Friday, September 30, 2005

On Being Anti-Theory

I'm trying not to write out the citations for my Tolkien Encyclopedia entry, so perhaps I'll blog this instead. Don't worry, Dr. Drout, I'll get it in on time.

The thread on my exchange with Michael Drout that has been running on The One Ring Tolkien fan site mostly features people struggling to make sense of what we are talking about. I am reminded of the scene in LotR in which Saruman and Gandalf are talking after Saruman's defeat by the Ents, and the observers felt like naughty children or servants at the door. Nearly every post has some caveat about "I haven't read all this theory" and "I'm not an academic, but..."

This is, I think, exactly the problem. One of the posters refers to Drout as being "largely anti-theory" which is I think an inaccurate description. Rather than speaking for Drout, I'll speak for myself.

I am very, very pro-theory. I would go so far as to say that if you don't have a basic understanding of literary theory, and more particularly the place of your own scholarship within the theoretical traditions, you probably should not be holding a PhD. Not that everyone has to know all the ins-and-outs of Said and Kristeva ... it may be enough just to have considered your own theoretical position. All professors and PhDs (the categories do not always overlap) should be in the business of creating knowledge. If you don't understand how knowledge is created (i.e., theory), you can't do that part of your job in a competant manner.

That being said, I think theory should be near-invisible. I am glad that my house has a good foundation, but I keep a hedge of riotous shrubs surrounding it to hide that same foundation. The foundation is useful and necessary, but ugly. When guests come to my home, they do not walk on my foundation ... they walk on the carpeting and flooring covering it. Does my desire to hide my foundation make me anti-foundation? No, I simply think that its purpose is best served in a hidden capacity.

All of which leads us to the purpose of foundations (or in the obvious metaphor here, theory). Foundations need to be applied to buildings. What would we think of architects who fetishized foundations to the point that they were laying foundations around the landscape, refusing to sully them by placing buildings over them? Naturally, we would think such a person mad or a fool. Yet there are those who refuse to apply their theories to actual works of literature. In some quarters (though it has gone out of vogue), you can still find people who haughtily reply that they "do theory," not literature, or even more pretentiously, "high theory." As a colleague of mine said recently, "We already have people who do that, and do a better job. We call them philosophers."

So, the upshot here is that I am not anti-theory, but that I think theory must always find its application to literary works, and that it must never obscure those works, but illuminate them. I suspect Drout's position is similar.

Remember my earlier comments about the posters striking the attitude of naughty servants listening in on the conversations of their betters? That's exactly the problem. The posters to the thread are obviously smart people, some of them apparently well-read, and yet they are shut out of the conversation. They seem to feel as if they have little right to talk about the literature they love. While it is true that English professors have more ethos to speak to these issues than they, it does not follow that they should be treated as eavesdroppers.

Gandalf breaks the fantasy that Saruman creates by laughing at his pretension. So, to my non-literati readers out there ... consider me laughing uproariously. Come in the door and join the wizards.

Tolkien Fans and Professionalism

Over at The One Ring, a Tolkien fan site, "N.E. Brigand" has a post about the discussion Drout and I have been having about rejuvenating literary studies. I'm a little surpised they are interested in the subject, but here's the link.

By the way, Blogroll and Trackbacks haven't been working right today, so my apologies for any inconvenience.

Surreality-Based Blogs

Dr. Taylor over at Poliblog has a post about, among other things, "reality-based" blogs. He takes one blogger in particular to task for un-ironically claiming to be reality-based, then citing a National Enquirer story.

I've noticed for a while this simple formula: The degree to which a blog is based in reality is inversely proportionate to the degree it emphasizes the "reality-based" meme. In other words, nearly every blog I have seen that uses the "reality-based" slogan traffics in the most paranoid conspiracy-mongering on the web. Well, actually, the truth is that EVERY blog I can bring to mind using that slogan is of the mimeographed-pamphlet-on-the-streetcorner flavor (wherein the blogger suspects that Karl Rove has been following them in his black helicopter and using mind-control powers to hypnotize Kansas voters while spiking the water supply in an attempt to sap their purity of essence), but I'm going to leave the caveat "nearly" in there in case there are any I haven't noticed that really are based in reality.

Of course, there are plenty of bomb-throwing blogs on the left and the right that don't have this "reality-based" meme, but why are so many that embrace that reality tag living in surreality?

I think herein we see deconstruction operating at its most fundamental level. Now, before your eyes start to fog over, don't worry -- this won't be in Literary Cant. I'll keep it simple and jargon-free.

Deconstruction points out that implied in any word is its opposite. In other words, the fact that we have a word for "light" implies that we have darkness. The fact that we call some animals "female" implies that there are non-females (i.e., males) among the animals. In some ways, this principle can also be implied outside of language. For example, if you find that a town has an odd law outlawing donuts, it does not imply that the town does not like donuts -- rather, it implies that the town had so many people who like donuts that it sparked the Great Donut Riot of '37, compelling the city fathers to pass the Donut Restriction and Public Peace Ordinance of the same year. [Note: if you Hegelians out there think you smell a whiff of dialectic in deconstruction ... you do]

I suspect that the reason the Surreality-Based Web Community latched on to the "reality" meme so hard is that, in their hearts, they fear that maybe they are losing their grip on reality. When an inarticulate Bush staffer said "reality-based" to mean "based in the status quo," perhaps they were relieved that someone called their beliefs "reality" because it lent some validity to their positions.

Dr. Taylor described the reality tag as "taunting." I suspect it is instead meant to be self-reassuring.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Strengthening the Profession

Drout today eviscerated the new MLA president's column in the newsletter. I won't trouble you with the gory details -- suffice it to say that his post is merciless and necessary. To be sure, it is ugly, but no uglier than the writing he tortures to a well-deserved death. To paraphrase the old cliche from cards: Read it, and weep.

At the end of the piece he writes:

That's probably enough. I could continue through the whole column, but after a certain point it's just mean. Confused thinking, poor writing and political special pleading: is it any wonder no one pays attention to the MLA? And I am not an MLA basher (really. Stop laughing.) I think a strong, effective MLA would be very valuable to American society and to our profession. But what we have ain't that.Instead, the people at the top of our profession (in the MLA as a whole, but also in my own field of Anglo-Saxon studies) are failing us. They are not communicating effectively to the public. They are involved in how-many-angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debates within the academy that are visibly stupid to those outside (and that wouldn't withstand the intellectual scrutiny of even a first-year grad student in philosophy). And most damningly, they are letting us become irrelevant because by the time the intellectual bills need to be paid, they will be comfortably retired.

This jeremiad at the end echoes my call for redefining what it means to be a professional in the field. So, my challenge to Drout and myself (and to anyone else who cares to be involved) is to move beyond identifying the problem, and work on solutions. How do we re-conceive the discipline of literary study?

Please note that what follows is very much ideas coming into being, not ready for primetime. I'm still working all this out; I suspect it will take years before my mind really wraps around it.

Some will argue that we do not re-conceive literary study, we abandon it. I reject that. Literature is too important to who we are as a species. Even before the advent of writing, literary oral poetry existed in every human society. We can pretend that we are walking away from literature and rejecting its study, but we are only capable of doing so as individuals (maybe). Mankind must always return to it, no matter what we call it. So, since we will be producing and studying literature anyway, we might as well do so thoughtfully.

Others will argue that literary study need only continue on its current path. While not even the very wise can see all ends, the impulse to maintain this direction seems doomed. If I were not in the field, though, I might be inclined toward this position. I had a friend in undergraduate who claimed to be an anarchist. He wanted anarchy, he said, so that in the absence of organized power he and others like him could take control. Maybe it would be easier to allow literary studies to collapse in exhaustion, little more than philosophy lite spiced with empty political agitation, then wait to see what phoenix arises from the ashes. Still, though, I have a fool's hope that all can be saved, and that we are on the cusp of something IMPORTANT.

One change I am sure is needed is a re-engagement with the public. I see the signs all around me that people are hungry for literature, but the experts (and this includes me) refuse to feed them. We deny them Homer and Virgil and Chaucer and Troyes and Pizan and Austin and Poe because we ourselves have grown contemptuous of them, preferring instead our new prophets from Bhabha to Zizek. We speak in Literary Cant to prevent them from intruding upon our secret world. We behave like High Priests carrying out the liturgy in public when it comes time to demand funding, then mocking our rube congregation when in conclave. This cannot stand -- and not simply for reasons of money and funding (though this is where it is first and currently felt) -- but for reasons of decency. Dean Yeager accurately accused Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters: "Dr. Venkman, we believe that the purpose of science is to serve mankind. You, however, seem to regard science as some kind of dodge or hustle." Substitute "literature" for "science," and you've got our current situation.

So, the question goes out, besides blogging (which guys like Drout are doing already anyway), how do we do this? How do we re-connect with the public? How do we encourage quality research over quantity? How do we move from philosophy-lite to depth of thought? How do we re-concieve literary studies to allow a re-naissance?

University Ideology

I was pointed to this article in the Weekly Standard about campus ideology. I almost didn't read it, expecting another tired article about tenured radicals, but instead I found his history of the university interesting in that he interprets the divide as being between liberal and left rather than liberal and conservative.

I'm not sure whether I buy it, nor what the implications may be if true, but it is interesting nonetheless. I wonder how much of the article is driven by the neoconservative drive to reclaim the word "liberal" to mean what "classical liberal" now means -- reversing the current odd situation in which "liberals" offer apologia for fascists and "conservatives" pursue a Wilsonian foreign policy to overthrow theocracy and fascism.

More and more, I am unable to describe my political beliefs with any of these terms without heavily slathering on the irony, so I find myself saying things like, "Well, you know, I'm a medievalist, so I take my views from Plato and Boethius..."

Semiotics of Excuses

In "Semiotics 101," Robert Weir offers a translation guide for how professors hear student excuses.

One of my personal favorites in my own career was from a seemingly-friendly young lady:

"I'm sorry I missed the last three weeks of your class. I was in jail for stabbing a man."

Top 100 Public Intellectuals

If found this list of the Top 100 Public Intellectuals depressing. My own field is poorly represented, and I fear it is out of a lack of candidates rather than an anti-literary bias.

By the way, my favorite among this list is Václav Havel, whose essay "The Power of the Powerless" has occupied an honored spot on my bookshelf for nearly two decades.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Voices from the Storm

Barry Lemoine, a refugee (or are we saying "evacuee" now?) from Hurricane Katrina has been living in Troy, writing for the local paper. Mostly he's been writing features about refugees living around here -- some good stuff, but I haven't been linking to it unless the story contains an element of something local residents can do. So far as I can tell, the folks who have settled locally seem to be doing pretty well, since by my best estimate they have increased our local population by only about 2-3 percent, and we have a bit of a labor shortage anyway.

In any case, Lemoine had written a play about Hurricane Betsy, ironically intended to educate younger people about what the storm meant. I suppose the intended audience now has stories enough of its own. The next few days will have some readings from his play on our Montgomery, Troy, and Dothan campuses. I want to encourage everyone in those communities to attend, since it's a two-fer, supporting both Katrina relief and the arts locally. Plus, since the play is an award-winner I'm suspecting it will be pretty entertaining.

Here is the University press release for “An Evening with Betsy, Voices from the Storm." I plan to be there at the Troy reading on Monday; I hope to see you there.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Professionalization and Our Arid Literary Era

Now that my books are all put away, I thought I'd respond to Michael Drout's post entitled, "Why is Literary Scholarship Going Through a Dry Spell?" I'm sure that out there are those who think it is not ... primarily those who like to think that their own work is evidence great intellectual accomplishment. I'll leave those people to pat themselves on the back while I address everyone else.

I suspect the culprit is the professionalization of the field. It irks me to say that, as I am a product of that professionalization -- you know, Ph.D., a few books in the pipeline, articles in print, etc. I even wear tweed and a bowtie. Phrases like "the constuctedness of knowledge," "infinite hermaneutic regression" and "radical disconnect between the signifier and signified" pass through my lips easily ... just to name three examples of things I said this week and was immediately embarrassed to have said. Yes, I'm a pro.

Professionalization has led to a couple of results that encourage meaningless activity in the field. The most obvious, and perennial boogieman, is the culture of publish-or-perish. In the Golden Age (which may or may not have existed), scholars saved The Book for the end of their careers. The Book grew out of years of thought and contemplation. As a result, The Book tended to be amateurish, a sort of memoir of beloved texts. The best one could hope for was the kind of thing the prolific Harold Bloom pumps out every thirty seconds -- a delight for those who take pleasure in good reading, but leaving little long-standing. Every so often, though, The Book reflected long years of consideration, and re-shaped the way we thought about literature (a la Drout's examples). In this same environment, when a younger hotshot scholar (like Tolkien) wrote something important, it was easier to get noticed.

Today, The Book often has to come thrice in the career: To get the first job, to be promoted to associate and get tenure, and to be promoted to full professor. By the time the scholar reaches full professor, he is intellectually exhausted at just the point he should be coming to the zenith of his powers. All too often, once the scholar reaches full professor, he never publishes another book. Even if earthshaking work is produced ... who has time to notice it? Young scholars are cranking out article after article for smaller and smaller audiences, and older scholars have stopped reading all the mass produced tripe. For all I know, the most recent issue of Whatever Literary Quarterly has published an article that could change the way I view everything ... but I'll never read it, since I have trouble keeping up with just the things in my own specialty.

A second problem of professionalization, and less acknowledged, is the problem of professional lingo. One would think that literary-types would be the most expressive people of all ... and one would be wrong. Professional terminology has moved from jargon to cant, often designed for the purpose of keeping outsiders from participating in the conversation. While Literary Cant prevents our already overcrowded publishing arena from being overrun by amateurs, it also creates many academics who simply cannot communicate with amateurs, and indeed cannot understand themselves. We've all been to the conference presentation that devolves into Duck Speak, with the grad student desperately trying to establish credentials to speak to a text by uttering every empty theory-talk buzz-phrase from the last decade. Everything gets "interrogated," all ideas are replaced by "memes," and all poems are replaced by "texts" -- ruining otherwise perfectly good terms. The presentation becomes incomprehensible both in the sense of being completely opaque and losing basic structure and grammar. The duck quacks on and on, and the only idea ever really expressed is, "Look at me! I'm professionalized! You should consider hiring me!" In any professional context, jargon should be a shortcut to clear expression of ideas, rather than a substitution for ideas.

These two elements of professionalization create an atmosphere wherein production of really important, field-changing works is discouraged, recognition of that needle in the publish-or-perish haystack is unlikely, and communication through the Literary Cant is difficult. Professionalization is a lot like caffeine -- it produces a burst of energy in the short run, but eventually promotes fidgiting and ultimately lethary.

I do not want to suggest, however, that we reject professionalization altogether. Professionalization has done a great number of good things. Literary study is open to anyone regardless of social class (though anecdotal evidence suggests that we are moving back to a class-based division), opening the way for people like me to get involved. It has made it harder (though still very possible) to hide complete incompetence from other faculty (though perhaps easier to hide it from administrators and students), and has promoted work from those who might otherwise not have the diligence to produce in writing their important thoughts. Rather than rejecting professionalism, I think we need to redefine it. And THAT, my friends, is a topic too large to address in this already over-sized post.

Drout on Fire

I've got my ceiling fixed from Hurricane Ivan, and so now I have internet access at home again! Hooray!

Unfortunately, this also means that today I begin the process of returning my books to my study. Non-English professors (and English non-professors) probably cannot grasp the magnitude of that job.

As a result, I don't have time to blog about the various things on the air at the moment, so instead, I point you to Michael Drout's Wormtalk and Slugspeak. Drout has been on fire skewering academic mannerisms and asking pointed questions about literary scholarship.

[Editor's note: I just realized that the mixed metaphor of Drout being on fire and skewering conjures up images of a flaming fencer. I leave it up as an example of bad writing for my students. This is exactly what you should NOT do!]

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Guy Creese, Kathryn Laity, and Real Scholars

As regular readers know, I don't have internet access at home for this week, so when I'm at home, blogging is far from my mind. Last night, though, I suddenly found myself thinking about the gulf between academic disagreement and blogosphere flame wars.

Take, for example, the comments Guy Creese made about my post regarding his article. Now, I don't know Creese. Furthermore, my post was very critical of his article, citing it as an example of poor methodology. As of now, I still stand by my comments, primarily because his response to them seemed to be post ex facto reasoning -- though I reserve the right to change my mind and become convinced.

In most of the blogosphere, this exchange would have been a flame war instead, reading something like this:

Me: Guy Creese suxxors!
Guy: Nokes = Nazi
Me: Nokes rulz U! Woot!
Guy: IMHO Karl Rove and Cindy Sheehan conspired against me. And Nokes suxxors!

That's what I like about the academic corners of the blogosphere. The tone allows for pursuit of truth. Sure, we have our share of trolls lurking under the academic cyber-bridges, but we've also got some real scholars who know what discourse between scholars needs to be like.

Consider also Kathryn Laity. She and I have been working on editing a book of charm scholarship together for some time (and, as with all book projects, it remains behind schedule no matter how vigorously we harrass the contributors to get their stuff in on time). Now, Kate and I have views of the Anglo-Saxon charms that are seriously at odds with one another. Oh, we agree on many points, such as how much we hate Grattan & Singer and how important we think manuscript context is, but we disagree on a lot of substantive points, such as the role charm practitioners played and the relationship between Christianity and paganism depicted in the charms. So, why would I work with her?

Two reasons: First, she's hard working (I like that); and second, she's a real scholar. Scholarly discourse strenthens by being tested against these kinds of contentions. When I say something and Kate shakes her head and says, "No, I don't agree," that doesn't mark the beginning of a flame war -- that marks the beginning of a contest of ideas, where each position is tested against the others. Often there is no resolution, but real scholars aren't interested in Hollywood courtroom drama endings. We're interested in pursuing truth (or a construct of truth, depending).

So, here's praise for Creese, Laity, and all the other scholars who keep intellectual conflict alive without descending into slash-and-burn warfare.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

"Worst Practices" in Studying Colleges/Universities

Ballardvale Research has posted this pdf entitled "Online Crisis Management: 30 Top Colleges/Universities Respond to Katrina." Though I have no doubt of the good intentions of the researchers, this strikes me as a prime example of how poor methodology yields irrelevant data.

The title of the piece is a bit misleading, because it isn't a study of 30 top schools ... rather, it is a study of what the researchers think are THE 30 top schools. And from whence cometh this data? Why, from US News and World Report! For those of you not in the academic world, let me explain to you that the US News & World Report rankings are generally considered a troublesome joke. They are a joke in that they are generally divorced from reality. For example, one of their top 100 schools in their 2006 rankings nearly lost its accreditation last year. Here's a simple formula: If you are on accreditation probation, you are not a top school. In fact, you are likely one of the worst schools in the country (or at least in your accrediting region).

We would laugh at the annual report, but the problem is that most parents naturally don't have the insight into the world of academics to know the good schools from the poor schools. Good students get pushed by their parents toward schools ranking high in the list. The end result is that schools fight to get near the top of the list while all the time knowing that the list is of little intrinsic value [I would link a bunch of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Ed here, but all the ones I want require a subscription. So, take my word for it ... this is a common perception among academics].

This study, then, uses the US News rankings uncritically ... something that no one involved in research should ever do. This poor choice is compounded by the regional bias of the rankings ... none of the schools are near the Hurricane affected area. The report then focuses on the efforts of schools that are unlikely to have a large number of students affected in any way.

The report singles out Ginnell, Harvey Mudd, and CalTech for "muted" responses, ignoring the obvious fact that these schools are in Iowa and California. The authors appear to sense that they are stretching, in that they write, "Caltech, with 19,000 living alumni (and presumably some living along the Gulf Coast)..." My own presumption is that the vast majority of alumni from a school in California are living on the West Coast, not the Gulf Coast. Let us assume, though, that fully half of Caltech's alumni live on the Gulf Coast. Except for students and academics, who out there thought, Gosh, that Hurricane Katrina is awful. You know, I should really check my alma mater's website to see what I can do? My guess is that most alumni would check in with the International Red Cross or some other relief organization. Heck, I'm an academic, and I didn't bother checking to see what my undergrad school in Indiana or my grad school in Michigan were doing. What reasonable person would bother?

Up until now, I've been criticizing this particular study, which is not my overall point. What I really want to demonstrate is that methodology is important, not some esoteric concern only for those involved in theoretical work. Because of poor methodology, the report is not wrong ... worse, it is irrelevant. A relevant report might be to study the responses of colleges and universities in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, states which will actually have a high number of students affected. Unless I miss my academic geography, the Ballardvale report studies not a single school from the affected region. If they want to do work that is relevant, they should adjust their methodology. A report on relevant schools ... now THAT would be interesting.

h/t Volokh.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Obadiah and Gloating Nations

The sermon yesterday was from Obadiah, and the theme was about personal betrayal. I spent much of the sermon, however, thinking about what Obadiah has to say about national schadenfreude. [In this post, I shall endeavor to use the word schadenfreude as much as possible, because my friend Nick likes it so much]

In daily usage (in English, anyway), we generally think of schadenfreude as an emotion felt by individuals and applied to individuals. Schadenfreude can be national, though. Consider, for example, Europe's current wallow in schadenfreude over the destruction of New Orleans. Or, in a situation in which it was my country goring the oxen of others, consider just how much pleasure Americans took when Europeans allowed tens of thousands of elderly to die in a mild heatwave a few years ago. Schadenfreude toward an enemy is understandable if not excusable; Schadenfreude toward one's friends is vile.

Consider the relationship between Edom and Israel. They had engaged in sibling rivalry -- both literal and figurative -- since the days of Jacob and Esau. Though the prophet denounces violence between the two, he also denounces schadenfreude. Consider verses 11-13:

On the day you stood aloof while strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them. You should not look down on your brother in the day of his misfortune, nor rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their destruction, nor boast so much in the day of their trouble. You should not march through the gates of my people in the day of their disaster, nor look down on them in their calamity in the day of their disaster, nor seize their wealth in the day of their disaster.

I find this position fascinating. Not only do we see the standard that murdering someone in your mind is tantamount to murder itself (a standard examined in the much-underestimated Minority Report), but we also see that looking down on those in misfortune, rejoicing over their trouble, or boasting about it is enough of a sin that it calls for national destruction.

In other words, when we feel secret pleasure (for the right) over famine in North Korea or not-so-secret pleasure (for the left) over terrorism in Iraq -- well, we'd better think again. Obadiah makes the claim that when we stand aloof from tragedy elsewhere, "you were like one of them [the enemies]. Think Hurricane Katrina is a funny black eye on on America? You are culpable as if you yourself killed people and robbed them of their possessions. Think thousands of French elderly dying is a just result of their snotty attitude and over-reliance on the state? You yourself allowed them to die. Are you glad to score cheap political points over terror attacks? You yourself are like a terrorist.

Etc, etc... I find the implications of this sobering. Often we are not in a position to help others; that is just the nature of living in the material world. When we delight in their misfortunes, however, we become culpable for them regardless of whether we caused them or could have avoided them. Time for me to adjust my attitude.

More on Phrasebooks

Gypsy Scholar has a hilarious post on the prominence of postillions in phrasebooks.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Uneven Blogging Ahead

Yesterday the guy fixing my ceiling from Hurricane Ivan damage (yes, Ivan, from LAST year) showed up. This is news, because repair guys will often call and say they are coming, yet never show up. The last repair guy actually tore out a big hunk of the ceiling, told me he'd return the next day, then disappeared into oblivion.

So, he removed nearly everything from my study, the only room with internet access. After he had finished for the day, he told me he didn't expect to be completely done until Thursday. Assuming he keeps his word (a foolish assumption considering the track record of the local contractors and repairmen), I should have regular internet at home by the end of the week.

Since I really use odds-and-ends of time to blog, this may cut back on my blog-viating (the blog version of the neologism "bloviating") for the week. I'll blog when possible, but I won't take time from my academic work.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Ideology of Phrasebooks

Since I'm momentarily stuck in the writing of the introduction for the Conflict in Southern Writing volume I'm editing (with Ben Robertson and others), I'll try to un-stick myself by blogging a bit about the ideology of phrasebooks.

When I was young and travelling around the world, I became interested in phrasebooks for the various countries. In fact, I used to collect phrasebooks, but after I lost my box of phrasebooks during a move, I gave them up.

The first phrasebook that interested me in their ideology was an English phrasebook for Lithuanians that had been published during the communist era. One of the things that separates grammars from phrasebooks is that grammars simply tell you how to say things; phrasebooks suggest things you might want to say. Sometimes what you "might want to say" is descriptive, and sometimes it is prescriptive.

Some of my favorites I can remember from the now-lost Lithuanian phrasebook (though I may be conflating it with other communist phrasebooks) are:

"Taxi driver, please drive me to the historic location of Karl Marx's house."
"I would like to speak to some members of your glorious trade unions."
"Let me tell you about my country's revolution."

... and so forth. Many of the phrases, of course, were things like "Where is the bathroom" or "I would like to order a hamburger and french fries," but others were ideologically driven suggestions.

I found myself thinking about the ideology of phrasebooks again when I recently bought Making Out in Korean. Despite the provocative title, most of the book is street Korean, not insults and sexual content; but some of it is. I was reading the book aloud with a friend, and we were laughing at the assumption of the sequence of romantic relationships. The sequence of courtship, as it seems presented in the phrasebook, is:

1. Flirting
2. Proposition
3. Conversation during sex
4. Proposal of marriage
5. The man fleeing

More attention is given to the sex act and trying to escape a relationship than anything else. It is unintentionally funny, but also unintentionally sad that the phrasebook presents romantic relationships in such a shallow way. Some actual examples of phrases:


In the section entited, "In the Bedroom":
Is this your first time?
Tell me the truth.
I'm still a virgin.
I'm frightened.
Don't worry.
I'll be careful.
I wanna hold your hand.
Look into my eyes.
Hug me.
Take your ... off!
[various words for clothing]
I'm cold.
Make me warm.
Come closer to me.

In other words, the scenario imagined in the phrasebook is someone experienced seducing a reluctant virgin. The next section is called "In Bed," and I'll not provide all of that content (go to a porn site if that's what you are looking for), but one section runs like this:
I'm afraid I'll get pregnant.
Use a condom!
I don't like to wear a condom.
If you don't wear a condom, I won't do it!

Now, the reluctant virgin finds that her partner is refusing to wear a condom. Interestingly, they don't offer any phrase for a man agreeing to wear a condom -- only refusing.

The proposal of marriage also comes in the "In Bed" section, immediately following phrases for the completion of sexual activity. I'll leave those up to your imagination, but note how there are three ways to propose marriage, several ways to refuse, several ways to weasel out, and no ways to accept the proposal:
Let's get married.
I wanna be your wife. (This seems to be a proposal, not an acceptance)
I wanna be your husband. (This seems to be a proposal, not an acceptance)
I don't want to get married yet.
I'm too young.
I'm already married.
I love you, but I can't become your wife/husband.
I need time to think.
This is so sudden.
We must think about this.

The last section is about breaking up. I'll not belabor the point any further, except to say that phrasebooks often end up suggesting particular ways to live by suggesting particular ways to speak.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

On Linking Ethics

I went to Steven Taylor's brown bag symposium on blogging on Wednesday. Though the event itself was interesting, as usual the good stuff came after.

Dr. Taylor, Scott Gosnell (of Pro's and Con's, and the recently-outed Knight's Blog) and I went for lunch. It was particularly welcome for me, because I had previously known Gosnell only as a philogram. Naturally, much of the conversation was about blogging and gossiping about blogs and other bloggers.

[Let me just say, as an aside, that if you use the word "blog" too frequently in a sentence, it looks asinine, regardless of the content.

Anyway, I mentioned that I had wanted to ask about the ethics of linking and comments, which led to a pretty interesting discussion of all that. I've previously written about the ethics of "open threads," which turns out to have been irrelevant since I receive all sorts of comments, but rarely in open threads.]

How much culpability does a blogger have for the content of the sites on his blogroll? We all seemed to agree that the culpability is limited, since we all link to sites that have content with which we disagree. Sometimes the sites are excessively profane, or act as occasional fora for hateful ideas, or are theologically questionable. For example, linking to my own site I have Jewish blogs, evangelical blogs, Catholic blogs, and witchcraft blogs. They can't all be "endorsing" my religious writings per se (which are mostly about esoteric things like the nature of the Fall).

On the other hand, we can't say we have no culpability. For example, what if I blogrolled a porn site? Wouldn't that link imply endorsement? To give a slightly different example, I once started to write an entry about David Duke's website (which I will not link to here). I eventually abandoned the entry because it ended up being more of a facile screed against European anti-Semitism, but what if I had linked to the site? Even though I am denigrating the site, that act of linking raises its profile through search engines.

It's going to take a lot more thought on my part, but I think I need to develop ethic guidelines for linking. Some sites with which I have reciprical links might have to be removed from my blogroll ... or maybe I'll leave them all in.

Anyway, I would like to invite comment from other bloggers on how they view the issue of the ethics of linking.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

More on the Canon

Cinerati has an interesting post on the Canon, responding to my earlier post. He writes,

None of us thought we had a role in Canon formation. Why? I credit it to humility more than a failure of education (Nokes' hypothesis). We hadn't been exposed to enough literature, broadly speaking, to trust our own judgements.

I think the problem is not with the humility, but rather with how students perceive authority. Students in my world lit classes have so little authority to speak to the Canon as to have none in any practical sense. To these students I must say, "I speak with my authority as a professor. I speak for the ages. These books are great, and you must read them."

Once English majors start getting up into the upper levels, though, they ought to have read enough to start to have a glimmer of a thought about what it means to be literary. Does their authority equal mine? Well, of course not; I read more just for my qualifying exams than they have read for their entire lives. But this is not a binary -- it is a sliding scale of magnitude. On the one extreme are poets and English professors. On the other hand are the illiterate with no exposure to poetry. Most people are somewhere in the middle, being at least functionally literate. As an English major moves through her education, she slides up the scale, garnering more and more authority to speak to what is literary. Even if they defer to the authority of their betters (in terms of literary ethos, not necessarily moral betters), they should at least understand how they are bettering their own literary ethos.

A Really, Really Specific Search

I love to use Tracksy to find out the search terms people are using that yield this site. One recent one came from Japan, and was searched on Google:

if your mother and wife are inside a burning house, who will you save first "you have time to save only one"

I was the third of three hits, though I'm not sure why this collection of words came to me, since I've never blogged on the subject.

Nevertheless, I'm here to help. The traditional answer from the African morality riddle tradition (I forget which people, but it is one of the big three in Nigeria) is that you save your mother. You can always get another wife, but you can't get another mother.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Workers needed at Frazer in Montgomery

Katrina update: This posting went up on my church's website about a week ago; somehow I missed it until today. I don't know if Frazer still needs people, but if you've got the time I would encourage you to find out.

Frazer's shelter is in need of help during the week serving lunches. Counselors are needed for adults and children. In addition, tutors are needed. Lynda Coats is involved in these efforts and you may call her at 281-4358 to find out what you can do.

My Non-Memory of 9-11

A couple of days ago, every blogger and his brother posted his 9-11 memories. I considered linking here to some of the various posts I had read, but they are so many that it is impractical. I have never written about my memories of 9-11, because I don't have any.

This isn't a story about post-traumatic stess disorder induced amnesia. This is a story about what happened to me on September 13, 2001.

On September 11th, I was on the boundary waters in northern Minnesota (near Ely) with three other men from my church. I remember very little about that day. We were cut off from all forms of electronic communication, being too far out for cell phones or radios. Ely was two days canoing back across the lakes. It was late enough in the season and far enough out that there were no other people around. I imagine we spent the day fishing.

On September 12th, we looked up in the night sky and saw a military jet streaking across it. I remember us laughing and joking about him being "lost," since it looked absurdly like he was patrolling the border with Canada.

Late afternoon on September 13th (which is why this post is going up today), we ran into some people at a portage. They were an older woman and two boys. One of the teens told us this wild story. He claimed that two days earlier, just as they had been setting out, the television news was reporting that the towers of the World Trade Center had been destroyed by airplanes, and that thousands were dead (he claimed 50,000). One of the other men asked if he was serious, and he replied, "Serious as a heart attack."

We spent that evening discussing the boy's story, and were split on whether to believe it or not. I was inclined to believe it because his mother (grandmother?) heard him telling the tall tale and did not contradict him. On the other hand, the absurdity of the story made it difficult to believe for some of the other men.

One of the men (Jim) had a son in the military, and we thought that maybe if the story were true, the country might be at war. We decided to head in a day early, in the hopes of catching people at the portages closer to civilization. If they confirmed the story, we would return to civilization early so he could see his son before he was mobilized. If the story turned out to be hokum, we would simply set up camp at a closer location and fish out the rest of the time.

As we headed out, we started to run into others fishing. Many had been out longer than us, and told us not to believe every tall tale campers told. Eventually, though, we ran into others that had news from the outside. Though the various accounts conflicted, it was clear that something bad had happened, and that the country was gearing up for war with someone. We decided to leave.

On 9-15-01, we arrived at the outfitter. We returned our gear, and I rode back to Indiana with Jim. When we started the car, the very first thing we heard was Kate Smith singing "God Bless America" on the radio. We looked at each other, and that was the moment that I realized we had returned to a different world than we left. We stopped and bought several papers, and I read them aloud to Jim as we drove.

By the time we arrived home, no one was airing footage of the attacks. Many people have told me that they remember the footage running over and over for weeks, but this is a false memory. Everyone was so traumatized that the television was only running footage of rescue/recovery operations. I was not able to see actual video of the attacks for a week, when someone finally gave me a videotape. I didn't see an actual broadcast on the television until August of 2002, when all the 9-11 retrospectives began.

The upshot is that I never experienced 9-11. About a year later, I had a conversation with two of the other men, and we discussed how alienating it is for us. When I read the polemics by bloggers writing about 9-11, I am unable to participate. When I read something absurd, all I can think is, This is madness, isn't it? That one fool could exist who believes this is unsurprising, but a blogosphere full of readers who agree? At times I think I am one of a handful of people who can speak with authority about 9-11, because I did not experience the trauma. On the other hand, I'm sure some people would immediately discount anything I had to say because I lack that very experience.

I remember nothing; therefore, my thoughts are both validated and invalidated.

Building a Canon

On Monday, I asked my medieval lit class about Andreas Capellanus's Art of Courtly Love. Specifically, I asked them if it was literary, if it was a work of literature. The reason I asked was that when I first encountered the work, I thought it was sub-literary. It seemed to me a treatise of little literary value in its own right, of importance only insofar as it allows us to read other texts. Over time my opinion has changed, and in my most recent reading, I was struck by just how literary it is.

The question was not meant to be a stumper; rather, it was to be an appetizing little opener before we got to all the meaty stuff about love and sight and suffering. I figured I would have half the class arguing that it is not literary, and the other half arguing that it is. In fact, what happened was a single student took a position, and the rest dodged the question. I pressed them, and soon I came to understand that they did not believe they have a role in Canon formation.

As I dwelt on it this evening, I realize that their reaction could be the sign of a deep failure in their education -- a failure in which I myself am implicated. They seem to understand their position as mere consumers of the Canon, an inert object that they devour in their reading. As they consume it, some understand that they are transformed by it, gaining insight or wisdom, or perhaps just models for their own creative writing. All that is well and good. Unfortunately, they do not seem to understand just how they themselves transform the Canon, and how they shape it.

I remember my senior seminar project. We were asked to argue for the most important work in the Canon. I picked Moby Dick -- though I can't remember why, and I certainly wouldn't pick it again today. I remember being enamored of its overt symbolic quality in those days. In any case, by the time I came to the end of my undergraduate education I had enough of a sense of my role in Canon formation as to have opinions regarding it. [In case you are wondering, I'd pick the KJV Bible today. If limited to non-sacred texts, I'd probably pick something like Aristotle's Poetics or Homer's Iliad].

As far as I could tell, this was the first time these students had been asked questions of canonicity, by me or anyone else. They seemed surprised by the idea that they had any authority at all for deciding what is literary and what is not. Since I wasn't prepared for them to react in that way, I stumbled around for a bit, then briefly suggested that each of them has a role in the Canon. Even if they haven't got the weighty ethos of their professors to speak to the subject, they surely have some authority. I don't think I got the point across.

Now it is too late to re-work the class, but I think in the future I'll try to make a point of asking them what is literary (or not) about the various works we read. If they leave my class still under the misconception that there's a magical, transcendant list entitled "Great Works of Literature" engraven in stone somewhere, I'll be ashamed.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

More on Un/Reality and the Media

Some interesting comments on my earlier post on "Un/Reality and the Media" can be found at I Cite and Arguing with Signposts. I haven't had time to carefully consider them yet, but I offer them up for your own consideration.

Friday, September 09, 2005

My Superpower

The other day, a friend asked me if I had ever blogged about my superpower (indicating, by the way, that he hasn't been reading my blog). Since I haven't, and the upper regions of my mind are too focused on the critical history of Old English charms, I thought this might be a good time for it.

I first realized that all English professors share a superpower some years ago when I shared an office with a fellow named "Mike." Mike would often say things using obscure or hastily-constructed vocabulary, which he would then follow up with the question, "Is that a word?" For example, he might talk about the process of coming to know something, refer to it as "epistemizing," then ask, "Is that a word?"

The answer is YES. For you see, I am an English professor, and by virtue of that fact, I have the power to invent new words, phrases, or grammatically structures. By the same token, I have the power to ratify the neologisms of others.

By virtue of my position, it is impossible for me to be grammatically incorrect! For, you see, it is people like me who determine exactly what grammatically correct is. For example, years ago, split infinitives were universally considered incorrect. Today, you can find large numbers of young turks (me among them) who argue that split infinitives are just fine for any text that will not be translated into Latin. If the President makes up a word, such as "strategery," he is mistaken; if I make up a word, I am coining a valid neologism.

Take the following sentence: "I ain't gots no reeson for to sometimes coin new words or new wordesque stuf." You might think that this sentence is rife with grammar and spelling errors, and you might also think that "wordesque" is not a word. You are WRONG! For I am an English professor! All bow before my might!

Please note also that poets have the ability to coin new words, but not to ratify them (only we English professors can do so). Also, if two English professors disagree, both are correct. Don't try to reason it out -- superpowers just work that way.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Troy Public Radio Disaster Relief

And, on the local relief front, I received the following e-mail today:

Troy University Public Radio is participating in a statewide effort, sponsored by the Alabama Broadcasters Association, to raise $2 million for the American Red Cross' Katrina Disaster Fund. Anyone wishing to contribute may drop their check, made payable to American Red Cross--Katrina Disaster Fund, by the radio station located on the first floor of Wallace Hall on the Troy Campus or mail their contributions to Troy University Public Radio, Wallace Hall, Troy, AL 36082.

The Pups of Heaneywulf

So. Reading between the lines of this report on the rock opera version of Beowulf (yes, I know it sounds like satire, but no, it is not), it looks like Seamus Heaney's attempt to transform Beowulf from a Viking into an Irishman -- complete with the Irish Repertory Theatre venue, Celtic harp, and a cast with names that look pulled at random from the Dublin telephone book.

Two gripes. When are people going to learn that the phrase "rock opera" insults both rock and opera? And also, when will Beowulf return to Scandinavia where he belongs?

If anyone needs me, I'll be drinking in the meadhall.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Un/Reality and Media

Before you stop reading this, please note, that though at first glance this post appears to be about Hurricane Katrina, it is not! So, if you are sick of Katrina, read on.

A couple of days ago, I was dining with a Katrina refugee, and he was talking about the "unreality" of the situation. Like so many others, he left before the storm hit, so the last time he saw home everything was fine. Since he can't return to see for himself, his experience of perhaps losing his home comes the same way for him as for most of the rest of the world: through television images. Though he is experiencing his displacement first-hand, his epistemology of losing his home is entirely mediated through visual media [Is it too redundant to say "mediated through media" in this situation?]. Hence, the situation has an unreality to it, as his knowledge is almost without gnosis altogether, unless (and here's where I'm going with this), one considers television images a sort of gnostic revelation, a kind of experiential knowledge.

I've been thinking about his description of the events as "unreal" because he has only experienced them through television. I've also known of people who had the opposite reaction to other events. For example, several members of my family were involved in an event that received national television coverage, particularly on CNN (I'm not omitting description of the event here to be evasive; it's just irrelevant to the argument). When they learned the event would be covered on the national news, they were excited about their 15 minutes of fame. Once the actual reports were aired, however, they were terribly dismayed. CNN's version of events bore little resemblance to what they had actually experienced. The events had been caught on video, which the network misleadingly edited and from which they removed the sound, since the dialogue caught on tape would have contradicted CNN's reports. They shot footage of an area miles away, and aired that footage as if it were where the events had taken place.

For a couple of days, the reaction from home was one of cynicism. Suddenly, they felt they couldn't trust news reports. Suddenly, they understood the power of editing to twist the truth into a beautiful lie. Then, over a few days, I noticed their attitudes and comments changing, and within two weeks, those in my family involved had changed their version of events to agree with CNN's version, which just days early they had denounced as total falsehood, and of which they had actual physical evidence (the location of the events and the videotape) contradicting. Nevertheless, their experiential knowledge was rejected and replaced by a television-mediated story. Their experience was unreal, and the television was the reality.

Here, then, we have two different reactions. It seems to me that the Katrina refugee would have rejected CNN's version as "unreal," and accepted only his experiential knowledge as real. By the same token, if my family had been refugees from Hurricane Katrina, they might have felt that the experience was more real because of the widespread television coverage. What accounts for these opposing epistemic positions?

It may be, as I alluded to earlier, that some some people really do consider "television images a sort of gnostic revelation, a kind of experiential knowledge," whereas other people are alienated from those images. Perhaps people feel that they can know a celebrity through the television not out of error per se, but because they reject the epistemic superiority of the physical person over the television-mediated personality. Maybe guys like me (and the refugee I was talking to) who see the television-mediated as ... well, mediated, only experience television broadcasts with a sense of alienation instead of connection.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Honore and Troy University

According to Wikipedia (granted, not always the most reliable source) Lieutenant General Russel Honore earned his Master of Arts in Human Resources from Troy University (or Troy State, as it was called back then). So don't say anything mean about him, or I'll have to scowl at you.

Lost Blogroll Items

I've just realized that many of the sites I put on my blogroll in the last week seem to have fallen off. For example, I added South Now some days ago in response to their kind link, but it isn't there.

If anyone has linked to me and they aren't in my blogroll, please e-mail me. With both TTLB and Blogrolling acting up, I think lots are falling through the cracks.

Katrina and the Politics of Blame

As regular readers know, this isn't really a politics and current events site. Most of the time, any politics or current events enter as riders on things rhetorical, medieval, or generally literary. Hurricane Katrina is a temporary foray into current events, mostly because I wanted to supply a place for locals here in Troy a way to get information on how to help out.

So, it will may come as no surprise that my comments on Hurricane Katrina and the politics of blame have more to do with rhetoric than politics. Some days ago, I noticed some people in the blogosphere expressing surprise that CNN's coverage of the Katrina relief efforts were the most positive of all the cable news outlets [though this weekend they seem to have turned a corner ... if you are part of the relief effort, expect CNN to join the throng attacking you. No good deed goes unpunished, as the cliche goes]. I wondered why that was myself, since one would think that CNN's ideology would have put them on the front lines of the attack.

At first, it seemed to me that the blogosphere was divided among the usual faultlines. Bush-haters began with the message that global warming, caused by Bush's explict refusal to ask the Senate to ratify the Kyoto Treaty. That approach never really caught fire among the Bush-haters, though, probably because it was hard to keep a straight face while making it. The Bush-apologists, on the other hand, simply rolled their cyber-eyes.

After a few days, two new parallel memes began to emerge. One was that the response was deeply flawed, and reflective of Bush Administration failures in Iraq, the economy, or whatever that particular blogger particularly hated Bush over. The other meme was the dark hint that perhaps the Bush Administration was ignoring the situation along the Gulf coast because so many victims were black (and, presumably, Democrats). Bush-apologists responded rather flaccidly to both of these memes (probably because refuting two tracks simultaneously doesn't make for good soundbytes), arguing that there would be time for apportioning blame later. Seeing that Bush-apologists wouldn't fight them on the issue, Bush-haters went into full conspiracy mood, suggesting that the Administration was actively hindering rescue efforts, and had (apparently) been waiting the last three centuries for this opportunity to get rid of New Orleans/blacks/cajun cooking. The Bush-apologists then responded by going off the rails themselves, casting blame on the Democratic mayor of New Orleans (which, they fail to note, is only one city of many affected).

Then, a few days ago, as I was thinking about CNN and the responses of various bloggers, and I noticed a subtler trend, one of geographic proximity. I noticed that even the most rabid Bush-haters who were in the South were not apportioning blame on Bush or FEMA or anyone else. Neither were the Bush-apologists blaming Nagin. I also noticed that the early Bush-apologist meme that we shouldn't be blaming anyone for the tragedy was held by Bush-despising faculty at my home institution. In fact, I began to detect a gnawing anger among the faculty in the dining hall at the way the media were portraying the event.

I think geography may explain this. While there are certainly exceptions to the rule, as a general trend bloggers close to the Gulf coast have been slow to cast blame, whereas bloggers from elsewhere exploded with a hair trigger. This would also explain why CNN seemed slower to cast blame, since you can hardly live in Atlanta and not be aware that New Orleans, lower than sea level and surrounded by water on three sides, has been doomed from its founding. I think nearly everyone in the South who saw the images of Interstate 10 probably uttered the same scatological expletive that I did, knowing full-well what it meant for access to hurricane-stricken areas. But what of bloggers from New York? Chicago? Seattle? Are they simply nuttier, or more ideologically-driven in their Bush hating/apologizing? I think, instead, they are simply unaware of the geography and of the nature of hurricanes coming out of the Gulf. Some bloggers for whom I have a great deal of respect said some indefensible things, and some bloggers whom I expect to forward any wild-eyed meme suddenly became very measured in their rhetoric.

My own opinion about blame, you ask? Mark Twain once said (though the attribution is in question), "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." If you can no longer see the joke embedded in the quote, you've gone in the wrong direction.

Good News for Katrina Refugee Blogger

Update: For those of you who have been keeping up with Laurel with the blog "Hurricane Katrina Refugee" (from Slidell, LA), she finally got some "after" pictures of her home. While it has sustained some damage, considering all the destruction in Slidell, it could have been worse.

May I also comment that her kids are adorable. Even if you are sick of all the Katrina coverage, the cuteness of the kids makes the site worth visit.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Local Katrina news round-up

Both Blogger and Blogrolling are acting funny, so this round-up won't be as complete as I'd like.

A description of the Pike County relief efforts can be found in "Needs Being Met." Barry Lemoine (a writer who seems to have found a job writing for the Troy Messenger on Katrina-related matters) gives a first-hand account of dealing with FEMA in "Luz, FEMA, and Me." We get a report of a family from Biloxi living in the RV park (which is not as bad as it sounds ... it's a nice park) in "Hutchesons Survive in Home on the Road."

Up in Montgomery, "Churches Open Doors to Refugees" mostly talks about Frazer Methodist (for non-local readers, Frazer is a huge and influential church in Montgomery). We also read about a picnic near Auburn.

Now, on to the long-term...

As can be expected, it looks like now that the Church is aware of the scope of the situation with Katrina, it is now coming through. At 8:30 AM on Sunday morning a representative of FEMA was at my home church explaining what their needs were. By noon, when we brought the load the church had gathered to the refuge at the Chisholm Community Center (in Montgomery, not Troy), they turned us away, and instead we had to take it all down to a warehouse for storage. It seems that when Sunday hit, lots of churches gathered relief supplies together.

It seems to me that we are now shifting into long-term care and settlement. People don't seem to be talking openly much about settlement; I suspect it is not considered in good taste. But since I don't have good taste, I'll do it.

Long-term, refugees need jobs. We aren't talking about the mentally ill, or drug addicts, or just plain bums -- the usual stereotype of the homeless. We're talking about people used to the dignity of earning their own living. The larger problem, I think, is that every refugee with whom I've spoken wants a short-term job.

Time for a dose of reality. Many refugees, perhaps even most, are never going back.

Consider this: Some parts of the Gulf coast will quickly be re-settled. I know of people already returning to Mississippi now that their power is back. Some coastal towns, though, are destroyed. And, of course, New Orleans is evacuated until at least after Thanksgiving.

Assuming there are no more small hurricanes or tropical storms to hit these areas (a pretty big assumption considering we are barely past the start of hurricane season), and refugees get back before Christmas, many of them will be returning to learn that their homes are completely destroyed. Others will return to find that their house still stands, but is unlivable without major repair -- and everyone will be trying to repair simultaneously, so that only real do-it-yourselfers will have a chance to get their home repaired quickly (my own home still has some damage from Hurricane Ivan last year, but the local contractors are overwhelmed by the constuction boom). Others will return to find that their home is still there and livable with only minor repair ... but their job is gone.

Given this situation, some will decide it is time to retire. Some will decide that their kids have laid down roots in their host community, and that it is dangerous to take them back to a city filled with abandoned buildings. Some will have found a better job in their host community then they ever had back home. Some will simply decide that they like their host community better. Many will never return.

So, in addition to the physical needs of the refugees, the host communities need to help the refugees transform into local citizens. Gently, perhaps, but it needs to be done.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Displaced Students Welcome at Troy University

This is now posted on the Troy University website:

Troy University is committed to assisting those students whose fall semesters may have been disrupted by Hurricane Katrina. Students who are enrolled at colleges and universities which have been closed for the fall semester due to the storm may contact the Troy University Office of Admissions at 334-670-3175 no later than September 7 about possible fall enrollments.

Sorry, no permalink ... it hasn't made its way into the "News and Events" section yet, so I think it just went up. I had heard rumors we would be doing this, but the announcement was the first confirmation.

Also, refugees are welcome in my classes (I've already got some) ... but you'd better be prepared to read and write, dagnabit!

Child bed available

For relief of hurricane refugees, I've got a line on a child bed (one of those 4 foot long little ones) for long-term loan. The frame is much too weak to hold an adult, but if anyone in the Troy area is sheltering a child and needs a bed, e-mail me and I'll try to connect you with the bed. I believe it also comes with bedding.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Nokes's Law

I realized this evening that it's been all Katrina, all the time on the Wordhoard for the last couple of days. I'm too exhausted from a variety of Katrina and non-Katrina related crises around here to think of anything smart or medieval to say, so I thought I'd let you all know about Nokes's Law.

I formulated Nokes's Law about six or seven years ago. It was tax time, and I needed a little clarification on some point for filing my taxes. I wasn't sure if the IRS web URL would be based on the acronym, spelling out the words, the words together underscored, or what, so I ran a search on "IRS."

The second hit was the Internal Revenue Service. The first was a porn site. I realized then the frequency with which porn sites came up, and formulated Nokes's Law:

"Any internet search on any term will yield at least one porn site..."

... as well as the Corollary to Nokes's Law ...

"... and that porn site will probably be within the first 10 hits."

Now, people have challenged this rule, with mixed results. Someone challenged me with "driftwood," which yielded a porn site. "Tweed" also yielded porn. Most recently, though, someone succeeded with the phrase "vampire caterpillars." Someone else noted to me that the name of this blog, "Unlocked Wordhoard," still yields no porn sites.

To which I respond -- first, it is unfair to use phrases instead of single words; second, these phrases yield no porn sites yet. I'm sure it is just a matter of time.

Local Katrina News Stories

Here are a few links to local news stories about the Katrina refugees, "Evacuees Took No Chances," "County Begins Relief Effort," "Nothing to Go Home to," and "Refugee Tells Story of Loss and Hope."

Note that "County Begins Relief Effort" ends with:

For local citizens and companies that would like to join the effort:Donations are being taken at local banks and area churches. Please designate your check to read "Pike County Operation Relief." Money will also be collected at the Troy-Cal Poly football game Saturday. All donations are tax deductible and will be used to provide relief to local victims.For more information on how you can help, please contact your local church or Jenniffer Barner at the Pike County Chamber of Commerce, 334-566-2294.

Relocating students after Katrina

Timothy Burke over at Easily Distracted has a suggestion for dealing with all the students whose curricula were disrupted. He suggests spreading them out among a system of other schools.

Why not get a huge network of colleges and universities together, proportionately distribute the student bodies of all these institutions across the network, offer automatic transfer admissions to your size-adjusted and randomly designated proportion of that student population, with the New Orleans institutions agreeing to honor all credits taken at the host institution as if they were taken at Tulane, Xavier or Loyola. Treat the tuition paid to the New Orleans schools as if it were paid to your institution but allow Tulane, Xavier and Loyola to keep the tuition so they can make their bills for the academic year. (E.g., the host institutions would accept the transfer students as a freebie). Pay transport costs for the affected students and waive the cost of their room and board for the year as well.

A good idea, though I'm not sure it is practically possible. Take, for example, my school. We have ... well, had ... a site in New Orleans. Now, I'm not even sure what records we still have. I keep hearing about refugees saying things like, "We have money; we just don't have any access to it." Do these schools even have records of who is enrolled? What about federal financial aid? With all the paper documents and internet servers washed away, I'm not even sure how we would begin such a process.

I'm not saying we should reject this idea, because I think it is quite a good one. I'm just saying that it is not as simple as getting a list of students and saying, "OK, you take students A-G, you other school take students H-M ..." I'm suggesting instead that even though it may be undoable now, perhaps AASCU or some other umbrella group could put together a plan to make it possible in future crises.

Hat tip to Bourgeois Nerd.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Semi-Good Katrina News

The word I heard today to describe Troy University's New Orleans campus was "gone." No big surprise there. On the good news front, an employee from that campus who had been missing has apparently been found alive. So, as of this writing, the most recent information I have is that we've lost a campus but not a single life; that's a trade-off I'd be willing to make any time.

Just a reminder -- much of the news I'm posting here is unconfirmed rumor, though always from a well-placed source or two. If you hear something different from more official sources, take my postings with a grain of salt.

Over 300 in Need in Troy

After talking with a couple of Troy University officials, I found out that their best estimate is that Troy has over 300 refugees here. Given that the population of the city is generally estimated at under 15,000, that's a pretty sizable number.

Plans are still sketchy, but since every mid-to-high level administrator on campus was in hurricane related meetings all day today, I think we are swinging into action quickly. I've heard rumors of plans by the local Troy churches, but nothing I can confirm at the moment.

In any case, I'll try to keep the blog updated on opportunities to serve in Troy and Montgomery.

Montgomery Area Donations Needed

I received the following e-mail from my congregation at Cornerstone Christian Church in Montgomery. If you would like to donate (or even just visit), please feel welcome to come this Sunday. You can find directions and such at the link above.

Not a one of has watched the news without feeling pain for the people of the Gulf Coast. The destruction is unimaginable and many are away from home and they don‘t know when they will return. Here in Montgomery we have thousands of refugees in shelters. Contact was made with the local Red Cross and with the directors at the shelters and we were told the people there are in dire need of several items. We have discussed how best to help the people that have lost so much, and once we learned of the need in the shelters, decided it would be best to work with them directly. You may have a charity you wish to donate to, but if not, here is the plan for Cornerstone.

Below is a list of items needed badly by the refugees. Please bring any of the items below to the church building Sunday. We will be collecting until 1PM. If you wish to make a monetary donation we will use the money to buy additional items as needed. This way we know that the people needing the help will receive it. If we find money is left over after we have dealt with the needs at Capitol Heights and Chisholm Community Centers it will go to an agency or group that we are sure will get 100% of it to those that need it. If you give a check please note it is for Refugee Relief.

Please pray for these people, all of those affected by this storm and those there risking their loves to help.

James 2:14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can his faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well," but you don't give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way faith, if it doesn't have works, is dead by itself. 18 But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith from my works.

- toiletries: deodorant, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, razors, shaving cream
- feminine products
- hand sanitizer
- baby wipes
- diapers sizes 3 and up (The ages of the young children at the Capitol Heights shelter range from 1 to 3 or 4 years of age)
- disposable sippy cups
- disposable bibs
- Snacks and food for toddlers (jar food, Gerber Graduates meals, Cheerios)
- wash cloths
- towels
- pillows
- Blankets
- Sleeping bags or anything to help make sleeping arrangements more comfortable (Chisolm Community Center needs desperately. They have no cots.)
- Snacks (non-perishable) and bottled water
- Crayons, coloring books, or other activities for young kids
- Magazines, other reading material, cross word puzzles, things to help pass the time

Painters needed!

Troy University is trying to prepare a house for a refugee family here in the community ... but it needs to be painted! The University is providing the paint and the brushes (I think), so all we need are more hands.

If you are in the Troy area, come to 312 Corman (behind Regions bank) after 5PM tonight in old clothes. Even if you don't have a great deal of experience in painting, many hands make for light work!

Katrina refugees -- How to help

Now that the extent of the damage from Katrina is becoming clearer, the whole of the Deep South is dealing with a massive homelessness problem. Given the severity of the problem, most of the social institutions that usually handle tragedy are themselves destroyed. For example, if a local family lost their house to a fire, the local churches would move into action to provide shelter, clothing and food. What happens when all of the local families have lost their houses, the church buildings themselves are swept away, and the Church is scattered across the country?

If you are far away, the best thing you can probably do to help is to collect money for relief agencies. If you are here in the South, though, you are probably going to have to get your hands on the problem itself.

First, a caveat -- I am NOT advocating driving down to the coast to help rescue workers. You can contact them with offers of help, but unless they recruit you, stay out of the way. You can probably help more in your local community anyway.

Now that communities not directly affected by the hurricane are realizing the extent of the problem, people are starting to move into action. Last night I spoke with one of the elders of my congregation in Montgomery, and he told me that they were having a meeting that night to organize. This morning I spoke with Cameron Martindale, one Troy University's Senior Vice Chancellors, and she told me that Chancellor Jack Hawkins had called an emergency meeting later this morning to determine a course of action for dealing with our students who find themselves homeless (I've got at least one in my classes), as well as refugee academics who gravitated toward Troy when they lost their homes.

In any case, I'm expecting updates from both Cornerstone Christian Church and Troy University later today on exactly what we are doing. I'll try to keep the blog updated on these things when there are opportunities for local residents to help. If you live anywhere near Troy or Montgomery and are interested in helping these refugees, please check back here regularly.