Archive for academia

The Chambered Nautilus and Memory

My sister Dr. Jenny Basil, Biology Professor and Department Chair at Brooklyn College, appears in this week’s “You’re the Expert” podcast. “Dr. Jennifer Basil studies how animals navigate the world and remember where they stored food. Her main research organism is the mysterious and beautiful chambered nautilus [link added]. Comedians Jo Firestone, Zhubin Parang, and Shalewa Sharpe discover what secrets lie hidden in the deep sea.”

It is an entertaining and illuminating half hour! My sister is an exceptionally fine explainer of things, and she is also super funny.

About this cool program:

Created and hosted by Chris Duffy and produced by Pretty Good Friends, each episode features an expert in a specialized field. Through games, sketches, and hilariously misguided guesses, three comedians try to figure out what our expert studies all day. Over the course of the show, we hear about the latest findings and why their field is important.

Stanley Cavell

Visiting a couple of friends at Harvard back in 1982 or so, I was invited to attend a seminar on Shakespeare taught by Stanley Cavell. Holy moly – it was amazing! Graduate students piped up now and then, but the class was essentially a monologue – one of surpassing learning and agility – that felt wholly improvised.

He asked a question that has stayed with me all these years: Does an interpretive approach need to account for every word of a literary work, as it would, let’s say, of each note in a symphony or an opera, or is it enough that the approach makes sense of only certain passages? (It was not a rhetorical question.)

This short memoir of Cavell in the New York Review of Books is very good.

RIP.

Love deserves …

In a marvellous Tukwila, Washington used bookstore the other week I picked up a copy of Yvor Winters’ Uncollected Essays and Reviews for $2.99. I am glad I did because it sure was worth it. I would have been happy to have paid five.

Winters was a Stanford University English Professor and a literary critic and moralist. Long after he passed away, in the 1980s graduate students like myself could leaf through his bound and yellowing PhD dissertation in the Briggs Room library (I was the librarian) in Building 50 next to Memorial Church on the quad. We all read Winters, particularly his book In Defense of Reason, if only to disparage his conviction that a poem should be a rational statement of an abiding human truth. We were more amenable to his discussions of prosody, but could not help but find him often wanting there as well.

As a reader of American poets of the early 20th century, Yvor Winters’ views went from testy to lacerating and back again. I enjoyed his limpid prose. And I certainly enjoyed some of his take-downs of silly poems and poets.

Most interesting to me were his discussions of William Carlos Williams, who was the subject of my first scholarly publication. His ambivalence was all-out, as if he had fallen in love with a drug dealer. This is from an essay called “Poetry of Feeling” found in the Uncollected Essays:

The romantic principles which have governed Dr. Williams’ work have limited his scope. … The combination of purity and of richly human feeling to be found in his language at times reminds one of Thomas Hardy or of Robert Bridges, and of beauty and of execution he is their equal, though in so different a mode; but his understanding is narrow than theirs, and his best poems are less great. On the other hand, when poems are so nearly unexceptionable in their execution, one regards the question of scope regretfully: Robert Herrick is less great than Shakespeare, but he is probably as fine, and, God willing, should last as long. If I may venture … a prediction, it is this: that Williams will prove as nearly indestructible as Herrick; that the end of the present century will see him securely established, along with Wallace Stevens, as one of the two best poets of his generation.

Winters wrote a “postscript” to this piece 25 years later, not long before he died:

My general remarks may stand, but by this time, I would restrict my choice of successful poems much more narrowly. … To say that Williams was anti-intellectual would be almost an exaggeration: he did not know what the intellect was. He was a foolish and ignorant man, but at moments a fine stylist.

“But at moments.”

I find this postscript terribly poignant: What had happened to Professor Winters that permitted scorn to upend his aesthetic attentiveness and delight for work he had loved truly, if never with the wholeness of ease?

“No love deserves the death it has.” – Jack Spicer

– reposted from nocontest.ca

Summer term

Summer is my favourite time to teach. The long hours of sunshine leaven my mood and extend my focus. Students seem happy. Colleagues relax. Goodness knows how much trouble I’d get into if I actually had a “summer vacation”!

This semester I’m teaching Advanced Professional Communications and Technical Report Writing. These are not the most promising-sounding course titles, I know, but the coursework is often stimulating, if not exactly enchanting.

More on Solidarity

From the wonderfully amazing Clarissa:

Look at the teacher strike in West Virginia. Isn’t it a wonderful, inspiring thing? The teachers refused to be further mistreated and abused. They organized, stuck together, and achieved a victory.

If you have ever done any organizing, you know that it’s not about making a logical argument, showing the numbers, and proving points. What’s a lot more important are human relationships, emotions, trust, feeling comfortable with people in your unit.

It’s a lot harder to organize in an environment of mistrust, suspicion, and mutual dislike between workers. Any collective action requires an enormous amount of trust between participants because getting atomized, alienated consumers to do any collective action at all is ridiculously hard.

The vision of self as an island that is better off outside of any collective process is formed slowly and by means we don’t even notice. Those people who tell me, “I don’t need a union. I can negotiate on my own behalf” or “and how do I know you won’t tell the dean what we’ve been talking about here?” are guided towards this vision of self and others. There’s a million strategies to make workers fear and avoid each other.

All of these microaggressions seminars, ethics trainings, gender parity tutorials – their whole point is to make workers detest each other. We tell ourselves they have no effect on us but that’s delusional and well in line with thinking that an exceptional individual can bootstrap themselves out of ideological and intellectual processes that everybody is subject to.

It does have an effect. All of these exhortations to suspect and fear our fellow worker have an effect. Nobody is an exceptional cookie that can rise above this. This is poisoning the workplace for all of us. This is what we need to resist.

Unless we have a clear vision of all the anti-labor strategies employed against us, we won’t win.

Wow

Poetry collector Raymond Danowski truly ‘lived the dream.’ The thoughtfulness of his gift of 75,000 volumes to Emory University and his insistence that undergraduates would share in it have terrifically moved me.

The New York Times’ Sam Roberts writes a very good obituary.

(Photo by Kay Hinton/Emory University)

Applications

There is no better you than you.

Write with that in mind.

(It’s that time of year for students of mine.)