Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Why I Cry Myself to Sleep Every Night

A few days ago, I began to get a lot of traffic from a Digg thread about college bowl game predictions. Angrybulldog posted a link to an old post of mine entitled "Understanding the Auburn 'Directed Readings' Scandal." Then, UofMStoner (his mama must be so proud of that screen name) wrote in a response:
Auburn is only guilty of SACS violations if anything. Having a teacher teach 300
classes is not the problem of the NCAA Athletics...

Well, as long as schools are only academically corrupt, and don't allow that corruption to taint their sports, all is right with the world. What makes this even worse is that UofMStoner knows what SACS is, yet still his weed-addled mind can't grasp that he's got it bass-ackwards -- and none of the later posters points this out.

And THAT's why I cry myself to sleep every night.

Changing the Politics of Academe

In the last two weeks, I haven't been able to post much. I've had several topics I really wanted to write about, but because I've been so busy, I avoided any post that couldn't be completed in a hundred words or so. Things are finally back to normalcy, so I'll probably be blogging regularly again.

During the time of my semi-hiatus, I kept running into posts about the politics of Academe (political-type politics, not office politics). I've discussed this before in this space, but I'll tease it out a bit more.

First off, as I look at these various posts, I find that the authors (on both sides of the political divide) seem to be incapable of thinking of others except in the most caricatured way. Frankly, it's shameful. The low point is when one poster accuses professors of other political views of having "appalling dullness of the spirit." Ah, yes, that's exactly the problem -- since I can't really marshal an argument against another position, it must be dull of the spirit! That's the ticket!

Let's stop pretending, shall we, that the stronger argument always wins out in Academe. Let's also stop pretending that each field doesn't have its own establishment, and that the establishments aren't sometimes highly politicized. The MLA, for example, is very highly politicized, and anyone contending otherwise may want to consider that honesty is a virtue.

Is there a "marketplace of ideas" in Academe? Yes, there is. The stronger argument does not always win out, but it generally has the edge over weaker arguments. The real marketplace in Acadame isn't some platonic place where ideas are traded -- it is the marketplace we are all familiar with, good old-fashioned hard cash. In the end, money wins the day.

In my field, for example, we could offer lots of reasons that the study of English literature is a romper room from leftist politics, and many of those reasons are probably simultaneously true. At the end of the day, though, it all comes down to money. The path to financial success is easier for leftist literary scholars, and so many more pursue that path.

Imagine, for example, a conservative literary scholar has managed to navigate the shoals of graduate school, freshly-minted with Ph.D. Now comes the time to publish that dissertation. Now Jane Scholar finds herself trying to find a publisher, and discovers that not many academic publishers are friendly toward conservative scholarship. Eventually, though, Jane Scholar manages to find a publisher, a few tiers down from the top.

On the basis of her book, what kind of job does she find? If her politics are conservative, she probably can hope for little more than to have her book ignored; if it gets reviewed, the reviews will be hostile. She'll find herself scrambling for work in a tough market, near the bottom of the academic heap.

Once she gets her job, it will probably have a heavy teaching load (a problem that cuts across the political spectrum at the bottom). Her writing of more books and articles will be slowed down because of that load. Journals, too, aren't produced for free; they take money. If Jane Scholar wants tenure, promotion, or a new job at a better school, she needs to get published. Most academic journals are far more friendly to liberal scholars than conservative scholars. Ditto for academic conferences, etc.

What is Jane Scholar's fate? She might not be able to publish enough to get tenure, and she'll fall out of Academe. She might get tenure, and spend her career in the trenches. If she's prudent, she'll do what so many other conservative scholars do -- either fake being liberal (much more common, I think, than most people imagine), or try to do scholarship that is completely apolitical. While there is nothing wrong with apolitical scholarship, her liberal colleagues aren't bound by the same restrictions.

So you are a conservative group/publication/random person who wants to change the politics of Academe, are you? Is legislation going to work? Political pressure? Endless griping in blog posts?

One thing, and one thing only, will change Academe -- money. See your mouth? Put your money in it's current geographical location. Fund some well-paying named chairs. Create some conservative academic publishing houses (Regnery is not enough) and publish some first-tier scholarship. Fund some swank academic conferences in desirable locations. Create grants for research. In other words, put up some cash!

You would think that conservatives would understand the motivating power of money. If scholars could sudden publish openly conservative work, could get their travel funded and their research supported, and found themselves getting tenure and promotion because they were able to publish prolifically, you would have a lot more openly conservative scholars in Academe (and probably some fake conservative scholars as well). Until then, all things being equal, liberal ideas will win out in the academy, because liberal ideas can get people published, tenured,a nd promoted. Conservatives outside of Academe need either to put up some cash or stop the griping.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

JJ Cohen, Sex Symbol

I was looking through an old issue of Arthuriana (12.2, Summer 2002), and ran across a review of JJ Cohen's The Postcolonial Middle Ages (a book which I thought was pretty good, even though I'm no friend of postcolonial ideology). The review contained the following passage:
...medievalists have since been labouring hard to make themselves intellectually respectable again, if not downright sexy to boot.

There you have it, in print, ladies and gentlemen. JJ Cohen of In the Middle is not just intellectually respectable ... he's downright sexy to boot.

Monday, August 21, 2006

English Professor-ly Moment

I had never read John Steinbeck's The Red Pony, so I thought I would. It's short, and Steinbeck is quick reading, so I picked up a cheap used copy and read it.

It wasn't until near the end that I realized I had read it. One nice thing about being a professor is that you're allowed to be absent-minded.

Oh, good news! I killed no freshmen today, though I may have maimed a sophomore.

Prayer Needed

Today is the first day of the '06-'07 school year. Pray that no freshman drives me to homocide.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Where have I been?

Someone asked me the other day why I haven't been posting much lately. Like most academics, it's because August/September is very busy. So, besides preparing for classes, what have I been doing? Preparing for the incoming international students, of course. Two words: Free Food.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Cthulhu Circus

For those who like H.P. Lovecraft comes the comic strip we've been awaiting, with unspeakable dread: The Cthulhu Circus.

Cappy's Revelation

For those readers who don't scroll through the comments, I thought I should highlight what Cappy revealed about the books on my shelves. And, by the way, I just happen to have openings for 40 directed studies this semester. To sign up, just come to my office ... but no need to tell anyone where you are going, OK?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Fake Reuters Photos, "True" Text

Little Green Footballs's exposure of certain Reuter's photos as photoshopped has gotten the blogosphere in an uproar. People probably always suspected that there is a certain amount of fakery that goes on in major news outlets, but it's one thing to suspect it, and other thing to have it shoved in your face. Reuters, unsurprisingly, has come out with a statement that "Manipulating photographs in this way is entirely unacceptable and contrary to all the principles consistently held by Reuters throughout its long and distinguished history." On their blog (truth be told, I had no idea Reuters had a blog until recently), the company has posted an explanation of what they consider appropriate use of Photoshop.

The problem with the LGF revelation isn't that we should all embrace photo fakery as good and just (though many out in the blogosphere have taken a position that has come to be known as "fake, but true" -- the idea that a photo or story can be faked but still convey the truth.*). My objection is that it creates a standard that suggests that any photo that is not electronically manipulated conveys the truth. And here is the real reason for this post: textual scholarship understands that by manipulating the medium for a text (in this case, photo), an editor can change the reader's interpretation of that text.

Before getting on to the fun textual stuff, let's deal first with the current event, photo fakery. Reuters's explanation of their policy boils down, essentially, to forbidding/discouraging the use of certain Photoshop tools. In terms of a corporate policy, this seems fine to me, since it allows a broad-brush standard to be painted into place. It does little, however, to help readers understand how the stuff they run is manipulated all the time. Let's take the simplest description of their policy:
The rules are – no additions or deletions, no misleading the viewer by
manipulation of the tonal and colour balance to disguise elements of an image or
to change the context.

Let's think about the idea of taking a photo. Everyone reading this has taken a picture at one time or another, so we should all understand that when they talk about additions or deletions, they mean something more like "additions or deletions within the frame of the final photo we decide to run." First of all, the photographers add and delete material all the time, when they decide what to take pictures of, and what not to take pictures of. For every picture that appears in with a story, photographers have taken dozens, but only one or two will appear with the story; the editor will "delete" the other images by not running them.

Or consider the framing of a shot. Photographers necessarily add and delete content every time they decide what to include in the frame, and what to exclude. If you've ever seen a TV or movie set, you understand the importance of this framing; movie sets are chaotic masses of equipment and people milling about, except for the frame that will go into the film -- that part is perfect. OK, but once the photo is taken, that's all that gets deleted, right? No, it is perfectly acceptable to crop photos, i.e. cut them to size, or cut out extraneous material. Let's say you have the top of someone's head poking into the bottom frame of the photo -- you just cut off the bottom part of the photo altogether, thus removing the head perfectly ethically.

My point here is that all images are manipulated in the editing process; this is simply part of good editing. The real ethical standard is something that is much more difficult to pin down than a list of Photoshop tools that are permitted/forbidden. The real ethical standard is something more like this: good editing clarifies, while bad editing obscures. The people who argue that documents or photos are "fake, but true," are trying to stretch that ethical standard as far as they possibly can, so that it comes to mean something more like, "good editing depicts what I like, and bad editing depicts what I don't like."

But what of text? OK, so you can manipulate photos and film, but surely text cannot be manipulated, just so long as the quote is accurate, right? No ... textual editors have the ability to manipulate readers' interpretations by how they present the text.

Let's start with the example of font. Font, to most people's understanding, is simply a matter of readability and style. In fact, we associate particular fonts with particular impressions. Through the manipulation of font, I can make a text appear futuristic, Asian, archaic, frightening, etc. Blogger doesn't offer a great variety of fonts, but it perhaps offers enough to make this point. Let's consider a single word: "Iraq". Now, "Iraq" as a word has in and of itself little truth content (it's hard to have truth/falsehood without a verb). Here is the word in the various fonts offered by Blogger:
  • Iraq
  • Iraq
  • Iraq
  • Iraq
  • Iraq
  • Iraq
  • Iraq
The last font is Wingdings, so I haven't included that one. Each time you look at the word "Iraq" in the above, you probably get a slightly different feeling. What if I manipulated the color, or size? What if I used one of those scary fonts? What if I used a font that looks like military stencils? Or, what if I placed the word near particular images. Consider, for example, the banner over the Iraqi Embassy's website. Looking at those words, "The Embassy of the Republic of Iraq, Washington D.C.," I get the feeling that Iraq is a country of rich, ancient culture, where I might perhaps want to vacation some time. When I see the words "Iraq: Stories, Visuals" here, I think of a very religious Muslim country. The words "Iraq Emergency" here make me think of a country that is in terrible poverty. None of these phrases can be considered a lie, but each of them leads the reader into interpreting the word "Iraq" in very different ways.

Of course, all that is just font. Textual editors have to consider everything from placement on the page, to footnotes vs. endnotes vs. no notes, to the type of paper/website text appears. You want people to think you are a crackpot? Put text on yellow, badly photocopied paper, in Courier font. Put that same text on neat, clean letterhead with a Times New Roman font, and suddenly you have a press release.

What I'm trying to get at here is that a critical reader of text (and this includes still images and film) will continue to use a critical eye long after it has been established that no unusual electronic manipulation of a text has occurred. Everything that you read (including this post) is "manipulated" in the sense of being edited. Wise readers will always be aware of the editing process.

To close, I leave you with this clip from The Simpsons. As Homer says, "But listen to the music! He's evil!"

*Presumably there are a lot of Daily Show fans in this group. Here's a non-faked news bulletin for you: If you back faked documents/photos, calling yourself part of a "reality-based" community is really hilarious.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Today is the first day of school for the kids, and I believe that this classic commercial was shot by a hidden camera following me and my kiddies around.

Oh, joy! Oh, rapture!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Getting Medieval on Your Backside

Live Science has "Medieval Torture's 10 Biggest Myths." Please note that the forms of torture we generally consider most barbaric really emerged in the Early Modern era. Ah, thank you, Renaissance, for civilizing all the stupid primatives.

h/t Roving Medievalist

Comedy Central, Once Again, Unfunny

Apparently, Comedy Central is unfunny off screen as well.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Passive Voice Should Be Avoided, Especially in Blog Post Titles

Languagehat and Language Log are seeking to redeem the passive voice, primarily through two (kind of silly) ways: first, by showing that famous anti-passive voice stylists often used passive voice, and second by renaming it something like the "hyptic voice."

My response to Languagehat and Language Log is, and I mean this in all due respect, that when you go to Hell ( an inevitability for those who publicly encourage the use of passive voice), I hope you are tortured for all eternity by being forced to read freshman essays like the one Strongbad produced.

In the future, those who do not teach freshman composition are forbidden to say anything about style, ever.

Non-Scholarly Epistemologies

Tim Burke has an interesting post on the problem of trying to incorporate non-scholarly epistemologies into academic discourse. For the non-academics out there, though, this will need a little translating:

The word "epistemology" in this context means something like "way of knowing." Burke is objecting to giving too much deference to non-scholarly ways of knowing or understanding things in academic discourse, not because such ways of knowing are necessarily wrong inferior, but because that courtesy is only afforded to certain groups (in this case, Native Americans), demeaning their ways of knowing by implying that they can't withstand the comparison to other ways of knowing.

Anyway, if you're a non-academic, try struggling through it; it's worth it.

Wromantic Isidore

The Spectator has a review of an edition of the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville that is rather interesting, particularly its comparison of the little-read Etymologies with the little-read Consolation of Philosophy of Beothius. My favorite section from the review:
The sort of thing we find in Isidore is: ‘The walking stick (baculus) is said to
have been invented by Bacchus, the discoverer of the grape vine, so that people
affected by wine might be supported by it.’ Wrong but wromantic.

"Wromantic," like so much other folk etymology. I rather like that term. Perhaps we do need to have respect for things that are wrong in interesting ways, or wrong for all the right reasons.

The review started a little discussion over at Bread and Circuses about Boethius, and whether he is a classical or medieval author. I would say that he is a late-classical philosopher that defined medieval thought. Perhaps he is best considered the intellectual bridge between classical and medieval philosophy, and like all bridges, has to have one side on each bank.

Thanks to Frank, the Bourgeois Nerd, for pointing it out to me.


Apparently, Geoffrey Chaucer too likes the game Civilisatioun. I wonder if we might get him to review some classic games, such as the Man of Pac (or the even better Pacwif), Sterre Fiendes, or Frogge.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Housing for Internationals

Because of my work with the international students, I've had a few people come to me to ask for help in finding housing. This year, because of a couple of different forces having to do both with enrollments and the local housing market, housing in Troy is going to be very difficult to find.

If you live in the Troy area and know of available housing (homestay, apartment rental, or whatever), please let me know.

On the homestay front, I know of a Saudi student who desperately wants to stay with an American family. If you would be interested in hosting this young man, please contact me ASAP.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Episcopal Church Fractured by Julian of Norwich!*

In the category of medievalism, presiding bishop-elect Katharine Jefferts Schori cited Julian of Norwich as justification for the phrase, "our mother Jesus."

Sources close to Julian indicate she is considering a lawsuit against Jefferts Schori for copyright infringement. Jesus has thus far made no public comment regarding His gender reassignment.

*Do you like my new shocker headlines? I'm having fun writing them.

Would You Like Fries or Sex with That?

Aside from the the vapidity of the this article, which tries to substitute snark for argument, we have this some of the worst published writing I've seen in a while, starting with this line, awe-inspiring in its horribleness:
Why are we so wildly, preternaturally terrified of all things sexual while at the same time drawn to it all like fat teenagers to French fries?

We are drawn to things sexual like teenagers to fries? Um ... how about, we are drawn to things sexual like teens to, well, things sexual?

Oh, my dear freshmen of next semester, learn a lesson from this: Engage your brain before engaging Microsoft Word. Try not to write phrases like "spineless as a jellyfish licked by Pat Robertson" without first considering how trite the "spineless as a jellyfish" trope is, and how nonsensical the Robertson reference is (unless, of course, Robertson's saliva has some sort of weird vertebrae-dissolving properties I've not heard of).

Think about the visual before writing such sentences as "This is why foreign countries laugh at us and mock and shake their heads and sigh," which creates an image of a foreign country with uncontrollable facial tics. If I ran into someone in the street who first laughed at me, then mocked me, then shook his head, then sighed, I would probably call a mental health professional over the odd behavior. Look, let's pick one reaction and stick with it!

Or, we could play a game -- count the metaphors in the sentence:
But so are we in the media, for endlessly hyping hyperbolic fear-addled stories about sexual predation and child abuse so out of scale with actual reality, it trickles down and induces spineless execs at PBS to fire Martinez because they're openly terrified of the whiny backlash that might strike them if groups of ignorant parents (read: red-state religious right, mostly) found out that the host of a kiddie show actually has a sense of humor about sex in her non-kiddie-show life.

There are so many mixed metaphors in this sentence that it even loses its grammatical structure, so that the first "it" doesn't seem to refer to anything. Stories trickle and backlashes whine in this magical world.

Let us remember what Orwell tells us in "Politics and the English Language" -- that bad writing leads to bad thinking, and visa-versa. By the end of the essay, the author has confused himself so badly that he describes parents as "trembling bipeds who never have sex." Um, having sex is kind of a prerequisite to being a parent, short of adopting or birthing the Messiah.

By the way, Arts & Letters Daily, I expect better from you in your "Nota Bene" section. Don't you know what the "Bene" part means?