Archive for the academic speak Category

The Village Virus: When your thoughts are in a box, box up your things and leave

Posted in academic speak, blogging, narcissism, Queer life, social networking, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2009 by katekanno

Wow. A two-week blog fail.

Preparations for moving, the two day trip abroad for a job interview, followed by two more days of clearing out and scouring our apartment left little time for reflection, much less blogging. But we are out, out of our apartment, out of Irvine, and now out of California.

After the surprise feelings of guilt over selling our car — it felt like we were hocking the thing to an orphanage — it was a little strange to feel nothing upon leaving our apartment. We did our final walk through, said our “goodbyes” and “thank yous” to each room, and left. That was that. Not a second thought or a tinge of sadness.

There are lots of things that might explain this non-reaction, namely, the disorganization and frenzied activity that always works to anesthetize any departure pains. When you spend days clearing your home of its character, and follow that by scouring all of the places you’d preferred not to look, even the most stubborn grime of nostalgia is bound to come loose.

But there was another far more important reason: Irvine was quite simply sucking the life out of us. Despite the sun, the quiet, the stacks of books, we both felt we were catching Sinclair Lewis’ “Village Virus,” the provincial coma whose only cure is to get the hell back to a city. And it wasn’t simply Orange County’s 10-mega-church-per-block zoning laws, the bookstores that that exclusively sold the Twilight series, or the legions of Humvee driving republicans, but the university itself, which had a taken cultural and class snobbery to a level all its own.

It was a place where subtle pronunciation wars over the names of critical theorists meant social death for the loser; it meant wearing knit caps in the middle of 80 degree afternoons; and the overuse – and very often misuse – of the word meta. It meant the hip denigration of the academically unhip identity politics by people who mostly, despite their pseudo support of LGBT rights, either just couldn’t see what was wrong with allowing Donnie McClurkin to bash gays at election rallies, or were too afraid to say anything.  As a non-academic,  I often felt  that I was regarded,  to borrow an excellent description from Neil Stephenson, like “a test subject on the wrong side of a one way mirror.”

In short: It was time for us to go.

I’ve been reflecting on this since being back in Portland. This city may have its share of hipsters, but the discussion, the books, the humanities themselves are open to everyone. No academic jargon or mannered diffidence required. Powell’s books is unionized, and the vegans at the vegan cafe are actually interested in labor history, rather than using their veganism as yet another tacit class distinction.

On Tarzan and gender stereotypes– it's not what you think.

Posted in academic speak, books, gender, genre wars, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2009 by katekanno

Picture 7Today is the 97th anniversary of the publication of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes. In celebration, today’s L.A. Times has chosen to reprint Gore Vidal’s 1963 essay, which includes an accordingly Sterling Cooper style dismissal of the female genre fan.

“These books are clearly for men. I have yet to meet a woman who found Tarzan interesting: no identification, as they say in series-land.”

I’m not sure whether Mr. Vidal would still care to back up that statement, but as a female who’s read the books, and still keeps her supersized Joe Kubert comic adaptations in the closet, I’d like to have a word.

Sometime after I started elementary school my mother went back to college and enrolled in a survey on the adventure novel, lots of Tarzan, John Carter, and She Who Must Be Obeyed. She read them all to me, and while I’m thankful for every word, it was really the abandoned Lord Greystoke who provided my first model for discovery.

Strip Tarzan of its wild beasts and skimpy clothes, and it can no longer be reduced to a semi-pornographic tale of the colonial manly man, but rather a series of thrilling “aha!” moments: a boy realizing he’ll be a lot warmer in that panther’s pelt, teaching himself to read, learning French under Lieutenant D’Arnot, and finally immersing himself in an alien culture of starched collars and strictly observed tea times, only to reject that world and return to himself – a perfect metaphor for grad school and its discontents.

It was Edgar Rice Burroughs who first made me aware that the discovery one’s otherness can be a powerful catalyst for learning, and that, while we may encounter kindly French soldiers and beautiful women along the way, ultimately, we do it alone.

That Mr. Vidal thinks or thought that only men could identify with these novels is not surprising given the time period, but in dismissing the possibility of female identification, he also pooh-poohs the notion that women desire to learn, discover, and create. And while Vidal’s patrician background may have blindsided him, it is certain that, like Greystoke on his return to England, we all deal with those alienating signals from those who think learning is a class privilege.

What woman (or man) couldn’t identify with that?

Knowingness vs. Knowing: 7 pointers on surviving academe if you're not an academic

Posted in academic speak, genre wars, ghost stories, shyness, writing with tags , , , , , , on September 30, 2009 by katekanno

This week there’s an article about inarticulate writers in the New York Times. I was pleased to see it, having struggled consistently to voice my opinions in groups, and because it reveals a very marked difference in how we assess intelligence today. Once it was fine to make a few, if not a lot of conversational fumbles. If you could write clearly and beautifully, all the better. Now, what is considered to be intelligent conversation is a blanc mange of overly mannered, dispassionate, and often chilly “discourse” that likes to claim moral high ground by disclaiming itself into a corner.

This situation is exacerbated by the university setting, a place where people are introduced at even social gatherings with their fields attached to them like gravy bibs — comp-lit, urban planning, art history. What you say or do later will most likely make no difference, you’re ranked before you say hello. It reminds me of Harold Brodkey’s New York where it’s agreed that a few clues, regarded with sophistication render “everything about one another’s lives knowable.”

When we first came here, I had a hard time with this. I deliberately avoided social functions. I was used to the instant and intense connections I’d had abroad, my strong friendships with people who were opposites, and who are still close. Here being open is a liability, and everyone assumes a cold veneer of abstraction that takes precedence over any enthusiasm they might harbor for their subject area. This situation is captured perfectly in the opening scene in Merrie Haskell’s Almanac for Alien Invaders, wherein a group of drunken academics, discussing a world crisis about which they too know nothing, slam a faculty spouse for daring to add to the conversation. Chalk one up for genre, again.

At any rate, here are a few things I took away from my experience here

1.If it’s something important, don’t dilute your meaning with awful grad school euphemisms such as problematic. Call a spade a spade. This tendency to speak in watered down, abstracted terms is partially at fault for neutering social progress in this country. No one, no matter how many degrees he or she has, has the right to cut you out of the conversation for not playing to an ultimately class-based and isolated conceit.

2.Don’t ever let what others think, particularly those terrified of what others think of them – and there is nowhere that this is more rampant than academe – keep you from speaking your mind.

3. There’s no need to disclaim every thought, sometimes you need to make a point. If you want you can go back and reevaluate, but it’s your character that is at stake here. This doesn’t mean don’t question yourself, but let your thoughts follow to their logical conclusions before stepping back. Some people have defined intelligence as halting mid-thought before coming to any meaningful end. This is not thought: it is a nimble form of gibberish.

4. When forced to attend one of these stilted gatherings, just remember that no matter how awkward you may seem, it is your conversation partner who should be pitied for not being able to handle a conversation with someone outside of his or her narrow field of study. Besides, they could probably use a little of your humanity.

5. Theory isn’t a bad thing, but nor is it a moral or intellectual high ground taking priority over literature and art. Paul de Man was a Nazi, and the great Derrida equivocated on his behalf until he was blue in the face. Furthermore, a professor here who often uses feminist and queer theory in his work, just laughed about the murder of a woman on campus, claiming that California custody laws drove her ex-husband to kill her. Theory did not make this misogynist a progressive or even a decent human being.

6. A lot of that studied nonchalance comes from money. Be happy that you’ll never take your books or travels for granted.

7. And if you hear anyone referring to those outside of graduate school as “common readers,” go ahead and toss a drink in that person’s face. Just make sure it isn’t a good one.