Fall 2009 Course Descriptions

I’ve got two fantastic advanced literature classes planned for Fall 2009:

ENGL 459 (Disaster Fiction)

This class explores what the influential critic and novelist Susan Sontag called “the imagination of disaster.” Sontag was speaking of Hollywood cinema of the fifties and sixties, arguing that end-of-the-world films of this era simultaneously aestheticize destruction and address a perversely utopian impulse for moral simplification. But what about disasters in contemporary fiction? While natural and unnatural disasters have provided Hollywood with predictable script material for decades, less familiar are the meditations on disasters that serious novelists have taken up in literary fiction. In this class we will consider how novelists imagine disaster. From uncontrollable natural disasters to planned nuclear annihilation, from swift destruction unleashed by human avarice to the slow death of a dying world, we will examine the ways fiction reaffirms, questions, or rewrites the modalities of disaster. Along the way we will consider the social, historical, and political contexts of disaster fiction, exploring what it means to “think the unthinkable” in different times and places. Among the writers we will study are Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Ursula Le Guin, Cormac McCarthy, W.E.B. DuBois, and many others.

ENGL 493 (The Graphic Novel)

This course considers the storytelling potential of graphic novels, an often neglected form of artistic and narrative expression with a long and rich history. Boldly combining images and text, graphic novels of recent years have explored divisive issues often considered the domain of “serious” literature: immigration, racism, war and terrorism, sexual abuse, and much more. Informed by literary theory and visual culture studies, we will analyze both mainstream and indie graphic novels. In particular, we will be especially attentive to the unique visual grammar of the medium, exploring graphic novels that challenge the conventions of genre, narrative, and high and low culture. While our focus will be on American graphic novelists, we will touch upon artistic traditions from across the globe. Graphic novelists studied may include Kyle Baker, Alison Bechdel, Alan Moore, Wilfred Santiaga, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman, and Gene Luen Yang.

Writing is a Concentrated Form of Thinking

One of my friends from grad school, Tim Carmody, blogged a nice response to my recent posts on critical thinking and writing, and it got me thinking that I need to clarify one thing: I am not anti-writing.

As I wrote in my comment on Tim’s blog (and am copying here), I want to emphasize that I don’t think I’m any less committed to writing than anybody else in the humanities. After all, I do study literature, and somebody had to write that literature.

In fact, I would argue that writing should take precedent over reading. Don DeLillo, who is a touchstone for me in most areas of culture, has said that he writes to “learn how to think.” DeLillo goes on to say that “writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don’t know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them” (Paris Review 128, Fall 1993, p. 277).

Writing comes before reading, and it even comes before critical thinking.

Cognitively, developmentally, artistically, this is true: we learn to write before we learn to read. I want to recover that dynamic in my teaching. I’m simply advocating that we broaden what counts as “writing.”

What’s Wrong With Writing Essays

A few days ago I mentioned that as a professor invested in critical thinking — that is, in difficult thinking — I have become increasingly disillusioned with the traditional student paper. Just as the only thing a standardized test measures is how well you can take a standardized test, the only thing a student essay measures is how well a student can conform to the rigid thesis/defense model that (surprise!) eliminates complexity, ambiguity, and most traces of critical thinking.

I don’t believe that my mission as a professor is to turn my students into miniature versions of myself or of any other professor.  Yet that is the only function that the traditional student essay serves. And even if I did want to churn out little professors, the essay fails exceedingly well at this. Somehow the student essay has come to stand in for all the research, dialogue, revision, and work that professional scholars engage in.

It doesn’t.

The student essay is a twitch in a void. A compressed outpouring of energy (if we’re lucky) that means nothing to no one. My friend and occasional collaborator Randy Bass has said that nowhere but school would we ask somebody to write something that nobody will ever read.

This is the primary reason I’ve integrated more and more public writing into my classes. I strive to instill in my students the sense that what they think and what they say and what they write matters — to me, to them, to their classmates, and through open access blogs and wikis, to the world.

In addition to making student writing public, I’ve also begun taking the words out of writing. Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking, be composed of words? Why not images? Why not sound? Why not objects? The word text, after all, derives from the Latin textus, meaning that which is woven, strands of different material intertwined together. Let the warp be words and the weft be something else entirely.

With this in mind, I am moving away from asking students to write toward asking them to weave. To build, to fabricate, to design. I don’t want my students to become miniature scholars. I want them to be aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines, all the while through their engagement with seemingly incongruous materials, developing a critical thinking practice about the process and the product.

Sid Meier's Pirates Mapped in 3D
Sid Meier’s Pirates Mapped in 3D (Click image for a larger version)

In my next post I’ll describe in more detail some “writing” assignments that have very little to do with traditional writing. I’ll include some sample student work then, but I’ll conclude today’s post by highlighting one project here.

I asked students to design an abstract visualization of an NES videogame, a kind of model that would capture some of the game’s complexity and reveal underlying patterns to the way actions, space, and time unfold in the game. One student “mapped” Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1991) onto a piece of driftwood (larger image). This “captain’s log,” covered with screenshots and overlayed with axes measuring time and action, evokes the static nature of the game more than words ever can. Like Meier’s Civilization, much of Pirates! is given over to configurations, selecting from menus, and other non-diegetic actions. Pitched battles on the high seas, what would seem to be the highlight of any game about pirates, are rare, and though a flat photograph of the log doesn’t do justice to the actual object in all its physicality, you can see some of that absence of action here, where the top of the log is full of blank wood.

I will talk more about about this assignment and others — and where the critical thinking comes into play — in my next post.

What is Critical Thinking?

I’ve been a teacher of one sort or another for nearly 15 years, first as a high school teacher and now, after the grueling experience of graduate school, a university professor.

Should I admit that most of this time I had no philosophy guiding my teaching? It’s not that I thought that I didn’t need one. It’s that teaching came easy and the idea of a teaching philosophy simply hadn’t occurred to me. I was charismatic, demanding but fair, with outstanding student evaluations. If anybody asked, I said a few words about critical thinking and went on my way.

And then I had a problem. A crisis. One day I realized my university students were simply not picking up on key recurring images in The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel.

I was puzzled and frustrated. I had intelligent, articulate, sensitive students in my class. Why was I seeing these patterns and my students were not? And how long had this been going on?

I now know the reason was because my students, however bright, were novice learners of literature, whereas I was an expert. The gap between novice and expert learners is vast, but substantial research demonstrates there are several essential differences: expert learners notice meaningful information overlooked by novices; experts organize their knowledge associatively rather than sequentially; and experts recognize that the applicability of their skills and knowledge depends on circumstances, while novices bluntly apply their smaller skill set to every problem, even when profoundly inappropriate.

Of course, I didn’t know all of this back in the spring of 2000, when my crisis occurred. What I did know, though, was that I had to do something I had never done before: consciously design an assignment to address a particular problem in my students’ learning habits.

Since that day I have become much more reflective and intentional in my teaching — all with the goal of fostering that most talismanic of buzzwords, critical thinking.

I have read reams of studies about critical thinking, participated in research groups on the subject, and of course, feigned enough expertise to judge the critical thinking of others. But I have to admit that I still do not know exactly what counts as critical thinking.

I believe, however, that critical thinking stands in opposition to facile thinking. Critical thinking is difficult thinking. Critical thinking is being comfortable with difficulty. And this is something else that separates the expert learner from the novice learner: experts are at ease with uncertainty, while novices are uncomfortable with what they don’t understand, and they struggle to come up with answers — and quickly come up with answers — that eliminate complexity and ambiguity. The historian and cognitive psychologist Samuel Wineburg calls this tendency to seek answers over questions “schoolish” behavior, because it is exactly the kind of behavior most schools reward.

I want my students to break out of this schoolish mode of behavior. Instead of thinking like students — like novices, I want them to think more like experts, and I must coach them to do so. It requires intellectual risk-taking on their part, and on my part, it requires mindfulness, patience, and risk-taking as well.

The next few posts to Sample Reality will elaborate upon these thoughts, and I will begin in a few days describing how, much to the chagrin of my English Department colleagues, I am moving increasingly away from the traditional student essay as a means for evaluating (much less fostering) critical thinking.

CFP: Don DeLillo and Play

Here’s a CFP for conference panel on Don DeLillo and Play that I’m organizing:

CFP: Don DeLillo and Play
Sponsored by the Don DeLillo Society
2009 American Literature Association Conference
Boston, Massachusetts, May 21-24, 2009

The groundbreaking work of Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois suggests that play and games are a fundamental part of life, yet set apart from the ordinary and the everyday, occupying a special preserve with unique boundaries and rules. How does the work of Don DeLillo reaffirm or challenge these classic notions of play? From the obvious football and baseball themes of End Zone and Underworld to the understated language games of The Names and performative play in Players and Running Dog, Don DeLillo has repeatedly focused on games and play in a way that has attracted little attention from scholars. The Don DeLillo Society seeks to redress this gap and welcomes papers that explore the role of sports, games, and play in DeLillo’s novels and stories.

Please send 300-500 word abstracts and a 1-page C.V. to Mark Sample at msample1 at gmu dot edu by January 9, 2009.

Kunzru’s Transmission and Gaiman’s Coraline

I’m not sure why I started reading for pleasure two separate novels on the eve of the new semester, but I did. Maybe I’m trying to squeeze a few more drops of summer out of the first week of classes, before my reading for work grows too heavy.

First up is Hari Kunzru’s Transmission. The book reminds me of early Neal Stephenson, with the way Kunzru adopts different styles of language to convey points of view. Here’s one of the first scenes with Guy Swift, whose vapidity becomes increasingly obvious as the novel progresses:

In a glittering career Guy had raised awareness, communicated vision, evoked tangible product experiences and taken managers on inspirational vision journeys. He had reinforced leading positions and project-managed the generation of innovative retail presences. His repositioning strategies reflected the breadth and prestige of large portfolios. His communication facilitiation stood out from the crowd. Engaging and impactful, for some years he had also been consistently cohesive, integreted and effective over a spread spectrum.

It’s clear that Kunzru is making fun of Guy, but what is so great about the passage is that Kunzru uses Guy’s own specialized language to do it. It’s what Bakhtin calls “double-voiced discourse”: using someone’s own mode of speaking — their word choice, structure, and tone — against them. The passage is an assemblage of buzz phrases from the management world and seen here, piled onto one another in a collision of corporatespeak, it is all revealed for the silliness that it is.

The second novel I picked up and tore halfway through at midnight last night, when I should have been sleeping, or at least prepping for class, is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Amazon says the book is for 9-12 year olds, but I don’t know. It is creepy. Extremely creepy. Verging, at the halfway point, on downright scary. Dave McKean’s eerie illustrations aren’t helping.

I’ll have to dig around in the databases to make sure, but I can’t believe that nobody has looked at Coraline in the context of other children’s gothic novels. It’s a haunted house novel, and I don’t recommend reading it at night, when you’re all alone in your own house. Or, as I was, alone in a house that isn’t yours.

Torrents and Explosions We Now Take for Granted

Looking for something the wonderful German critic Walter Benjamin says in Illuminations about the cheapening of experience in a mass mediated world, I came across this haunting reflection that describes the world as my great-grandparents must have seen it, in the years after the horrific brutality of the Great War:

A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.

So Many Universes in My Head

I’ve been wondering, how many universes can I hold in my head at once?

I’m talking about fictional universes, of course. And by universe, I mean a world set apart by its own physics and cosmology. So, realist narratives all occupy the same universe (Sherlock Holmes and Tony Soprano exist in the same universe). But Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a different universe from the Marvel Universe, which is a universe separate from the Whedonverse.

Right now, circulating near the surface waters of my short-term recall are a multitude of universes, elements of which I’ve encountered in the past few days: the Marvel Universe, the Gotham City-Batman Universe (which seems closer to our universe than the Marvel Universe), the Harry Potter Universe, the George Lucas Star Wars Universe, George R.R. Martin’s Ice and Fire Universe, Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood Universe (thanks to my four-year-old), the Shadow of the Colossus Kyozo Universe, Nintendo’s Mario Universe, Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper Universe, Gaius Baltar and his pantheistic Cylon universe, and Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Walls Universe (again, thanks to my son).

Shouldn’t I get confused? Each universe has its own beastiary, its own laws of physics, its own mythology. How do I keep track of them all?

Maybe because what the universes have in common is actually more fundamental than what separates them. As vast as the gulf is between a Jedi Knight and Heffalump, these two universes — and all of the ones above — share the same moral code.

Just look at this painstakingly detailed illustration:

The Moral Universe and Its Subsets

The characters that populate each of the worlds above, no matter how realistic or how fantastic, all operate within the same moral universe. There is right and there is wrong. There is good and there is evil. The more interesting characters are a blend of right and wrong, but nonetheless right and wrong still anchor the two extremes of what is imaginable.

I wonder, then, what exists outside this framing universe? Can someone help me name some fictional universes which operate in an amoral universe, where there is no sense of right or wrong, no judgment of good or bad deeds? What would such a fictional universe look like? Where the hero is neither a hero nor an anti-hero, but something altogether…new?

Reading Lists for Fall 2008

My course descriptions for Fall 2008 have been up for a while, but here are the specific reading lists for both classes (cross-posted from my official university site):

Reading List for ENGL 343 – Textual Media

Reading List for HNRS 414:003 – American Postmodernism

Fantastic writing in reviews of milk on amazon

Via Dennis Jerz via Boing Boing, word of hundreds of fake reviews for a real product on Amazon, a gallon of Tuscan whole milk.

Jerz imagines quite rightly that the novelty of ordering milk from an online bookstore is the impetus for these entertaining reviews, which range in style from poetic to surreal. Many of the reviews are laugh-out-loud funny. The astonishing thing is that not only are the reviews extremely clever, but that they are extraordinarily well-written. Most of them choose an approach to the review (say, a reworking of a William Carlos Williams poem, a snooty review for wine, or the persona of an RPG gamer) and stay true to that approach throughout the review. They do not tip their hand or let on that it is a fake review. In this way, the reviews are superbly confident.

This confidence, this sense of purpose is the opposite of what I find in most undergraduate writing. I wonder, then, is there some sort of writing exercise lurking here?

Instinct tells me that writing a fake review is low stakes and the reviewers probably feel less inhibited than they do when writing a real review. The writers allow themselves to be bolder, more daring, and more creative. And I imagine some of the fake reviews were written by people who would never have written a real review.

So, what if I have my students write fake reviews? Professors are so intent on having students write “formal” and “serious” papers because we believe that is how serious literary interpretation comes about. This format obviously stifles creativity, but I’m now realizing that it also hampers a student’s confidence. So, instead of a formal essay with a tidy thesis and satisfying conclusion and five to ten paragraphs in between (which, by the way, never happens), assign students a series of parody reviews, each one to be written in a different “voice” or persona.

For example, one review on Amazon treats the Tuscan whole milk as if it were a translation of an early Italian literary masterpiece. Why not reverse the equation, and have our students write about a book as if it were something else, maybe an iPod or a decoration? Here another review imagines that the milk is a piece of furniture:

Shipping was fine, and the product was not damaged in any way, but my husband and I (both of us have college degrees, mind you, his in Engineering) could not figure out how to assemble this. No instructions, no diagrams, not even a lousy cheap allen wrench. So basically, weeks after purchase, we’re using it as a one gallon paper weight. I haven’t gotten any response from Tuscan. It earns two stars simply because it is heavy and does do a fair job of holding down the stack of newspapers awaiting recycling.

Many of the reviewers demonstrate an acute awareness of how reviews typically work, and they incorporate these formal features into their reviews. Here is one that makes excellent use of the “Spoiler alert” warning often given in book and movie reviews:

Overall, the quality and freshness of this milk was outstanding. The only thing that I found unpleasant was the seemingly acidic nature of it when it came out of my nose.
This milk tends to spoil when left open in a warm place for too long.

As I say, in these and dozens of others of fake reviews, the writers are confident, attune to their context, and in a perverse way, showing a kind of mastery over the subject of their review. You couldn’t ask for more from a piece of writing.

Making Wikipedia a Class Assignment

Slashdot has a post today about a professor who requires students to edit Wikipedia for a class assignment.

Come on, Slashdot, this is old, old news! My colleague Mills Kelly has had many Wikipedia assignment in the past several years, while over a year ago I had my 21st Century Literature Class do extensive edits on the House of Leaves Wikipedia entry. (And my assignment actually caused a bit of an old-fashioned flame war between my students and some of the self-appointed Wikipedia moderators.)

The Futility of Rowing

I’ve never seen a more fitting description of a rowing machine than in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man:

There was no fitness center in his hotel. He found a gym not far away and worked out when there was time. No one used the rowing machine. He half hated the thing, it made him angry, but he felt the intensity of the workout, the need to pull and strain, set his body against a sleek dumb punishing piece of steel and cable.

DeLillo captures the essence of the rowing machine: more than any other piece of exercise equipment, the rowing machine is a punishment, a throwback to the ancient days of galley slaves. But here the Barbary overlords with their whips and chains are internalized. Beset only by his own thoughts, the exerciser rows for dear life, chased by nothing and chasing nothing.

The rowing machine is a self-imposed disciplinary sentence. With every stroke, one’s very life seems at stake. It’s like trying to outrow death itself. A strenuous workout on a rowing machine is as close to drowning on dry land one can come.

It is also a pointless endeavor, and for DeLillo’s character, who has become a professional gambler in the wake of 9/11, its pointlessness is its very point. In true gambler fashion, he “half hates” the thing yet continues to submit to it. The anger it provokes is all that matters.

Art and Terror in the Arctic

It’s a good thing that August had record temperatures—seemingly endless days over 100 degrees—because I spent a better part of the month reading Dan Simmons’ leviathan of a novel The Terror, a semi-historical account of a failed bid in the 1840s to chart the legendary “northwest passage” through the frozen arctic.

Simmons accomplishes much in his 800 pages—supernatural beings stalking the ice, arrogant British explorers ignoring nature and common sense, a landscape both barren and hostile, sailors succumbing to scurvy and cannibalism—but what stands out is the cold.

A hundred degrees below zero cold.

The painting on the cover of the hardback edition of novel (shown above) goes a long way toward capturing this alien, frozen wasteland and the suffering and wonder it provoked. The painting is Magdalena Bay, by the 19th century French artist Auguste François Biard (larger image). The painting, which is now in the Louvre, shows the aurora borealis from a bay on the Arctic island of Spitzbergen. In the foreground are five figures, presumably explorers, who are either dying or dead:

Biard painted this fantastic, morbid scene after he participated in a scientific expedition to the Arctic in the 1830s (in which nobody died), and he seems to foreshadow, in an oddly Romantic style, the ill-fated journey of the HMS Erebus and Terror in the 1840s (in which everybody died). It is quite easy to imagine that the men in Biard’s painting are the same men who Simmons has dying by the dozens…from exposure, from botulism, from pneumonia, from tuberculosis, from scurvy, and from murder.

In line with the humanistic outlook of the time, the French expedition team aboard the corvette La Recherche, included both scientists and artists. The hope was that the artists would create works that documented the expedition as well as inspired the citizens back home about the value of exploration and discovery. The artists had an implicit pedagogical mission: to teach people that scientific progress is worthwhile, that extending the limits of human knowledge is brave, vital, and beautiful. Of course, Biard’s painting would seem to suggest that it’s also dangerous, and that for prideful men, the drive to chart the uncharted can be pure folly.

There is a contemporary project reminiscent of the Recherche expedition’s melding of art and science: David Buckland’s Cape Farewell Project, which takes photographers, writers, sculptors and other artists on voyages in the arctic. A report on NPR described the origins of Buckland’s project:

Buckland had been talking with scientists about global warming–and he was convinced they needed help to communicate what they knew about the way the world’s climate was changing. Now, after three voyages to the Arctic for his Cape Farewell project, Buckland believes the artists have lived up to his expectations.

While I am a strong advocate of l’art pour l’art, I also believe in art with a mission, and I think Buckland and his fellow artists (which includes notables like Ian McEwan and Gretel Ehrlich) are following a noble purpose. I can only wish there were more collaborative efforts between contemporary artists and scientists. Instead of a teacher aboard the space shuttle, send a sculptor. Forget the reality TV camera crews on Sir Richard Branson’s latest exploit; send a sound artist. Don’t be satisfied with mapping an underground world, design one of your own.

Oprah on The Road / The Road on Oprah

I’m a voracious reader and my personal and professional lives both revolve around books: I’m always either reading a book, teaching a book, or writing about a book. Sometimes all at the same time for three different books.

In short order this spring I’ve read a string of novels, nonstop, usually starting the newest one only hours after I have just finished the previous one. Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons, The Keep by Jennifer Egan, The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, The Confusion by Neal Stephenson, The Known World by Edward P. Jones.

And then, a few weeks ago I read The Road by the elusive Cormac McCarthy. This was before Oprah chose McCarthy’s novel as her latest “Oprah’s Book.” (A most unusual selection for her, and I’m sure a shocking read to Oprah’s followers, who are more accustomed to books about painful family relationships than the post-apocalyptic horrors of cannibalism and barbary found in The Road.) This was also before McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for The Road.

So what happened when I read McCarthy’s novel?

Quite simply, I haven’t been able to read another book since. So dark and disturbing, yet literarily brilliant is the novel, that I’m shaken to the core, unable to pick up anything else to read until something–I don’t know what–in me subsides.