Archive for April, 2005

The Revolution Will Be Videotaped

Just a quick link to today’s New York Times article about the ways in which videotape, taken during the protests of the Republican convention, has been used to clear many of the people charged with often serious crimes: “A sprawling body of visual evidence, made possible by inexpensive, lightweight cameras in the hands of private citizens, volunteer observers and the police themselves, has shifted the debate over precisely what happened on the streets during the week of the convention.”

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Airborne Toxic Events

So, there’s a chemical leak in Georgia Tech’s Biomechanical Engineering Building. Every news chopper in the city of Atlanta is hovering overhead. There is no word yet on what the chemical is or its effects. Should I be worried?

Update: Tech’s “toxic event” appears to have ended–there are no more helicopters at least. Fortunately no students required hospital treatment, and the chemical itself turned out not to be hazardous. I think what fascinated me about the whole (non)event was the presence of the helicopters (at least three or four of them) hovering overhead, waiting for the story to break.

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Documentary in the Age of War

Yeah, I know I said I was going to take a few days off, but any discussion of documentary is inevitably going to get my attention. The cinetrix has been blogging her experiences at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, NC, and it sounds really fantastic. Among the highlights: meeting Walter Mosely, who attended in support of the special curated program of films, “Why War?” In the same report, the cinetrix also mentions what sounds like a very fun little doc, Getting through to the President, in which the filmmakers situated themselves beside a bank of phones in lower Manhattan and asked random people to use the payphones to call the “Comment Line” at the White House. Here’s hoping some of these documentaries find their way to Atlanta soon.

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Professors in Space

I’m making a brief re-entry into blogworld only to mention a few news articles about universities that have been popping up on my radar screen. First, Steven Roy Goodman’s “Hey, Profs, Come Back to Earth” explicitly connects the issue of professors’ political activism with rising tuition costs, arguing that parents and students are becoming “resentful” about sending their students to expensive universities filled with “questionable courses and politically absurd camus climates that detract from the quality of a university education.”

Goodman mentions the laundry list of recent academic controversies — Ward Churchill’s Hamilton College de-invitation, Michael Moore’s de-invitation from George Mason U, and the Joseph A. Massad controversy at Columbia — in order to imply that political radicalism runs amuck on college campuses throughout the country. He also cherry-picks course titles (“Pornography and Evolution,” “The Beatles Era,” “Introduction to Material Culture”) and pulls them out of context to imply that college professors are distracted from our obligation to give students the best education possible. In context, these course titles would likely make more sense, and Goodman doesn’t bother to explain whether these courses are required or elective classes, using them only to further the perception that university faculty are out-of-touch elites.

Alongside this narrative, Goodman notes that tuition costs are making it much more difficult for many students to attend these (elite) universities (the article pasy little attention to state universities). I’ll be the first to admit that tuition costs are increasing dramatically, but Goodman’s article obscures the fact that rising tuition costs, at least at the state university level, derive in part from decreasing support for universities from state governments (Richard Ohmann has a lot to say about this topic in The Politics of Knowledge). But he’s right to note that in most cases, parents sending their children to these elite colleges are facing an increasing tuition burden even while the economy sputters along. In a consumerist model of education, such as the one that Goodman describes (he explicitly uses the phrase, “consumers of higher education,” at one point), there are legitimate reasons to view tuition as a very large, potentially risky investment.

But what’s troubling about Goodman’s account is that he implies that state governments, concerned parents, and even disgruntled alumni are less likely to support universities because of out-of-control professors. Goodman doesn’t consider that shrinking tax revenue might affect state contributions. He doesn’t acknowledge that a struggling economy might prevent alumni from making donations. He also blames only liberal arts programs and professors for the declining esteem of the state university. Here, it’s worth noting Godman’s characterization of what liberal arts programs ought to do:

Liberal arts courses, taught in the context of free speech, have always helped open young minds to the excitement of the marketplace of ideas and to the value of even unpopular opinions. But that tradition seems to have been stood on its head. There is a world of difference between challenging students to think more broadly and trying to shoehorn them into a more narrow spectrum of thought, which many parents feel is happening.

It’s worth noting that he offers little evidence, if any, that professors in the liberal arts are “shoehorning” students into thinking more narrowly, but Goodman’s persistent use of consumer terminology to describe liberal education (“marketplace of ideas”) feeds into the idea that education is a mere commodity and not a means of developing new ways of thinking about the world.

I didn’t intend to write such an extended entry, but the recent attacks on academic freedom have been bothering me quite a bit, and Goodman’s characterization of the university seems complicit with that, espeically in the consumerist model of education he describes. What’s more frustrating is that I don’t have any easy answers. I know that many of my students do see a college education as a ticket to a professional career, and my students’ needs are very important to me (and I believe this is true of most college professors). I need to get some other work done now, but at some point I hope to return to this topic in further detail.

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Blog Break

My schedule over the next few days just got a little more crowded, so I probably won’t be hanging around in blogworld much over the next few days. No real promises about when I’ll be able to get back to a normal blogging schedule. But I’ll drop by when I can.

It looks like I’m not going to be able to write a full review of the fascinating and moving Kurdish film, Turtles Can Fly (co-produced by Iranian and French companies, but filmed in Kurdish). The film focuses on a young boy, “Satellite,” who helps Kurdish villages set up satellite dishes so they can get their news from outside Iraq. In addition, Satellite and other children collect US landmines and sell them back to the UN. The film is, as you might guess, ambivalent about the war and the US in general, with Satellite’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for America complicated by events that take place over the course of the film. If you get a chance to see Turtles, I’d highly recommend it. If anyone out there has seen it, I’d love to hear your take.

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In the Realms of the Unreal

Jessica Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal (IMDB) tells the story of the prolific outsider artist Henry Darger, a reclusive Chicago janitor, who produced a 15,000 page novel (with heavy illustrations) and over 300 paintings, virtually all of which portrayed what Darger called “the realms of the unreal.” Darger’s reclusiveness is established early in the film when the few interviewees who remember him each pronounce his last name differently, and the film goes to great lengths to convey why Darger might have withdrawn from the world, noting his parents’ untimely deaths, his separation from his sister, and most importantly, the decision to place the young Darger in an institution for “feeble-minded” children. However, Realms wisely underplays any attempt to offer a clear-cut psychological explanation for Darger’s self-imposed isolation and his escape into this fantasy world, which makes for a far richer film.

Instead, the film mixes fleeting aspects of Darger’s biography (what we know of it), with animated re-tellings of Darger’s massive story, an epic tale of the seven “Vivian Sisters,” which mixes William Blake style-Christianity, war imagery, and children’s book illustration techniques. In the story, the Vivian sisters become identified with some form of childhood innocence mixed with eccentric supernatural powers that might be associated with Christianity. Darger casts “himself” as a general in the Christian army fighting against fierce child-enslaving rivals, and it’s clear that, to some extent, Darger’s elaborate fantasy narrative is likely a response to his own childhood experiences when he was virtually enslaved.

Darger’s portrayal of the Vivian sisters is also striking: he often draws them nude, but often with male genitalia. Here, I think the film’s will to avoid interpretation is a limitation, with one of Darger’s friends attributing the drawings to a lack of sexual awareness (which simplifies things considerably). Here, I think Ed Park is right to criticize the film for downplaying some of the more disturbing aspects of Darger’s work and his clear struggles with his faith.

The film does use Darger’s work beautifully, conveying the extent to which he experimented with collage effects, photographic blow-ups, and other techniques for conveying this alternate reality. Realms ends essentially with the end of Darger’s novel, at a fascinating moment of indecision, with Darger’s “Vivian Sisters” story pursuing one of two possible, but very different, endings, clearly suggesting that even after 15,000 pages and hundreds of drawings and paintings, Darger still struggled, was unsure of any final answers. This uncertainty is balanced nicely by the use of Tom Waits’ amazing “You’re Innocent When You Dream” (also used to great effect in Wayne Wang’s Smoke) over the closing scenes of the film. Like Yu’s film, I’m not sure that I have any conclusions about Darger’s life or work, nor am I entirely sure that I should, but the film’s unwillingness to interpret beyond the biographical connections left me feeling a little frustrated, especially when elements of the real world, such as the occasional “Chicago montages” that characterized the changes in the city over the course of Darger’s life, creeped into the film.

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Harold Lloyd in Atlanta

Cool movie weekend in “the city too busy to hate.” First, on Saturday, I’ll be attending the Harold Lloyd Film Project at the Rialto Center after getting hooked up with some tickets. The screening includes two of Lloyd’s films, Safety Last and High and Dizzy. Lloyd’s films will be backed by the music of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra. I may have an extra ticket, so if any of my Atlanta readers want to satisfy a craving for silent film on the big screen, let me know.

In the art house are at least two films I really want to see, including Jessica Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal (IMDB), which I’ve heard is an absolutely fascinating portrait of artist-novelist-janitor, Henry Darger. I’d also like to try to catch Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water (IMDB) if possible. Eros (IMDB), a three-part film directed by Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh, and Michealangelo Antonioni also hits Atlanta this weekend. I haven’t heard much about this film, but like all of the directors involved with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Has anyone heard anything about Eros? Which of these three films would my cinephile readers most recommend?

Update: The Harold Lloyd ticket has been claimed. I’m still not sure how I managed to score two free tix for this very cool screening, but it should be lots of fun.

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Holding Patterns

Several days ago, Jason mentioned a Chronicle (subscription required) article on teaching post-docs in the humanities. As Jason notes, the article is skeptical of these post-docs, many of which, like Georgia Tech’s Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellowship, have heavy teaching loads. And, of course, there’s some debate about whether or not these post-docs lead to tenure-track jobs.

I had originally planned to mention this article into my earlier comments about my own job concerns, but wasn’t sure how I wanted to address it. While I’m certainly concerned about my job situation, I’m also aware of how much I learned as a Fellow, especially when it comes to getting a sense of how departments function. I also know that I’m going to have some difficulty judging this experience while my current plans are in limbo. It’s also impossible to guess what I’d be doing if I had stayed at the University of Illinois one more year in the non-tenure-track position I held for two years while finishing my dissertation (the Chronicle article mentions that this program underwent heavy cuts in 2003, a year after I left).

The teaching load for the fellowship has been fairly demanding, three sections of freshman composition per seemster with 25 students per class. I picked up an extra course this spring because it meant the opportunity to teach an introduction to film not to mention a little extra money in my pocket, leading to a 3/4 load this year and commuting to campus five days a week in Atlanta’s notoriously annoying traffic. But even with a relatively heavy teaching load, I’ve managed to get a fair amount of writing done over the course of the post-doc, and I do think these experiences will serve me well when (or if) I take a tenure-track job in the near future.

But because of my current situation, I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt for the universities that rely on teaching post-docs to have more specific conversations about non-academic careers. I’m not saying that I’d make that choice, it seems clear that these universities owe it to the people who teach such a large percentage of their freshman composition classes to assit them in thinking about rewarding alternatives outside the university.

As this post implies, I’m still thinking a lot about future plans and haven’t come to any firm conclusions. But thanks in large part to all your supportive comments, I am feeling somewhat better about things.

Update: Scott Jaschik mentions a recent survey that seems to show that most post-docs are generally satisified with their positions. Major complaints among post-docs: childcare benefits (generally a non-issue for me, but I’d certainly support adding them) and the lack of professional training. The study does note that based on the average work week (51 hours a week, significantly less than I’d guess that I work) and average salary ($38,000, I’d rather not say what I get paid), post-docs have an average hourly salary ($14.90/hr.) similar to what janitors earn at Harvard. On one level, I have no complaints about that (janitors should get paid fairly for their work and certainly deserve more given what they have to do), but it does put into perspective the absurd Horowitz claims about our work and what we get paid for it.

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Visualizing Sin City

I’ll get back to my job market comments later today, but what I really want to talk about is Sin City. On Blogdex, I found Film Rotation’s comparison of panels from Frank Miller’s graphic novels and their big screen realization in Robert Rodriguez’s film adaptation. Some of the matches are uncannily precise, as the author, mediamelt, points out. The film is really growing on me, and I enjoyed the film’s self-conscious presentation of this virtual noir world.

Also check out this Wired article on Rodriguez and Miller.

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T. S. Eliot Was Right

April is the cruellest month, at least as far as my allergies are concerned. I’ve also been dealing with some personal stuff related to my job status for next year, a topic that I’ve avoided discussing here for a variety of reasons. You see, my teaching fellowship here at Tech expires in just over a month, and I’m not yet sure where (or if) I’ll be teaching next school year, which is pretty discouraging, especially after I’ve invested so much time and energy on delivering conference papers and turning them into journal articles on top of a demanding teaching schedule (six composition sections and one film section this year, and yeah, I realize lots of other people have heavier teaching schedules).

But I’ve avoided mentioning these details on the blog (other than in occasional, usually elliptical references) in part because I am concerned that my complaints may sound like whining or something. KF has been talking about online personas lately, and the voice I’ve consciously been cultivating here works against expressing this kind of uncertainty, especially when it comes to my professional career. Now, I will often write blog entries that present half-baked, ill-formed ideas with the hope that you, my readers, will find something of value there or that you’ll challenge me to think about these ideas in new ways (which you invariably do), but that’s a far cry from the uncertainty and frustration I feel right now. I really do enjoy teaching and writing, and it would be very difficult for me to walk away from academia, but right now, I’m not willing to dismiss the idea completely. I know that I have a lot to think about and that I probably shouldn’t (and won’t) make the decision to leave while I am exhausted from a combination of a long school year, an emotionally taxing job search, and a body battered by allergy symptoms.

I’ve been writing and re-writing this entry for nearly an hour now, an illustration of the degree to which I’m not sure I’m ready to discuss these concerns here. If, as KF suggests, many of us have “the sense that it’s unseemly to brag,” I’m even less comfortable talking about when things don’t work out, and so far the job market hasn’t. I’m not sure yet how to think about my experiences on the market this year, but long story short, I’m still staring the abyss that Collin described several months ago in response to my previous discussion of “blog block.”

So, instead of talking about job stuff, I’ve tried to use the blog as a way of avoiding that topic (and I’ll probably quickly return to wiriting distracted entries on movies and stuff), but KF’s discussion of her recent experiences has inspired me to try to sort through some of my own. I’ll try to work through some of these ideas over the next few days as the last few weeks of the semester quickly roll past.

Note: Slightly updated for clarity, some new thoughts.

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