Legends of Russia by Kseniya Simonova

I don’t know Russian legends, but I know what I like.  This video’s amazing both for her artistry and the confidence with which she destroys and recreates her art. I like a book to do this as well – replacing one insight, one perspective, with another so that meaning flows and changes yet finally adds up to one story; a story which you know would have been different had any of the other characters been central to it.

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Mary Sue writes open letters

My news stream contained far too many open letters and fake State of the State speeches today, which made me stop and think: why do open letters bug me? And really, what is an open letter?

-Person A has an opinion about person B’s actions
-BUT instead of telling person B, person A writes down what s/he would say to person B if s/he were writing to person B, and publishes it for other people to read.
-In spite of the fact that person A could just as easily write to person B

Ooh, this bugs the heck out of me!  But why?  Why is it more irritating than it would be if person A simply wrote down their opinions? It’s not the letter format; someone who reprints a letter they actually sent to the person they’re criticizing doesn’t arouse my scorn.

I think it’s because the open letter is fiction and it’s crappy fiction, all about the author instead of the characters. It gives me the same feeling I get when I read a bad, bad Mary Sue; I see through the story to the author, and am embarrassed for him or her. (“Does she really want Professor Snape to do that to her?”)

Someone who’s writing fan fiction can be forgiven a little Mary Sue-ing.  After all, if you’re imagining yourself on the Enterprise you are already in fantasy-land, and imagining you can also beat Mr. Spock in hand-to-hand combat isn’t breaking any rule except that of internal credibility.  But the open-letter writer pretends to be involved in the real world, commenting on the real world, when in fact he or she is writing fan fiction. And not even fan fiction about some novel or TV show; nope, it’s fan fiction about themselves and the clever, unanswerable things they would say to Scott Walker or President Obama if he came within buttonholing distance, and how he would have no reply to their unassailable arguments.

The polite reader will turn away and pretend she didn’t see this.

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Somebody came up to me and said “I hear you used to attend the Ginormous Convention of Eukaryotic Organisms, do you think that would be a good event to take students to?”

Now, I flatter myself that I know our students, and every blessed one of them is a eukaryotic organism, so I said “Absolutely!  Hustle them right over there post-haste!”

I, however, will not be at the GCEO.  I have the perfect excuse involving a large plane, a passport, and probably big boats as well, but it’s prejudice that makes me glad I can’t attend.  Internet-derived prejudice.

It’s my own fault.  I wasn’t satisfied with being a eukaryotic organism in real life, I had to dabble around with it on the internet; and first thing I knew, I found out there was a tremendous divide between haploids and diploids.  I could probably have gone all my life without discovering what haploids really thought about diploids like myself, except there it was on the internet in all its hashtagged, vitriolic, invective-filled glory.  So now I’m a little nervous about the GCEO.  Anyone I spoke to there, I imagine, would immediately tweet:

Can’t believe what f***ing 2N idiots are saying NOW #diediploidscum

This is pretty much the definition of prejudice, I know.  Probably none of the people who post under #diediploidscum will be, or ever have been, at the GCEO.  But here I am letting them make me nervous about eukaryotes in general, even when I’m a eukaryote myself!

Well, part of it is that I don’t navigate conferences well, unless they’re dominated by conspecifics.  I feel just as insecure, for instance, as a teacher attending a big research conference.  But that’s not my point here.  My point is that the internet opens our eyes to what other people think, and then we find out that some of those other people despise us.  And then we have to shut the computer off and step out into the world which contains people who despise us, and interact with them as if none of us despised each other.

Well, Pat, welcome to the real world.   Some people have to deal with this all the time!

Some people are byGod saints, that’s what they are.  Some people put up with crap that would have me spending my day in a fetal position.

I’ve always felt nobody should have to put up with that kind of stuff.  The internet, though, is making me question this.  Because that kind of stuff is all over the internet, and now we all have to put up with it.  What were we asking each other during the session on students using Storify? About half ‘How will their work represent the college?’ and half ‘How will they cope with the comments people will make about it?’  (The folks leading the session, who had actual experience, made some remarks about teaching students to post considerate and productive comments).

Perhaps it’s all just going to fade into the background, the way every other critical medium has.  Folks will stop being shocked and surprised.  Killfiling and blocking will catch up with trolling, and we’ll all learn to stay away from certain websites.  Maybe I should not be surfing over to 2N is 2 Many: it’s not really meant for my eyes.

I don’t have a clue how internet civility will play out.  This January I’ve seen a lot of posts (here, here and here, for example) about cruelty within online communities and how it frightens people into self-censorship, but that’s not what I’m writing about. I’m writing about the more general, baseline anger and sniping that seems to run like a river of sludge under the whole enterprise.

It makes me sad.  And it makes me determined to not add one bit to the load of hostility the people around me are enduring.  Which is the answer in the end, I suppose.  Not ‘what could someone criticize on the internet?’ but ‘what real-life effect is my action having?’

So, does it matter in real life that I’m feeling a little prejudiced against GCEO this year? I think not, since I wouldn’t have been able to go anyway.  Students will attend it, and they’ll have a rocking’ good time.  I will go off on a big plane to another place, where we’ll interact with local citizens as if none of us despised each other.  Sometimes that’s the best you can hope for.

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Do Accreditors give a darn about adjunctification? Let’s find out!

I use this blog mostly for stuff related to my writing and the occasional knitting pattern, but you can’t be in academia these days without noticing that it’s turning into a sweatshop, where PhDs are lucky if they make a living wage by piecing together a course here and a course there. What the heck am I supposed to say when a promising student tells me she’s interested in grad school?

So there’s lots of talk about unions, and I say Go Unions!  But I also say, where are the accreditation agencies in all this?  Isn’t it their job to make sure colleges and universities maintain standards? And isn’t actually hiring people to teach and advise the students, y’know, one of those minimal standards?

Faculty tend to view accreditation as a nuisance, an exercise in paper-pushing with no real consequences.  I know I did, until a professional organization that I belong to began getting reports that an accreditation agency had begun to apply unreachable standards to profs teaching a key undergraduate course in my area.  One accreditor caused immense furor, which ended up with my organization creating explicit standards and actually offering graduate courses so faculty could meet them.

That was ONE accreditor, interpreting one accreditation criterion.  But almost every accreditation body has criteria which can be interpreted as incompatible with adjunctification. I’ve read them for you, included the most obviously relevant money quotes, and included links to the standards documents.

“But how can I be taken seriously by an Accreditation Agency?” I hear you ask.

Before accrediting any institution, the agency calls for third-party comments from the public.  You don’t even have to be working there to submit them. I’ve included links to the third-party comment pages, and to the schedules of accreditation visits.

Here’s a link to the word document. If you find any errors, please let me know so I can update it!

Update: When I posted this announcement at Rebecca Schuman’s blog, ‘Andrew’ answered: “I actually got my first ever full-time job because my then-employer had been through a SACS review that said this university needed to hire more full-time people and so they created quite a few lecturer lines.”  So see, it can work!  Thanks, Andrew, for letting me reprint your comment.

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The only noun that matters

I sold a Royal Academy story that I’d been shopping around for a while.  It was one I hadn’t planned to write, but the leading character got hold of me and more or less demanded to be written about.

I don’t write any characters I can’t identify with, but every now and then I create a character I respect.  It’s never planned, and it rarely happens with the characters I am trying to make worthy of respect.  I worked really hard, for instance, to make Warren Oldham a good and worthy person, righteous in most of his ways, but I don’t respect him as much as I do his wife Lilian, who I just threw together out of chicken bones.  And I don’t respect either of them as much as I do the bitter, drunken Bill Navanax.

Of all the characters I’ve written about, though, the one I respect the most is Winston Chiliming from Beginner’s Luck.  And this is odd, because Winston does nothing worthy of respect in that story.  I brought Winston in to explain the nature of gods to the story’s protagonist, but it was immediately obvious that Winston had a lot more going on than anybody else in the story because of one thing, which I had introduced as a throwaway; Winston couldn’t be defined as male or female.  That androgyny thing.  Since Beginner’s Luck was in a stodgy botanist’s POV, Winston usually got referred to by female pronouns, but it was obvious throughout that the protagonist couldn’t tell what sex Winston was and the story ended with the question unresolved.

I don’t know myself what Winston’s sex is, even after writing another Winston story with several potential romances in it.  I can’t predict Winston’s gender from one page to the next.  Winston refuses to be defined.  The reasons are complicated, having to do with a family curse — but the result is not.  Winston prefers to go through life without labels.  Winston insists on going through life without labels.  That warm, fuzzy moment when you realize you belong, you’re understood, there are others like you?  ”How very nice for you,” says Winston.

I could say I wrote about Winston because I wanted to explore a world in which gender really didn’t matter.  But honestly, I don’t care to waste my fantasy life on that sort of thing.  Writing with an agenda isn’t as interesting as exploratory writing.  I want to discover something new when I write, not convey something old.  And I discover something new when I have a strong response to a character, and in what I find myself writing about that character.  In Winston Chiliming I discover not only that I am sick to death of the boxes people put themselves into, but that I think we can do without them. What’s more, I think we are more interesting without them.

Sure, whoever finally gets into bed with Winston Chiliming will find out — something.  Its significance will be another question.  And I bet that person will keep the secret, because ‘Winston’ is the only noun that matters.

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I Guess I’m Really Self-Published Now …

That’s the cover to my first PRINT book — a compilation of the four Royal Academy novellas, all done up in paperback for holiday gifting.  A big shoutout to Melissa from CreateSpace, who made this as painless as possible.  And another to Chris Hadley — I’m using his painting ‘The Cat Jury’ for the cover of this one too, I loved it so much.  The book contains Georgie Schnobrich’s interior illustrations as well.

Isn’t that a deal, for only $5.99 at Createspace?  You know you want it, and so does your friend, fellow grad student, prof, or PI who doesn’t use an e-reader yet.  So get two.

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Bleg Pays Off

award-winning jacket design by Alberta artist Susan Menzies.

This is what it looked like -- "Sun Over Darkness Prevail" award-winning jacket design by Alberta artist Susan Menzies.

“So gentle and mild is the far-distant air,
And the forests and fields are so clean and so rare,
Blue forest on white gleaming prairie,
The grandeur of nature to all is unfurled,
It seems as if spring could fill up the whole world,
Even up to the cold glaciers’ eyrie…”
(Stephan G. Stephansson, September Snow)

I often wonder what the point is of blogging, but then someone reads an old post and sends me great news — like today, when I got an email from Richard White’s daughter letting me know that an LP I love, Sun Over Darkness Prevail, has been digitally reissued. The album sets to music poems by the Icelandic-Canadian poet Stephan G. Stephansson.

I first heard this music when I was at school in Edmonton. I played the album in my 10th-floor office a lot and it’s linked in my mind to the wide skies and far fields, as well as the graduate school excitement that’s fueled so much of my writing and my ideas of the ideal life. I would look out past the misty edge of the city, pale blue in the distance under an even paler sky, and listen to songs about the very place I was looking at.

To me, Alberta was The Last Best West. I loved everything about it. But I had grown up in smaller, more settled countryside, and Stephansson wrote about that too. His poetry described the view from my parents’ house as well as the view from my Edmonton window:

Pennsylvania mists, July 2013

Pennsylvania mists, July 2013

“When fields of grain have caught a gleam of moonlight
But dark the ground —
A pearl-grey mist has filled to over-flowing
The dells around;
Some golden stars are peeping forth to brighten
The eastern wood —
Then I am resting out upon my doorstep
In nature’s mood.”
(Stephan G. Stephansson, Evening)

It was thirty years ago. Since graduate school, my life has been even better every year — except in music.  So many of my old LPs disappeared in one move or another — I lost half of them, my winter boots, and a set of shark jaws to Canada Post, and more to the move from my parents’ to Milwaukee –but now I can enjoy one of them again.  Thank you, Anna White!

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The Mini-career roars along

I’ve posted before about my mini-scale writing career, and how it’s providing everything an author could want — only in smaller doses, without paparazzi.  So I’ve received two fan emails, met two fans at conferences for lunch, posted one piece of fan art on my office filing cabinet, unexpectedly met one fan at a Thanksgiving dinner … and this week I got to spend an evening with cosplayers dressed as alumnae and faculty of the Royal Academy.  I sat next to Linus Ukadnian at dinner — thankfully, not a method actor!  The real Linus would be an unpleasant companion.

In addition, I was the answer to a game show question at an awards dinner. All right, it was an in-house game show at our employee recognition dinner. I told you this was a mini-career, yes?

I’m not the most celebrated author at our college, but I felt like it this week.  Friends are worth more than fame any day!

It's the style for alums to dress as their study subjects - in this case, a dryad

It's the style for alums to dress as their study subjects - in this case, a dryad

with Royal Academy alums

On the left is Linus Ukadnian, just back from hiking a ley-line.

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Call it Fred

I hang around on a conservative blog, and every now and then its members get into a flurry of definition.  It suddenly matters, more than anything else, whether a particular thing is ‘conservative’ or not.  Is unbridled capitalism conservative? Is gay marriage?  Is the latin mass?

To be fair, some of the people around that blog are so much more conservative than I am that they may believe in platonic ideals, in which case these definitional concerns might make a little sense — though even then, they would just push the question along the line to ‘Well then, am I a conservative?’  But I think most of us are modern enough to agree that there really is no holotype specimen of a conservative on the shelves of the Smithsonian, or anywhere else.  Nor a holotype feminist, christian, man, american, etc.

So why do we give a rip? Whenever these definitional flaps arise, they seem to be loaded with a bunch of assumptions.  For instance:

1. There are a bunch of people out there who are invested in being X, so if we change the definition of X we can change their behavior. As in, ‘a conservative case for gay marriage.’ Or ‘the conservative thing to do is to conserve the environment.’  Has this ever worked?  I see no evidence that there are many people more concerned with adhering to their chosen labels than with making their own decisions.  Or rather, I see evidence that there are perhaps a dozen of those people, and they are all writing blogs to and about each other like a bunch of bots — because who really lets a word override their own judgment except a robot?

2. There are a lot of people out there who hate this label, but if we define it properly they will sign on. As in about half of what is posted about feminism.  Ineffectively, I might add.  Because nobody who’s paid the slightest attention thinks that simply believing women should have the same rights as men is all there is to feminism.  It’s just the sugar coating.

3. Maintaining the integrity of the label matters, because how else will we establish political movements? Well gosh, I don’t know!  Perhaps we should ask the Democrats, who were for slavery until they were against it.  Or the Republicans, who  – you get the drift.  It’s funny, isn’t it, that the actually successful political parties are the least to be believed when they define themselves.

4. Most people aren’t paying attention, and will support anybody who identifies as X.  So if we just convince the leaders of X to change their positions, the sheeple who vote based on labels will plod along behind them. This one’s the most plausible, in my mind.  Except, if that’s the underlying reasoning, carrying out your redefinition project on the public internet seems a tad self-defeating.  What happened to the good ol’ smoke-filled room?

Part of me hates labels, and part of me realizes that we need them to talk about things.  At the very least, we need them for google searches.  But this idea that once I’ve signed on to a label I then somehow belong to its self-appointed redefiners, to be steered hither and yon at their whim — that really steams my socks.

Because I know how a label ought to be established. I was trained in systematics, and I know that the first step is to collect the type specimen, kill it, and soak it in 10% formaldehyde.  If it’s large, you may have to open the body cavities first.  Then you wash it in water for about a day and by gradual steps transfer it into 70% ethyl alcohol.  You describe it, carefully referencing all previous names and the International Society for Zoological Nomenclature criteria.  You publish your paper in a reputable journal, and deposit your type specimen in a museum.

Any self-appointed movement definer out there who wishes to go through this procedure will have my respect, and maybe even my attention.  Until then, I think I’ll do what my father always advised when we got into definitional arguments.  I’ll “Call it Fred,” or Donna, or David.

Building a group out of Freds, Donnas and Davids may seem like a long-term, inefficient, piecemeal endeavor.  But think of all the time I won’t waste arguing about its definition on the internet!

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Kicking and Screaming

Here’s what I want: I want a dollar for every hour I’ve spent changing my life to cope with unnecessary upgrades.

Why am I ranting?  Right now, it’s because of Windows 7.

Our school implemented Windows 7 over the summer, so faculty came back to a new environment in which our favorite teaching software did not work.  Thank goodness IT was slow about upgrading the lab computers, so we were able to head them off at the pass before thousands of dollars’ worth of physiology data acquisition equipment became so much useless electronic debris!  Some departments, that depend on classroom computers, weren’t so lucky. Those profs are scrambling to find replacements for the activities they designed their courses around.

So I wrote to my brother.  He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t own a bed, but has eight computers.  Surely he would know how we could run virtual Windows XP environments on the Windows 7 platform that had been forced upon us, and he did.  But his advice came with an innocent question:

“What kind of software is it that requires Windows XP, and cannot run on Windows 7?”


Not that my brother has that question, but that the IT guys at Microsoft probably have the same question, with the same tone of innocent astonishment.  If, that is, they have even thought of it.

The people designing upgrades are, by definition, on the cutting edge.  They don’t have any idea how little the rest of us care about being up to date.  How out of date would I be happy to be?  I wrote my first classroom tutorials in Apple Basic and ran them on an Apple IIc, and I would be just fine with doing that today.

I’m writing a story right now about someone who takes a job in hell. I think one of the perks they promise her is NO UPGRADES!

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