Swamped!, or Why I Haven’t Mentioned That Jacobin Link on My Blog Yet.

We are into the second week of the semester, and last night I finally got my fourth class off the ground with our first meeting. (It’s a composition class that meets once-a-week in the evening.) So now, all four classes are up and running.

I’ve been so preoccupied with beginning of the semester tasks, and adjusting to a new institutional bureaucracy, that I haven’t had a moment to acknowledge that over the weekend my interview with David Parsons on his podcast The Nostalgia Trap was featured in Jacobin magazine.

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(Hello to all new readers who may have wandered over here from there!)

I actually felt a bit embarrassed about the attention because I haven’t been posting much lately. (And also, because I always sound like a moron in interviews.) But I’m working on a few things, and once I get some lesson plans set up I’ll get back to posting  here.

Another reason why I didn’t post here that much over the summer is because I’ve been working on getting some writing submitted to more, ahem, “legitimate” publications. I know full well that I’ll have very little chance to keep on teaching unless I get some articles placed in academic journals…which I have to do so that I can get more jobs that will require more teaching, but whatever.

Of course, I would much prefer working on the kind of writing that, ya know, people actually read. But, this is how the “industry” works, and plenty of other people have put in their work slaving away for JSTOR, so who am I to complain? Unfortunately, the rejections are already rolling in, and that’s annoying. Not only do I have to put energy into articles that won’t even be available for another three or four years, and even then, will be shielded behind university paywalls so most people can’t even read them, but the academic gatekeepers keep shitting all over my work, so I can’t even give away all this free labor!

But I’m not discouraged. Actual writers seem to like my work and have given me encouragement, even if the academics don’t, so I can live with that.

I do need to put some energy into building a book manuscript though, and that’s a project that I am actually interested in and believe in. So between that and teaching four classes there might be less time for book reviews and other items posted here.

That said, I’m really interested in the things that I’ll be teaching this semester, and I’m in the fortunate position that I can build my classes around topics that I’m genuinely interested in. I’m teaching two compositions courses, one course on African American Poetry, and one course on Contemporary American Fiction. (The latter class is built around academic novels and questions of literary and institutional obsolescence). Speaking of those classes, I’ve posted some abridged versions of the syllabi here under the new “Teaching” tab, and I’ll be posting some more things from the classes this semester.

So, there’s my update for now. The saga continues.

12 Years a New Yorker

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For the first time in twelve years I am not a resident of the five boroughs.  I have moved to New Jersey, and next week I will begin a one year appointment as a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at William Paterson University.

I actually started drafting this post two weeks ago on Friday, August 8 as I was packing up to leave.  The night before, on a beautiful, breezy early evening out at the Robert F. Wagner Park in Battery Park City, I went to see the Sun Ra Arkestra perform a free outdoor concert as part of the River & Blues summer concert series. I met up with some friends there, and ran into others in the crowd. The Arkestra put on a great show with some of their core tunes like “Interplanetary Music” and “Love in Outer Space,” and standards like “Fine and Mellow.”

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As the dark swept around us and the skyline lit up, my eyes fixed on the cylindrical glass exterior of the 17 State Street building.  It was in that building in 2003 that I began working as an office temp for Georgeson Shareholder, just a few months after I had moved to the city.  It was while working there that I cooked up the idea to apply to the CUNY Graduate Center, and to do so in the English department instead of in history, the field I was most familiar with at the time.

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That night I found myself looking up at that same building eleven years later, after so much had happened in my life including five moves, teaching at four different colleges, leading hundreds of walking tours all over the city, finishing a Ph.D., and a whole lot more personal drama than I care to share on this blog. Now, I’m preparing to take on a new job just across the Hudson. To say that “I felt like I had come full circle” would be the corniest thing I could write about that night, but, well, it’s hard not to come to that conclusion. Ultimately, it felt like a satisfying and fitting end to this chapter of my life.

And now, as I sit here finishing up this post in my new office at William Paterson, the next chapter begins.

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Academic Film: Admission

Tina Fey, Wallace Shawn and Gloria Reuben in Admission (2013)

Tina Fey, Wallace Shawn and Gloria Reuben in Admission (2013)

By now you’ve probably seen that New Republic article “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”, and all the rebuttals, and all the rebuttals to the rebuttals. In the article William Deresiewicz provides a rather thorough and convincing (if unoriginal) critique of elite college preparation. It’s a hyper-competitive process that begins at infancy (for kids from elite families), encourages the most cynical and cutthroat behavior from students, and, as Deresiewicz and others have argued, undermines the very purposes of college. (Personally, I liked the way the film The History Boys dealt with all this in a British context.) My biggest problem with the article (besides his swipe at race-based affirmative action) is that he had very little to say about public universities, community colleges and for-profit colleges where the students aren’t all college-prep-programmed youngsters, and where “admissions” operates under a whole different paradigm. This is by far the largest and fastest growing segment of higher education, and the one that most of us will encounter. He can critique the Ivy League all he wants, but the kind of prestige signified by an Ivy League education is one that is remarkably resilient, even among those of us who are happy with our non-Ivy League educations, or who never attended college at all. To some degree I think we all buy into and attach value to the prestige of being affiliated with an Ivy League institution, even when we should know better.

In my “Storifying the Academy” article that I posted a few months ago I made a backhanded comment about the recent academic film Admission. After viewing it again, I stand corrected. There’s more to this film than Lily Tomlin’s performance (though she does have some great lines). Admission is actually an interesting examination of the admissions process, this ritual of rejection and acceptance that millions of students put themselves through each year. The film dramatizes what this process means for the administrators and students involved, and what this process says about the way higher education functions, particularly at its most elite levels.

Like most academic films and novels, this one has been judged according to how well it represents the real-life academy. Suffice to say there are exaggerations and embellishments, but not all of them are bad. When the film was released in theaters in 2013, Inside Higher Ed hosted a discussion with some actual admissions officers about the veracity of the film. Vulture published an interview with Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of the novel upon which the screenplay is based, and screenwriter Karen Croner.  Korelitz and Croner provide an interesting discussion about the process of bringing this particular novel to the big screen, and also about how film adaptations often differ from their novels.   (And since I began with the New Republic article it is also worth noting here that William Deresiewicz himself has written about academic fiction before: see “Love on Campus”)

In her study of academic fiction The University in Modern Fiction: When Power is Academic, Janice Rossen writes about the ways that power, inclusion and exclusion define university life. For Rossen, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure is the exemplary academic novel because its main character yearns to be a part of Christ Church, Oxford, but as a working-class stone mason and an autodidact he really stood no chance to enter the hallowed walls of the university. He didn’t have the proper training and pedigree, and there was no way for him to work his way into that kind of prestige.

Admission follows the story of Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), an admissions officer at Princeton. The Director of Admissions (Wallace Shawn) is distressed over the fact that Princeton has fallen to number 2 in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. (Of course, we don’t really put any stock in those rankings, do we? They’re just fun to look at, right?) And so he sends his admission team out to find the freshman class that will put them back on top.

Portia accepts an invitation from John Pressman (Paul Rudd), the principal of The Quest School, an alternative high school with an eccentric curriculum, to come speak to his students about admission to Princeton. It is there that Portia meets a modern-day “Jude the Obscure” in the form of Jeremiah, a student with a terrible academic record, who also happens to be a brilliant autodidact who has aced every AP test that he took (without taking any AP classes) and has a near perfect score on his SATs.

In one sequence Portia gives her admissions spiel to students at an elite prep school, where, decked out in uniforms, they listen to her with respect and obedience. Cut to her scene at Quest, however, and Portia finds herself giving the same talk in a barn (part of the school’s hands-on learning environment) and facing a barrage of snarky questions and comments from a bunch of smart-aleck students such as: “Why should I apply to an elitist institution with a history of anti-black, anti-gay and anti-female oppression?” and “Wouldn’t you be better off sitting in your room reading books?” and “Don’t people just need a college degree if you want to pursue the societally approved definition of success?” As one student puts it, “what we want is to leave the planet better than we found it.” The questions and comments are certainly valid and refreshing to hear, but they also represent a certain sarcastic and cynical attitude toward formal education that has become all too cheap and easy. Portia finally fires back at them with a spirited defense of her profession. “I have a question for all of you. Just how will you leave the planet better? Do you want to eradicate disease? Well, you’re going to need a medical degree. If you want to create new drug therapies, that’s a Ph.D. If you want to defend the innocent and secure justice for all, I regret to inform you that you will have to go to law school!” And I think she was right to push back against their knee-jerk sarcasm. It’s easy to lapse into this snarky attitude about higher education. Yes, higher ed has certainly earned those doubts with its constant tuition increases, expensive textbook extortion schemes, and its massive student loan debt system. But I doubt any of us really wants to have surgery performed by a self-taught doctor whose only training came from reading Gray’s Anatomy and studying biology and chemistry MOOCs on Academic Earth.

Portia soon finds out (MAJOR SPOILER) that Jeremiah may be the son that she gave up for adoption years ago when she carried out an unexpected pregnancy while a student at Dartmouth. And then on top of that emotional bombshell, she experiences an embarrassing and humiliating breakup in a hilarious bit where her nebbish English professor boyfriend (Michael Sheen) leaves her in the middle of a dinner party by confessing that he’s impregnated a colleague who Portia describes as “that vile Virginia Woolf scholar.”

It’s obvious why Portia’s judgment about Jeremiah is skewed when it comes to his chances for admission. The breakup has left her emotionally out of sorts, and learning about Jeremiah brought back so many difficult questions about her life choices. Portia is so intent on him getting into Princeton because she feels he deserves it, because she wants him close to her, and because in her worldview, this is the best thing that she can do for him. In the process she fails to consider one simple idea: Maybe it is Princeton that doesn’t deserve to have Jeremiah. Maybe he would be better off somewhere else – say a liberal arts college like Reed College – where his eccentricity would be seen as an asset rather than a liability.

The film deserves credit for its portrayal of women in positions of authority in the academy. There’s an interesting give and take between Portia and her colleague Corinne (Gloria Reuben) who are both vying to be the new Director of Admissions. Throughout the film we see women having to negotiate child-rearing and babysitting, the difficulty of getting “emotional” as a woman in a professional setting, and jokes about the need for “sisterhood” even as they are in fierce competition for the same positions.

Mostly the film worked for me because it shows the irresistibility of these hierarchies of prestige. Getting into Princeton means something. Winning an appointment as an Ivy League professor means something. Even for those of us who claim we don’t believe in such hierarchies, we still lapse into celebrating that prestige, when say, an Ivy League school happens to hire a scholar whose work that we really like, or when one of our own children or family members or friends gets accepted or hired by one of these schools. Being admitted into those halls is incredibly validating, a powerful signifier of status and success, and that kind of prestige has been centuries in the making.  Admission makes the case that even when we’re at our most critical of Ivy League prestige, it can’t easily be shaken, least of all by those who are deeply embedded within it.

Academic Film: Dear White People

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This is not a drill. I repeat. This is not a drill. There is a black academic film coming to theaters this fall.

The highly anticipated Dear White People is a satirical film about black students at an Ivy League university. It is the debut film of director Justin Simien and stars Tessa Thompson, Tyler Williams (aka that kid from Everybody Hates Chris), Teyonna Parris, Brandon P. Bell and Dennis Haysbert. The advance buzz for this sounds promising. Already people are comparing it favorably to Spike Lee’s School Daze. There certainly seems to be potential here to spark discussions about race and class in higher education, appropriation, authenticity, and intraracial black politics. The first full trailer for it was just released yesterday and it looks great. Zeba Blay’s review on the blog Shadow and Act from the film’s Sundance screening back in January is worth reading to get a glimpse of what’s ahead. Needless to say, I’ll probably end up writing a few more words about this one before it’s all over.

On Blogging and the Brooklyn Bridge

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It’s been a month since I’ve updated the blog. For the last month or so I’ve been immersed in other writing projects. I submitted an article to a scholarly journal, I’ve worked on another creative project, and I spent a couple of weeks heavily immersed in studying The Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Heights in order to lead a new tour that I just started last week. Through this process, and through observing how some other writers and academics use social media, I’ve learned that I’m just not very good at sharing my work-in-progress. From my observations, it seems that the most effective academic and literary social media users are those who can constantly update about what they are reading and writing. I just can’t do that. I’ve found that posting about my research online while I’m working on it can be a distraction for me until I get it into some kind of concrete form. It involves too much distraction in the way of other stories and controversies flooding my attention. And I’ve found that when someone actually does take an interest in my work, that can also sometimes bring on more obligations to interact. Furthermore, there are times when I just don’t want the whole world to know everything single thing that I’m doing and thinking, an attitude which seems increasingly quaint these days, and an attitude which, I believe, will eventually be seen as passive-aggressive and threatening. (“What are you hiding???!!! Why don’t you want people to know where you are and what you’re doing???!!!”)

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My Brooklyn Bridge study has been instructive. I now have a two-hour tour that I feel fairly confident about, but it took a while to get there. I’ve been working on this for a while, but I really committed myself to it in the two weeks leading up to my first tour on July 8. I read David McCullough’s The Great Bridge, studied the internal scripts from my company, watched the Ken Burns documentary a few times, and consulted other books on the subject so that I could at least bluff my way through the engineering and architectural parts. I wrote a script, edited it, and then pared it down to two compressed pages that I can carry with me and consult on the tour route for facts, dates and quotes. And I’m still working on editing the script. I’m always adding and subtracting from tours. They’re never really “finished.” All along I felt little inclination to share all this information online, until now.
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I’m not even sure how much longer I’ll do the Bridge tour. The fall approaches and I probably won’t be doing tours that much after August. (More about that later.) But the information has been helpful. Even though I knew that my tour guiding career might be winding down this summer I wanted to learn this tour because I thought it might be helpful with other research and writing that I’m doing. Studying for this tour sent me back to Samuel R. Delany’s novella Atlantis: Model 1924, which contains scenes on the Brooklyn Bridge, including an imagined meeting between the main character, Sam (based on Delany’s father), and the poet Hart Crane. I published a short article about Delany’s Atlantis in The Annals of Scholarship issue on Delany’s work, “Cruising the Disciplines.” (Which, unfortunately, is not available online, but can be ordered here). There are other literary connections to this tour as well, including Arthur Miller, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Walt Whitman, all of whom have points of contact in Brooklyn Heights.

So I’m not sure what this all means for the writing part of my career. I wish I were better at doing that sort of sharing because it would probably mean a better online profile for me. But I can’t help it. I just find too much digital engagement a nuisance when I’m working on a piece of writing. I’d be much better off if I were able to tweet and blog about every book and article I’m reading and every film I’m watching, and then collate all of that into longer pieces of writing, but my mind doesn’t seem to work that way. So, the best I can do are these periodic updates about what I’m working on. Maybe I’ll get better at it as time goes on.

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Note: You can watch Samuel Delany reading from Atlantis: Model 1924 and other writings in this series of videos filmed at Judson Memorial Church in 1999, originally released as Atlantis and Other New York Taleshttps://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLC293E246B84BFC3D