Peeking Back In

So, I’ve been far, far away from these parts for a while, working on other things. But I sense a comeback may be in the works. In the meantime, I’ve formed a similar venture with friends, what we hope will be a group blog. Here’s the inaugural post; we’ll see what happens!

A Tale of Sloth

After a somewhat appropriate few years of sitting on my to-be-read shelf without moving, Oblomov has finally exerted enough of a pull on me to dive into it.(1) A tale about a nineteenth-century shabby noble who pretty much can’t summon the willpower to get off the divan admittedly doesn’t promise a lot of nail-biting action or suspense. But good lord—being hit every now and then with what feels like contemporary cultural commentary is even better, in a wry sort of way, than a gripping page-turner.

Public domain image by K. N. Chichagov (1885) available from Wikimedia Commons.

Take Oblomov’s doctor, and the class assumptions involved in his medical advice. It’s essential, says the physician, that this sluggard “‘do as other people do—go abroad… Go to Kissingen,’ the doctor began, ‘and spend June and July there; drink the water; then go to Switzerland or the Tyrol for a grape cure. Spend September and October there… Then to some dry place—say, to Egypt…'” The couch potato is also to “avoid thinking,” to be stimulated “by pleasant sensations only,” and to have fun chatting up the ladies and dancing and going to balls, while sticking to a vegetarian diet.(2) Throw in some mindfulness and a gentle exhortation to eject negative people from your life, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this were really taking place at some workshop in Santa Monica filled with wearers of $200 yoga pants.

And lest anyone think codependency only got underway somewhere in the twentieth century, the relationship between Oblomov and his servant, Zahar, gives the lie to that theory. “Having always lived together they were tired of each other,” says Goncharov,(3) and the two spend their days carping at each other, complaining about each other, and generally doing as little as possible—and yet, “[t]he old tie between them could not be severed,” nor could Zahar finally set aside his “reverence” for his master.(4) This thing leaps right over The Odd Couple into a different sort of domestic Honeymooners situation, with the Russian version of fists shaken to the tune of “Why, I oughtta…” issuing threats that will never be fulfilled.

I’m only a little more than halfway through, but at present, some of the random comments and observations I’ve appreciated have included the assertion that when we become adults, we all know perfectly well that the fairy tales we’re told aren’t true, and “that as soon as any giants were about they were put in a booth for show.”(5) There’s also the very contemporary view of Oblomov’s parents, who, much like a bunch of politicians, corporate gods, and those who’ve been conned into believing their logic about college as mere skills-training and ticket to a paycheck, “understood the advantages of education, but merely in [a material] sense. They had only the vaguest and remotest idea of education being necessary for its own sake, and were anxious to secure for their Ilyusha simply the brilliant external advantages.”(6)

Yup. There also seems to be much to ponder here about the pull of conservative nostalgia, and opportunity for wondering whether there were ever really such tenderhearted mothers who dropped big tears at the mere thought of their little boys getting a scratched knee. But Oblomov’s old friend and polar opposite, Stolz, has just trod confidently into this slug’s dusty quarters, so we’ll have to wait to see whether this stuffy world gets shaken about a bit. So far, it’s been surprisingly enjoyable to witness how hard it is for someone just to get out of bed; I can’t imagine the pleasure will be any less when things actually get moving.

 

(1) And how I stayed away so long, given the little red hardback’s perfect, cozy dimensions—it’s almost exactly the size of my hand and about a finger’s width thick—is a question I’ll probably never be able to answer.

(2) Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov, transl. Natalie Duddington (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1946), 81.

(3) ibid., 70.

(4) ibid., 71.

(5) ibid., 116.

(6) ibid., 135.

Lifting My Head up from the Book Fog

For the past few months, there really hasn’t been that much reading that’s excited me. Thankfully, recent exceptions have peeped their way out of the fog, the first of those being Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. I stumbled upon the book after listening to a higher-ed related podcast I was checking out for work—and there was the author, giving an extremely engaging interview and seeming like someone you’d just want to talk to, period.(1)

Sure, Cottom’s work is about for-profit colleges, and offers up a detailed examination of the institutions and the people who attend them (unsurprisingly doing so for reasons and/or in ways other than pundits would have us believe)—but the author’s so unbelievably thorough, you also wind up getting schooled in what we’ve come to think education itself should be (essentially, the supposed ticket to a so-called “good job” and nothing more [2]), the current state of labor, and the ways in which both labor and education are meant to fit into the particular type of economic system according to which the US is running. Part of that broader lesson is the fact that certain people are essentially meant to be kept on the margins, and that a number of institutions only profit when what they offer keeps said population right where it is.

You’d expect something this well researched and logical to be dry as a bone in the desert—but the other brilliant aspects of the book are the fact that (1) it’s completely engaging, and (2) there’s not a shred of the self-importance that often pummels the reader when a big scholar is doing the talking. I realize this review has been pretty brief and entirely too general—but I’ll just assert that this is not only what scholarship should be—meticulous, open, engrossing—but also that it’s essential reading for anyone who cares about the ways in which we’re limiting ourselves intellectually and, dare I say, spiritually, as a society.

The other work that’s kept me from total literary doldrums? Jan Neruda’s collection, Prague Tales. Yep, if that last name sounds familiar, it’s because the Chilean poet originally known as Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto took it as a shout-out to the nineteenth-century Czech author.

I always have a hard time reviewing short-story collections, so this, too, will be a very general few sentences of praise. There’s something in it all that, if not mysterious enough to qualify as Borgesian or Kafkaesque, wouldn’t feel out of place in a discussion on those two greats. There’s a lot of character study going on here, with some excellent descriptive phrases—a peddler is described as needing “to have his face repaved”(3)—and a story with a fantastically tantalizing non-answer of an ending that challenges its author’s assertion that “I know that no reader ever asks a question.”(4)

In short, I’m not sure why the original Neruda isn’t as well known as the poet who adopted his name. The mess that Central European politics became? The fact that the Czech author isn’t at all into declarations of love or overflowing hearts that take themselves far too seriously? Maybe it’s these things, and undoubtedly more. All I can do for the moment, though, is recommend his stories as something above much of the blur the genre often feels like to me.

 

(1) Note, it’s extremely rare, in the slew of fundraising and higher-ed shows I have to wade through, to hear someone blissfully free of (1) what I can only refer to as a surfer-frat or neo-Valley Girl accent, and (2) incredibly stupid jargon and abbreviations, such as “org” for “organization.”[*] Coming across someone who actually sounds human and genuine, and intimidatingly smart and methodical to boot, is a cause for minor celebration.

[*] Re: this abbreviation, I’m still thrown into the mood realm of Soviet institutions and/or Scientology, and almost wish some representative of the nefarious Sea Org would appear on the show and talk about that particular organization’s practices.

(2) One of the reasons I ran right down to the library after hearing the podcast mentioned above (and unfortunately I’ve forgotten which one it was) was that Cottom called bullshit on the notion of “lifelong learning.” I wanted to cheer when she said this has nothing to do with keeping oneself engaged with and curious about the world, or the feel-good/moral claptrap that often gets associated with it, but, rather, with continually reskilling oneself in order to fit into a changing economy. If I ever see this woman, I hope she won’t mind being on the receiving end of a thankful hug, if for nothing other than making me feel less like the lone curmudgeon who wants that corporate phrase erased from the lexicon.

(3) Jan Neruda, “How It Came to Pass,” in Prague Tales, transl. Michael Henry Heim (New York: Central European University Press, 1996), 222.

(4) Neruda, “Written This Year on All Souls’ Day,” 230.

In Search of Some Sort of Review

A week or so ago, after nine months and eleven days, I completed the entire seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time—or, as my old translation still has it, Remembrance of Things Past.(1) Because my mind will likely feel bruised for a good while yet, while the freshness of the experience wears slowly away, I’ll probably never be able to provide anything like a real review—but in this waning stage of recovery, I’ll offer some preliminary thoughts on the subject of my lengthy reading journey.

You would think the sheer page count of this saga would be its most daunting characteristic. And it’s true: making it through ca. 2,400 pages, many of them consisting of paragraph-free expatiating, is no walk in the park. But length alone is rarely enough to scare me away from a book.(2) I’ll discard that factor, then, and offer an analysis, or at least a brief list, of what sent me into multiple bouts of eye-rolling and general frustration.

Antiquated writing styles and earlier historical eras or concerns aren’t problems, either—after all, were I to meet Sophocles’ ghost, my giddiness would probably overcome my fear of being visited by a specter, and I’d turn into a blubbering idiot. But as opposed to the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, or even, hell, Sinclair Lewis, all of whom seem to represent their own times well, there’s something about Proust’s manner of walking us through his narrator’s life that doesn’t quite sit right for the era in which he’s writing. I mentioned on this blog, when I first began reading the thing, that it was as if the author were trying to keep us from jumping into the innovations and new movements of the time in which he was getting this all down on paper. Begun in 1909, Proust worked on the project up until he died in 1922—and although the translation may be a factor here, you’d never have guessed that he was a contemporary of Gide, Apollinaire, or Jarry, much less any of the Dadaists or (early) Surrealists. It felt as if the author was, schoolmarm fashion, fighting to keep new language or ideas or concerns from bursting out and sullying his aesthete’s stodgy propriety.

What happens to one’s brain when trying to summarize Proust. Public domain image courtesy US Navy/Aaron Peterson, on Wikimedia Commons.

That’s no surprise, though, given the classist remarks that make regular appearances in the books, from wry commentary on the lower classes’ grammatical mistakes or misappropriation of certain words or expressions,(3) to the narrator’s condescending approach to the servant Françoise.(4) That classist Euro-male disdain takes a hell of a lot of forms, from his assertions about Jews/Jewishness, (5) to his belief (in vol. VI) that it’s perfectly fine to lure girls off the street for his own consolation,(6) to apparently assuming all his readers are male, and that relationships with women are naturally some sort of dishonest battle for power.(7)

What else? The “bad girl” (i.e., Albertine) is, of course, killed off; we never have any clue about what this illness is the guy suffers from his whole life, or why everyone’s so solicitous of him; the sentimentality verges on the ridiculous,(8) and it often feels as if we’ve jumped into a time machine or wormhole, or that people just exist in some sort of ageless state until the very end, where out of nowhere, the whole gang has turned gray and decrepit. And I can’t even begin to describe the hilarity of everyone turning out to be an “invert;” once Charlus has let us know that same-sex love exists, it’s open season; everyone wants to get down with everyone else, and wants to corrupt small children, and the poor innocent narrator just keeps getting jolt after titillating jolt of conviction that he’s surrounded by sexual immorality.(9)

Yeah. As I said, this has hardly been a very satisfying review. But as often happens with data overload, there’s only so much substance you can pull out from the flood. I in no way regret having read the whole saga—but trying to get my head around the experience ex post facto has been almost as exhausting as being unable to give Proust’s spoiled narrator a piece of my mind.

 

(1) Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, vols. I–III and IV–VII, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and (for final volume) Frederick A. Blossom (New York: Random House, 1932).

(2) For example, I barely noticed the length of Infinite Jest or My Struggle; unable to put it down, I polished off the first of those in a week; same thing goes for the first volume of Knausgaard’s epic autobiography.

(3) “Aimé who possessed certain rudiments of culture meant to italicise Mlle. A. between inverted commas. But when he meant to write inverted commas, he wrote brackets, and when he meant to write something in brackets he put it between inverted commas.” The Sweet Cheat Gone, 744. What does this have to do at all with the story or the author’s situation, other than to prove that he’s a nitpicky priss?

(4) ibid., 744: “Thus it was that Françoise would say that some one stayed in my street meaning that he abode there…” Unfortunately, I didn’t start writing down until late in the game all the ways in which the narrator relishes pointing out, like an insufferable little pedant, the smallest quirks or mistakes made by individuals not belonging to the upper classes. As for Françoise, I do admit she would absolutely have driven me up a wall, with her prying and passive aggression—and so I probably would have reacted with similar ill will and nastiness.

(5) For instance, from The Past Recaptured, 1046: “I had seen the vices and the courage of the Guermantes reappear in Saint-Loup, together with the strange, occasional defects of his own character, like the Semitism in Swann. I could also see it in Bloch [about whose “Jewish” appearance and attitudes the narrator frequently comments].” Once again, most of my cited instances come from the later volumes, since my piles of notes are a real pain to go through.

(6) At least in that final episode, Marcel gets hauled in by the police and an angry father—although he’s let off with a few yuks shared with the officer.

(7) Again, there are just too many instances I wish I could quote, but one on p. 784 (vol. VI) is representative. Talking about an article he’s gotten published, the narrator muses, “I imagined some female reader into whose room I would have been so glad to penetrate and to whom the newspaper would convey if not my thought, which she would be incapable of understanding, at least my name, like a tribute to myself.”

(8) When Robert gets leave for Marcel to stay in the barracks for the night (vol. III), the former goes out to make arrangements, while the latter “turned away so as to hide [his] tears.” (769). And in addition to having a tendency to throw his arms about people’s necks and weep copiously, and apparently still needing kisses from his mother and grandmother to settle him well into what may be adulthood, there are weird reactions such as the one in which he’s unable to determine who wrote him a letter in praise of one of his articles (vol. VI), 798: “I was desolate at my inability to discover who had written to me.”

(9) And, of course, because someone is gay, that means s/he’s continually obsessed with sex. At a certain point, it all sounded like the convictions of small-town evangelicals with whom I went to school: that being gay is all about getting as much sex as you can, with all ages, with no thought for anything else in life. Somewhat representative is the assertion in vol. VI, p. 750: “If Albertine enjoyed the pleasures which one woman takes with others, if it was in order not to be deprived of them any longer… she must, as soon as she was free, have sought to indulge in them…”

Train Catalogue, Slack-Jawed Edition

Public domain image courtesy Internet Archive Book Images on Wikimedia Commons.

I’m not usually on the train when schools let out for the day. But things were packed this afternoon with khaki-and-blue-sweatered teenagers, stopping as soon as they walked into the carriage and blocking the crowds of other passengers seeking entrance. If a petitioner asked them to keep moving, the supplicant would receive a dull, bovine glance and the small satisfaction of near-adults plodding a few leaden steps farther to make some space.

A woman who must have gotten onto the subway well before rush hour began was seated in a corner, devoted to a Lisa Scottoline paperback. Probably in her mid- to late seventies, her lilac-lacquered nails clutched the folded copy closely to her face; her legs were stretched out to hold and protect her purse, set on the floor in front of her, against the wall of the train. But she need not have worried about anyone targeting her belongings; full as the carriage was with those pesky youths people of certain classes and/or ages allege you never can trust, almost all of them were slumped over their phones, slack-jawed over their videos. Inside the pervasive silence, these unmoving middle- and high-schoolers drooped as if drugged, not raising a single bit of adolescent noise or hell. In was one of the most unnatural—and disheartening—scenes I’ve witnessed in a long while.

 

Train Spottings, Again

Three book readers viewed in or near a train today!

Exhibit A: a wiry guy, elbows casually propped on knees, leaning into the hardback in front of his face. I could only make out “to Mexico” on the cover, and since he exited the train after a single stop, who or what was going to said country remained a mystery to me. I wondered if the earbuds solidly plugged into his head, cords leading down to some undetectable source, were playing anything, whether he was one of those amazing humans who’s able to read and have music or words being broadcast into his brain at the same time—or whether he was simply using the devices as noise-canceling earplugs. The only additional information I got about this quick-moving passenger, though, was that he was carrying a ca. half-gallon plastic container filled with large chunks of watermelon, which he held securely as he strode out of the carriage.

Exhibit A.5 was simply a passenger walking hurriedly in the direction of the station entrance where I got off. Carrying a hardback copy of Brave in his hand, he seemed worried as he looked at the stairs to be climbed, and at the stream of humanity flowing down them.

Exhibit B: A beefy bald man sitting in the corner of one end of the carriage, in the same posture as his watermelon-carrying predecessor—but given his girth, the pose looked less graceful, far less comfortable or easy to maintain. The first I saw of his oversized hardback book was the heading on one of the open pages: above sections of graphics I couldn’t make out was the question, “What’s the harm?” At that point, I began to speculate: was this an art book, one taking into consideration the ethical quandaries of creation or production? If so, what sort of art was this guy into? But the next time I looked around, the back cover was facing my way; everything became clear when I read the declaration, “It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Clark Kent.” Not quite the concluding sentence I was expecting—but at least I knew now there was some comic book history happening here, contained within a high-quality, full-color edition. At one point, the reader looked up and around, just checking out the carriage—but the good-natured scan was perfunctory, and he returned to his book. Just a guy hanging out, and all’s pretty swell: a reassuring sight.

And although he doesn’t get included in the exhibit of readers, a strange sort of reassurance emerged from a glimpse of the kid I saw walking on a downtown sidewalk—talking into an old-school telephone receiver held to his head, spirally cord descending into his pocket, where it plugged into his iPhone. Too young, probably, ever to have used the old contraption in unironic fashion, I saluted him: whether a weird critique or just a witty move, the proof of human creativity and willingness to act on it put a smile on my face.

An Uncredentialed Rant

Part of my work life lately has involved doing some research into digital badges—specifically as used in higher education. Fine; I’m not going to expand here upon the often skeptical feelings I have about the phenomenon in general—but as I’ve been reading through Digital Badges in Education: Trends, Issues, and Cases, (1) I’ve come across some curious statements and considerations, analyzed (or railed against) below.

Public domain image courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen/British Museum on Wikimedia Commons.

Any Tough-to-Achieve Skill Is Fair Game

Take the example Lucas Blair uses in explaining certain sorts of achievements that are markedly more difficult than those that require a mere demonstration of proficiency in a given area. Because he’s “a player and designer”,(2) the author tends to explain how we might design or conceive of badges in an educational setting via the ways in which they’re employed in the domain of video games. And so, in specifying for us what it might take to earn one of these types of hard-to-get badges, he lets us in on what’s entailed in earning “the achievement ‘Seriously…’ in the game Gears of War [which]… required players to kill 10,000 opponents in ranked multiplayer matches, a feat reported to take hundreds of hours of gameplay to complete.” (3)

Eh… spending hundreds of hours racking up corpses, even of the virtual variety? Sure, that requires some commitment and work—but you think Blair might have picked a better example, especially in a volume dedicated to the ostensible worth of online credentialing? I’m wary about moralists wanting to censor any number of things, or make too-easy correlations between viewing/reading and behavior—but don’t tell me all that time focused on being a super-agent of death doesn’t do something to you.

Even having seen—once—a clip Jon Stewart used years ago to consider violence in video games disturbed me so badly, I can’t imagine what it might feel like, not just to see it again, but to engage, repeatedly and actively, in the sorts of games that make use of such story lines and tropes, using visual depictions that are believably human. And the Stewart video presents a particularly egregious example of the ominous ways in which women are portrayed and treated in games. You can’t convince me Gamergate (or its aftermath) was entirely free from, and/or didn’t at all contribute to, assumptions made in many games about women’s nature and value, and the ways in which they should be viewed or treated. Indeed, although there’s still discussion over whether or not, or how, video games influence those who play them, there’s some consensus that a connection does exist between exposure and behavior. (4)

 

Credentials Overstep Their Bounds

In their chapter, Peck, Bowen, Rimland, and Oberdick talk about badges earned for so-called soft skills—and mention that Penn State is doing something (or was at the time) with “badge sets that include systems thinking, global awareness, and empathy.” (5) Let’s set aside the darkly hilarious possibility of including that empathy badge in a suite that offers training in virtual slaughter as a good example of going beyond the call of skills-acquisition duty. What the hell could it mean to possess a badge in empathy? Even a good citizenship award might mean more; there, I’m guessing you’ve done something that’s benefited someone in your community: a concrete activity or event. But empathy? Human characteristics and qualities tend to swim around on a continuum, and the person who did something empathetic one day in one situation could prove to be a selfish old bastard in another scenario. Or, if you’re more in line with Martin Luther, you can never be justified for all time; sin keeps creeping back in, and if you think you’ve arrived at some point of permanent righteousness, you’re in for an ugly round of comeuppance. And if I need to look at a badge to judge whether a person’s empathetic or not, I might need to undergo some training myself, where reading people is concerned.

 

I Think We’re Missing the Point

In their case study of three badge-using programs directed at schoolkids, Chow, Willis, and Hickey talk about one project’s site whose “interface allows check-ins on student progress during certification work… [and] 1:1 communication functionality to offer feedback.” (6) Great: I’m glad we’re checking on student progress, and that we can apparently communicate individually with each student. But good god: “1:1 communication functionality”? Something about the bureaucratic nature of that phrase gets at the soullessness that seems to come along not only with much of digital interaction, but with jargon in general. If we’re going to talk about an interface allowing check-ins, why not also say in plain language that it allows for individual communication between student and mentor/instructor? Maybe the designers just read Havel’s The Memorandum, and thought Ptydepe was a really great idea.

Once we’ve gotten to that point, then, it becomes no surprise that everything must be reduced to functionality, or some very specific purpose that must lead to the completion of some identifiable, measurable goal. And that’s just what seems to be suggested in Sam Piha’s article on using digital badges in afterschool programs.(7) Yes, it’s incredibly important to give kids, in underserved areas especially, the skills and education they’ll need in order to have a good adult life. And yes, we should try all sorts of ways to give them an effective, meaningful educational experience. But all the talk about stakeholders and best practices and learner accountability—in afterschool programs, where everything seems aimed at giving kids a chance to do interesting things, get to know their peers, and just generally have a safe space to hang out in? It honestly makes me ill—because now we can’t let them just be kids, just enjoy each other’s company, and make up their own games, and do pottery or science experiments or mud pies, without it turning into one more checklist that signals they’re doing this for someone else’s approval, and not for the sheer enjoyment or curiosity of the thing itself. We can’t allow the activity to be enough on its own, or trust that kids determine on their own what they find valuable or not, without being told it’s been endorsed as such.

 

So that’s that, at this point. And really, this little screed has consisted of nothing more than venting my own disconnected frustrations, without offering any better solutions. But that’s what writing is about sometimes: simply getting it out, whether your earn any badges (or likes or feedback or anything) for your efforts at all.

 

 

(1) Lin Y. Muilenburg and Zane L. Berge, eds. Digital Badges in Education: Trends, Issues, and Cases (New York: Routledge, 2016).

(2) Lucas Blair, “What Video Games Can Teach Us About Badges and Pathways,” in Muilenburg and Berge: 62–70, 62.

(3) Blair, 64.

(4) As Stewart noted about himself, I played video games as a kid. And I even remember going once in grad school with a friend to some arcade and blasting away our stress with an idiotic first-person shooter adventure. But after one round, we started feeling disturbed about the whole thing, and about the noises and lights and the fear that it all might lead to weird seizures and never being able to shake the feeling of sticky floors and the sense of cash being continually shoveled into glowing screens and Skillz Cranes. If I remember correctly, the evening ended soon after that with a vague sense of unease hanging around us.

(5) Kyle Peck, Kyle Bowen, Emily Rimland, and Jamie Oberdick, “Badging as Micro-Credentialing in Formal Education and Informal Education,” in Muilenburg and Berge: 82–92, 90.

(6) Christine Chow, James E. Willis III, and Daniel Hickey, “Learning with Digital Badges in Formal, Informal, and Crowd-Sourced Settings,” in Muilenburg and Berge: 122–34, 129.

(7) Sam Piha, “Afterschool and Digital Badges, in Muilenburg and Berge: 135–44.