Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Untitled Newfoundland Zombie Project

So with Christmas over but the holidays still in full langor, my mind turns naturally to thoughts of zombies.

Last January, as I mentioned on this blog, I was coming back from the gym on a foggy and wet evening. I paused on the pedway between the Aquarena and the track, arrested by the view—a lot of people moved about in the fog as indeterminate, ghostly forms, lit by the hazy nimbuses surrounding the street lights. It was very eerie and, indeed, haunting, and the seed of a thought took root in my mind. I had recently been making use of the extensive tunnels underneath MUN—themselves quite creepy in places—and I imagined a horror film narrative in which individuals trapped inside barricaded buildings by the requisite zombies are forced to venture into the tunnels to find food and other necessities. Fighting their way through the dark tunnels, they would establish safe zones and routes between buildings by killing the zombies in the tunnels and barricading them … suffering of course casualties along the way, etc etc.

This idea has had a surprisingly vibrant half-life in my imagination and has been a frequent topic of conversation with some friends and colleagues. I once even mentioned it to our new Dean of Arts as a group walked back through the tunnels from a reception for pre-tenure Arts faculty a few weeks ago.

At any rate, the other day for my own amusement I knocked out a sketch of the prologue for the script, in which two graduate students go running around Quidi Vidi Lake on a Saturday morning in October, and are beset by a mob of zombies (inspired by my own eerie run in thick fog this past August after watching 28 Days Later for the first time). This little diversion demonstrated two things to me: (1) I suck at writing dialogue, and (2) this was fun.

So I was thinking this might be entertaining as an ongoing project … the various conversations with friends and colleagues have cemented certain elements in place, the big one being that the story must have a specifically Newfoundland character and take place at (and under) Memorial. The other necessary plot points are as follows:

(1) The prologue takes place at Quidi Vidi Lake, and the protagonist must make her way from there to MUN. She is a biochem grad student. I don’t know why she feels compelled to go to school after suffering zombie attack and losing her boyfriend, but there we are.
(2) The hockey team must be involved, wearing their jerseys and using their sticks as weapons. The obligatory defensive goons will be in the vanguard of the various fights, and if they end up resembling the Hanson brothers, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
(3) The principals must start out at the Field House, barricaded on the top level with zombies wandering around the track area. From there they will venture out to the Smallwood Center to find food, and the science building to get access to chemicals and stuff for improvised weapons.

So here’s the tentative plan: I will write segments and post them (either here or elsewhere) and solicit comments and suggestions. I have no idea where this story will go, so the plot is very open-ended. Also, I’m still a Newfoundland neophyte and will need advice on the nuances of the various in-jokes and personality conflicts that would make this a uniquely Rock-flavoured zombie film. The last thing I’d want is for it to devolve into an extended Newfie joke …

Also, I can’t promise anything resembling regular installments, especially once the semester gets busy. This well might wither on the vine.

But still—any thoughts?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve wrap-up

Happy Christmas Eve, all ... it's been a tough time around here on the Lockett homestead for me lately, what with all the resting and relaxing and eating and drinking ... I've had to pace myself. Tonight we had our Christmas Eve dinner of roast beef and yorkshire pudding, so I'm trying to type through a food & wine stupor that would stun a team of oxen in their tracks. But I soldier on, because I'm just that much of a trouper.

Yesterday evening we had my Dad's family over. And what do you think was the focus of everyone's attention? I'll give you a hint: she isn't quite 18 months old, she likes throwing potatoes on the kitchen floor, and she's already a Leafs fan:

The last time I saw Morgan, at Thanksgiving, she was just starting to walk. She has in the interim learned to run. A few interesting facts about my beautiful niece:

(1) She recognizes herself in photos, and when asked who that little girl is will point to herself.
(2) She can make animal sounds for cats, dogs, mice, lions, sheep and owls.
(3) She can imitate the mannerisms of penguins, beavers and rabbits.
(4) When asked "What does M-O-R-G-A-N spell?" She points to herself. When asked what any combination of letters spell, she still points to herself.
(5) She likes to dance, which at the moment consists of bouncing unsteadily up and down and occasionally falling.
(6) She laughs and laughs and laughs. Unfortunately this picture is slightly blurry, but you get the idea:

When she spotted our log Rudolph on the deck, it held her fascination for a full five minutes:

Oh, and there were other people here yesterday too. Watching Morgan in rapt fascination here are, from left to right, my Aunt Rose, Uncle Mike and Aunt Carolyn.

Here are my cousin Lauren, Aunt Theresa and Aunt Rose.

Lauren and her dad, my Uncle Ron.

Lauren, who I'm pretty sure was Morgan's age about three weeks ago, just finished her first semester at Western. So: to my UWO people, heads up! If you see Lauren around, say hi and give her food. In three months, you can also give her beer.

In other news, the Dickens megalopolis suffered this year from congestion issues when my parents' installation of a gas fireplace in the living room forced my father to shorten the table on which the Victorian urban space resides. Though this did curtail some of its incipient suburban sprawl and rejuvenated the downtown businesses.

And just a half hour ago we carted down all the presents from upstairs to put under the tree.

So on the night before Christmas, I wish everyone the best of the season. May your stockings tomorrow be full of exceptionally cool stuff. Slainte!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Late entry ...

And I am shocked and ashamed that I forgot one of the greatest Christmas songs of all time in my previous post.

How could I forget The Pogues? "And the boys in the NYPD choir were singin' 'Galway Bay' / And the bells were ringin' out for Christmas Day" ... For your viewing and listening pleasure, dear friends, I give you "Fairytale of New York."

My top five Christmas songs

I've been thinking about this one for a few days ... how to choose? Do I go by the song itself, or the specific version as sung by a particular person/group?

Because so much of the pleasure of Christmas for me lies in memories and associations, it's impossible to separate a song from its given performances. So "The Little Drummer Boy" in the abstract is nothing to write home about, but as sung by the duet of Bing Crosby and David Bowie it has particular resonance for me. So I'll start with my top five in the abstract, then move on to the real list:

5. Silent Night
4. Adestes Fideles
3. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
2. Good King Wenceslas
1. God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman

Yup, I'm pretty much a traditionalist with just the basic songs. And now the other list:

5. "The Twelve Days of Christmas," as sung by John Denver and the Muppets.
This, I think, is one of my favourite Christmas specials, and you hardly ever see it aired any more. And a quick perusal of Amazon didn't turn up a DVD of it ... what gives? Why has this most treasured of Christmas specials been consigned to oblivion? Just watch John Denver's face as he sings with the Muppets -- few humans have ever entered the Jim Henson world with quite that ease.

4. "The Little Drummer Boy" as sung by Bing Crosby and David Bowie.
Haunting is all I can say about this version -- and a great cross-generational moment. Originally aired as part of Bing's holiday special in 1977. The banter preceding the song is a bit stilted, but kind of funny anyway. "You're the poor American relation?" Hehee.

3. "White Christmas" as sung by Bing Crosby
Yup, more of Der Bingle ... the voice without which Christmas wouldn't just feel right.

2. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" as sung by Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan.
This is the song that had to be on the list simply because I love the original carol. Pretty much any version will do for me, but I particularly like this one -- mainly for Sarah's vocals. Sorry about the generic video; there wasn't anything else attached to the song on YouTube.

1. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" as sung by the Charlie Brown ensemble.
This never fails to make me cry. Unfortunately (and oddly), nobody has posted the song itself on YouTube, but there's a whole bunch of Linus' monologue available ... which is almost as good.

Runners-Up: Loreena McKennit singing "Good King Wenceslas"; "Auld Lang Syne" at the end of It's a Wonderful Life; the sequence on the first season West Wing Christmas episode, in which "The Little Drummer Boy" is sung by a boys' choir at the White House while Toby attends the funeral of a homeless Korea veteran; all of the jazz piano in the Charlie Brown Christmas special; "Do They Know It's Christmas" (the original!); Sting, "Gabriel's Message"; Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, "Marshmellow World."

What's everyone else's list?

Friday, December 22, 2006

Dear Donald Trump

You're a dick. Of course, you are well aware of this fact, given that you've made a career out of it, and The Apprentice is really about being the Biggest Dick -- both in terms of its celebration of business machismo and its corrective to Dale Carnegie ("How to betray friends and foster enmity" would be a good subtitle).

What you might not appreciate is that you're a stupid dick. In fact, you might well be the only person in the television-watching universe who doesn't grasp this fact, which is quite an achievement. At the very least, you should considering firing whoever handles your PR. Assuming that this row with Rosie O'Donnell is genuine and not a publicity stunt, you've entirely taken the wrong tack, and continue -- bafflingly! -- to dig yourself deeper in the muck.

The best thing for you to have done was NOTHING. Ignore it. Laugh it off. Shake your head pityingly. Communicate to everyone involved that O'Donnell's comments didn't even appear on your radar. You had a golden opportunity to respond with class, and you blew it.

You know why? Because Rosie O'Donnell merely said what was on everybody's mind, which is "Where the hell do you get off dictating others' morality?" Even here, you could have responded with something like "Because I own the damn show, and it isn't about me, it's about the public perception of Miss America." Which is not going to sway anyone who, like me, already loathes the show, but would at least be a straightforward and logical answer.

Instead, you got down in the gutter and (1) mocked Rosie O'Donnell's weight and appearance, (2) took shots at her lesbianism and (3) threatened legal action. Legal action? Are you kidding me? Is your massive ego really so fragile that you can't resist fighting back with insults and specious claims of being libeled?

Sorry, stupid question.

As for the insults, that's what we in the business call an ad hominem argument, Donald -- a logical fallacy in which you do not respond to the substance of someone's claim but dispute it by impugning them in some way. Rosie O'Donnell is unattractive, ergo her words are meaningless. Of course, I really don't expect anything less from a man whose pursuit of arm-candy has become so obsessive that you literally purchased Miss America.

PS -- Thank you also for wasting the airwaves and my brain cells on this. Especially around Christmas. I suppose I should take my own advice and ignore it all, but I really felt someone needed to call you a stupid dick. For cathartic reasons.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Storming the consumerist citadel

So today I ventured out into the raging torrents of humanity to do my last-minute Christmas shopping. Except that it was also my first-minute Christmas shopping. How is it that I always manage to do this to myself?

Except that today I think I have to go ahead and crown myself king of efficient shoppers: everything taken care of in the space of a single day. Not that I have a vast number of people to shop for, mind you, but still enough to make compressing all of it into one day more than a little nerve-wracking. Which made the efficiency and ease of today's shopping a little eerie ... I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. Now I'm getting nervous that I've made awful choices.

I went out to do the last few items this evening, which was oddly pleasant. Odd, because of course I was in the midst of the last frenzied rush of people who, like me, had left things right to the end but lacked my apparently zen-like calm in the midst of chaos. But I rather enjoyed wandering around the mall this evening looking at the faces alternating between crazed panic and shellshocked consumerism-induced torpor.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas hibernation

The first few days of Christmas vacation back in TO at my parents' place is a little like a luxurious submersion ... I always get lost in the comforts of home, eating well and drinking well and sleeping in and just generally doing absolutely nothing. Then after a few days, usually wakened by the fact of my yearly tradition of last-minute shopping, I emerge blinking.

Really, it's quite nice. As I've said before on this blog, I'm one of those apparently rare people in academia who quite enjoys spending time with his parents. And wow, do they know how to do Christmas. My mother is sort of like Martha Stewart without the evil: she manages to decorate the house with a critical mass of Christmas decor that in anyone else's hands would be unavoidably kitschy, but with her deft touch is rather astounding. And the Dickens Village continues to grow, annexing suburbs and exurbs like a Victorian megacity.

Also, I've been able to see my niece Morgan a few times since getting home -- pictures to come when I replace the batteries in my camera and upload them to the computer.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Pre-holiday miscellany: categorical issues

Well, my bags are packed, etc. and I'm ready to be leeeeeaaaving on a jet plane for TO in a couple of hours, so I thought I might kill some time by doing some blog housework.

First thing: someone needs to educate me about this whole Blogger Beta thing. Every time I sign in, Blogger's informing me that my new beta-version blog is ready to go. I have thus far resisted switching over because I seem to remember Erin complaining about beta screwing up her blog when she switched ... and though her site now seems to be clicking along smoothly, I have a phobia about all things computer-cody.

It wasn't an issue before, except that now I can't seem to be able to comment on some blogs that have switched. They want me to sign in with my Google account, which I don't have, and though they say "you can also use your Blogger identity," there doesn't seem to be anything allowing me to do so. So I did sign up for a Google account, which should--I would think?--be redundant. And does switching to Beta clear this issue up?

Second: this became an issue when I decided to add some new links. I got an email from my old friend Susan, who's a diplomat working in Egypt, in which she included a Flickr photo album. So I thought, hey, let's add that to the friends' list. No worries there.

I'd also noticed recently that Passionate Rationality, the blog of former UWO media student Dallas Curow, has me listed under the links. Now, I only know Dallas by reputation (a pretty stellar reputation, it must be said), never having met her (I don't think) or had her in any of my classes at Western, but she is part of a network of former students whose blogs I have listed here ... and has also been munificent enough to take the troubled Brian Fauteux (Rants, Rock, and Reason) under her wing. In spite of not knowing her personally, I've linked to her rather splendid blog -- check out the photography! -- in the "friends" section, largely because it would be weird to have a whole new section titled "Western Media Students I Never Met or Taught But Who Are Dating a Student I Have Taught, and Whom I Know By Reputation," and then have poor lonely Dallas as the only one listed.

ANYWAY ... I attempted to say as much in the comments on her blog yesterday, which is when I discovered what I now believe to be the Beta issue when my comments wouldn't stick.

I've also added another former student, Jennifer Wilhelm, who after a year's hiatus seems to be having a go at something approaching regular entries on her blog. Keep it up, Jennie -- don't make me put Stephen Colbert put you on notice ...

Third: I've added a new category that I hope will grow, one dedicated to MUN bloggers. At present there are only four blogs listed, two by English grad students I know, and two by people I haven't met (I believe). I will add to this list as I learn of more blogs.

OK, time to get myself ready to head home. The next blog entry you read will be posted from the parents' study. Slainte!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The ghost of hair past

So it must be approaching Christmas -- I've been wandering around alternating between humming "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and trying to get Band-Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" out of my head. The latter was on the radio the other morning, and got lodged in my subconscious rather firmly ... so I finally caved and called it up on YouTube when it occurred to me that I hadn't seen the video in ages.

My god, was my thought as I watched it, the hair! Or as Mr. Kurtz might have said, "the hairror ... the hairror ..." This is why I watch the return of 80s fashion with dismay. I can deal with the skinny jeans thing and the various other little trends that have resurfaced, but if we ever go back to having that kind of hair as fashionable, shoot me now. No wonder we suffered an ozone crisis back then ... with the sheer volumes of aerosol hairspray needed to maintain some of those do's, I'm surprised we didn't all asphyxiate on the particulate matter in the air.

Even Sting manages to have bad hair, though his not-quite-a-pageboy cut is infinitely better than Bono's mullet. Yeah, that's right there Mr. Hewson, you better wear that hat in the second half of the video. Please, hide your shame.

I was reminded, on searching for this video, that the song was redone in 2004 under the modified ensemble name "Band Aid 20," with an updated cast of characters, like Chris Martin, Dido and Robbie Williams (though Bono insisted that he get to sing his line from the original, even though they'd already recorded Justin Hawkins singing it). Though the hair in this one is much better on the whole, it lacks the power of the original ... and I kinda cringed at the sequence in the video where all the singers stand around in tearful silence and watch a b&w video of starving African children. That I found somewhat overdone, largely due to the fact that I couldn't help imagining the director haranguing them to "come on, look sadder."

Anyway, here's the remake.

Monday, December 11, 2006

"... and all the exams were tied neatly with a bow ..."

If I had more of a penchant for doggerel, right around now I would probably be compelled to compose a ballad a la The Night Before Christmas along the theme of finishing my grading for the term and the general pre-Christmas feel here in the groves of academe.

And we should all breathe a sigh of relief that I am not, in fact, so poetically inclined.

But that being said, I can say with a massive sigh of relief that I am DONE for the semester. I just submitted all my final grades for my twentieth-century novel course, having spent yesterday and today ploughing through the exams that were written on Saturday evening.

Saturday exams? Evil. Saturday evening exams? Doubly so. But then, that particular timing does have the advantage of being ideal for a post-exam outing. Thus, I and a not-inconsiderable portion of my American novel students ventured down to the Duke of Duckworth for some well-earned pints.

For all the relief of being finished, I'm a bit sad ... I had two amazing groups of students this semester, and teaching was genuinely a joy. I never had the feeling I get for a few days once a term, usually toward the end, in which the thought of dragging myself into the classroom makes me feel like Sisyphus. Didn't happen this semester. Which has me worrying a bit about the other shoe dropping next turn.

As I sat here, getting toward the bottom of the stack of exams, I engaged in one of my favorite Christmas traditions, which is to listen to Dylan Thomas reading "A Child's Christmas in Wales." Given that I blogged at length about the Divine Dylan last year, I won't chew over any of my favourite phrases and locutions ... but I found the story provided an ideal backdrop for the last stage of my teaching duties this term, and the beautiful rich rolling Welsh accents putting me in in the perfect headspace to break for Christmas.

Perhaps tonight I shall watch How The Grinch Stole Christmas ...

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Today's weather in backwards-world

Well, Al Gore did warn us that global warming could have the effect of visiting the extreme weather that is de rigeur in one part of the world on other locations.

Case in point: Laura, in London, sent me this picture yesterday. Isn't that supposed to be the image broadcast from St. John's to the rest of the country? Possibly the weather gods got a memo mixed up ...

Friday, December 08, 2006

"An Ontarian in Newfoundland": the Coles Notes

So, apropos of the weird using-this-blog-to-see-if-I'm-a-prof-you'd-want-to-take-a-class-with phenomenon, I thought I might try to make the process more expedient for people currently wading through old posts on my cat, the St. John's landscape, politics, books, etc. etc. by offering some representative entries.

Because I figured, well, this blog can sometimes be a bit schizoid. It has no theme ... it's principally what's in my head when I write a post. Which could get confusing if you're trying to figure out what I'd be like in the classroom.

Really, you're probably better off asking former students. Especially the one who said, on that "He's self-centered and arrogant and that's on the best of days." (I normally wouldn't suggest you use that individual as your resource, but then I write this post in the middle of marking papers, and it's at times like this that I think wistfully of low enrolments).

So here's the breakdown: in no particular order, posts that feature:

Me being pretentious 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Narcissism 1 2 3
Humour 1 2 3 4 5
My cat 1 2 3
My niece 1 2 3 4
Controversy 1 2 3 4
Food 1 2 3
My impressions of Newfoundland 1 2 3 4 5
Other students' impressions of me 1

I hope that helps. I also had a category for "excessive verbiage," but really that's almost as plentiful as the pretentiousness ... and, oddly enough, has a lot of overlap.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


So I've been told by more than one person that some prospective students have been checking out this blog by way of figuring out whether they want to take a class with me next semester.

Which makes me wonder: which way does the blog make them decide?

Which makes me further wonder: would I want to take a course with the author of this blog?

Honestly, I couldn't tell you -- though it might account for the slow but steady increase in my readership over the last month or so.

In what has turned out to be yet another way to distract myself from work, I signed up to SiteMeter at the end of last August, which gives me a breakdown of hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and yearly visits; sites linking to my blog from which some visitors came; their locations; and even a world map dotted with my readers. And every week SiteMeter emails me a breakdown of site traffic over the course of the previous seven days.

It is really too cool.

So here's this week's traffic so far:

So we topped out here on Monday with not quite 130 visits*; although the trends are by no means steady, I do seem to get Monday spikes -- everyone slowly getting into the work day, presumably, surfing the net in preparation for settling into whatever the new week brings.

This constitutes a new high, by the bye ... I haven't yet broken 130 visits in a day, but I've been steadily working up to it, as the monthly chart shows:

I like this. It's like my own personal Dow Jones. My yearly numbers haven't had much chance to do anything interesting -- again, I've only been on this since August -- but still! look at that steady increase ... up over 400 since September.**

Even more entertaining than the charts are the breakdowns giving the locations of visitors. While I have a predictably overwhelming Canadian contingent, with a healthy number of American hits ... and then a weird grab-bag that has run from Switzerland, Indonesia, Korea, Brazil, Britain, New Zealand ... It's always interesting to see which far-flung corner of the globe has found its way to my humble little blog.

And even more interesting is the information page for each visitor (don't worry, it's anonymous), which indicates which page they came from to get here, if the referring page is linked. So sometimes I see the URLs of other blogs that link to mine (usually the Newfoundland BlogRoll), but most frequently I see what Google searches turn my site up. Often, it has to do with various searches about Newfoundland generally, though there have been a few "running music" and various "reading" searches.

HOWEVER ... the most common Google search that brings people to my blog? I shit you not: "pickled weiners."


*Though it should be said that, as I use my own blog as a portal to other sites I visit frequently, a significant number of those visits are probably me.
**Which, again, might simply represent an increase in my own procrastination.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Ten things that are less enjoyable than grading papers

1. Being lost in a mall at Christmas while the muzak has "My Heart Will Go On" stuck on repeat.

2. Listening to a morning drive-time DJ sing topical parodies of "Achy-Breaky Heart."

3. The coffee from the Science Building cafe I am currently drinking.

4. Being lectured for a half hour by marketing types about "brand loyalty."

5. Nickelback.

6. Watching Bill O'Reilly win an argument with someone (doesn't happen often).

7. Reading German philosophy.

8. Bathing my eyes in a solution of Ajax and pork drippings (though this one is really sort of borderline)

9. Writing a blog entry as a means a avoiding grading papers and realizing you've almost reached the end of your proscribed list.

10. Grading exams.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The rumours you heard were true ...

Newfoundland has the bomb!

So watch it there, Harper.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Painted into a corner

It occurs to me as I reread my last post that my words could be taken as somewhat disparaging ... or rather, that I was making a blanket commentary in which I sneered at non-academic responses to academic presentations. Hopefully, it was not taken as such: as I said, one of the things I love about public lectures is, very specifically, the fact that non-academic responses tend to keep us -- or me, at any rate -- on my toes because they don't get couched in obfuscatory academese.

Anyway, I come back to this because the question that I did make some fun of has ended up being somewhat haunting, largely because I've been following the arguments and debates following the election of the Democratic House and Senate. I don't envy those guys. They were elected principally because of the general disgust with the increasingly egregious errors made by the Bush Administration, and the arrogance with which those errors were made. They face a multi-trillion dollar debt,* and a war that has become a no-win situation. What's the answer? The Democrats won't have one, for two very simple reasons: (1) any action of any decisiveness will be hamstrung by their own divisiveness, their own lack of vision, a recalcitrant White House, and a hostile and vindictive media, and (2) there is no answer ... at least none that is palatable.

When history writes the book on George W. Bush and company, I sincerely hope that they are damned for painting the country into an impossible corner. Personally, I think the most sensible thing is immediate withdrawal from Iraq. It would be catastrophic, but not as catastrophic, I think, as tends to be portrayed. One has to wonder: how much worse can it get there? Of course, the answer to that is entirely dependent on the degree to which the American presence is a deterrent or a catalyst ... not something

Of course, this is a moot point. Sooner or later, the stream of flag-draped coffins coming home will pass a tipping-point (if it hasn't already), and withdrawal will be a political imperative. But that, I think, in spite of the weight of opinion now against the war, will be later rather than sooner. Even as opinion shifts, the memory of the Fall of Saigon and the twenty-year stigma of having "lost" in Vietnam must be in the front of politicians' minds. Simply abandoning Iraq altogether would seem too much like being chased out by a rabble of insurgents.

More significantly, there's the simple humanity question: having made this mess, it is the United States' responsibility to fix it. But again, how? Staying longer means more American deaths, more Arab resentment of the American presence, and more possibility (indeed probability) of Abu-Gharib style debacles. Immediate withdrawal means total descent into civil war, the probable ascension of a militant theocracy (in at least parts of the country), and the creation of an Afghanistan-style terrorism enclave.

All of these are just possibilities, of course. The point is that we are now officially in a lose-lose situation, which has been dropped in the lap of the new Congress and will be similarly left to whoever occupies the Oval Office in two years time. I can't imagine that the new Congress will do anything more than proceed by way of baby steps, which is already in some circles being portrayed as a vindication of the Bush Administration's policies. Whatever happens from here on in will prove disastrous in one way or another, and what drives me up one wall and down the other is the near-certainty that the people actually trying to solve these problems will be blamed. It needs to be remembered that we were brought to this point by a small number of people whose arrogance, inflexibility and willful blindness brooked no dissent and dismissed contrary views as anti-American.

I don't envy the new Congress; I don't envy whoever next occupies the Oval Office; and I don't envy Americans generally. The wisdom of Solomon would be insufficient for the current situation.


*from America's inception up to 2000, 42 presidents borrowed a combined total of $1.01 trillion from foreign governments. From 2001-2005, the Bush government borrowed $1.05 trillion.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The academic's guide to surviving question periods

Hey, it's December. When did that happen?

It's December, and as if to drive the point home, they're calling today for freezing rain and then later on, snow. I knew this was worrisome when I woke to the sound of one of my neighbours scraping ice from their windshield underneath my window. Fortunately, I don't have to go anywhere today ...

Classes ended yesterday, thus bringing to an end my second first semester here at MUN. Amazing the difference a year makes. I was rather surprised last year how at sea I felt, how hard it was to adapt to a new academic and scholastic environment, and -- in spite of the fact that I'd had four years of teaching under my belt, not counting my four years before that as a TA -- how much I felt like a neophyte in the classroom.

I've still got a ways to go, but the difference this term was palpable ... though I have to credit a significant part of the easier time I had this go around to the fact that I was blessed with a really good group of students. My 20th-century American novel course was one of the most enjoyable classes I've ever taught -- and I'm not just saying that because I know some of my students now read this blog (see how sucking up can work both ways, guys? though my timing is is bad ... I should have made outrageously flattering comments before course evals).

It's been a while since my last entry, so I should do a post-lecture round-up. First of all, I am pleased to say that it was standing-room only at the Ship ... not that it takes many people to fill the place. It's not a particularly large pub. But still: "standing-room only." I like the sounds of that. AND I was told that this was one of the best-attended lectures in recent memory. Though I suppose if you put an image of the World Trade Center on your advertising, you'll get a lot of people coming out to see what you have to say ...

Also, it was videotaped for ... well, I'm not sure what for. Posterity, I guess. That in and of itself isn't so much of a concern for me, though it did freak me out immediately before when I had my obligatory sense of impending doom and academic catastrophe. The thought of having a record of my shame and stupidity was a bit daunting. But beyond that, and more immediately a concern at the time, was the fact that in order to be seen on the video, I had to be lit with the stagelights ... the effect of which was that I could not see my audience. At all. Which is a problem, given that I like to be able to gauge how I'm doing in a lecture situation by audience reaction, which isn't always vocal enough for me to rely on hearing alone.

But all that being said, the lecture was well received, and we have what can only be termed a lively question period. And if you've never been to a public lecture -- and more significantly, if you're an academic and you've never delivered one -- it is an interesting experience. I've done one in the past, as part of the London Public Library's Media Literacy Series, back before getting that PhD thing. I lectured then on conspiracy theory; and if there was ever a topic to bring the wingnuts out of the woodwork, that was it.

The thing is, when you present a lecture or a paper to an academic audience, there is a kind of unspoken etiquette to the questions ... though etiquette is the wrong word, because it's not necessarily about being polite. I don't know the right word, though "verbal dance" might come closest. What I mean is this: even when you have an antagonistic questioner, someone really out to attack you, it's almost invariably couched in academese (the official language of pretension and pomposity). So the antagonistic questioner's attack might begin with this: "Well, this is obviously a very important issue and deserves serious inquiry [suggesting that your talk has not accomplished this], but I think you've misstated one of the key points here, and I have to take exception to your reading of X ..."

So even as you see that you're about to get tagged, the preamble gives you a chance to steel yourself and think of responses that don't include "Bite me!" or "Fuck off!" Though let me tell you, sometimes the temptation to say just that is overwhelming ...

Variations on the annoying question: "Well this is interesting, but what does it have to do with MY specialty?" (e.g. "This paper on the geopolitical impact of globalization is interesting, but how does it address the history of the book?"); the twenty-minute ramble, which is exactly what it sounds like: i.e. the questioner goes on and on and on, finally trailing off with a lame question like "So what do you think of that?" (my favourite response to one of those was by Judith Butler, who had just delivered a keynote at a conference at UWO -- when her interlocutor finally trailed off, she stepped away from the lectern and very pointedly gestured at it, inviting him to come down and deliver the lecture); and of course, the question that is not a question.

All of these have stock responses one can give, most frequently "Well, I hadn't thought about it that way ... would you like to talk a bit more about what you mean?" Which almost always works, since most obnoxious questioners really just want a chance to grandstand.

So public lectures can be a bit dislocating -- but also, I believe, invaluable to academics as a way of keeping yourself honest and not getting entirely lost in the scholarly echo-chamber -- because the questions you get from non-academics (a) have none of the verbal dance we insulate ourselves with, and (b) often come entirely from left-field. Which can be in equal measures humbling, educational, aggravating, and amusing.

Case in point, from my conspiracy theory lecture: the questioning gambit I now think of as the "What about Gandhi?" question. Having talked at some length about Kennedy's assassination and its role in the American consciousness (a topic I returned to, incidentally, in the Ship lecture), I was grilled rather mercilessly by a woman about various other assassinations that had not had conspiracy theories spring up around them, and why this was the case. Now, keeping in mind that I was being asked about incidences I had broad but not specific knowledge of (for example, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand), I could not speak with much detail, and made a point of saying so. Unsatisfied with my answers, she would cut me off and ask me about the next assassination she had in mind, finally culminating in a somewhat angry and disdainful, "Well, what about Gandhi?" To which I responded with some exasperation, "What about Gandhi?", which I think angered her further. Fortunately, I was then rescued by another questioner ...

This past Tuesday, I must say, the question period was very enjoyable. Tough, but enjoyable -- I had a couple of very sharp and pointed questions that cut right to the heart of my discussion and addressed some of the gaps in my argument (some I was aware of, some not). Which, though it puts you on the spot, is exactly the kind of thing you look for when working through ideas.

The "What about Gandhi?" question this time around was asked by a woman who prefaced herself with a preamble about the state of the world and America's role in it -- the war in Iraq, the excesses of American imperialism, etc etc. The question she came to was "So what's the answer?"

And she wouldn't let it go! I said, quite frankly, that I am in no way qualified to give an answer to the world's problems, but she persisted with it for some time, until I finally said something trite about public discussions like this being a start.

You know how, an hour after something like that you come up with the perfect answer? I now wish I'd said, "Ma'am, if I had that answer, I wouldn't be a junior English professor at MUN ... I'd be Jesus. And frankly, I don't want that gig, seeing as how the retirement package is kind of rough."

Sigh. If I had a time machine, I'd be wittier than Oscar Wilde.