Archive for literature

Cloudy with a Chance of Chicken Heart

Posted in Atheism, books, computing, eco anxiety, education, ghost stories, literature, old time radio, religion, science fiction with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2010 by katekanno

I love it when two books I’m reading unexpectedly connect. I’ve been (slowly) making my way through Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget, a book that I really wish had been around when I was suffering through a ludicrous “ed tech” class last summer that was pushing the cloud computing orthodoxy Lanier discusses. As an atheist with a weakness for Catholic British authors, i.e. Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark, I also happened to have just read G.K. Chesterton’s Man Who Was Thursday. I didn’t like it much; it’s a sort of Monty Python meets Trinity Broadcasting, with Chesterton providing lots of tree fort warm fuzzies for white Christian males. But, I will say that Chesterton’s opening verse resonates with Lanier’s arguments.

A cloud was on the mind of men

And wailing went the weather,

Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul,

When we were boys together.

Science announced non-entity

And art admired decay

The world was old and ended 

But you and I were gay

Okay, except the whining about science forcing a meaningless life upon us, to which I say why read a Bible when you have the Hubble, the verse does seem to fit our current environmental, creative, and digital malaise; if you suspect, as Lanier does, that such a malaise exists. 

Lanier brings up some frightening observations. One that really got to me was his ongoing survey of young people who can’t place any music recorded in the past fifteen years to a specific point, or that google’s uploading millions of books may result in a free for all cherry picking that makes the often bigoted trolling of Bible verse seem puny in comparison.  

Well, in honor of the hive mind, and because I haven’t been doing my part on the horror stories links front, here is Arch Oboler’s famous “Chicken Heart” story, where a you-guessed-it and not a digital cloud rises to engulf the world. 

Now someone pass me a wing.

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On Not Teaching Writing

Posted in education, literature, politics, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2010 by katekanno

Just a little whining about Obama’s State of the Union, most of which I liked, except the Sputnik style push for more science and math. That one’s old.  It isn’t change, and it’s part of Arne Duncan’s corporatist agenda to hack apart the teachers’ unions.

No doubt.

Nevertheless, what kind of defense can the humanities mount when the ed schools themselves are doing such a great job of undermining its subjects.

I apologize for dragging you into the old cranky time tunnel of nostalgia with me, but when I was in high school, we wrote. And when I say write, I mean we picked up pens and made marks on the blank page, sometimes staring at it for a few frustrated minutes, before pressing on, but we wrote, sometimes churning out one, two –gasp!–  even three pages in the space of a fifty minute class period.

Today’s ed schools, however, train English teachers to do everything they can to stand between the kid and the page.  It’s called “scaffolding” a term taken from Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, which initially meant something more complicated, but has now been ham-fistedly tacked on whatever silly scrapbook, Disney video, or papier-mache monstrosity the writing teacher must first inflict on his or her students before allowing them to pick up their pens.

First, there must be ceremonial readings of the text, eased through with motivational gimmickry, after which there will be an all too brief prewriting session, one or two graphic organizers, then peer reviews in which peers who cannot write their way out of a cereal box critique one another’s essays, all of this until the students have gained enough distance from both text and prompt that they can’t remember what it was they were to write in the first place.

I should note that I’m sinking to a gimmick myself by typing out this entry on Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die site. I have twenty minutes to do five hundred words, because Dr. Wicked will not give me a graphic organizer, he will not dazzle me with visual aids, or that ludicrous mish mash of stupidity referred to as “scaffolding.” If I do not write, Dr. Wicked will simply start erasing everything I’ve done up to this point, and that will feel bad. Very bad. But you see, we cannot have that, because in this mighty land of hollow self-esteem, we cannot allow our students to feel pressure, receive censure, or encounter a consequence at any moment.

Also, for as useful as they’ve been over the past few thousand years, actual reading and writing have none of the flash of a good Powerpoint presentation, none of the razzle dazzle of faux research, and none of the spurious, reductive labels educational researchers like to slap on kids’ thoughts.

I could complain about the push for math and science, but I won’t. As a graduate of one of the nation’s top ed programs — a fact of which I am not proud– I’d rather call on reformers to divert their attention from so-called “bad” teachers and look, really look at what’s being peddled to aspiring teachers in today’s ed schools. If they do, they might finally find the easy answers they’ve been looking for all along.

Invasion of the Metacrats

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2010 by katekanno

One of my favorite comic scenes takes place in Annie Hall, when Alvy Singer asks an attractive, well-coiffed couple about the secret to their happy relationship. The woman responds that she is “very shallow and empty…(has) no ideas and nothing interesting to say,”  to which the man adds, “And I’m exactly the same way.”

I recall that scene anytime I hear someone brandishing the word meta. There’s an enormous contradiction in self-consciously proclaiming one’s meta-tude,  a lack of self-awareness that Allen’s couple, who could pass for hipsters in today’s Manhattan, ironically has in droves.

My distrust for the word, however, has more to do with its sinister appropriation in corporatized education, where the ability to self-regulate has become a quickie route for educrats to violate personal privacy at the deepest level.

Take so-called cognitive reading strategies, among them “think alouds,” where students are told to verbalize their responses to a text while another student sits by and labels those thoughts from a predetermined list of categories. If the kid expresses boredom, he isn’t really bored, he’s “monitoring.” If he or she relates to a character, it’s not identification but “adopting an alignment.” Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Yet so-called literacy experts dare to tout these strategies as ways to help students become better readers, when such strategies force students to take what are most likely complex thoughts about a text, and filter them through awkward third grade phrasing: “What this means to me is…or…a golden line for me is…(note the emphasis on me, whereas most might argue that literature is a way to understand the other). It presupposes a lack of complexity in the students’ thinking, ignoring overlap, tearing out ambiguities, and forcing consensus on what kids might actually be taking from the text, dismissing entirely, as Jaron Lanier argues in You Are Not a Gadget, “the mystery of human existence.”

Lanier describes the elevation of the meta as a kind of digital Maoism, the mash-up being more powerful than the sources who are mashed, and in education this attempt  to label and compartmentalize each and every thought further devalues the humanities as a mere utility for a phony form of self-actualization.

Imagine if the genome project simply stopped at the last gene, attempting to diagnose every physical trait and disease, while ignoring the discovery that complex proteins play just as large a role in our biology. This is what so-called education experts wish to do. Only they’ve given those genes such ugly names, and they have no view as to how they work together.
Forcing students to sift their thoughts into categories such as monitoring, visualizing, and reflection — the latter a popular form of behavior modification in today’s ed schools —  denies a person’s individuality, his or her ability to think in manifold and complex ways of which we’re not anywhere near an understanding.

It’s a violation of our right to privacy and our right to name the terms of our relationship with the authors we read, and even more, it will backfire, because the educrats, having little understanding of the value of literature, and thus not a very good understanding of human beings, haven’t thought to factor in performance.

They will not be accessing young people’s thoughts, nor coming to a greater understanding of how to improve literacy, they will simply be instilling a kind of defensive performativity in their subjects, that denied a quality curriculum and the room to think, might translate to the real aim of all of this: conformity.

Exploitation vs. Exploration

Posted in blogging, books, education, lifehacking, literature, multitasking, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2009 by katekanno

Exploitation vs. Exploration.

Previously the former word brought to mind underpaid factory workers or at least those miserably lopsided friendships in junior high, whereas exploration has always drummed up that conscientious chap in the beat up Tee, making his open-minded, charitable way through a new place.  If exploitation was Saruman, hacking up the trees in Lord of the Rings, then exploration was Indiana Jones, knowledgeable, adaptable, and of course, heroic.

On a larger level, of course, this is still true. On a personal level, such thinking is the disaster that we inflict on both ourselves and the world.

How, you might ask, can trying new things, reading new authors, and meeting fabulous new people be a bad thing? It isn’t.
But my life, and I suspect the same is happening in those of many other people, is suffering from a glut of exploration, both physical and psychological. It’s what buries our living spaces in useless consumer junk, the books we don’t read, our time with mildly interesting pursuits and people we know only tangentially, and our brains with all of that digital information on which we, to use that ominously cutesy term coined by David Armano,  snack.

Take all of those indelicate act(s) of multitasking: What are they but pure exploration at the expense of exploitation? We listen to 30 new songs on Pandora while talking on the phone and attempting to cook that souffle via the step by step instructions that we’re watching on the Food Network. And we’re making a hash of it all, even the talking, which we’re reducing more and more to Malaprops, disjointed threads, and yes, grunts.

So this is the year I make a determined effort to exploit more and explore less. Exploit! Exploit! Exploit! I’m with you Saruman. But only when it comes to myself. Save the trees.

Because when you exploit on a personal level, you do save trees. Let’s take my book habit, because it’s come to me after spending five predominantly dull years in the world’s dullest town with nothing else to do but read like a maniac, how very rarely I’ve come away from a book feeling that I know it  to my satisfaction, that I have many of its ideas, characters, and underlying themes mastered, before I’m on to the next one. I’m not trying to beat myself up, or to argue that I’ve gained nothing for my efforts. But as a writer, I want to be better poised to use what’s in what I read both for inspiration and to strengthen my own abilities.

Exploitation project 1: The Reading Journal.

To this purpose I’ve been keeping a reading journal. I’ve been doing it for awhile, but haven’t really landed on a good system until now, my biggest problem being how to separate the writing I do for myself with notes or ideas taken from books. I’ve been using color coded tags from Mujirushi to separate pages of my own writing and the  journal, which is working out well so far. In the reading journal, I  draw a line down the page and note any words or concepts with which I’m unfamiliar, leaving random thoughts or quotes I want to keep on the other. Although I’m not a proponent of Gardner’s learning styles, which are finally, and thankfully being discredited, the act of writing things down rather than typing them up does seem to help me remember what I’ve read. It’s rote baby! There’s no magic trick or psychobabble that can make it any easier.

The Road: Cormac McCarthy's Guide for Helicopter Parents

Posted in books, eco anxiety, education, genre fiction, genre wars, science fiction, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2009 by katekanno

The film adaptation of The Road opens this weekend, perfect timing for post-Thanksgiving guilt and much easier than a long workout. I’ve never quite been able to take McCarthy seriously, which probably has much to do with an overabundance of road trips: the cowboy, sacred steer of middle class radio listeners was a common form of torture employed by my parents, who’d flip immediately to the Prairie Home Companion, or those utterly unfunny Cowboy Poets.

And then there’s McCarthy’s blatant misogyny. In the Road it comes through with the “Woman,” i.e. the bad mother, who kills herself – a sensible decision in this case – but before doing so spends two pages calling herself a whore: “You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot. . Because I am done with my whorish heart and I have been for a long time.”

The Road’s sonorous prose and kiddy pool depth has also been a choice target in the genre wars: bald proof that literary fiction is at a loss for ideas as it rifles through the sci-fi candy bag, scarfing down undeserved critical acclaim. Once you realize there aren’t any actual ideas behind the chest beating, Bunsen burner cannibalism, and miraculous morels, you should rush out to read Canticle for Leibowitz or Parable of the Sower.

Ah, but there are! Maybe.

The popularity of McCarthy’s novel, you see, is not merely another sign that literary taste is a matter of conformity. Forget about climate change, meteor fears, or annihilation via nukes or Oprah, because that’s not what the book is about. It’s not about an archetypal father really either, but rather an archetypal helicopter parent: the “man,” who still finds the time and strength to sensitively minister to his son’s every physical and psychological need, despite starvation, cannibals, and an utter lack of hope. Just look at the guy, slavishly hovering over his child, lovingly scrounging for that Pepsi, and hacking up his lungs in bad weather rather than spending a few extra days in that food-stocked bomb shelter. The son — like two 18-year-old boys I saw being massaged by their mother at the library while they studied (creeped out yet?)  — does nary a lick of work in this bleak landscape.

Then there’s the pop psychology: “What you put in your head is there forever.” McCarthy plops this truism throughout the book, hoping it will magically gain weight, while the father, on top of the physical privation, still manages to shield his child from horror after horror, like some superhuman V-chip, although if he really wanted that kid to survive, he might want to own up to the frakked state of the world.

Leave it to those as naïve and jittery as a helicopter parents, who live in gated communities free from the terrors of working poor to believe it. Only those who trust the mantras of test scores and college resumes, who think that a prestigious degree means that one is “educated” would find depth in this misplaced nugget of therapy culture.

It all falls apart when one confronts the pesky reality outside the book, wherein millions of children in less cushy areas of the world live under not quite as awful conditions, but pretty damn close. Those children do not enjoy the luxury of such assiduous parenting in the form of covered eyes and stories about “carrying the fire.”  Much like kids in those generations muckraked by Dickens, they live and toil away in hellish conditions, without the luxury of someone worrying about what they put into their precious psyches.

There forever? I doubt it. And if so, so what? I much prefer a line from faux suburbanite Donald Draper — once again, TV trumps literary fiction: “It will amaze you how much it didn’t happen.”

I guess it’s not surprising that scads of terrified parents who’ve chosen to battle rather than to engage with their communities would find The Road appealing. The trials of The Road’s starved, embattled superdad provide the perfect ennobling reflection of their own daily squabbles with teachers, principals, and admissions officers, the piecemealing of academic resumes for their infantilized progeny. For as bleak as it gets, the book nevertheless  provides the delusion that even in such horrifying conditions, they might still micromanage our children’s lives, while in the real world protecting  them from the glaringly obvious fact that our progress on social and economic equality, not to mention that pesky climate, are in dire need of a reality check.

 

McCarthy’s book certainly isn’t one, but it’s popularity is just a sign that many have already given up trying. When I hear the term helicopter parent, the words overprotective and assertive rarely come to mind. Remember that helicopters after all, are a privileged means of escape.

 

Just watch any pre-Road apocalypse film. You’ll see.

On Lists

Posted in blogging, books, lifehacking, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2009 by katekanno

This week’s Der Spiegel has an interview with Umberto Eco on the subject of lists. Eco states that lists are stabs at immortality, an attempt to take control of the infinite through categorization:”We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”

I’ve always attributed it to something less grandiose, the desire not to squander whatever limited time we have, or to just plain get organized.

Of course there’s always the old saw about cultural insecurity, particularly among Americans. Lists of cultural artifacts, books, paintings, films,  have often been a quick way to stack ourselves up against others — “At least I’ve read Proust. Sniff.” I’ve seen evidence of this;  a few months back, in fact, I was appalled when a social networking friend humorlessly posted the Booker list, and then checked off each one he had read, even adding the number of times read in parentheses. But we’ll leave him to his demons, and as long as one uses them playfully, lists can be good references, to safely shake us out of our habits, show us something new.

A few weeks back though, when jotting down ideas for a list-based project, I was suddenly overtaken by a severe, albeit brief spell of depression, not about mortality as Eco argues, but the recent prevalence of list-making in popular culture.

“The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it.” Eco says. “Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists.”

But if the list creates culture, what in fact is behind the creation of the lists?

I began to wonder about the increasing presence of the list, and not just those numbered sets of bullet points, but graphic organizers, Powerpoints, and so many creative works gleefully basing their form on the dumbed down worksheet absurdities of K-12 education. Take Sufjan Stephen’s grandiose plan to record an album for each of the 50 states, or the graphs albeit tongue-in-cheek in the Believer. This reverie then glommed onto NaNoWriMo, Edmo, Drunkmo, all of these attempts to impose creativity through organized allotments of time or space.

I’m not out to bash these things. I’m a participant in this year’s NaNoWriMo and believe me, it’s good to be writing rather than fretting over where my life is going. Besides, when you’re looking to brainstorm fiction ideas, lists are an insanely effective way to tap memories and ideas you had no clue were there.

But I also wonder if this recent surge in list making might not also be the result of our waning ability to organize our own thoughts.

Take research on multitasking, the implications of which are ignored in inverse proportion to the frightening results. According to an August article in Wired, Dr. Clifford Nass found that multitaskers do poorly on cognitive tests, showing an inability to ignore “irrelevant” information.“Whether people with a predisposition to multitask happen to be mentally disorganized, or if multitasking feeds the condition — “that’s the million dollar question.”

To add a ten-dollar question of my own, is this mental disorganization being fed by the computer, and is that in turn stoking our desire for order; is the smog build up in our gray matter behind our recent, and often misguided attempts to assign rank to novels, works of art, or experience itself? As much as I enjoy checking them off, you’ve got to admit that the 1001 Books/Places/Painting/Records to Read/Visit/See/Hear Before You Die series is not the end all and be all of taste.

As Nass states, acts of multitasking involve exploration, the act of gathering up as much information as possible over exploitation, focused concentration on what we’ve gathered. All of these lists seem provide the promise of exploitation, or a false sense of mastery over that information. But more importantly, I think they attract us because we can sense something is wrong. Lists provide a simplified route to exploitation, a cognitive lifeline to those flailing about in a morass of often irrelevant information.

Your literature is too trendy. Oh, wait! So are we!

Posted in literature, narcissism, politics, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 9, 2009 by katekanno

Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize from the same organization that just a year ago dismissed American literature. American writers, they said “are too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.”

I think we can say the tables have turned.

Yes, I voted for Obama in the general election, even if I feared he was a tad too conciliatory to the party who had made a mess of foreign policy, our finances, and our rights. I did not do so because of overwhelming and disappointing pseudo leftist concerns about America’s image in the world, a topic that when it came up — and it often did when the music was Sufjan Stephens and the clothes were vintage — made me suspect that what people were really fretting over the prospect of an unpleasant backpacking trip through Europe.

Congratulations to the President, I guess.  I’ll thrill to see the wing-nuts froth at the mouth once again. Obviously this will lend credence to their U.N. conspiracy theories. But I fear this development will only help feed the delusions of  those conflict resolution addled, and often narcissistic, members of my generation and below who have mistaken compromise for a virtue.

And I wouldn’t tear those maple leaves off of your backpacks just yet.