Why does Higher Ed = Humanities?

Another day, another article about the parlous state of Universities and the lack of respect afforded to faculty, the ‘Disneyfication’ of the curriculum, grade inflation, the embattled professoriate and students’ inability to handle difficult topics without puppies and balloons.

Not one word is relevant to me, or to my colleagues who are preparing students for the MCAT, the NCLEX, to keep actual human beings with actual illnesses alive. But we don’t count, apparently, to the authors of these plaints. The facts that everybody knows students would not pass the MCAT or NCLEX without us, that we obviously take them from I want to help people to Those values indicate acute renal injury, what’s his Potassium like?, that the same outside groups who might sneer at a French Literature prof go ‘Ooh’ when I say I teach Pathophysiology, do not apparently make us worthy allies in supporting the academy. They make us part of the problem, if not allies of the enemy.

Because in the world of academic lament, the University’s real purpose is to shelter and protect the humanities. Those of us whose work meets the criteria for Higher Education in the eyes of conservatives, businesspeople, or even (gasp) republicans are just diluting the message about liberal arts.

I still sympathize with these plaints about the state of Higher Ed, but less each time I read one in which I don’t appear. Perhaps instead of ignoring the part of Higher Ed that everyone respects, folks interested in protecting the academy should be looking at what we do and how they could build on it. At the very least, perhaps they could stop writing articles that leave us out entirely.

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One of the Too Many

Crabs in a bucket by Todd Shaffer. Used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr.

Crabs in a bucket by Todd Shaffer. Used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr.

This week, a Facebook group I’m on had a long discussion. It was prompted by somebody upset at all the no-pay publications calling for submissions from us hopeful authors jockeying for exposure — an upset which quickly morphed into upset with all those hopeful authors who were willing to do it, thereby driving costs down and turning writing from the opportunity for a lucrative career which it apparently once was into a buyers’ market.

There’s a lot of rage lately as the world turns into a buyers’ market. The rage starts out directed at the buyers, but if it’s a buyers’ market, by definition the buyers are in the power seat. Kristine Kathryn Rusch published a masterful takedown of the Authors United letter a while ago, pointing out that it was one long whine. The authors who wrote it had no leverage over the publishing industry at all. So if the buyers don’t care what you say, who will? Rage is diverted toward those nasty wanabees who get between you and the promised land, especially if they ruin the market by working for less, or for free.

But you know what? If you have no leverage to tell buyers to pay you more, you have even less influence over people who are willing to work for free. What are you going to do, stop paying them? Why in the world would somebody who likes writing give up doing it so prices for other people’s stories would go up? I don’t see this happening.

Yet I understand the fury from the other side as well, as my own employer pushes to get rid of costly full-time faculty and replace us with part-timers desperate to get a nose into the door at any price, turning college teaching from what used to be a stable middle-class career into a buyers’ market.

So what do those of us in, or wanting, desirable careers do? Are we doomed to be the pawns of buyers until pay for those careers drops so low that it makes them no longer desirable? Do those of us who are most invested in making a living at them have to raise artificial barriers to keep wanabees from flooding the market? Must we accept that for those of us who aren’t superstars, these are avocations you can only pursue if you have an independent income? Must we accept that the money really belongs to the buyers by right, and they deserve to rule?

It’s tough when there are 500 sellers per buyer. At least when those 500 sellers are busy scrambling over one another and pushing one another down; but I can’t help thinking there’s another way to look at it. 500 sellers outnumber one buyer, after all. Surely that’s worth something.

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Why I love my day job

Today I got to see my colleagues again after the long break. Of course we were there to do something or other, but the really important stuff happened in between.

Various folks dropped by my office during coffee break and we discussed, among other things:

  • Alice Dreger’s book and how she’s coming to visit us in March (W00t!)
  • Why people are more tolerant of other folks’ religions than of their own
  • Example: an attempt to insult people of a different religious background goes completely unnoticed by targets, but upsets co-religionists in the neighborhood
  • What ‘hijab’ really means
  • Whether we should revive the Philosophy of Science discussion group this summer
  • What somebody would do if the only group that took their good advice about strategies had despicable aims (answer: make up some reasons to like the group)
  • If someone’s fat cells completely refused to release any fat to the body, how would scientists figure out what had killed them?
  • How to knit leg-warmers

A bunch of us went out to lunch afterwards, and we discussed, among other things:

  • When animals burn fat while fasting, and when they burn muscle instead
  • Why stealing pack-rats’ food stash prevents them from fasting
  • Logistics and odor of smoking ferrets
  • The construction of stuffed squid and squids as Xmas decorations
  • The possibility of making a life-size fabric digestive tract model
  • Whether heat production is age-related and why
  • What causes elevated cholesterol in pregnant women?
  • Do boa constrictors kill by suffocation or by increasing/decreasing blood pressure?
  • Does anybody read dissertations and should they even?
  • Camera lucida and the role of comprehension in scientific illustration
  • Tim’s Vermeer
  • Glasses, and visual adaptation to lack/possession thereof
  • Most interesting animal anyone has ever dumped on your desk
  • Local craft classes for kids
  • How to make jewelry out of beach glass
  • Turn your cell phone into a microscope
  • GoPro, its uses and abuses

It’s like starting my brain up after a month in the garage.

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Is Language Manipulation Ethical?

I tend to scribble a lot by Nic McPhee

Photo by Nic McPhee (Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. Click image for link.)

One of my FB friends posted a link to this article, Nurses, fathers, teachers, mothers. Why do we devalue someone the minute they care for others?  Good question, I thought, and surfed right over. Unfortunately, I found nothing in the article to answer the question. I did find something in the article that made me very uneasy.

Q. You write about how language in our workplace, such as the questions we ask and the labels we use, are actually holding back our progress. What is some of the worst language we need to ditch and replace?

A. We should get rid of “stay-at-home mom” and “stay-at-home dad.” I find that to be very offensive. It says that the place you’re supposed to be is the workplace. If you’re at home, you need an adjective.

We should also talk about “working fathers” as well as “working mothers,” right? We constantly say a woman has two jobs: She’s working and she’s a mother. But we don’t say that about men. We need to make clear that they have a dual identity the same way women have a dual identity.

And let’s get rid of the word “help.” Let’s stop saying, “My husband helps”—because that is really saying, “It is my job to run the household, but he helps me do it.” No, no, no, no, no.

What made me uneasy was how normal this discussion seemed. It’s one of the routine questions, isn’t it? Whenever somebody has reached a conclusion that something needs to change nowadays, the question of language comes up. Let’s change the terms people are allowed to use, and we’ll change the way they see things.

I’m old enough to have first encountered this idea in the work of George Orwell and in scare articles about Chinese communism – both of which agreed that it was immoral to manipulate people by changing the language they were allowed to use. It was brainwashing, propaganda. A free people should resist it.

Yet isn’t the free people in question simply insisting on using the language they were brainwashed into before they knew brainwashing existed? Just because somebody did things to you before you knew enough to object doesn’t make them excusable. The language my parents taught me is not intrinsically more ethical than the language the article quoted above wants me to use.

In addition, changing people’s language may be the only way to introduce them to a new paradigm. When I was reading Richard Rorty and Bruno Latour, there was no point at all in requiring that they translate their reasoning into terms Popper would have used. I needed to struggle with the terms they were using until I understood, so far as I could, what they were aiming at in their own paradigm. That was the only way for me to expand my knowledge. I lead my students through the same kind of struggle when I introduce a new framework, even when it’s something as apparently innocuous as the concepts of complications or adaptation. I insist they learn to use my terms. I outlaw terms in the classroom that I deem more confusing than helpful, like ‘blood thinners’ – even when those are the terms the patients will use. What am I trying to do to my students’ thinking?

My bias, I will admit, is toward expansion. I am very forgiving of someone who adds a new worldview to somebody’s toolbox, or replaces a single term with many terms (this is how I finesse the ‘blood thinner’ issue), and very unforgiving of someone who tries to narrow people’s options by outlawing the key terms of a certain worldview.

Nowadays, manipulating people by changing the language they are allowed to use is part of everybody’s toolbox. Merely questioning it probably puts me in the ‘right-wing reactionary’ column. But I have not seen anything explaining why it is not immoral to narrow people’s ranges of response – of thought – by restricting their language. And it’s especially egregious coming in the middle of an article that asks why people think something. If you take away the words people are using to express their thoughts, how are they ever going to tell you why they think the way they do?

I believe that if we decide to understand people we disagree with we must do it in their own terms, even if it means immersing ourselves in paradigms we disapprove of and words that offend us. Refusing to do so is like refusing to learn the language of the culture you’re studying. Suppressing key terms is like outlawing the use of a culture’s language, and then thinking you can learn the truth about the culture anyway.

I realize this is a personal preference, based largely on the fact that other people’s cultures don’t threaten me. My attitude is a mark of moral unseriousness, privilege, and general frivolity. But all those terms describe me pretty well, and I won’t outlaw them.


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Reading the Macho Birders

Something a writer thinks about a lot is Voice – at least, it’s something this writer thinks about a lot, though I can’t say I think about it at the right times. I don’t often consider it while I’m writing, which is probably when it would make a difference. I tend to be shy about using a strong voice in my writing, thinking it would make the work too mannered and get in the way of the story; yet I purely love a strong voice when reading.

The best examples I know of strong, consistent narrative voice come from perhaps the last place you’d look for it; birding blogs.  To be specific, macho birding blogs. I follow a set of birding blogs that never fail to delight me, and it’s not just the bird photos – it’s the voice.

Let’s look at Seagull Steve and Felonious Jive, over at Bourbon, Bastards, and Birds. When you see a blog post titled “Costa Rica: Hammering Lifers at Las Alturas, Grit Blazing In Golfito“, you know you are in the presence of Voice. This blog has a well-developed online persona.

In October of this year, I returned to an autumnal birding battleground where I had not waged avian war since 1999: Ventura County. It was like MacArthur returning to the goddamn Phillipines.

This blog introduced me to the term ‘crushing’ in birding, something which I have recently seen local birders use even though none of us can really define it.  We just want to sound like the cool kids.

Then there’s This Machine Watches Birds, by Nate McGowan, and another verb I never thought applied to birds.

I was going to write this post about how I went to the valley and dipped on a Northern Jacana and how it sucks and blah blah blah. Fuck that whiny shit. I went to the valley and saw awesome fucking birds that most of you don’t see very often. I wouldn’t want to hear someone bitching about dipping on a Grassquit if they got to see Limpkin, Snail Kite, and Antillean Nighthawk. Dipping on birds is part of birding.

Macho birding at its best! Nate’s sidebar :

my exploits revolve around watching birds, listening to birds, and destroying birds with a camera.

Now I certainly get something from these blogs’ voice that the authors can’t, and that is the frisson of these new and exciting verbs – which is even stronger because they are not explained, nor are the geographic terms. I’ve seen the same technique used in science fiction to great effect. It gives an air of negligent expertise. I have to admit, I also enjoy the profanity.

Birdcrusher hangs out with these people, but positions himself as a younger and less grizzled version.

And now, a boy arrives at the puffins. In a dark blind on Machias Island as HJs were being furiously exchanged in the shadows, a boy and three nerds brutally did this. The devastation was total. A boy prays and hopes that the island’s seabird populations will recover from his actions.

This voice, frankly, sounds like a parody of the others. It makes their secret too obvious – that it is all about using in-terms without explaining them (HJs?) and applying violent words to a nonviolent activity. It falls into meta with the number of terms – furiously, brutally, devastation in two sentences? – and the clash between his self-presentation as a boy and the violent language. I can’t fall into unselfconscious enjoyment of this one; it jerks me into critical analysis. Which is not at all a bad thing. If I were writing in one of these voices I would definitely want to have self-parody in my toolbox, and be able to jerk the reader around like this.

The voices in these blogs don’t depend on tricks of phrase alone, though. From the very nature of the blogs, they must contain content and it must be specialized content that demonstrates their expertise. Seagull Steve’s persona would not work if he didn’t tell us which bird is actually the most over-rated in California, with supporting argument. Nate McGowan’s blog would just be posturing if he did not in fact post amazing bird photos and discussions of identification. Nor would using a voice like this in fiction writing work unless you could demonstrate the character’s actual expertise.

The best stab I’ve made at an expert’s voice was in The Adjunct, though there’s nothing macho about that character. It was fun to write something in my wheelhouse, where I actually had the depth of expertise to draw on. It would be a way bigger challenge to create one of these characters in an area I wasn’t strong in, because it is my impression that you need a lot of submerged expertise to support a little Voice. But it would be worth the work.

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Turn your child into a marine biology fanatic

Pagoo by Holling Clancy Holling was one of the best science books I ever read as a kid. As soon as we arrived at our vacation spot I would race to the library, take this book home, and lose myself in the microscopic and not-so microscopic adventures of Pagoo the hermit crab.

To this day, whenever I think of plankton or tide pools, these are the images that come to mind. When I finally got to graduate school in marine biology, I discovered that Holling Clancy Holling was absolutely accurate. Just compare his painting of Pagoo the zoea with a modern photo from Wikipedia:

The artist had obviously looked through a microscope, and captured the wonder of that invisible world.

Pagoo isn’t a long book, nor does it have to be. Almost half of its pages are full-page color plates of the Pacific tide pool world, and the margins of the other pages are filled with sketches of everything from how mussels form their byssus threads to how a larval crab sheds its shell. Not to mention everybody’s favorite villain…

Nowadays I’m sure kids get interested in marine biology through the internet. But there’s still a lot to be said for a book you can take out in the back yard and read under a tree. For my money, this is that book.

Holling Clancy Holling was one of the great artist-naturalists of the 1920-40s who roamed the US recording what the saw and experienced. Stories of his travels across America and how it was reflected in his art and books can be found at the Holling Clancy Holling blog.

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Peak Password (or why Amazon will eat PayPal’s lunch)

I donated to Wikipedia last month. I clicked the button with a sinking heart, not looking forward to the tedious business of managing to make my donation, hunting up my credit card or PayPal password, and then what appeared but an Amazon link! To say I was relieved would be understating things. I was able to make my donation with the same one-click ease with which I make my purchases. And I left the site thinking Why doesn’t everybody offer this option?

I have reached Peak Password. I don’t care about competition or monopolies any more; I don’t care if Amazon is poised to take over the world and enforce its will via its new drone army. I just never want to create another online account and make up another password. I’ve reached the point where if something requires a new online account, I just do without it.

In the last month alone, I’ve not made online purchases because they required a new account. I’ve not joined groups. I’ve not bought tickets, which means I’ve not attended performances. And I’m not alone.

Imagine if you went into a store and had to fill out a form before you could step up to the cash register and buy your stuff. That establishment would go out of business. Even more so if you could go into the Amazon store next door and buy the very same item with no more trouble than saying ‘hello’ to the clerk.

I don’t see any way this ends well for Amazon holdouts. Theoretically, I should care about that. But in real life, my only emotional response is Yay, no more G.D. accounts to create!

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Unexpected Publication!

I happened to go to my Amazon author page and what did I see but a new book! From the Dragon Lord’s Library, an anthology I sold a story to, has come out. I’m quite happy to be in a book with such a dragonly cover.

cover of the dragon lord's libraryI can’t speak for the rest of the stories, but mine is an Edwardian-style tale with a giant who hides his heart, a moody hen dragon, and one of those frogs who rescue golden balls for princesses. What more do you want?

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Is it time for unabashed Community fiction?

Sarah Avery has a long and fascinating essay at Black Gate about serial novels and why. It’s one of those essays that I hope will become a classic, because it names something that is definitely out there but I haven’t before seen clearly identified; the community-driven novel and its delights.

She puts her finger right on what I value most in a novel, and even why I write novels. The multiplicity of characters. The way they see things differently, get along in little ways and irritate each other in little ways, come at problems from different perspectives, fit their strengths together and make up for each other’s weaknesses. This is one of the great pleasures of reading and of life, and I’ve never seen it directly addressed before.

To what extent have genre authors been steered away from this just because it wasn’t a recognized category? How many community-driven genre novels have been reshaped to meet publishers’ and editors’ criteria for something else?

I have to admit, I don’t think of most genre epics – even series  – as community novels. The ones I’ve read seem more focused on one character, or on one set of events in which all the characters are involved. My experience of real-world communities is that while one or two characters may be engrossed in putting the fire out, at least as many others are looking for the marshmallows, or haven’t noticed the fire at all, or realize they need the details of an article about combustion and are back in their offices googling it when the building finally falls down on top of them.

And that’s what I love about community novels.

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Unfriendly Literature

Umberto Eco had an interview in the Guardian in which he encapsulated a view of literature that is pretty much what I picked up in college lit classes.

“I think an author should write what the reader does not expect. The problem is not to ask what they need, but to change them … to produce the kind of reader you want for each story.”

“It’s very boring to talk about winners. The real literature always talks about losers. Madame Bovary is a loser. Julien Sorel is a loser. I am doing only the same job. Losers are more fascinating.

“Winners are stupid … because usually they win by chance.”

Just reading this brings back the atmosphere of an undergraduate literature class on a sunny fall afternoon in the 1970s. A third of the students have not read any of the book in question and are shifting in their chairs, staring into space. Most of the rest have read part of it and are hoping the prof only asks about that part. I’m not in either group, because I was always a fast reader; but being in my early teens and from a family of science nerds, I have no context in which to place the book and have not understood it at all. When I speak up it will be with an off-kilter comment that provides more inadvertent humor regarding my family’s oddities than insight about the work in question. I will spend much of the time drawing diagnostic pictures of fishes or liver flukes in my notebook – not even decently in the margins, but on the page itself in token of this class providing nothing worth writing down – and I will get an A by virtue of being the only person who read everything and attended all the class sessions.

And somewhere among all this, I pick up an adversarial image of modern literature. It’s about losers doing unrealistic, foolish, ‘dramatic’ things (like adultery) that real people do not do. A ‘good’ story’s real message is hidden in images and references, so no wonder if it means nothing to the person who doesn’t know that secret language. The author’s real goal is not to communicate or delight, but to show off for peers and slip something past the casual reader; when not slipping things past the lumpenreaders authors want to change them, unsettle them and overturn their cherished assumptions.

My job as a reader, I come to believe, is to be smarter than the author; to spot these attacks and fend them off. I do this mostly by focusing on biology. I write papers on the accuracy of cetacean classification in Moby Dick and the zoological evidence for where exactly the Ancient Mariner was becalmed. I finish an English minor and, later, a humanities BA, untouched by any trace of delight in ‘literature’ except for the two poetry anthologies I have to buy for a criticism course; I devour and memorize large parts of these, but they are almost all poems the prof did not mention in class.

All this time, I am reading genre literature by the bucketload. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery, Thrillers, Children’s Lit. These are the stories that don’t try to slip anything past me. When they challenge my assumptions, they do it to my face. They treat me with respect, as if the authors like me; this is not how I put it to myself at the time, but when I look back it’s the major impression I have of these books. They enlarge my world not only by adding new rooms to it, but by inviting me into them.

At some point I begin reading authors outside the genres. I remember some of them, am changed by some of them, and forget others even before I’ve returned them to the library. I now look back and think that many of the authors I forgot about were ones who alerted those well-learned defensive reflexes, the ones whose goal was to change me into the reader they wanted. Umberto Eco was one of them. And I wonder if the tension in the genres right now has nothing to do with whether books are about rocket ships or not, or the authors’ and characters’ diversity, and instead is about whether the authors alert those reflexes, whether they make their readers feel invited in to a new world or shut out of an in-crowd.

I wonder what thinking of it in this way would do to my own writing.

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