Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Do as I Read, Not as I Do

Many of my friends have just finished applications to grad school and more are planning to apply in the future. Therefore, today's special bonus recommendation is a whole slew (where slew = 4; I believe it's a metric unit) of books that I've found useful as a neophyte teacher/researcher and as a long-time student. Perhaps, because I have only completed a master's and a few semesters of my PhD, these recommendations are not that weighty, but they helped me, and that's where I am, so maybe they will help you. I make no promises, only recommendations.

Note that for the purposes of this blog post, I define grad school as the process of studying for advanced degrees that prepare one for an academic career, not degrees such as law or medicine; I simply know very little about those degrees and I believe that the professional expectations surrounding those fields are very differently inculcated in students. This belief is based only on my exhaustive questioning of law student friends and my exhaustive review of Grey's Anatomy reruns.

So! On with today's recommendations!

1. Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities by Gregory Colón Semenza. If you want to go to grad school in the humanities, you need to read this book. Period. There is simply no excuse not to. Too many grad school "advice" books rely on vagaries and statements about Really Wanting Something; they paint the experience as some kind of self-discovery where moxie and pluck alone can lead to success.

Semenza will give you an even-handed assessment of what you need to do to survive. Too many books critical of the academe engage in hand-wringing and scare tactics. Again, Semenza's book is even-handed and lacks the shrill, easily dismissible tone of those other books that simply shriek at the reader about how doooooomed the academe is. He lays out, from application to job search, what can be expected and provides an explication of the professional expectations put upon grad students. When you're studying for an advanced degree in the humanities, you leave all clear-cut answers behind. The nice thing about this book is that it is almost infuriatingly prescriptive, and while you will likely not want to hear much of the advice he dispenses, one gets a strong sense that success will follow if you listen to his advice. If you read no other book about grad school, make it this one. This is the book I recommend to acquaintances interested in applying. I tell them this over and over and over and over (my recommendations seem to fall on deaf ears).

2. Learning Teaching by Jim Scrivener. Unfortunately this book is out of print, but used copies are fairly reasonable and it seems a new edition (ca. 2005, import) is available. It can also be borrowed from libraries. It is aimed at the person teaching English to adult speakers of other languages, but the basic teaching advice - from determining what "kind" of teacher one is, to diagrams showing how classroom dynamic is affected by desk arrangement, to suggestions for how to call on students with hand gestures other than pointing - is applicable to the young teaching assistant. For those who have never taught, this is an incredibly useful guide. It is straightforward, jargon-free, and accessible.

3. Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia Caveat: I have only read the earlier edition of this book, and I recommend it with liberal sprinklings of salt. I hate to say it, because I truly respect Ms. Mentor (a sob sister character invented by Emily Toth, whose column appears in The Chronicle of Higher Education) but the earlier edition of the book was grievously old-fashioned. Particularly infuriating was her recommendation that female academics (in 1997) refrain from riding bicycles. Really. However, Ms. Mentor is truly to be commended for building an academic career at a time when it was significantly more difficult for women to do so, and the book should be taken on its own terms; readers should understand that her struggles have necessarily informed her advice. And some of the tips are very valuable. She's at her best (at least in the older edition) when she's giving very specific tips such as on how to build a case for tenure and keep records. Certainly, at the very least this book gives remarkable and valuable insight into the experiences of the generation of academics likely to be teaching and advising incoming students, and that context alone is worth the price of admission (currently $11.54 for used copies on Amazon). Since the updated version deigns to include gentlemen as well, it may be even better; in fact, I bet it probably is. eta Ms. Mentor's channeler has informed me that the 2009 book is actually a completely new book, rather than a revision! I apologize to Ms. Mentor for this embarrassing mistake and implore readers to investigate this new offering.

4. What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and "Bias" by Michael Bérubé. This book is more of a meditation on teaching than a discussion of "classroom bias" (an issue I find so patently ridiculous I can't not put it in quotes; if you want to know why, read the book). Bérubé does an excellent job of dismantling and discrediting the more well-known cases of "bias" while still describing, with compassion, his teaching experiences that have involved contentious political issues. He describes the day to day lifestyle of teaching and, more valuably, provides narratives of his experiences teaching. At times his rhetoric is incendiary and possibly alienating to those who truly believe that higher education in the United States is inherently "biased" but I doubt those people would read this. If they do, power to them.

The book lays out a significant number of classroom situations and how Bérubé dealt with them. At times, the examples come across as slightly self-congratulatory, but I appreciated them nonetheless. In today's world, where students seldom accept or respect the credentials of college instructors, it's important to respond to thornier classroom issues meaningfully and authoritatively. The book, as the cover states, defends the value of the liberal arts for all thinking humans- something that can never be done enough in our brain-dead, earnings-obsessed, dying culture. This book is useful for gauging the current atmosphere of the university for professors. It's not as needlessly negative and hopeless as other books I have read. Rather than screeching about the inevitable demise of the academe, Bérubé offers actual models for strategies to negotiate the times. And isn't that what the liberal arts are supposed to be about anyway?

on a side note, thanks so much to all of you who've been reading since we launched this blog! I am excited for 2010 and am hoping to make this blog even bigger then. You know, like, bigger as in more than ten readers. But the point is, I love the ten readers we have. And if you love our blog, please tell some friends! My New Year's resolution is to update more! Maybe Thom's is to update at all! Happy New Year! And finally, if you have something you think I should recommend, send it my way! Maybe we can also work out guest posts!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

suturing the gap

Today's recommendation is Tom Ford's first film A Single Man. I normally hate period pieces. I hate them because they are always about the time in which they were made (cf. Philip Rosen) and the details that are attenuated, or the characters, always scream LOOK! HERE WE ARE! JUST IN THE PAST! STANDING AROUND AND TALKING ABOUT MAJOR HISTORICAL EVENTS! LIKE WE DID! IN THE PAST! WHICH IS WHERE WE ARE BY THE WAY. BUT WITH PRESENT-DAY HAIRCUTS, THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

(Apologies to Philip Rosen, whose book Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory explains this far better than I ever could.

A major theme of A Single Man, as articulated by the characters, is letting go of the past, which works on a macro level because the film itself is an act of clinging to the past in its obsessive, beautiful rendering of a moment past. The shifting of the color palettes in the film, while unsubtle, drive home the point that at some moments the present becomes, well, presence (Cf. Lefebvre), and kept time and understood time align. The film follows a middle-aged English professor on the day he has decided to commit suicide, following the death of his lover some months prior.

Yet, as other reviewers have pointed out, this film is among the most thorough cinematic recreations of a time past. Does nostalgia color my perception here? Yes. I was not alive to see 1962, but I feel this has to be a more live and real depiction of life as it was lived than the glossy Mad Men, which constantly roots itself in its time by having the characters experience historical events and talk about them (caveat: I've only seen one episode; I didn't like it). Day to day life is often ignored in media depictions of the past. Everything is then-new and all characters in historic or period fiction seem to have a prescient understanding of what events define their era. One of the strengths of A Single Man is the ways in which the specificity of the time period is secondary; important world events are mere media background noise. The focus is on the person, in that moment, that just happened to be THAT moment, and the web of interactions he navigates on that day.

But other than theoretical blathering about this film, I'm recommending it for a slew of reasons. I haven't seen many films in the theater this year, but this is by far the best that I've seen.

* Everyone has already talked about Colin Firth's performance, so I'll put this on the list. All the performances in this film are superb.

* I personally found the depiction of 1960s academia engaging and hilarious. The office, the classroom, the students - it brought to life the halcyon days of Real Academic Freedom written about so often.

* Besides the incredible attention to detail, the film is beautiful - visually striking without the marketed, overbearing, slick appearance of mainstream Hollywood fare.

*As my friend Brandon Fibbs has pointed out, the score is beautiful.

* The story, obviously, is engaging on many levels. It's human and simple. It's really just about love and loss. But it also depicts the struggles of the GLBT minority in the 1960s in a way that relates to the ongoing fight for GLBT rights.

* The narrative structure - filled with analepses - fleshes out and makes complicated and humane the characters' struggle; in another format, George could have become fairly unlikable. That the narrative itself doesn't remained moored in the diegetic present further reinforces the message that we experience time fluidly. What to make of that message? Do we or do we not live in the past? Does mediating any feeling or idea effectively freeze it in a moment and create some kind of temporal disjunct between the Now and the Then?

Obviously, I have been writing way too many stuffy final papers lately. So I'll just say that you should go out and see this movie RIGHT NOW.

In today's awful, hyper-kinetic, dreadful world, the act of watching cinema itself seems an act of the past; cinema is so firmly and popularly rooted in the ~20th century and often I think the present (or presence) has eclipsed it. Therefore, I recommend that you defy this downward/forward progression and see A Single Man.

To find out if this film is playing near you, click here!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Rebuilding fragmentary histories

Today's recommendation is Ken Smith's book Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970.
I discovered Archive.org in late 2001, when I first started college. Looking at Prelinger's online archive, I felt I had discovered something nobody else had ever, ever heard of. I was wrong about that, but the un-selfconsciously obsolescent world of early Cold War "mental hygiene" films was fascinating to me. The damaged films, the cracked audio, the forgotten and insignificant images, the ideology of conformity. The lost and skipped frames.

A few months later, from Googling around, I realized there was a BOOK about these films. That book is Ken Smith's Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970.

Now, flash-forward the better part of a decade. I'm working on a PhD and my dissertation subject will likely be those films. Even now, I cite Ken Smith on most of the work I do. Why?

First, this is virtually the only book written about so-called mental hygiene films. Many other works tangentially mention this subgenre or type of film, which constituted tens of thousands of works. But this is the only one that focuses on it in depth. Second, for a non-academic, Smith has done some absolutely exhaustive, breathtaking research. The book contains capsule summaries of several hundred of the most popular mental hygiene films as well as contemporaneous quotes from sources like Educational Screen and producers of these films. Third, Smith situates the summaries in an excellent historical overview. Fourth, he's just a good writer. I prefer this book to any number of dry academic texts. Smith conveys information in an accessible, entertaining way.

Also, there are pictures.

Like it or not, an entire generation of American students was forced to watch these films. They are a significant part of our culture and history - which is why I study them. As much as I love pretentious art films, they have little connection to the lives of The People (Whatever that is).

This book is great for people who are interested in 20th century American history, ephemera, educational history and history of educational media, new media discousres, and film history or aesthetics. I'd also recommend this book for anyone trying to research independently (which I guess would be most adjunct faculty), because it's a great example of significant research that came into being without, necessarily, institutional validation.

Although this book is not exhaustive and there's still lots to be researched (Mr. Smith: Thanks. That means I can continue with whatever it is I do), it's a wonderful place to start if you are interested in any of the above topics, which is why it's today's recommendation. Ken Smith has also written Junk English , Raw Deal: Horrible and Ironic Stories of Forgotten Americans, Junk English 2 and Ken's Guide to the Bible

all likely to be future Recommendations.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Birth Stories, Social Histories, and Master Narratives

Today's recommendation is The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler.

I read this book for the first time a few years ago. I picked it up on impulse in the bookstore and sat and read half of it. I was never particularly interested in adoption but the arrangement of personal narratives and preservation of voice within the book is so compelling that I couldn't resist. Originally based on a video installation piece, Fessler's work weaves together individual narratives to paint something akin to a cultural study. Rather than providing dry historical or social explanations for the vast difference readers will feel while reading her work, Fessler lets the multiplicity of the individuals paint the historic and social picture with very little framing - a masterful feat.

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade is structured like a collection of birth stories. Everyone likes birth stories (Right? Maybe?) or at least understands them because they follow a roughly familiar plot that often ends happily ever after. But the stories in The Girls Who Went Away turn this "master narrative" on its head with wrenching and small differences. You could watch approximately the same story on TLC (dumbed significantly down, of course), but in this book the trajectories are different. I'm no expert - I don't have children and probably never will - but the compelling feature of birth stories, for me, is the inherently forward-looking impulse they have. Biologically, there are few features. The stories end joyfully in the same place. But the "birth stories" in this book begin from different places - disappointed or repressive parents, abusive high school boyfriends - a power differential. By and large, they continue in seclusion and end in grief and tragedy and longing. They are not forward looking; their narrative thrust ends in a vast unknown quantity of near infinitude. The only known quotient is the past. I guess it's this subversion of predicted narratives that interests me.

Even if it doesn't, The Girls Who Went Away is a sensitively and beautifully felt portrayal of a society that essentially no longer exists: A society in which it was acceptable and even preferred to send young girls away to give birth in seclusion rather than face single motherhood or let others know they were pregnant. We can't ignore that this society existed. Therefore, The Girls Who Went Away is an important book. And that is why it is today's recommendation.