Sunday, April 29, 2007

Herding cats

The way the world thinks of English professors:

The way I think of English professors after departmental meetings:

Thursday, April 26, 2007

I can read!

The most glorious thing of this encroaching spring, beyond the sun and relative warmth (it's indicative of this past winter that seven degree celcius feels like the height of summer), is the loosening of time ... the freedom now to start reading that stack of books I've had to ignore these past few months. I have this past week been taking an hour or so in the morning with my coffee to simply read ... and between that and the sun streaming in through my living room window, it has felt positively decadent.

I have spent part of this semester using up the last bit of the startup grant MUN gives new professors; we're strongly encouraged to use it all by the end of our second year. And so, finding myself with somewhere in the neighbourhood of $1200 left, I've been putting mileage on my credit card ordering from

I love love love subsidized book-buying.

So anyway, I now have a massive stack of books to work through -- many of them pragmatic purchases in history or theory to fill holes in my library, some of them speculative buys toward possible courses I might propose in the future, but also a lot of texts I've either been meaning to read for some time or simply capricious buys that struck my fancy.

One of the courses I'm toying with proposing is a special-topics course tentatively titled "Postmodern Warfare." I've taught some texts and films under this rubric in the past, and last year presented a paper on the subject at our departmental colloquium. To give credit where it's due, at least part of this idea owes its genesis to Tim Blackmore's excellent book War X (which will certainly find its way onto the reading list), as well as his legendary course "Killer Culture" at Western.

At any rate, one of the books I've read this past week is Tim O'Brien's fiction/non-fiction collection of stories based on his tour of duty in Viet Nam, The Things They Carried. It's a haunting series of interlaced narratives following the members of his squad, their friendship and the inarticulatable experience of warfare. The title is also the title of the first story and refers to the massive amount of weight in terms of gear, weapons, and personal items the soldiers had to shoulder on their missions into the oppressively hot jungle; it also of course refers to the weight of the experience itself that the soldiers continue to stagger under after their tours.

(Also on the list to read is Tim O'Brien's novel In the Lake of the Woods, Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, Michael Herr's Dispatches and Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down ... all of which, should the course ever happen, will explore the blurry boudaries between memoir, fiction, journalism and myth in the representations of contemporary warfare).

I've also recently finished Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men ... and if you've never read McCarthy, you're denying yourself a rare pleasure. He's one of William Faulkner's heirs apparent, with spare impressionistic narratives set in the American South, most frequently along the Texas-Mexican border. No Country seems at first glance a typical potboiler in which a man stumbles across a drug deal gone sour in the desert, where everyone is dead and a case with two million dollars is there for the taking. And while it unfolds predictably in some ways, in McCarthy's hands what would otherwise be a formulaic narco-drama becomes something infinitely more terrifying and profound.

Incidentally, a film version directed by the Coen brothers is set for release in August. Holy crap. If the collaboration of Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers isn't a recipe for something brilliant, then I'm quitting show business.

I'm also almost done Black Dogs by Ian McEwan. It's the story, presented as a memoir, of a long and difficult marriage, recounted by the estranged couple's son-in-law. McEwan is always astonishing, and this book is no different. I hate him for the understated elegance of his prose.

Anyway ... I'm ready to move on, and can't decide what to start next. The choices are:

  • Julian Barnes, Arthur & George
  • Anthony Swofford, Jarhead
  • Norman Mailer, The Gospel According to the Son

Cast your votes! Polls close tomorrow at midnight ...

Monday, April 23, 2007


While back home in Toronto last weekend, I was speaking to a family friend who asked me about where I was at in terms of the school year. I responded that classes were over and than I had grading to do, but after that I was done. "Oh, and what are you doing this summer?" Well, I answered, I'll be catching up on research that had to be put on the back burner in the winter term, as well as finally turning back to rewrite my thesis.

"It's nice that the university lets you work on your own stuff!" the family friend enthused.

I refrained from correcting her by saying that "lets you" is perhaps better phrased as "compels you" ... because really, on the balance, right now I feel like I've got the best job in the world. Never mind that I just came off a winter term that had me feeling buried alive, or the the work the university is "letting" me do this summer will be crucial come my formal interim tenure review in September ... nevertheless there is a deep satisfaction right now in looking at a summer term free of teaching --a feeling I didn't quite have time to savour this time last year, as I was busy preparing to drive back to Ontario for three months.

I spent today in my office thinking ... just thinking. I organized some books and files, made a few notes and made a library trip, but really today was just about being lost in thought and slowly working through the substance of my summer projects. I've been chomping at the bit to get started these past few weeks, but I resisted the temptation to jump in and run off madly in all directions, having learned from experience that, while productive in the short term, it would ultimately just muddy the waters.

A day of thinking -- I highly recommend it. It's very calming ... and odd, too, that as someone who is more or less a professional thinker, I so rarely have the opportunity.

Friday, April 20, 2007

On not living in fear

I was eating lunch at the student center here on Tuesday, when I was approached by a reporter and a cameraman (from NTV, I later discovered), who, upon ascertaining that I was a professor, asked if he could ask me some questions. I said sure, and he led with "What do you think of the events at Virginia Tech?"

Can I first comment on how stupid and clumsy a question that is? I answered, "Well, other than abject horror, there really isn't much more of a response." Which is true -- what else can you say? I continued, "But I suspect what you're getting at is how those events impact my own feelings of security as a professor here at MUN." He nodded. "I don't think we can live in fear, nor do I think it is wise to barricade ourselves in with heightened security and metal detectors -- not that I think anything like that, in the end, will prevent a determined lunatic from acting like the one in Virginia."

OK, I'm embroidering my answer a bit in hindsight, but that's the gist of what I said. Predictably, in the aftermath of the shootings the second item on the news -- after updates on what we knew about Virginia Tech -- was the question "Are our campuses safe?" replete with man-on-the-street interviews with students. And I'm happy to say that, with only a few exceptions, most responses tended to echo my own. University campuses are no safer or more dangerous than, really, anywhere else, and the prospect of turning them into an armed camp in the hopes of deterring a random psychotic with a gun fills me with dismay.

If it weren't for fear, I think the news media might just whimper and die. Or possibly return to just reporting the news. I see the "are our campuses safe" angle as incredible cynical and indeed irresponsible ... especially considering that civilian deaths in, say, Iraq, in numbers comparable to Virginia Tech, are not tragic bolts from the blue but the daily norm. What are we afraid of?

If ever a lunatic walks armed into my classroom I promise you I will shit myself in terror. But not until then. And were it to happen, I hope I have the courage that one professor had who died trying to protect those in his classroom.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Reason #23 why no one takes Hollywood seriously when they speak of environmental responsibility, conservation or, well, anything ...

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are buying a $268 million yacht which will be 280 feet long, complete with a swimming pool, a helipad and a submarine.

The helipad and submarine are egregious enough, but what really gets me is the swimming pool ... because apparently there won't be enough water for them in, you know, the ocean.

On the other hand, there will be enough space on this leviathan for them to adopt another dozen third world kids. Two dozen, if they don't want to spoil them ...

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The top ten reasons I know I'm in essay-grading avoidance

10. I'm thinking seriously about doing my taxes, even though I've still got twenty days, fourteen hours and thirty minutes until midnight, April 30.

9. I keep looking at my bulletin board, thinking that it's time I rearranged everything on it.

8. I'm writing a blog post.

7. It seems to me to be the height of disorganization that ALL my books aren't alphabetized.

6. I'm somewhat disappointed that the coffee kiosk downstairs in my building is staying open for exams, because that means a trip to get coffee only takes a few minutes.

5. I'm surprised that the roulette wheel has never caught on as a means of assigning grades.

4. The overwhelming compulsion to go home and do laundry.

3. The obsessive hour and a half I spent last night making up possible reading lists for my courses next year -- which I don't yet know for certain if I'll be teaching.

2. I really want to go to the gym RIGHT NOW.

... and the #1 reason I know I'm in essay-grading avoidance?

1. I brought a copy of my thesis into the office today to begin rewriting it as a book!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The shallow end of the alphabet

My principal task this morning has been to write a 500-word abstract for a conference, and damn if it doesn't make me want to jump off a bridge. When did writing something so short become so painful?

Anyways ... as is my wont as I sit in front of the computer agonizing over writer's block, I turn my head and stare blankly off in space. As it happens, this has me looking at the bookcase right beside my door, the bookcase I think of as the "Shelves of Theory" ... five shelves of critics, theorists, philosophers and literary historians arranged alphabetically -- the only shelf I have arranged alphabetically, as it happens.

So as I sit here not writing my abstract, staring at the Shelves of Theory, I notice the odd phenomenon that the vast majority of the authors there fall into the first half of the alphabet. Given that A-M is the first half, and N-Z is the second, we don't have that M-N transition (When Alan Nadel picks up the baton from Elaine Tyler May) until almost at the end of shelf #4. Which means that -- taking into consideration that the first half of shelf #1 is taken up with anthologies and essay collections -- the A-M crowd account for three and a half shelves, while the N-Zers have just slightly more than one.

So I'm wondering if this bespeaks a broader trend in surnames to fall into the first half of the alphabet? Or whether something more insidious is at work: that on a deep genetic level, the first thirteen letters make you more inclined to engage in the exercise of literary criticism? Or perhaps there is a secret conspiracy on the part of academic presses giving precedence to the A-M fraternity (in which case, dudes -- I'm an "L"! just barely in the first half, perhaps, but there nonetheless). Mysterious.

Upon reading back over this post, I'm a little leery of offering this insight into the inner workings of my mind while in the throes of composition. Little wonder my writing process is glacial.

I do want to point out however that I'm very pleased with the title of my post, and I think someone should use it as the title of a novel.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Monday cuteness -- an overdue Morgan update

My brother Matt sent me these photos about a week ago. How unreal is his little girl?

A few things:

(1) She's talking more now, with an ever-expanding vocabulary.
(2) I have a name now -- she recognizes me in photos (though not, I'm sure, making the connection to who I am in relation to her), and calls me "Dis." Uncle Dis.
(3) She LOVES the Toronto Science Center. Matt and Michelle take her there every sunday, and apparently she is so excited when they pull into the parking lot that she's practically vibrating.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Hibernation, bad blogging, and the weirdness that is Facebook

Hm. Five entries for all of March—that’s some pretty lazy blogging on may part, if I do say so. Possibly my worst month yet. I don’t entirely know why; I suppose I’ve been busy, but I also really haven’t had much to report. I have only recently felt as though I’ve started emerging from winter hibernation, only recently started feeling energized again as the season slowly (so painfully painfully slowly) sloughs off its skin.

It’s odd: even as I feel utterly spent as far as the teaching and administrative parts of work go, my recent glimmerings of energy are all to do with my own research and writing—stuff long since relegated to the back burner this semester. Actually, saying that my own research has been on the back burner suggests that it has still be cooking away all this time, when in reality I think I’m dangerously close to having removed it, cooled it, repackaged it and returned it to the store.

Can I beat a metaphor to death or what?

So anyway, hopefully this newfound energy translates into more and better blogging.

Though to come to my third subject here, it’s a sign `o the times that I have begun to feel as though blogging has become quaintly antiquated, a charming affectation like parchment paper and fountain pens; Facebook is the new blogging, as well as the new email and the new … well, everything. I wondered a while back why so many of my former students from UWO whose blogs I link to had become so lackadaisical in their posting. I was assuming it was symptomatic of spiritual ennui and moral bankruptcy, until it was pointed out that everyone had simply migrated to Facebook—from whence they carried on all of the activities previously inefficiently separated into different forums like email, conversation, social gatherings and the like. Now we’ve arrived at this spectacularly efficient means of wasting time. We truly live in marvelous times.

I signed up for Facebook largely to see what the fuss was about, and for the first little while was a little creeped out—creeped out by me, that is, because as more and more people (students, generally, both current and former) started linking to me I realized that they were all at least a dozen years younger. I felt as though I had blundered into a social scene dominated by people in their early twenties who collectively wondered who the old guy was wandering blindly around.

Fortunately, I have discovered that the ranks of those on Facebook are not limited to twentysomethings (though they do tend to dominate) and undergrads; a few professor friends, and a lot of grad students now link to me. And what’s even better is that in some cases I’ve reconnected with old friends that I haven’t spoken to in a while. So that’s all right then. And really, I’m relieved, because I’d been running out of strategies for wasting time ….