Friday, April 30, 2010

Goodbye Academia Part 7: What I'll Miss

This series has to end sometime, and that time is now. Though I could probably write indefinitely on the topics of academia and my life, I'd like to conclude by mentioning what I'll miss about not being a part of academia. After all, I did spend a massive amount of time, a ton of money, and a lot of stress trying to get into a PhD program. Obviously, I wanted to go, even if there were other things I was (and am) interested in doing. So here are a few things that I'll really miss about not being an academic.

1.(Producing) Big ideas. I can't think of another profession where people are paid to sit around and think about big ideas like "ethics" or "humanity" or "art" or a lot of other things. Whether it's researching, teaching, etc., academics are supposed to turn a critical eye on culture. They're supposed to make connections and see things about the big picture that are hidden from others. That's something that journalistic writing—as well as many other things I've done—don't really do. They're more interested in presenting information. Scholars, on the other hand, produce information. That really appeals to me, and is probably the thing I will miss the most.

2. Being on campus. Have you ever seen a sappy, poorly-made movie about high school seniors about to graduate. Its the best time of their lives! As silly as those depictions are, that's largely how I feel about being in college. I was cutting across BYU's campus to get to the Daily Herald the other day, for example, when I realized just how enjoyable it is to be in the bustle of a college campus. There's always a bunch of interesting things going on. Living near a college provides similar opportunities, but I've found that not being in school makes it harder to know about them and participate.

3. Teaching. This might be a strange thing to put on here, given my previous posts, but there are great parts of it too. If I could teach one course a semester, for the rest of my life, while doing other interesting things, that might be ideal. In any case, while I won't miss grading, I will miss being in a classroom with students.

4. Discussion. Obviously, discussion can go on anywhere, but at a college it is supposed to happen. I've also found that many people outside of the classroom/college don't have the time or inclination (or stomach) for heated, passionate discussion. Most workplaces, church settings, etc. aren't really set up for people to bring up ideas and argue out their disagreements. Though I try to have discussions with people where ever and whenever I can, I find that A) it still happens much less often post-college than during college, and B) a lot of people just get offended or defensive when people push back against their ideas. There's probably a lot of reasons for this fact, but my experience is that there are few thick-skinned intellectuals outside of the academic setting.

5. Flexibility. This is a practical concern, but an important one. Being a professor allows people to largely determine their own schedules. As long as they get things done, they can work early or late, or whatever. I think I thrive in that sort of environment. I like working, for example, at 2 a.m., and sleeping in late. One day I might be one fire with ideas, and the next I might be lacking. I like how academia, though busy, gives professors a greater degree of flexibility than many jobs. I'm sure everyone wants a job like that, but until recently, I was actively pursuing one.

6. The Political Orientation. Let's be honest, most academics are liberal. And though I hate labels, I typically find myself in agreement with liberal politics. The prospect of being surrounded by people with whom I agree is immensely appealing. That's probably because I currently live in Utah, and I'm constantly surrounded by conservative fanatics who claim the Tea Party isn't racist or idiotic. But seriously, I'm so tired of being a lone liberal on a sea of hyper-conservatism. Some people want academia to be more politically diverse, and objectively I know that's a good thing, but secretly I just want to go to a place where people seem to care about each other, are willing to sacrifice for the good of others, and see government as a collective choice to help the less fortunate. Also, the conservatives I know in academia (or in my program) are smart, insightful, and decorous about their views. So, ultimately, academia is conducive to being a liberal, and if nothing else values respect and rational justifications for whatever conclusions people arrive at. (Maybe what I want is to be surrounded by people who investigate and are interested in politics, regardless of their orientation.)

7. The Culture. The people who go into academia are a self-selecting bunch, and they're into certain cultural things. Even the most mainstream of my professors had a decent understanding of pop culture, for example, and I remember having several interesting conversations with different professors about growing and preserving food at home. Academia isn't hipster-ville, of course, but the professors I admire take a holistic approach to culture and seem to think it is important to be conversant in things outside their disciplines. Obviously there are people like that outside of academia, but in the college community that approach to culture is common, even expected. If nothing else, academics seem to be interested in trying new things. Those things may be approaches to literary theory, or something like twitter or Lady Gaga.

Well, this could go on and on, but it's already a lot longer than I wanted it to be. Also, none of things are necessarily unique to academia, but I think they're all present there, and in abundance. I'm not sure there's another field where that is the case.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Poetry Recommendations

Because my last post sharply criticized contemporary poetry, I thought it might be good to mention a few fantastic poets who are worth reading. These poets are amazing and enlightening, though some of them do fall into the "overly-difficult-for-lay-audiences" category. Still, with my education, I'm not really a "lay audience" member when it comes to literature, and even people who don't read a lot of poetry can still get a lot out of many of these poets. Also, the way I discover new music, movies, books, etc. is through recommendations, so I figured I could hardly advocate the reading of poetry without offering some suggestions.

Living Poets:
Stephen Dunn (One of my personal favorites. He has also written a book on creative writing called Walking Light, which is fantastic)

Robert Hass (For some reason, I've heard him reading on NPR a bunch of times in the last year or two. He was the U.S. poet laureate for a while.)

Li Young Lee (The poet I mentioned in my Daily Herald piece. I love some of his stuff, and am indifferent about other works, but he's definitely worth reading)

Kim Johnson (I've taken many classes from Kim. She is an amazing person, and an master poet. And lest this recommendation merely seem like plugging an old associate, her two published books have been very well received.)

Mark Strand (I saw him read once in Salt Lake. I think Trent Hickman once said he liked the world-weariness of Strand's poetry. I think that sums it up well.)

Jay Hopler (Friend—and, as I just discovered on wikipedia, husband!—of Kim Johnson's who read at BYU. There's a whole bunch of BYU students and recent alumni who are fans of Hopler. Part of that is probably just because he came to the school while we were there and was a really cool guy, but it also has to do with the fact that his work is among the most vividly evocative of anyone that has come to BYU for a reading.)

(this list could go on and on, but these are a few people that came to mind in the short time I had to spend thinking about it)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Today's Poetry: Flipping the Figurative Bird?

Today, I had this short piece in the Daily Herald. The purpose of the piece was essentially to argue to people who don't read poetry that the genre has merit, and can be rewarding. However, because I think that some people who might read this blog have more experience with poetry, and might be more literary-minded than the general newspaper audience, I'd now like to take a minute to be completely honest about the dying literary art.

In short, much of today's poetry flips a the figurative bird at its audience.

By saying that I mean to point out that the poetry being written today is often impossibly hard to comprehend. Poets, in an effort be "true" to their message, forget that someone is supposed to read their work. They cram poems full of semantics and syntax that are painfully opaque, and as a result effectively tell readers to f--- off.

And readers typically oblige. If there's anything in America that's read as infrequently as scholarship, it has to be poetry. Unlike scholarship, however, can really be fantastic, so it's a shame more people don't read it.

Here's how I see the problem: the people who write poetry are often either academics, closely allied with academics, or very highly educated. The vast amount of knowledge they've acquired makes their poetry dense. That makes it rewarding for people familiar with the canon of western literature, but impossible to read for everyone else.

For example, an SLC-based poetry once came to a class I was taking and described herself as a "maximalist poet." I think that was to contrast her work with minimalists like William Carlos Williams, but it was also to point out that she tries to pack as much into her work as she possibly can.

Fair enough, but it literally took me 20 minutes to decipher a few this woman's lines. The poetry might as well have been either A) random assortments of words, or B) a foreign language. (This is not an over exaggeration.) And I was a MA candidate in English, willing to look for meaning even under those circumstances. Imagine how a more typical reader, without a deep background in poetry and less desire to understand it, would feel. It'd be like trying to glean complex meaning from cracks in the pavement. In other words, contemporary poetry often doesn't make sense to me, and I can only assume it makes even less sense to readers unfamiliar with it.

I genuinely think that many poets are out of touch with this reality. I love poetry, but I don't have the energy to look up 50% of the works in a 14 line poem. I don't have the time to spend an hour figuring out what a sonnet says (not what it means, but merely what it's superficially about). I suspect that poets either have forgotten how much (or little) knowledge their readers possess, or simply don't care. In other words, they mistakenly believe that their poetry isn't impossible to decipher, or they think that readers who are unwilling to spend a lot of time investigating poems are hamstringing their own intellectual development. And maybe they are, but that doesn't leave a lot of room for enticing new readers or drawing people into the art form.

This isn't to say that poets should write simple, easy to read poems, or that complex work isn't pleasurable. Quite the opposite, in fact. And hopefully there will always be people willing to decipher difficult works and rejoice over arcane syntactic tricks. But a person can't really be a "writer" —of poetry, scholarship, or anything else—without acknowledging a reader. There are also poets who appeal more broadly, like Billy Collins, but they are too often ostracized in the academic establishment, or altogether ignored. (My impression is that Collins is viewed by English professors they way Thomas Kinkade is viewed by real artists. That's also a shame, because not only is Collins good and fun to read, but his work can actually touch on profound topics.)

This situation is not helping poetry. Few people read it now, and poets aren't only doing nothing to attract new readers, they're actually alienating people. The poetry sections in most books stores is already tiny, so how long will it be before publishers finally decide to give up? Unless poetry is to be relegated to a form of writing that is personally and professionally fulfilling for a few academics, but meaningless or extinct in larger culture, something has to change.

If it doesn't, we might watch as humanity's first art form is snuffed out by those charged with preserving it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Monday Movie: The Big Sleep

There are few film genres as viscerally fun (or as socially conscious) as film noir, and one of the best examples of the genre is the 1946 The Big Sleep. The film is adapted from a Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, and while the book is good, the film is better. (In my opinion, film noir/crime film is a richer medium than than written crime literature/detective fiction.)

It stars the soft-on-the-inside Humphrey Bogart and the ineffably glamorous Lauren Bacall, who didn't just make a great on-screen pair, but were also married in real life. Bogart plays Phillip Marlow, the star of much of Chandler's fiction, and Bacall is the femme fatale. It you've never seen a film noir, or aren't sure what that phrase even means, watch this movie and you'll have your definition.

Of course, some people claim that Double Indemnity is the quintessential film noir, and others (aptly) point out that Bogart was really too much of a softie to be a great noir detective. Still, The Big Sleep is simultaneously entertaining, suspenseful, and a a perfect example of what has made film noir one of the most enduring and (eventually) respected film genres. Plus, while Double Indemnity sets up the archetypal characteristics of the genre, The Big Sleep puts them to a more satisfying use. In any case, check it out. It's a fantastic introduction to it's genre, as well as to some of the greatest stars of the silver screen. (BTW: Lauren Bacall was awarded an Academy Honorary Award at the most recent Oscars.)

Friday, April 23, 2010

How to (Really) Save Journalism

I'm not the most experienced journalist out there, but that hasn't stopped me from formulating ideas on how to save the industry. In case you haven't heard, the newspaper business is in shambles because everyone is getting their news online these days. No subscriptions equals no money.

The New York Times' solution to this problem has been to start changing for online subscriptions. Later this year, you'll be able to read some of the paper's content online for free, but you'll have to pay to get all of it.

With all due respect to The New York Times, that's a terrible idea. Few are willing to pay for internet-based news, and the strategy risks turning the paper into a boutique publication with a very specialized—and limited—readership.

A better solution would be to eliminate most of the newspaper industry's physical infrastructure. Get rid of the presses, of course, but also close the offices. Shut down the phone lines. Stop buying cubical walls. Out with the industry's "things" and "places." Make everything digital.

At issue here is the fact that old media (newspapers) are trying to imposed old payment models (subscriptions) onto new media (the internet). Unfortunately for the papers, however, different kinds of media evolved their own, inherently different delivery platforms. Think about it: books radically changed the way people consume media. They all but killed oral tradition, and took learning out of the hands of a select elite.

Today, the printed word has had a good run, but that run is ending. (That link goes to Slate, by the way, which actually tried to charge for content at one point, but then gave up.) I think people still want to read the news, but they are doing it less and less on paper. To simply treat the internet as if it were paper is insanity. It ignores the fact that it's fundamentally different.

However, because the internet is a virtual place, it seems only fitting that internet-dependent companies become virtual as well. Reporters can still write and report, for example, without the physical office. They can work remotely, saving both themselves and their companies time and money, all the while adapting the content to the medium, not the other way around.

My two writing gigs have influenced my attitudes on this topic. First I write for Rhombus. Until about a month ago, I had actually never even met another person who works for Rhombus (I met the editor, coincidentally, on the street while walking home one day). We communicate entirely by facebook message at Rhombus, and there is literally no physical infrastructure for the magazine.

Contrast that, however, with my experience at the Daily Herald. There, I go into a gigantic building everyday where I have a computer, a phone, a desk, a break room, etc. All that stuff costs someone money, but the thing is, I don't really need any of it. I have my own cell phone, which I can just as easily use (and often do), my own computer, and a chair and table at my house.

In other words, I could do at least as good a job reporting for the Daily Herald at home, at the library, in a cafe, etc., as I'm currently doing. Who knows, I might even do a better job because I'd have fewer distractions.

In reality, I enjoy the social aspect of going into the office. I like being around people to work. But if it means that the industry will eventually dry up, or that the number of writing jobs goes from many thousands to many dozens, I'd gladly sacrifice that one aspect of the job to have the others.

Ultimately, major news outlets will probably always need some physical office for their head editors and executives. They may also need to occasionally call in their reporters for meetings (though I can't imagine why video chatting wouldn't be sufficient). However, a small office with a single conference room ought to be enough, even for the biggest papers. If someone needs specific tools to do his or her job, go ahead buy that person a computer and the software too. The company would still be saving money on rent, electricity, phone, etc.

These measures probably wouldn't completely offset the loses the newspaper industry is suffering, but they would represent a (currently absent) proclivity to look for creative solutions to new media-related problems. After all, it's called "new media" because it's not the same old thing, and the same old payment model just isn't going to work. And, in the end, even if they didn't completely solve the problem, they'd help. A lot.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Goodbye Academia Part 6: A Few More Thoughts on Teaching

So I've been pleasantly surprised that people are reading this series, and even more so that a few of these posts have prompted discussion. I've been thinking a lot about some of the comments that were made in previous sections, and I wanted to discuss them briefly.

In Part 3, I talked about some of the frustrating aspects of teaching, and I pointed out that it was rare that my students really impressed me with their comments. As I've thought back over my time as a teacher, however, I can actually think of a bunch of instances when I was impressed by my students ideas. Once, for example, one of my classes wanted to discuss politics, so I threw out my lesson plan and we just debated for an hour. It was great and enlightening. So why did it feel like I was more often hearing the same thing over and over?

I think the curriculum largely to blame. I was teaching writing, and while that sometimes included critical-thinking exercises, it also included a lot of practical things. Like instructions on how to write thesis statements. Or how to do MLA citation. Or even grammar.

In retrospect, it seems like many of these practical considerations overwhelmed my courses. I'd want to discuss some interesting idea, but my students didn't understand yet how to craft a good thesis, so I'd have to backtrack and show them.

So, my students rarely had much to say about these practical things, and, to be honest, I don't either. After all, what is there to say, that's really interesting, about topic sentences? In the end, I think the reason my students were consistently coming up with old news was because we were in a writing class, as opposed to a philosophy, literature, or film course. In those settings there is an actual text to analyze, and that text is supposed to mean something larger about the world. In a writing class, the "text" is often a set of instructions on writing, and most analysis centers on how emulate good writers (or, worse, how to get a good grade).

As I've been typing this post I've also realized something else: a scholar keeps intellectually progressing, but each time a new semester starts, a teacher is back to square one with his/her students. It's frustrating because each time a person thinks about something—even something as mundane as a semicolon or topic sentence—that person might theoretically come up with a new insight.

However, if you teach the same thing over and over, you come to new insights that you students probably won't have the time to get to.

One semester, for example, I asked my students to go out on campus and determine what the thesis statement was for various objects. A few of them got it, but I think for most of them the idea of "thesis statements" hadn't simmered long enough in their minds for them to see it as a metaphorical idea that can be applied to anything.

This worked better when we tried it at the art museum, but at some point it might be interesting to discuss the ideological implications of campus architecture or floral design, as exemplified by those things' theses. It's hard to do that in a writing class, and when you do you're often neglecting something practical that you're supposed to be teaching.

Ultimately, then, I guess writing curriculum can be modified to discuss some fascinating things, but if it's taken me years to come up with the ideas, a lot of young undergrads won't have the background to appreciate them (yet). Also, there is administrative pressure, in the form of predetermined texts and course structures, to give students a "skill set" that they can use elsewhere (like, God help us, in the business school). It was an eye-opening experience as a graduate instructor, and one that fundamentally changed my career goals.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Monday Movie: Million Dollar Baby

This month is Poetry Month. I have a blog about poetry that a wrote a few days ago and still need to post, but in the meantime, today's Monday Movie is... Million Dollar Baby.

If you've only heard of this movie, or if it's been a while since you watched it, you might be wondering what it has to do with Poetry Month. However, this movie is actually all about Yeats' poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfrey."

Superficially, Million Dollar Baby is about a female boxer, played by Hillary Swank, and her reluctant trainer, played by Clint Eastwood (who also directs the film). Morgan Freeman serves as the film's narrator, and the boxing gym's janitor.

Oddly, perhaps, Eastwood's character also studies Gaelic throughout the film and happens to enjoy Yeats. Once Swank's character begins competing as a boxer, he even givers her a Gaelic nickname, which endears her to fans across the world.

The Gaelic/Yeats connection, however, is more profound. Though only a few lines of "The Lake Isle of Innisfrey" are read in the movie, the themes between it and the film are highly analogous. In fact, I would almost call Million Dollar Baby an adaptation of the poem because it is essentially about the same thing. Eastwood's character (the protagonist) is even overtly driven by the poem.

In any case, it's a touching, if tragic, film that also is one of recent cinema's more successful uses of poetry. (You can read about a few more if you want in this poetry movie countdown that I wrote for Rhombus).

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Goodbye Academia Part 5: The Public Intellectual

I think that what I've been hoping to become as a result of my education, often without knowing it, is a public intellectual, or even a man of letters. And, basically, I see a successful public intellectual as being someone with the chops of an academic, but the charisma of a public figure. I see it as someone who thinks (and can write) as deeply as a professor, but who is also involved in the translation of those thoughts into the public consciousness.

And, despite some negative aspects to working in academia, there are definitely things I like about it, which I'd like to couple with non-scholarly publication and other work.

My understanding of what it takes to become a public intellectual is probably naive and biased. However, as far as I know, most professors don't regularly write commentary for newspapers or TV. Their books aren't praised for walking the line between academic and popular works. They aren't tapped to serve with politicians, or transition back and forth between academia and industries like, say, consulting (which theoretically should have a lot in common with the critical study rhetoric and texts).

In other words, most professors that I know tend to work almost exclusively within academia. And that's great.

But there is also a different kind of professor. At NYU for example, film professors listed publications in The Village Voice and The New York Times. Some of the professors I researched at USC and UCLA routinely serve as judges at well-known film festivals. Some of the English professors that I researched had more "public" work listed alongside their scholarship. (Herbert Blau, for example, at University of Washington, has worked in theater and fashion, but now also teaches in the University of Washington's English department.) The point here is that there are some people who write or produce both for academics, and others. (Stanley Fish, Wendell Barry, and Nigel Spivey are examples of people who have done this to one degree or another. An while I don't agree with everything they say, I do admire the venues available to them to say it.)

Obviously, the people who become public intellectuals are those who have risen to the top of their respective fields (with a lot of hard work). And, they also typically don't have those opportunities straight out of school. Yet, the another thing they seem to have in common is that they studied at, and then often worked at, really good schools. My conclusion: to become a public intellectual it's helpful to have an elite academic pedigree. Also, one has to aspire to that position. I think a lot of people are happy to simply teach and publish within their discipline. Which is cool of course. But others definitely hope for a more diverse work load.

Like I said, this is probably an incomplete vision of what it means to be an intellectual. It's certainly romanticized. But ultimately I don't think I'd be content teaching three or four classes a semester at a remote state school and publishing in Western Humanities Review or The Journal of American Culture for the next 30 years. (Both those journals are great ones that I used in my thesis.) I don't expect to have a regular column in The New York Times, but I'd like a career path that at least includes the possibility of public work/writing in addition to submitting work to academic journals. For most professors—and for whatever reason—it seems like those doors aren't just closed, they often don't exist at all.

So the point, it seems, is that like becoming, say, an astronaut, becoming a public intellectual requires a pretty specific career path. Without that path, the probability of reaching that goal is minuscule.

In my case, it was literally not until I began writing this series of blogs that I began to understand my own ambitions and goals, but as I look back on the choices I've made and the people I professionally admire, it seems obvious that I was looking for some balance between academia and public work (because I enjoy parts of both). Not surprisingly I suppose, as I've gravitated away from scholarship, I've moved toward journalism, which is in many ways the flip side of academia. Instead of emphasizing specialized writing, it's more populist and very general. It has a clear purpose, and reason for existing. Obviously it has it's own problems too, but without a degree from an elite university a choice likely has to be made between public work and scholarship, and I'm as surprised as anyone to find myself gravitating toward the former.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Goodbye Academia Part 4: The Work (Scholarship)

I'd like my career to be at least one of two things: fun, or meaningful. Ideally, it'd be both. And while I know that there are aspects to even the funnest and most meaningful jobs that are tedious and un-enjoyable, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect a career to have an overall net positive amount of fun and/or meaningful-ness. (Obviously many people, and perhaps myself in the future,have to work just to survive. Still, who doesn't want to have a job that offers more?)

In my last post of this series, I basically commented on the less-than-fun aspects of being a professor. But that leaves the question: is it meaning? Does it matter?

Increasingly, my answer to that question is "no." When I entered BYU's master's program I was very confident about the power of professors to shape society. They teach people, sure, but they also publish research that affects how people thing. To be honest, this aspect of the job excited me much more than teaching.

Yet as I researched, I became increasingly disillusioned with the academic publishing environment. Scholarly conferences were not only boring, but individual sessions were poorly attended. No one seemed to care. Scholarly journals weren't getting much more interesting, just because I was moving up in education status. Though I had frequently defended the relevance of humanities scholarship, by the time I was halfway through my master's degree I had completely lost faith in its ability to do anything but earn people tenure. In other words, it didn't seem to matter.

Basically, academic publishing in the humanities is, at best, a kind of trickle-down intellectualism. It supposes that there are a few experts who are qualified to explore certain topics, and that what they find will eventually (somehow) influence something. That's a really disheartening thing. It means that while most humanities scholars are politically liberal, they are among the most culturally conservative people I can think of. They are trying to conserve the past (literature, or other historic texts), and they are doing it by joining a small corps of power-holding elites. So it doesn't matter how many liberal issues they support, their career choices are literally the definition of conservatism.

Which has made me wonder: where is the populism? Where are the people who are so skeptical of power structures that they try to redistribute authority in academia?

The answer, of course, is that they're probably not academics. Or, if they are, they're exceptions to the rule. They probably don't publish as much, get denied tenure, and end up teaching at lesser institutions.

Or whatever. The point is that as I've come to see the academic publishing environment as more conservative, as well as less capable of affecting social change, I've become under-enthused about entering it.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Monday Movie: Annie Hall

Most people seem to have heard of Woody Allen, but a lot of people haven't seen very many (or any) of his films. Which I think is a real shame. Though Allen's films don't always play in the local cineplex, they're usually smart, witty, and highly entertaining. After putting for a little extra effort to watch his work, Allen has even become one of my favorite directors.

So, today's Monday Movie is... Annie Hall. If you're even remotely familiar with Woody Allen, this may well be the movie you've seen. If you're a fan, this recommendation might seem redundant, or even worthy of eye rolling (it's like telling a science fiction fan to check out Star Wars.)

However, this recommendation is specifically for people who aren't familiar with the director's work, which, sadly, seems to be a lot of people. The film is a romantic comedy, but one with a brain. Allen himself stars, along with Diane Keaton, who together make one of cinema's great on-screen couples.

Like all of Allen's work, Annie Hall is also highly inter-textual, constantly referencing literature, psychology, film history, philosophy, and other things. Yet even if you don't catch the many allusions in the movie, it's still a charming story about the ups and downs of love. It's also a great example of how Allen uses experimental techniques for comic effect.

So if you haven't seen Annie Hall, or if you just haven't seen it lately, get ready for an evening of neuroses, self-analysis, and hypochondria. And

, of course, hilarity.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

My Old Band, Winston McCoy

Though I usually try to refrain from posting things that are simply about myself without any other critical discussion, I've decided to share the video below. (And besides, this blog seems to be getting less and less discussion oriented and more and more about the stuff that I'm up to.)

Anyway, the video is of my band from many years ago. It's at the old Muse Music, in Provo, Utah, which was between the new Music Music and Velour (on University Ave). Also, it was a battle of the bands that night. We had three camera people filming us, and afterward I edited the whole thing into a DVD and we tried to sell it at our subsequent shows. Unfortunately, we didn't play all that many more shows after this, and we only ever sold one copy of the DVD. Still it had an awesome DVD cover (which I also made), and was very professionally done ;)

The last thing that's worth knowing is that at the end of the show, I smashed my guitar. It was epic. If you want to see the whole DVD, drop me a line. I typically force people to watch it all the time at my house, so I'd be more than happy to oblige you.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Goodbye Academia Part 3: The Work (Teaching)

In my last post about academia, I noted that the absurdity of the job market is one of the things that had deterred me from entering the profession. Another thing was the work itself. 

There are a couple of big things professors do: teach, and publish research. Obviously there are a lot of other, somewhat smaller things they do, but those are the biggies. In this post I'll talk about the teaching, and in the next post I'll tackle publishing and other aspects of the profession.

To begin, I should say that I love teaching. It's like putting on a performance. I love the kind of confident, self-deprecating humor that fits so well in the humanities classroom. I love when students run with a topic and actually seem engaged. Much of the time I also enjoy conferencing with students, particularly when we don't have to focus on specific assignments, but rather talk more abstractly about ideas.

Overall, I think I could be very happy being a teacher of English, film, and other humanities related topics. On the other hand, there are some terrible aspects of the job.

Like grading. I truly despise grading. I hate it because it's un-enjoyable, and I hate it because I don't like the idea of grades in the first place. My ideal university wouldn't concern itself with quantifiable measures of success like grades; rather people would learn what they want and be tested by how they apply their skills, debate their ideas, and critique their environment. 

Obviously that's overly utopian and simplistic (especially today, when education increasingly values "results" as opposed to learning), but that doesn't change the fact that hate to grade papers. Usually when I get papers I weigh the value of throwing them all away and telling my students they were incinerated in terrible car wreck on my way home (which I miraculously survived). I've never resorted to that, but the point is that grading is a big deterrent to becoming a teacher. 

More broadly, however, I've also been surprised at how different a student-teacher relationship looks from the latter position. As a student, I've always enjoyed debating and coming to new conclusions. In many ways, that was the only way I could learn. However, I didn't realize that the vast majority of student ideas are old news to teachers. (I think I understood this vaguely, but I didn't realize how quickly it got monotonous). 

When I was teaching English 150, for example, I'd read the textbook many, many times by my final semester. That meant that students reading it for the first time were going to have a hard time thinking of or saying something that I hadn't either heard or thought of first. Or that was even very interesting. 

That's not to say that it didn't happen, it just didn't happen that often. And, I don't think that's a reflection on my students. I had just been thinking about the topics for so much longer, and talked to so many more people about them, that it was rare for something new to come up in class or student-teacher conferences. 

I remember one time a student did come in to a conference with some amazing ideas. It was invigorating and we talked passionately and at length about those ideas. When the conference ended I was simultaneously exhilarated, but also wondered if I had crossed the line of what was appropriate; I had simply been sharing and debating opinions as a person, without objectivity and or any attention to how it helped the student with any particular task (I also momentarily ceased to be concerned with towing any particular party line—which was always a struggle at BYU—and was just honest about what I thought about things). 

The point is that my teachers have frequently opened my eyes to new ideas, but my students rarely have. Maybe that's my problem, I don't know. But that's the way things have gone. (My students at SLCC frequently amaze me, but that has more to do with their life stories and has little connection to what I'm actually supposed to be teaching them.) 

There are also other things about teaching that I don't want to do. For example, I dislike teaching writing and composition. I would actually have emphasized in rhetoric as a master's student at BYU, except that that option's most obvious career trajectory led to teaching writing classes. For me, the prospect of a life spent teaching First-year Writing or (worse) Advanced Writing was ineffably depressing. Many of my good friends have chosen that path and love it, but for some reason, I just don't.

So all in all, there are aspects of teaching that I like, and that I don't like. Like the job market, this fact led me only to apply to a few really good schools, because I felt that that decision would lead to a career in which I had more control over which classes I taught, how I taught them, and how often. On the other hand, if I was going to have to teach too many classes (and thus have more grading), or classes I dislike and/or fundamentally disagree with (like composition courses), I wasn't interested.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Monday Movie: The Ox Bow Incident

For many people, Westerns mean long, boring movies about cowboys. And the genre certainly has plenty of those. However, Westerns can also be taut, trilling explorations of social issues, which is the case in The Ox Bow Incident.

The film was made in 1943 (and is in black and white), and stars Henry Fonda. If you're not already into Westerns, that might sound like exactly the kind of movie that you don't want to watch.

Yet, the film also is about fear, paranoia, and mob mentality. It tells the story of a small town, plagued by cattle rustlers. Eventually, the town forms a posse and goes out to get the rustlers. When they find a few men camping outside of town, the posse decides they must be the thieves and decides to hang them. Much of the film's narrative revolves around the debate over the accused rustlers' innocence or guilt.

It's a timely film for today, because our society is still struggling with how to treat the accused, and how to avoid the problems of mob mentality. So if you want an intelligent introduction to the Western, or just another great film to watch, try The Ox Bow Incident.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Abortion Surprises

Probably as a result of the health care debate, I've been thinking about abortion lately. And as I thought about it, I was surprised to discover that my feelings on the issue aren't as strong as I imagined.

Here's where I stand: I don't think abortion is murder. I don't think that it should be illegal. I am opposed to overturning Roe vs. Wade. On the other hand, I don't think it's a particularly good thing. For the very few women I know who've had abortions, it was a traumatic and heart-wrenching experience. And while I don't think that abortion equates to killing an innocent baby, it certainly equates with terminating something that can become a baby. Basically, I'd rather see people use (and be educated about) contraceptives, hopefully to reduce the number of women who have to experience abortions.

More importantly, perhaps, abortion as a political topic is something I'd probably be willing to compromise on. I think something like health care (reform), which I support, is important enough to make concessions to people to the left and the right of my views about abortion.

Yet, for a little while there, abortion was a major reform stumbling block, mostly, it seemed, because it became a fundamental moral issue over which people on either side of the aisle supposedly could not compromise. Why is that?

What has surprised me about this whole thing is that I think I've been pushed left by those on the right. When people start yelling "baby killer" or insisting that "abortion is murder," my natural tendency is to adopt an equally firm stance. It's as if when people start trying to shove something down my throat, my natural reaction is to say "Fine. Screw you, I'll shove it right back, if that's how it's going to be."

In other words, the vehemence of anti-abortion movement has galvanized my attitudes about the topic and made me less willing to compromise. Unless I stop to very carefully consider my attitudes (which realistically I can't constantly do), and am removed from any anti-abortionist, I'm adamantly pro-choice. It's only after time and serious contemplation that I'm willing give and take.

This is obviously problematic for the anti-abortion movement because they're currently fighting the status quo (legalized abortion), yet for many people, screaming about morality is exactly the thing that pushes people away.

However, more broadly, I think that this type of situation occurs all the time. Overly zealous people on either side of the political spectrum get worked into a fervor, and as a result their opponents become equally inflexible. It's an interesting phenomenon, which obviously has implications in many areas. And while this is surely no new realization, I was surprised in the case of abortion to find that I don't have as many passionate feelings as I thought I did.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Goodbye Academia Part 2: The Job Market

I love studying and teaching, but I can't do it forever and still manage to pay the rent. That means that, unfortunately, the academic job market has been a factor in my PhD application process, and my recent drifting away from academia. Here are a few thoughts on a profession that is apparently scarce, not particularly high paying, and takes forever to qualify for. (read part 1 of this series here!)

First, getting a professorship in the humanities is really, really hard. And it's no better in film departments. Recently, a few friends of mine have circulated this article, which paints a pretty dire picture. It says that hiring of humanities professors may be down 40% this year, and that's on top of the already low hiring rates that were declining before the recession. (During one semester in BYU's master's program I took a class in which we spent at least a month studying academia and its job environment, among other things. My understanding from that course, and other things I've read, was that a few years ago about 40% of recent English PhD holders got jobs. More recently, I've heard that number drop to 20%.)

So that's pretty terrible. It's also one of the main reasons I only applied to prestigious schools. I figured that with a degree from NYU or UCLA, the chances of getting a job increased. Of course, my professors always noted that a motivated job seeker can distinguish him/herself no matter what school he/she attended. But realistically, if there are two job candidates that are equal, coming from a better school counts. And there are a lot more than two candidates who are equal. 

The other weird thing about this whole situation is how much time it takes to get through a PhD program (most of those I applied for claimed they took five years, though I know many professors who have taken longer to do theirs.) According to that article I linked to above, a lot of people finish with debt. And in some cases, a lot of debt. Many professors don't get paid that well either (especially considering that how long they've been in school), so the debt/money issue could continue to be a real problem for years to come.

This is another reason I only applied to a limited number of prestigious programs. All of them potentially offered funding, and if any of them accepted me without funding, I was prepared to decline. (With the exception, perhaps, of NYU, simply because it'd be great to study film in New York City.) 

Realistically, however, I didn't want to invest five or more years and a whole lot of borrowed money, only to spend many more years looking for an endangered-species-of-a-job. If I was going to do a PhD, I wanted better odds at having some security. Of course, I wasn't attracted to the profession by the money, but I was (and still am) growing tired of being a starving student. 

It's worth mentioning that there are other kinds of jobs for PhD grads. Read that article above for more info on things like adjunct teaching. I'm currently an adjunct, and while it's an interesting socio-cultural experience, it's no way to survive.  

Ultimately, then, I saw the PhD application process as a forerunner to the job application process; getting into a good school foreshadows, in my opinion, the possibility of getting a good job. Getting into a mediocre school or getting rejected, on the other hand, foreshadows getting a bad job, or none at all. There are exceptions to this pattern, but they are just that, exceptions. And I didn't want to bank on being an exception.