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Process Stories

There is an episode in Season Four of the West Wing by the same title as this post. President Bartlet has just won reelection and the staff is celebrating, but the press is pushing for stories from the campaign, to get the behind the scenes version of what the campaign did to win. While the West Wing as a show was, to an extent, an idealized version of an extended process story, one of the themes of the show is that they do not want the media to cover the process because it detracts from the issues–and in this episode, it allows for some know-nothing to claim a role that he had not played.

It seems to me that when it comes to some things, people are excited to see a dramatized version of that process story, but, much of the time, people have a vested interest in presenting just the final product, whether because the process will reveal weakness or uncertainty or just detract from the overall product. But the emphasis on the final product is a disservice to the process, or to the idea that education itself is a process, whether what is being learned is algebra or essay or story writing or a language or pedagogy itself. My comment here is hardly novel, but students and even dedicated teachers sometimes manage to skip the process in favor of results, or at least a particular emphasis one what the successful end product looks like without establishing the process by which those products are achieved. A parable about fish comes to mind.

The issue of process versus product has been on my mind recently as I have struggled to pick up steam on my dissertation. I have been obsessed with the process of writing it, both in a sort of intellectual curiosity and in terms of establishing good work habits that will hopefully serve me well in years to come. Along these same lines, I have long been interested in hearing academics talk about their intellectual development, again as a form of my own intellectual curiosity and also as a motivational, self-help tool. It is sometimes more depressing than helpful to hear the stories, but it usually helps remind me that nobody emerged from the uterus as a fully-formed intellectual titan and that everyone has to cover up or otherwise cope with their own insecurities. What people know they have had to work at at some point in their lives and, almost more importantly, there are always going to be times when they don’t know something–a situation that can be met with intimidation or curiosity.

One of my failings is that when I am overworked (so, always) I have a tendency to get discouraged in situations when I don’t know something. While I try to learn at least a little something about the topic for the next time I run into it. Here I do not mean the specifics of an argument or a case, but knowing so little about the topic at large that I can not really interact with it at any level. Being able to admit ignorance and move back into that role of learner would save me quite a bit of angst. Of course, having this ingrained compulsion to know things before they are taught to me quite defeats the purpose of an education.

I have also witnessed other people ruminate about related problems in the classroom and how they can be coped with. Most obviously and necessarily, these issues focus on grades, which are a product that the students want but is mostly divorced from the actual processes of learning. I have not yet heard any ideal solutions, but it is the right idea.

I do not know that I have any particular process, at least not one that bears out under scrutiny. Ideally, I have time to balance out my desires and hobbies–the reason that I am making a legitimate effort to keep reading literature through the dissertation, as well as exercise, baking, doing a bit of socializing, writing here, and doing a little bit of gaming, is that I am a happier person when I do these things and a happier me is a me who is better equipped both to think well and write well. But this is general life philosophy that, again, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny because I am exhausted all the time and somnolent me is not a particularly eloquent or thoughtful writer (note my current battle to keep my head from rolling to one side as I type this). “I read stuff and I write stuff,” while true in principle also fails to capture any sort of process.

So a few general process thoughts about my own slow slog towards the various plateaus that substitute for actual completion:

  1. Coffee. Lots of coffee. If I cross a certain threshold, tea. I have spoken to some people who swear by various teas as fluids of choice while writing and I agree with the principle. Nevertheless, I am a coffee junkie who likes tea as a change of pace, but only after the system reaches a sufficient saturation level.
  2. A corollary is that I do a lot of my writing in coffee shops, even now that I am without a laptop. As much as I might wish it were so, I am not dreaming of imitating Hemingway in the cafes of Paris, but rather that my office is far too warm for me to concentrate in and there are always chores to do when I am at home. The environment limits the number of sources I can have with me at any given moment, but this handicap is recovered by actually working.
  3. I also change formats. A lot. I will alternate between hand-writing, typing at a computer, and, at moments of panic, writing on paper that is upside down. I used to believe that I think at about the same speed that I write–this is still true, but I have also come to appreciate the momentum provided by the speedy, rhythmic spew that typing can engender. The latter requires extensive revision, but at least there is something on the page. Recently, I have taken to printing out whatever I have typed for the day, editing somewhat, and then adding about another page of material by hand, which I then type up the next day and from which I can launch into another day (or half day, with another round of editing and writing over lunch) of typing.
  4. In terms of time, I have been fighting a battle to reclaim my mornings, since I am a matutinal being these days, working best first thing in the morning and wind down about one in the afternoon–I can, and do, work after that time, but I am best at grading or other low-intensity tasks unless I have another hefty infusion of caffeine. Of course, reclaiming and defending my time has been one of the most difficult steps in this process.
  5. I have been learning to maximize available time, but if I have twenty minutes I am much more adept at grading an exam or two rather than writing a few sentences. I tend to write with my sources at hand rather than from notes and in all my writing, from this post to my journal to my dissertation, I prefer to clear time and work at a deliberate pace rather than feeling pressed by imminent appointments. If I had to pick a single one of these steps to build and improve upon, it would be this one, even if it was just toward writing here more often and save the time I can truly dedicate to the dissertation.
  6. I read as much as I can, particularly novels. I have a hard time reading non-fiction in my “free” time simply because that is what I spend the majority of my work time doing, too. There are exceptions to that rule, too, particularly because I have been making an effort to start knocking books off my academic to-read list, an ambition that meshes “fun” and my goal of being a well-rounded scholar. But I am also reading novels, slowly, but surely. First, I enjoy reading novels and, as stated above, if I can indulge myself just a little, I stay saner. But, second, I also do this because it makes me a better writer and I want to be both a good scholar and a good writer (though this also slows down the whole writing process).
  7. For similar reasons, I listen to other writers, historians and otherwise, talk about their writer. One of the more intriguing discussions has been the difference between discovery and outline writers and I suspect there is an academic parallel to that literary dichotomy, but as I am at far more words than I intended, that may be a topic for another post.

The writing phase feels as though I am in an interminable process, shoe-horned in between other responsibilities. I am dwelling on the process because there doesn’t ever seem to be an end–above and beyond the idea that maybe now, finally, I will learn one or two good study skills. The destination, or, at least, a destination is out there somewhere, but all I have right now is a journey.

I may return to this topic or something similar, but, for now, I would be interested to hear anything other writers or creative types have to say about their own process or reflections on process versus product more generally.

Alberto Moravia, Boredom

“Boredom is the suspension of all relationship with reality.”

Dino, the scion of an upper–or possibly upper-middle–class family, is bored. He is a painter who moved out of his mother’s villa on the Via Appia so that he could live an apartment commensurate with his vocation, but he has also stopped painting. He lives off donations of money from his mother, who really would like him to come home and manage the family business, and loafs about, bored, smoking cigarettes all day.

His neighbor, another artist named Balestrieri, has been carrying on an affair with a model Cecilia and, after Balestrieri’s abrupt death (loved to death, as it were), Cecilia takes up with Dino. What begins in idle curiosity, sex as a distraction from his mundane yet surreal existence, escalates into Dino’s obsession with this woman, a creature that, increasingly, he is committed to parting with but who he feels he can only get rid of if he possesses her completely. But he can’t possess her. She is from a poor family, straightforward and without pretense, but also largely thoughtless and uninquisitive–one room with tables, chairs, and a couch is quite like another, the size, price or color is of little consequence. She understands the value of money and enjoys things that she can do with it, but doesn’t covet it for its own sake or envy those with more or pity those with less, since these are states that just happen. Her detachment just serves to drive Dino’s desire more, because it makes her impossible for him to possess. So he questions her: about her family, her other lovers, her past engagement, and, especially, her relationship with Balestrieri, which Dino finds himself mimicking to a distressing degree.

Throughout Boredom there is a veil between the narrative and reality. Dino is bored, which he defines as that lack of touch with reality, and yet he lives in his own little world and defies his mother’s requests for him to return to what she considers his real world, but what he considers to be yet another unreal cage. Dino seeks reality through Cecilia, but is both repelled and attracted by the way in which she seems to be absolutely in touch with it and yet not grasp reality at all.

Moravia’s Boredom (La noia), set in 1950s Rome, is not a comedy, but there is a grim humor in Dino’s hysterical antics. He is a spoiled brat, despite (or, perhaps, heightened by) his artistic pretension, but his class assumptions become ever more pronounced as he hunts in vain for the trick that will finally bind him to and thereby free himself from Cecilia.

My main observation about Boredom, after all that, is that Moravia writes really long chapters. Each chapter deals with a different episode in the relationship between Dino and Cecilia and ratchets up his desperation. Though Moravia is prone to long paragraphs, the book on the whole moved pretty quickly and picked up speed as it reached its climax, but the format also made it difficult for me to block out time to read it, what with other obligations such as my dissertation. Boredom was fascinating psychological study, but the constant tension between the story and reality and the small number of characters simultaneously ramped up the pressure in the story and made it seem like there was a bubble around these few people while reality took place somewhere else entirely–and certainly not in Dino’s head.

On a tangential note, I read the New York Review of Books edition of Boredom and am consistently pleased with their selections, the translations, and even the production value of the collection. William Weaver’s introduction to this one, while interesting in that he knew Moravia, was not particularly enlightening, but, then, after reading it, I also understand that Boredom is not a particularly easy book to capture. Next up is Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, my fifth novel of his I will have read (not counting Green Hills of Africa, which is a true story written like a novel, at least in his estimation).

March Reading Recap

Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes-
I read Heart of Darkness a few years ago and, while it was a challenging read, I found it quite moving and decided I would read his other works. I only made it a few pages into The Secret Agent before giving that up because I was busy. This past month I made another pass, this time picking up Under Western Eyes. Razumov, a student who is usually taken for being more intelligent than he is because he doesn’t talk much, is drawn into a revolutionary conspiracy against the Tsar. The plot launched its first attack with grenade attack against ranking ministers and one of the conspirators, Haldin, seeks refuge in R.’s apartment. R. then sells him out to the government before fleeing the country himself Though most of the action (such that it is) takes place in St. Petersburg, the story itself is set in Geneva, where R. went into exile (at the behest of the Tsarist regime) and where he meets and falls in love with Haldin’s sister. The narrator, old English instructor who knows a few members of the Russian ex-pat community, pieces the story together from R.’s journal and his conversations with the participants and declares that he is writing the account as a westerner and intending for it to be read by an English audience–supposedly so that they can see the conditions and flaws of both the Russian state and the revolutionary movements.

There were some interesting passages in this novel, but, on the whole, I found that the story dragged. Conrad is loquacious and oblique throughout the story–in part due to “secret history” structure and deferred narrative authority. I suspect that some of my reaction to the book has more to do with me than with the novel since I seem to have lost my taste for seemingly antiquated prose in the years since I read Heart of Darkness. Under Western Eyes is still worth leading, but I did not love it nearly as much as I had hoped to going in. In short, I loved this book.

Albert Cossery, The Jokers-
Full review found here here, The Jokers was my favorite of the three books I read this month. The Jokers, the eponymous comic heroes of the novel, don’t care about money, power, society, bureaucracy, or much else. The entire world is one big joke that most people, particularly the people in power, are too stupid to realize. In some ways, lightheartedness is the polar opposite of the oppressiveness of Under Western Eyes. In short, I highly recommend this book.

Brandon Sanderson, Words of Radiance-
The second book Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, which is long epic fantasy series–long both in books and words; this volume is about as long a book as they (the publishers) could bind. Like all books I like in this mold, the beauty lies in the breadth and depth of the world more than in any one plot arc or character–the world is between “desolations” and there are a few different people or groups of people who are all trying to save the world, though they are all doing so with incomplete information and different short term goals, meaning that they have a tendency to expend as much information combatting people who are blind to the larger need and against each other as they do working for “the greater good.” As is appropriate for a second book, too, Sanderson brings back most of the featured characters from the first book–Dalinar, the king’s uncle and warlord, Kaladin, a former slave and spearman, Shallan, an artist and scholar from a family fallen from grace, etc, and then expands the roles for others such as Adolin and Renarin, Dalinar’s sons, and others. Each book has flashbacks dedicated to a single character, so where the first was Kaladin, the second is Shallan, wherein you get to learn how terrible her upbringing was and why.

I’m not sure that I would recommend this book to people who are not already fans of this style of fantasy–and if you are, please start with the first book. But for fans of the genre, Sanderson does a good job at world creation and designing interesting magic systems, and this installment provides one of the most obvious crossovers to his other work (all his books exist in the same multiverse and are connected, though each series is designed to stand on its own). I’ve been reading this style of book since elementary school and love a well-crafted world, particularly those that aren’t simply rehashing old tropes and come across feeling pre-packaged from a generic DnD or fantasy novel world starter kit. I like other series and other authors better, but I do believe that Sanderson is one of the top fantasy authors currently writing and am eagerly waiting for the next installment.

March was a busy month for me between teaching, grading, writing, and a short, but remarkably busy, trip to Minneapolis for a 65th wedding anniversary, so I only finished three books. April may well be more of the same, but I am currently in the middle of Alberto Moravia’s novel Boredom and picked up a bunch of new (used) books in Minneapolis that I am looking forward to reading, including Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, Cossery’s Proud Beggars and Llosa’s The War at the end of the World.

What’s in a name?

I still like Seleucus. He was my favorite of the Macedonian aristocrats I wrote about for my undergraduate thesis and I have recently been drawn to other men, he is still my favorite among the successors. In my estimation, Antigonus was overbearing, Antipater dry, Lysimachus a dandy, and Ptolemy a snake. Seleucus had flair, charisma, ambition, prudence, and talent. These are all caricatures created by my youthful imagination, to be sure, but there are still things about Seleucus that intrigue me beyond the others and that help sustain an interest in issues of rumor and reputation in the ancient world.

So, fresh off my undergraduate thesis, freshly detached from school and with ambitions but no immediate plans to attend graduate school I decided to purchase my own webspace for my blog. I wish I could say that I have a flair for names, but I don’t. It is much more common that I make allusions or direct references, and so I named the webspace after this individual I found interesting. If I could go back and rename it, my allusion would probably be significantly more esoteric, but the same fundamental principle would apply.

While I sometimes idly wonder what people think about the url, I usually decide that picking a name that would better suit me or what I do here would be actual work and it is easier to just fall back on the truth that a younger me chose the domain name and that is that.

As to the actual blog title, it is another allusion, this time to Superman, a hero I’m mostly indifferent to. I just like the imagery it invokes. And I picked the subtitle because I needed my own way of identifying what I saw myself doing here. I liked the idea of Whatever, but John Scalzi has that market pretty well cornered and it suits him better than it does me. Even the title of this post is, as John Hodgman would say, a Cult-Ref.

This blog is one of several spots where I can write about issues on my mind, either because I have a point I’ve been agitating about or because I have an issue or idea I want to share. Even if it means a dent in audience, I explicitly wanted to avoid a meticulous theme for the blog. I have things to talk about that touch on a variety of issues and I am already struggling to be monomaniacal in my studies, so the thought of trying to do the same thing here is revolting. The result is that this space becomes a catch-all that touches on public issues, whether sports, history, academia, literature, politics, foreign issues, stuff that happens online, etc. Unlike the stereotypical Livejournal, the personal updates are few and far between because I don’t necessarily want to think about that any more than I already am and because it is none of anyone’s business. Besides, I’m pretty boring. I read, I write, I sleep a little bit, and I teach–I will have some reflections on that last activity in the near future, but I am hesitant to write about it in semester, not because I would say anything inappropriate but because it remains somewhat treacherous ground to tread and I would rather deal with it in a broader sense than feel like I am reacting to immediate things. Besides, twitter is better for quips.

And this bring me back around. What’s in a name? In the case of this blog, very little. Or, rather, a little bit of this and a little bit of that that, for whatever reasons, spoke to me at one point of another. It is something that I can be self-conscious about at times, but I am also inclined to leave it precisely because everything on line seems so malleable, not just because change takes work. Take Twitter: you can change your profile, your display name, and even your handle itself. I’m happy with my Twitter persona right now–me, fairly unadorned, except that my picture remains that of a Portuguese MP giving the horns to another MP because that picture continues to amuse me years on–but I could change it. Easily. Quickly. And completely for most viewers.

Enough of the navel gazing, the name is what it is and tells some story, even if it isn’t that important.

Spring Break

Last semester the University of Missouri academic included a full week off for Thanksgiving (as it has every year I’ve been here). The difference this year was that there were just four school days left in the semester before the start of finals week. I was not wild about this quick turnaround before the examination period, particularly since there didn’t seem like enough time to really give any new instruction as everyone seemed to spend that entire week trying to work their way back into school mode…and then the semester ended. It takes me most of that week of vacation just to get to a point where I can really relax and was perhaps even more sluggish than most in that first week back, too, so my grumpy reaction to the schedule was to grouse that I’d rather just get Thanksgiving (Thursday and Friday) off and keep up the head of steam for the semester since we were already in the home-stretch. It doesn’t do any good to grab the runner going into the final turn to hand him or her a glass of water– just save it for the finish line.

But that (originally) hallowed tradition of Spring Break falls earlier in the semester, which makes my specific complaint about last semester’s Thanksgiving break moot. There is plenty of time to work back up, teach some more, and go into the end of the semester at least a little bit more refreshed than you otherwise would be. It is also a reasonable time to assign papers to be due since, at least in theory, there is a whole week where students shouldn’t have to actually attend class and can dedicate at least a little bit of time to reading and writing–things that may be expected of them for classes, but that can’t actually be completed in the classroom.

Of course, a passing glance at Twitter indicates that if a professor expects students to take an exam on the first day back from spring break, having given them the break to study, the professor is a jerk, or if that professor has the exam the day before spring break, leaving the students free to fulfill whatever escapades they desire, that same professor “should be called an array of four letter words.” In fact, if the professors expect students to do anything over spring break, they are (according to my “research”) out of their minds because it is time for break, not a time for school. This same “research” generally indicates all sorts of frustration over work assigned by professors and a lesser amount of praise for them, often, though not exclusively, the product of cancelled classes, so I suspect that at least some of the complaints would merely be reframed rather than removed were there no spring break. That said, would the academic calendar be better off without a week-long break in the middle of a semester?

My gut inclination is to say yes.

Though I am not religious, do I understand an impulse to tie an academic hiatus to a holiday like Easter (Brandeis did the same for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah), but Spring Break as it is currently conceived of is not tied to a specific holiday. Instead, it has transformed into a commercial opportunity and is assumed to be a welcome reprieve from the rigors of the semester for both students and instructors. The studious can play catch up on work while the fiscally fortunate may bathe in sun and liquor in far off paradises and everyone can enjoy a bit of sloth. Nonetheless it feels to me like a stark caesura in the middle of the semester that exacerbates problems when it comes to the educational cycle and encourages even more procrastination than already exists. I have been trying to mull over the reasons–if not religion–that the full week mid-semester break exists and have come away with nothing except tradition (and a one week period where the university can run on reduced staff). It is one of those things that seems to have been there as long as anyone can remember any many people have fond memories of, so why bother change it?

Now it is not that I necessarily want to extend the semester or bring upon myself any more work than I already have. Instead of a single week-long break, I would endorse multiple (up to five or six, say) long weekends scattered throughout the semester. Sure, the March/April economy of Cancun and Panama City would suffer, but that really shouldn’t be a concern for colleges. There would be backlash, too, but I suspect that instead of an extended buildup toward this week followed by a drawn out denouement, more long weekends would actually keep people fresher throughout the semester and avoid both the mid-semester trap week and the months without any break at all as sometimes happens in the fall semester before Thanksgiving.

This rambling speculation is a flight of fancy on my part. It comes from a place of exhaustion from the semester and bafflement at watching people talk about their professors on social media. I realize that there is little chance that spring break will go away, but I would still be interested to know how other people would react (or would have reacted) to the idea of eliminating Spring Break altogether.

The Jokers, Albert Cossery

“The street was packed with evening strollers enjoying the cooler air at the end of the torrid day. There were the working stiffs, upright and formal; the dignified family men flanked by wives and children; the occasional pair of young newlyweds, who clutched each other’s hands in a grotesque show of commitment. But none of the drinkers at the Globe paid any attention to this mundane procession. They weren’t there to look at humanity in all its mediocrity; they were waiting for a luxuriantly curvaceous woman to show up and arouse their desire. From time to time a metallic squeal, sharp and deafening as a siren, signaled the ambling approach of a tram. The drivers of horse carts, who were so skilled at maneuvering through traffic jams, lashed out at the indolent mob filling the street, impervious to anything but the welcome sea breeze. Heykal tried in vain to locate a single bum, a single happy-go-lucky derelict who had managed to escape the clutches of the police. Not one. Reduced to the contributing members of society–in other words, the depressed and overworked–the city’s streets were becoming strangely sinister. Wherever you went, you were surrounded by public servants. Heykal couldn’t help but remember how the beggar had responded to his invitation to come collect his monthly sum at the house. That a starving beggar would refuse to be seen as an employee: what an insult to posterity, which only recognizes those who make careers of following the rules! History’s full of these little bureaucrats who rise to high positions because of their diligence and perseverance in a life of crime. It was a painful thought: the only glorious men the human race produced were a bunch of miserable officials who cared about nothing but their own advancement and were sometimes driven to massacre thousands of their own just to hold onto their jobs and keep food on the table. And this was who was held up for the respect and admiration of the crowd!”


The regime never changes. Not really. Sometimes it is better, other times worse. The current governor has delusions of grandeur that demand cleaning up the city and relocating the poor and the prostitutes and the beggars to somewhere that can’t be seen, away from the strategic routes, offices, and casinos of the wealthy. The revolutionaries want the governor assassinated and the police want the revolutionaries arrested.

The Jokers think that the fundamental problem is that everyone takes each other too seriously. In fact, the only thing these friends take seriously are their jokes.

Albert Cossery was born in Cairo into a Syrian-Lebanese Greek Orthodox family, trained in a French school and spent most of his life living in Paris, but set all of his novels in Egypt. The Jokers (originally published in French as La violence et la dérision) his 1964 publication is set in a nameless Middle Eastern port city in the heat of summer. The friends Karim, Heykal, Urfy, and Omar have a deep disdain for the governor and the entire establishment for ruining what they enjoy in life as they reject the petty ambitions and material wants of the upper classes. At the same time, they shun the company of revolutionaries who are doomed to failure because, by taking the government seriously, they give it exactly what it wants (and, should the revolution topple the government, they would only become that which they sought to destroy, anyhow). So the friends decide to topple the current regime with laughter.

The Jokers is wickedly funny, pregnant with irony, and perhaps the most indulgent book I have ever read. Their plans give both the revolutionaries and the government fits and amused indifference and mocking nonchalance become heroic virtues. Much like his friend Camus and the philosophy of absurdism, Cossery rejects material gain, but takes the notion one step further to reject the idea the idea that producing anything is worthy of respect–”honest labor” is little more than participation in a system that deadens and kills victims and perpetrators alike. Freedom comes from recognizing society as an illusion, a grand ongoing joke that becomes so dangerous because everyone takes it seriously.

The story is all the more powerful for its simplicity, but Cossery’s praise of indolence can also be disconcerting, particularly, I think, to an American reader. The Protestant DNA of this country and its cult of the producer rejects men like the Jokers as layabouts profiting from the labor of others. Even most Hemingway stories, built around attending bullfights, swimming, drinking in cafes, and fishing, are couched in an interminable need to work. Not so for Cossery. Karim, for instance, makes kites, but because he derives pleasure from it rather than to fund his escapades. Cossery’s Jokers have enough to suit them and refuse to follow the harried footsteps of everyone else. At the same time, though, they do not succumb to sloth. Each of the Jokers is actually exceptionally active and engaged, just with different ambitions as the rest of the world.

One further caveat about The Jokers is also warranted. This is a story about men where adult women are faceless entities, uninteresting to the Jokers except for one exception, a woman who also happens to be one of their mothers. They are interested in younger women who Cossery describes as maintaining a degree of innocence that is lost once they don the accouterments of adulthood. From the little I have read, this is a common critique of Cossery’s work and is a reflection of his personal life. Nonetheless, I didn’t find it distracting for this story in large part because the main characters ooze so much disdain for the entire world that they don’t seem to hold any more for adult women than for adult men. The treatment of women (at least to me) was mostly notable only because the story features an instance of transformation where a young woman crosses the boundary between youth and adulthood. In some ways, the book seemed to imply a generalization that women couldn’t join in the frivolous rebellion inaugurated by the Jokers, but the manner of transformation–one that involves accepting the dress and appearance expected by the petty bureaucrats and playing their games rather than hitting a certain age–suggests that were a woman to likewise reject those trappings she might still fit in with their group. But the story is set in the Middle East and what I just offered is a contrafactual possibility, so it is a moot point, but one worth mentioning.

I loved this book and it has found its way onto my list of top novels. At just about 150 pages, it is a quick read, but funny and a complete story. I could see its indulgence rubbing some people the wrong way, but perhaps those are the people who need to laugh the most.

February Reading Recap: A Review of Stoner

February is a short month and usually a busy one, so I only managed to finish reading one non-academic book, John Williams’ 1965 campus novel, Stoner, which is set at my current institution, The University of Missouri, Columbia.

William Stoner is a Missouri farm kid from a dirt-poor family who, in the early years of the 20th century, came to the university to get an education at the newly-opened school of Agriculture. But in his required freshman English class he is inspired by an acerbic professor and decides to turn his back on his farm roots and pursue an undergraduate degree, and then a graduate one in English Literature. When he completes his thesis, the university hires him on. Stoner marries and has a child, but the marriage is a disaster. He completes a book and receives tenure, but his career never really advances. His motivation to improve his teaching and pursue research waxes and wanes, the seasons come and go, and Stoner grows old.

The pivotal sequence in the novel is a confrontation between Stoner and an ambitious colleague, Hollis Lomax. Lomax has some physical defects, but an unimpeachable intellectual pedigree, having come to the university from getting his degree at Harvard. Their disagreement begins when Lomax manages to persuade Stoner to accept his graduate student into Stoner’s seminar; in Stoner’s estimation, the student does not perform adequately and receives an appropriate grade. Lomax disagrees, but their conflict comes to a head when department regulations force Stoner to sit on an examination committee for that same student.

Stoner is, as the reviews say, a quiet, powerful novel that explores the condition of an intellectual who is chooses and, simultaneously, is forced into increasing isolation. The students, for the most part, flash by as a faceless blur, not because Stoner doesn’t care, but because, at some point, they are all the same. The graduate students are essentially interchangeable, with two conspicuous exceptions, and the same could be said even of the professors. The world changes beyond the borders of the University, but Stoner’s life plods on.

The genius of the novel is that it is utterly relatable, particularly to someone who have spent any time on the other side of the classroom. Williams also does a remarkably good job at capturing the University of Missouri and its environs, so much so that multiple locations featured are easy to identify as real-world buildings. Likewise, everyone who has been in some of these situations has known graduate students and professors like those described in the story, both for good and for ill. Despite the tragic outcome and the consistently grim and oppressive atmosphere of the academy, there is a sense of purpose and vocation and therefore a dark, hopeless optimism in the story that did not appear in, for instance, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (the only other true campus novel I have read).

My main critique of the novel is not of execution, but of form. To me, it was immediately evident that Stoner was written by an English professor who is well-versed in narrative form. As a result, the turns in the story seemed inevitable, formulaic. The execution was excellent, nonetheless. I also hesitate to issue a blanket recommendation for Stoner because I wonder if it is a story that will fail to resonate with a wider audience as much as it does with people who have chased higher degrees in non-STEM fields, but I am adding it to my list of top novels.

My favorite Character in a Song of Ice and Fire (spoilers)

I started reading George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series in middle school–I recall reading book 2 while sitting in a tree at one point– and have kept up with it for a long decade and a half at this point. I was and remain a dedicated northerner, somewhere between a Stark and an Umber, I sympathized with Jon Snow, liked Arya Stark, and connected the most with Ned Stark. I still like these characters and have developed affection for other characters in subsequent books, but of the characters who have survived from the first book to the most recent, the one I find most interesting is one who I hated (as GRRM surely intended) at the outset: Jaime Lannister.

The reason I find him so interesting is that, when he is first introduced, he is arrogant, insolent, and really all you know is that he is a good fighter and he is sleeping with his sister. The impression you are left with is that Jaime is a bit of a dunce and a jock. Tyrion is the brains in the family, and it is certainly true that, compared with Tyrion, Jaime is a dunce. But, then, most of the characters in the series are. Once you get inside Jaime’s head, though, the story starts to change.

I do not believe that Jaime is actually stupid at any point in the series, but his intelligence is masked because he lacks ambition or the need to do anything differently. When you meet him in the first book, he has exactly two goals in life: to be the greatest swordsman in the world and to screw his sister. He is the former, through innate ability and training, and with his sister being queen he gets the latter. His life is straightforward and simple and he doesn’t need to be or do anything else. When he loses his hand, things begin change because he is forced to adapt. He still isn’t a genius, but he isn’t a dunce, getting by on a combination of skill and reputation. At the same time he has particular recollections of the generation of heroic warriors who accepted him into their brotherhood when he was a teenager and who those people were.

Other characters are nicer and there are others who I connect with more or who I would characterize as my favorite in a given book, but there is no character around for more than half of the books who I find as interesting. That is why Jaime Lannister is my favorite character in the series.

January Reading Recap

  • Narcissus and Goldmund, Herman Hesse – Much like the rest of Hesse’s oevre, this novel is the story of male friendship and the different types of spiritual completion. Narcissus is an academic and a man of religion, while Goldmund is a young man who seeks experiences, but only finds satisfaction through art. Everything Hesse published is set in the German intellectual tradition of his lifetime, although his moralizing may be a bit more heavy-handed than in some of the other books. It is a good read if you like Hesse, but if you’re new to his work, start with Siddhartha, then move to Magister Ludi and if you haven’t lost interest yet, then pick up this one.
  • The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa – My favorite novel this month, and also the saddest, reviewed here. It the story of a life-long relationship between a translator, Ricardo, and the eponymous “Bad Girl.” He loves her, she abuses him; she stays with him for a while and leaves him for someone with more money. but she always comes back. It is a novel about love and obsession and one that continues to cling to me.
  • The Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi – A sequel to Old Man’s War, this is a novel set in space, where humans are just one of a number of intelligent species vying for power and the human government uses the minds and experience of the elderly moved into genetically modified and advanced bodies. It is light and fun, clever and witty, as one would expect from Scalzi.

Life got a bit hectic when the semester started, so I only got through the three books this month. But I am also in the middle of reading A Cultural History of the Arabic Language and recently received a copy of Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, which will probably be the next book I pick up.

Exploitation in the academy

A few months ago news broke that Jehuda Reinharz, the former president of Brandeis University, would receive millions of dollars in continued salary and benefits, including some 800,000 dollars in unused sabbatical leave and millions in what amount to consulting fees to assist the new president. The issue was raised again last month when Brandeis announced that they were giving him a 4.9 million dollar lump-sum payment. In the initial report, Reinharz (known as “Jehuda” around campus, at least when I was there) said that “this is what happens in America,” framing it that he had worked hard while professor and President and that he was just receiving what was owed him. In a more cynical light, however, his comments could be construed to mean that what happens in America is that a few people are put in a position to reap massive rewards that the vast majority of people cannot get.

At roughly the same time, the football players at Northwestern have filed to form a union, saying that they are being exploited. This follows in the wake of players from a number of schools this year talking about player solidarity and about refusing to play and a report from a UNC researcher that some athletes are practically illiterate (not that this is the first time such reports have come out). Basically, the athletes say that they produce millions of dollars in revenue for the universities in the form of donations, publicity, and so on in return for which they (many of them, anyway) receive scholarships and medical attention while they are in school, but the total sum of the benefits are a fraction of the value they provide.

The backlash has been extreme, with many people making the argument that the students receive an education and that providing stipends for the athletes would destroy the game. Of course, the scholarships are not guaranteed for four years, and, in a sport like football, there are life-long injury issues. Moreover, many schools invest heavily in and bring in huge amount of money from athletic programs (even if those ledgers do not always balance) and the schools effectively function as minor league programs for sports that do not have official minor leagues. Universities are enormous businesses, and the complaint that educators sometimes make is that their business is athletics, rather than education.

Of course, the exploitation is not limited to athletics. More and more of the teaching is being done by graduate students and adjunct faculty members on contingent contracts. Junior faculty members (and, sure, tenured ones, too) are subject to their own demands. Alumni, from the very wealthy who can underwrite the cost of a building, to the very poor who are buried under loan repayment and possibly unemployed, are called upon to donate, and the students are increasingly exploited for tuition and fees.

Universities employ thousands of people, from educators, to secretaries, to accountants, to janitors, to construction workers. They also require a lot of maintenance and upkeep, pay for a lot of internet, books, and access to journal articles (to name just a few things). This is where a lot of this money goes, but much of it seems to be going to presidents and deans in the universities.

I am sympathetic to the football players and I am a graduate student. The rhetoric that treats these issues as isolated are missing the larger picture. The entire structure of higher education is built on exploitation, with very few people who make exceptional profit off it.