuff yet…

*Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling.  This may be a big old “duh” and so I was hesitant to add it to the list, but really, how could I not?  I was of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter.  I started reading them when I was ten.  The last book came out when I was twenty-one.  As was the author’s intention, Harry aged with me.  And it was precisely because of that that I so loved the series.  It was part of my ascension into adolescence and later adulthood.  When the final book came out, I was living at Shakespeare & Company with about 40 other twenty-somethings.  It was amazing how many of us, despite the fact that we had had a twelve-hour day, despite the fact that we would have a twelve-hour day the next day, stayed up and waited on line at the local bookshop until midnight when we purchased our books and promptly went scurrying home to the theatre to read for a few hours before passing out.  I think we all felt the same way; like this book was the completion of our childhoods.  Like when the series was over, we would have to become new people somehow.  Move on to other things…. grown-up books.  Whatever it was, I still pop out my Harry Potter books sometimes.  I definitely tend towards the later books rather than the earlier ones just because I find the writing more engaging, but they are most definitely all a part of my permanent collection.

*The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.  When I was in high school, I had an awesome AWESOME math teacher.  Once, for a project, she gave us a list of choices.  One of the choices was to read The Phantom Tollbooth and do something creative with mathematics inspired from the book.  I can’t, for the life of me, remember what my project wound up being about (it was a math class, after all), but I do remember the book.  Holy wow.  Philosophy, wordplay, deep concepts, all in the sweet little guise of a children’s novel.  I don’t think I can emphasize how much I love this book.  If you haven’t read it, go read it.  Seriously.  Now.  Okay, maybe after you finish reading this…

*Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.  I have a confession to make.  Despite having memorized the animated movie version, I never read this book as a child.  When I graduated from undergrad, some near and dear friends discovered this oversight and gifted me with the book to correct it.  I promptly read the book (as one is wont to do with gifted books), and despite the fact that I was a grown-up, despite the fact that I knew what was going to happen, despite the fact that I was sitting at my corporate desk-job at the time, I cried like a baby at the end of it.  It’s just one of those stories that will get you every time, no matter what.  And that is truly remarkable.

Obviously this is just a smattering of what might be on this list.  Instead of going on ad noseum, I’m interested to hear about others’ additions.  What books did you read as a child that you still crack now and again?  Why?  What importance did they have on you as a reader and/or a person?  Even if you don’t wind up posting the answers to these questions to the internet for all to see, it’s certainly worth thinking about.  Studies show that books have a profound effect upon the adolescent psyche to the point of being unable to replicate in the classroom the learning that goes on when a young person reads a book.

I guess, in certain circumstances, you are what you read.