Archive for August, 2013

Professor Mike Niman on lowering higher education

Last week Barack Obama visited SUNY/Buffalo, where I got my BA, to talk about education. My friend Mike Niman was not entirely pleased with the president’s message:

The frustrating thing about Obama’s visit is, while he addressed the problem [of much higher costs for post-secondary students], the cause seemed to have eluded him. The math is not fuzzy here, Mr. President. A 2012 study by two Federal Reserve economists documented the relationship between dwindling government support of higher education and increasing tuition. …

One way colleges and universities absorbed state aid cuts is by cutting, and in many cases, decimating academic programs, replacing retiring professors with an exploited overworked contingent “part time” workforce where in many cases workers barely earn minimum wage after calculating grading, prep, course material research, and meeting hours. This trend, which goes back three decades, has transformed academic institutions from environments where ideas were born and nurtured and intellects exercised and developed, into places where ideas are flattened, packaged, and “delivered” on the cheap.

This is the corporate mold for higher education—a system where vendors sell “deliverable” education products. …

The corporate product underlying this delivery system is the “MOOC” (Massive Open Online Course). It works like this: MOOC vendors contract with elite institutions such as Harvard to teach real college classes to privileged students. In many cases they’ll employ the traditional Socratic method of participatory discussion. No doubt this will be an excellent class—for those present in the classroom. The whole experience will be recorded by the MOOC vendors who will deliver the course virtually to the rest of the college world where less fortunate students will watch the elite students participate.

Academic workers, either at decimated campuses or online, will administer assessment tools and, in the best cases, facilitate a scripted discussion. In the worst cases there are no such workers. What we get is a sort of apartheid where working and middle-class students pay to watch the privileged learn in the sort of dynamic, interactive classrooms that once defined a good public liberal arts education. …

The result is that even the select information snippets and factoids that the MOOCS and other online education technologies deliver seldom get the mental reflection and contemplation needed to move them from short-term to long-term memory. For this, one needs to participate in a class rather than simply interact as a voyeur. Perhaps this is why graduates of virtual colleges and universities tend to be less successful in attaining their life goals. It’s because they never actually went to college despite the huge amount of time spent and debt accrued in procuring their online diplomas.

So far, all we’ve seen from such “reform” is an overpriced, second-class education.

Happy birthday, Dad!

My father, George Basil, turns 81 today. He’s the handsome guy in the photo above, next to my Mom, a few years ago in Montreal.

Leaving Olympia

Eastside Big Tom Drive Inn

Eastside Big Tom Drive Inn

My second summer in Olympia, Washington comes to an end in a few days. It was a good time: I gave up television and swearing and I visited Big Tom’s twice, eating in the parking lot. I did some reading and writing, prepared for my fall classes, grilled portobello mushrooms and delicata squash, and spent some time with friends. I drank a lot of coffee and then biked or walked around trying not to get busted people-watching.

I am going to miss this comfy place: its gardens, tags, and tattoos; the skateboarders and the jewelry peddlers; Capitol Lake and Sylvester parks; Last Word Books and Orca Books Inc.; and the lovely welcoming vibe everywhere.

Tomatoes from the backyard.

Tomatoes from the backyard.

Edna Gertrude Beasley


“It is perfectly clear to me that life is not worth living, but it is also equally clear that life is worth talking about.” – EGB

I learned of the delightfully named Edna Gertrude Beasley while reading A Second Mencken Chrestomathy. Mencken reviews Beasley’s memoir, “My First Thirty Years,” in a chapter called “A Texas Schoolma’am,” written in 1926:

This book, I suspect, comes out with a Paris imprint because no American publisher would risk printing it. I offer the very first paragraph as a specimen of its manner:

‘Thirty years ago I lay in the womb of a woman, conceived in an act of rape, being carried through the pre-natal period by an unwilling and rebellious mother, finally bursting forth only to be tormented in a family whose members I despised or pitied, and brought into association with people whom I should never have chosen. Sometimes I wish that, as I lay in the womb, a pink soft embryo, I had somehow thought, breathed or moved and wrought destruction to the woman who bore me, and her eight miserable children who preceded me, and the four round-faced mediocrities who came after me, and her husband, a monstrously cruel, Christ-like and handsome man with an animal’s appetite for begetting children.’

This is freely speaking, surely, but only a Comstock, reading it, would mistake it for an attempt at pornography. There is, in fact, not the slightest sign of conscious naughtiness in the book; it is the profoundly serious and even indignant story of a none too intelligent woman lifted out of the lowest levels of the Caucasian race by her own desperate efforts, and now moved to ease her fatigue by telling how she did it. …

La Beasley, it appears, came into the world on the Texas steppes, the ninth child of migratory and low-down parents. Her father was an unsuccessful farmer who practiced blacksmithing on the side. During her first half dozen years the family moved three or four times. Always prosperity was beckoning in the next township, the next county. Children were born at every stop, and as the household increased it gradually disintegrated. Finally, the mother heaved the father out, took her brood to Abilene, and there set up a boarding-house. The sons quickly drifted away; one of the daughters became a lady of joy; the others struggled pathetically with piddling jobs. Gertrude was the flower of the flock. She worked her way through a preposterous ‘Christian College,’ got a third-rate teacher’s certificate, and took a rural school. The county parents liked her; she kept their barbarous progeny in order, often by beating them. After a while she took other examinations, and was transferred to better schools. In the end, she went to Chicago, and there tackled pedagogy on a still higher level. For all I know, she may be teaching in that great city yet.

The tone of Mencken’s review is thoroughly, unusually admiring. He respects her unblurred, dyspeptic view: “The author has emancipated herself from her native wallow, but she does not view it with superior sniffs. Instead, she frankly takes us back to it, and tells us all she knows about its fauna, simply and honestly. There is frequent indignation in her chronicle, but never any derision. Her story interests her immensely, and she is obviously convinced that it should be interesting to others. I think she is right.”

One wishes, at any rate, that Mencken’s guess regarding Beasley’s then-current whereabouts had been the case. She did not end up teaching in Chicago.

In fact, as Mary Ellen Specht puts it in her excellent piece “The Disappearance of Gertrude Beasley, “‘My First Thirty Years’ ends with Beasley sailing off to Japan, where she writes for ‘National Geographic’ and travels to places like China and Russia before publishing her autobiography and disappearing for good,” it seemed, at the age of 35.

In 2008 the mystery of Beasley’s disappearance was solved. Specht writes:

Edna Gertrude Beasley … was institutionalized 10 days after her ship landed in New York. She lived out her last 27 years in gulag conditions, until her death from pancreatic cancer in 1955. She was 63.

The [author’s] grandniece and Beasley “friends” and family have since located her grave, marked only by a number, and erected a headstone there. While Beasley’s body may be at peace, her story isn’t. New York State will not release details of her commitment hearing, even to family.  The question remains: How did she end up there? The family has found a dictation from one of Gertrude’s brothers claiming she was committed by William Randolph Hearst, for whom she briefly worked as a journalist, though the brother claimed “she was no more crazy than you or I.” My mother found no mention of Beasley in the Hearst papers at the University of California at Berkeley.

Maybe she *was* crazy. The letter she sent to the U.S. State Department from the ship is full of grandiose suspicions regarding “a conspiracy against myself.” Beasley also claims to be “completing a work which I believe to be one of the most significant of its sort ever written.” She accuses British police and “certain people in Texas” of trying to stop her. She implies that once she disembarks from the steamer, her life will be in peril. She was never heard from again. My mother says, “Is it paranoia if they’re really out to get you?”

Gertrude Beasley wrote about the hardships of her first 30 years, but we can’t begin to imagine what her last 30 must have been like.

In 2011 Beasley’s memoir was re-issued as a paperback; you can download it onto your Kindle, too. (Amazon has a sizeable selection of the text available as a “preview.” Google Books has these excerpts.) The writing is utterly vivid and distilled. No noun seems not needed in this ardent narration of an American hell. The courage and the craft that our author had … inspires. She reminds me of very few writers of my generation – perhaps only Lydia Lunch and Robin Plan, who were not, thank god, thrown into the “gulag” midway through the journey of their lives.


Prime yourself.

Whereto Publishing?

A lucid presentation by my KPU colleague Ross Laird, PhD: “The Future of Form (Or, The Death and Persistence of Books).” I always learn so much from Ross.

John Glionna Reporting from Olympia

John Glionna, writer for the Los Angeles Times

John Glionna

My old buddy John Glionna was up in the Olympia area recently doing research on a couple of stories for the Los Angeles Times. It was great to see him: John is perhaps the most wide-awake person I have ever known, and he’s been a stalwart friend to me over many years.

John’s a brilliant and truly tenacious writer, now based in Las Vegas after a long stint working out of Seoul, South Korea.

In Olympia he reported on a private club over Frankie’s Sports Bar and Grill (not too far away from where I’m staying this summer):

“Tavern owner Frankie Schnarr takes a long draw from his bottle of Coors Light and scans his sports bar, listening to billiard balls rattle and a pinball machine explode with points. … Suddenly, there’s that smell: musky-sweet, skunky yet somehow pleasing, an odor traditionally fraught with illegality. …’You get used to the smell — it’s like the mold at your Mom’s house,’ he says, motioning for another Coors. … At Frankie’s Sports Bar and Grill, firing up a ‘fatty’ or a ‘blunt’ is not only condoned, it’s welcomed. Last fall, Washington state legalized recreational marijuana use, allowing people to smoke the drug in private, but not in public places such as bars. Schnarr, 63, has found a way around that: He’s using a space in his bar he says is private, not public.”

As they say on the Internets, read the whole thing.


While in the area, John also interviewed Chuck Cox, the father of Susan Powell, “the 28-year-old Utah stockbroker and mother of two whose disappearance in December 2009 made national headlines.” The mood of this piece is altogether different, of course; the last line gave me shivers.

Thinking about editing …

… over at No Contest Communications.




As a young man, if I had to sum up my essence into a single quality, I would have said, “I hitch-hike.” Nothing meant more to me.

I was obsessed with the communications interaction hitching a ride provided:  Standing on the roadside with my thumb out, I could assume that the very next person I saw would be (1) a stranger and (2) somebody who wanted to talk with me.* Situations in which both such things would be true simultaneously seemed otherwise rare in my experience. Conversations brought into being by these situations enthralled me. I doubt I could discern the lies from the truth, the earnestness from the BS, any better than I can decipher these things now. But I could always count on being surprised by the words I heard; I could always count on feeling grateful and lucky. Indeed, hitch-hiking made a virtue out of loneliness; receiving a ride seemed a holier blessing.

I was indeed aware that one could not make a good living out of hitchhiking. One could and did, however, scrape by. Drivers were by and large pretty generous. (One desperado spent his last dollar buying me a hamburger. And a lady from Florida once gave me a pillowcase filled with grapefruits.) Making a living *writing* about hitching was not an option; that genre had lived and died by the time I hit the road, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady having left us in 1969 and ’68, respectively.)

It hadn’t occurred to me, though, that I could aspire to becoming a “professor of hitchhiking.” That would have been the perfect job. (Curriculum: “We will study the styles, methods, and rhetorical forms of ‘the hitch’; the road and the law, throughout history and across cultures; etc.”) But that gig doesn’t exist, so far as I can tell. If it did, I would be doing the next best thing, though, teaching communications to wide-awake and sometimes way-out-there students where I do. But since that particular gig doesn’t seem to exist, I’m doing the best thing *period*, with what I have to offer.


*There were exceptions: You might run into people you knew on oft-travelled routes, and sometimes drivers’d pick you up so that you could take the wheel while they napped shotgun.


Addendum: Mencken

Perhaps it is hard to publish again, eagerly, after reading a lot of Mencken. Here are some representative passages of his prose given to us on back-to-back pages of Fred Hobson’s delightful biography:

On Warren G. Harding: “He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.”

On Abraham Lincoln: “The varnishers and veneerers have been busily converting Abe into a plaster saint. … There is an obvious effort to pump all of his human weaknesses out of him, and so leave him a mere moral apparition, a sort of amalgam of John Wesley and the Holy Ghost. … In point of fact … until he emerged from Illinois they always put the women, children and clergy to bed when he got a few gourds of corn aboard, and it is a matter of unescapable record that his career in the State Legislature was indistinguishable from that of a Tammany Nietzsche.”

On what Hobson describes as “the American penchant … for rites and rituals, medals and ribbons and orders”: “Rank by rank, [Americans] become Knights of Pythias, Old Fellows, Red Men, Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, Knights Templar, Patriarchs Militant, Elks, Moose, Woodmen of the World, Foresters, Hoo-Hoos, Ku Kluxers – and in every new order there were thirty-two degrees, and for every degree there was a badge, and for every badge there was a yard of ribbon. The Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, chiefly paunchy wholesalers of the Rotary Club species, are not content with swords, baldrics, stars, garters, jewels; they also wear red fezzes. The Elks run to rubies. The Red Men array themselves like Sitting Bull.  … There is a mortician in Hagerstown, Md., who has been initiated eighteen times. When he robes himself to plant a former joiner he weights three hundred pounds and sparkles and flashes like the mouth of Hell itself. He is entitled to bear seven swords, all jeweled, and to hang his watch chain with the golden busts of nine wild animals, all with precious stones for eyes. Put beside this lowly washer of the dead, [General John J.] Pershing newly polished would seem almost like a Trappist.”


On the Way

It has been slim pickings around here of late, but my topic-composition sheet for basil.CA has never been longer. Lately I have been reading like crazy (Paul Bowles, H.L Mencken, H. L. Mencken’s really talented biographer Fred Hobson, Jessica Mitford, guilty-pleasure memoirs, Rumi, children’s books, Terry Tempest Williams, Oliver Sacks, graphic novels, sedulous bloggers, anarchist zines, old copies of The New York Review of Books, and emails from friends and family), biking hard most every day, preparing for my fall courses (including one I’ve not taught before), and spending time with people I dearly like.

More prose is on its way …



I have spent the last two summers working and writing in Olympia, Washington. I love this city.

Kwantlen Polytechnic University …

… is in the news.

[Here’s an August 16 update from the Vancouver Province.]

[Here’s a September 7 update.]


People will forgive misanthropes more quickly than they will bigots. Hating everybody, ten out of 10, is a cry against social existence, a complaint against life; hating just some, two out of ten, is a whine about one’s neighbors, a complaint against maybe you.

Lincoln Clarkes’ “Cyclists” photographs debut


This is a delightfully inventive project by my friend Lincoln Clarkes that I have been following for a couple of years now.

From the publisher’s news release:

Quattro Books is pleased to announce the publication and launch of CYCLISTS, a new book of photographs by Lincoln Clarkes at Oz Studios, 134 Ossington Avenue, on Thursday, August 15 at 5:00 pm.

“Sexed-up, environmentalistic, fashionesque portraiture … a subtle protest against the petro-chemical and automobile industries.” An overdose of advertising has been glamorizing cars for decades, convincing us of their must-have status, but this attitude feels tiresome and outdated in the light of the environmental situation that engulfs our planet today.

For a limited time only, download a free pdf version of CYCLISTS here.

Cyclists is an exquisite collection of hundreds of candid photographs. This book is a selection of 150 men and women riding bicycles on Toronto’s streets in 2011 and 2012. These remarkable pictures are street style/fashion portraits. They are stolen public moments given back to us as art and history.

Previous books published include: Heroines (Anvil Press, 2002), and Views (Northern Electric, 2006). Documentaries on Clarkes include Heroines: Photographic Obsession (BRAVO!, 2001), and Snapshots (Knowledge Network, 2011).


I hope the show comes to Vancouver soon. Until then, there is the book in PDF format.