On Twitter as a Tool for Discussion and Intellectual Suppression

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Inspired by a symposium on digital publishing I attended before the semester began, I’ve been experimenting with using Twitter to facilitate reading discussions in my writing about literature course. As of today, we’ve live-tweeted performances of five stories: Carson McCullers’ “The Jockey,” John Updike’s “A&P,” Aimee Bender’s “Tiger Mending,” Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” and the first half of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” With four of these stories, I was able to find live readings and broadcast them in class. Continue reading “On Twitter as a Tool for Discussion and Intellectual Suppression”

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Better Than I Was the Last Time: Another Open Letter

Dear People:

Last year, I wrote an open letter to my literature students. It’s the most read item on this site by a significant stretch. I suspect some folks in my discipline may assign it to graduate students as evidence of an embittered teacher taking to the Internet when he should have cooled his heels. Perhaps some teachers of undergraduates assign because it yields some helpful nuggets of wisdom. Still others may be teachers themselves. These guesses embody one of the great fears (and thrills) of writing in the electronic age: I can’t know why people read it. Some folks, somewhere, could be passing it around to one another cracking jokes at my expense. That’s how the Internet works.

Please know that this letter has never quite sat right. Every time I reexamine it, I try to decode who I was as a writer and a teacher at the time. It has some decent jokes, some missed opportunities, a line of thinking that I never quite finish. My relationship with this piece is complex, especially since I can say with the benefit of site statistics that nothing I’ve ever written has been read as much.

For the purposes of this new open letter, however, I’m must condemn it.

Continue reading “Better Than I Was the Last Time: Another Open Letter”

Homemade or Canned?

What’s a “canned” response?

I apply the same rubric to the writing submitted in all of my classes. Be it an upper division course in contemporary literary theory, or a first year course in writing about literature, the criteria doesn’t change: writing must have a strong central claim, authoritative and reliable evidence, that evidence must be organized, and the text must be presentable to an outside audience. Those are the four categories, rated on a scale from one to four, one being unsatisfactory, four being excellent.

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Blame My Grandpa for How I Judge You

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I can’t think of books without thinking of my grandfather. The persistence of his image, a man after work motionless except for his fingers flipping pages, fascinates me on a psychological level for a number of reasons. First, I’m a college professor in an English department. My profession is books: the reading of them, the writing of them, the love and appreciation of them. I wonder how many of us think of our grandparents (or parents, or siblings) as the genesis of our professions, how many of us withstand the memory of someone we admired and loved, and then get into the business of our livelihoods. I wonder how we could graph the connections and intersections between these pivotal personalities and how invested we are in our professions. Because I’m deeply invested in the business of books. And my days begin and end with reading and memories of my grandfather. Continue reading “Blame My Grandpa for How I Judge You”

Why Breaking Bad is So Damn Scary

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SPOILER WARNING: The following essay hits on some pivotal plot points in the television show Breaking Bad, including the most recent season. Proceed with caution.

Last Sunday night, Breaking Bad culminated the first half of its series-ending fifth season. Since the consensus is that it is the best show on television—despite the fact that watching it is an often challenging, uncomfortable experience—we have received no shortage of critical and popular dissection of its impact and where it’s heading. One of the more fascinating treatments recently appeared in The New Inquiry. And depending on one’s political and aesthetic response to dramatic television, its argument is as good a place as any to pose the question of what exactly Breaking Bad is about. Is it a pulpy post-neo-noir potboiler divided into over fifty hours? Is it an exposé of the failures of America’s drug war? Is it forwarding a neo-liberal corporatist vision of 21st-century globalization?

To have Malcolm Harris tell it, Breaking Bad is yet another example of popular Eurocentric media selling cars and the civilizing power of white men.

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The Swinging Sounds of the Dying South: The Bohannons’ Dystopian Unaka Rising

Over the last five years, the American South became the setting du jour for serialized television shows about monsters and the end of the world. The inevitability of this marriage should come as no surprise. The ubiquity of vampires, zombies, and serial killers may be traced to a popular obsession with the supernatural and macabre that dates back at least to the late eighteenth century. The haunted American South’s many mysteries and transgressions aligned with this trajectory in the mid-twentieth century to spawn Southern Gothicism, tales of strange, broken, oddly beautiful people trying to keep it together below the Mason-Dixon. Continue reading “The Swinging Sounds of the Dying South: The Bohannons’ Dystopian Unaka Rising”

Why We Can’t Have an Incredible Hulk

While preparing to endure the ultimate battle/destruction sequence of the summer superhero juggernaut that is The Avengers, I was stricken by how giddy I was to witness the Hulk, at this moment of his twisted cinematic existence, in action. I shouldn’t have been giddy, of course. By this point we’ve seen a fraction this Hulk’s wrath already—he’d torn his way through the S.H.I.E.L.D mothership and launched his angry fists into the nose of a feeble American fighter jet.  The film has been more or less one ludicrous battle sequence after the next. I’m way past the age whereby climactic explosions and frenetic editing get me all that revved up, especially in doses this concentrated.

But here we are: the new Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) rides up on a puttering motorcycle ready to contribute to the war with… whatever the hell they are. Chris Evans’s overly righteous and perfectly vanilla Captain America suggests it might be the right time for Banner to get angry. And Banner says something akin to “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry.” Continue reading “Why We Can’t Have an Incredible Hulk”

Plugs

Big fan of podcasts here on threat+constraint. This June will mark the one-year anniversary of our obsession with WTF with Marc Maron. This is a fantastic listen for so many reasons, particularly for those engaged in creative endeavors. Try last October’s conversation with Steve Almond. His music taste is impeccable and the commentary on the contemporary conditions of the life of the mind is top-notch. If you’re not in the mood for high-minded discussion about the purposes of art in a socioeconomic dystopia of wastrels, check out last month’s interview with Danny McBride. His tales of of pre-fame in the south and L.A. are hilarious.

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Better Than You Were the Last Time: An Open Letter to All College-Level Writers, Particularly Those Writing About Literature

Writing is hard. Writing about literature is harder. The latter takes attention, a modicum of good taste, a familiarity with the world, and a tendency to empathize many of you simply haven’t developed yet. Most of your instructors don’t expect you to be very good at this.

We do expect you to do your best, however. And the best you can do is to read, to practice, and to improve.

But you have to at least try. And here’s where we get into trouble.

Continue reading “Better Than You Were the Last Time: An Open Letter to All College-Level Writers, Particularly Those Writing About Literature”

Where All It Ever Does is Rain: On the Album That Ruined Springsteen

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First off, an explanation of the title of this essay: only in the hallowed halls of rock snobbery could a multi-platinum effort with seven top-ten hits destroy an artist’s credibility. Such is the case with Born in the U.S.A.,which  launched The Boss into mainstream superstardom and rebranded a marginal rock icon so he could rub elbows with the Madonnas and Princes of the MTV generation. It has also become the album most detractors cite as the barrier to their “getting” Springsteen, the album even the most avid Springsteen defenders will throw to the wolves, and the album that precipitated Springsteen’s leanest years as a legitimate artistic force in rock music.

Continue reading “Where All It Ever Does is Rain: On the Album That Ruined Springsteen”