Friday, August 31, 2007

      A Little Gift from the Professor's Bag of Tricks

      I always appreciate it when colleagues of mine share from their bags of pedagogical tricks, so I thought I might pass on a recent experiment that generated an eminently "teachable moment" for me.

      I've just begin teaching the Iliad in my course, which is a small seminar-tpye class. Yesterday, I decided to utilize an exercise from John Bean's text Engaging Ideas that was distributed to all of the new faculty this year. (I should say that, as a general rule, I don't usually avail myself of such resources, but I am learning that this may be to my own detriment!) Bean suggests an exercise in the text that he calls the "Bio-Poem," which aids students in conducting character analyses. The format for the poem is as follows:

      LINE 1: Name of character

      LINE 2: Four traits that describe character

      LINE 3: Relative of (brother of, sister of, etc.) __________

      LINE 4: Lover of __________

      LINE 5: Who feels __________ (three items)

      LINE 6: Who needs _________ (three items)

      LINE 7: Who fears: _________ (three items)

      LINE 8: Who gives __________ (three items)

      LINE 9: Who would like to _________ (three items)

      LINE 10: Resident of __________

      LINE 11: Name

      Here's an example (from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov) that Bean offers for guidance:


      Cynical, bold, all knowing and fearless

      Friend of no one, peer of few.

      Lover of self, wisdom, and inconquerable knowledge.

      Who feels neither pity not compassion nor the love of God.

      Who needs no man, save for himself.

      Who fears the kiss that warms the heart

      And the coming tide which will not retreat.

      Who radiates cold shafts of broken glass

      And who fits all mankind with collar and chain.

      Who would like to see the deceivers burned

      And Christ humbled before him.

      Resident of ages past.

      The Grand Inquisitor.

      I had my students work collectively on the poem. For each line, I let them toss out ideas for what was most appropriate, then decide together on which to keep and which to throw away, while I stood at the front of the room and recorded the poem on the board. Here's what they came up with for Achilles:


      Proud, godlike, selfish and enraged.

      Son of immortal and mortal, brother to his Myrmidons.

      Lover of honor, glory and Patroclus,

      "Lover" of Briseis.

      Feels the fire of vengeance, the sting of unacknowledgment, the grief of loneliness.

      Needs combat, confrontation and, ultimately, recognition.

      Who fears slipping into unknown oblivion and

      The war that has no place for him.

      Who gives to his comrades in battle confidence, but also pause.

      Who would like to strike the blow that inspires epics.

      Resident of Greece's battlefields.


      Thursday, August 30, 2007

      Haute Couture

      I was inivted to attend a dinner this week that was a rather important College-related affair. On the invitation, it specified "Coat and Tie" as the dress code for the men. Of course, no such specific instructions were given for the women who would be attending, which I quickly learned caused much Sturm und Drang for many of them.

      At least a half-dozen times in the last few days, I've had one of my female colleagues poke her head in my office and ask "So what are YOU wearing to the dinner?" Now, this was pretty funny to me (as I am sure it is to those of you who know me at all) as I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a fashionista. My professional wardrobe, in sum, consists of your standard black, grey and khaki pants accented by a collection of mostly forgettable and largely conservative tops. I never wear skirts or dresses-- in fact, I no longer even own any skirts or dresses--and although I would not say that my "style" (s'il en y a) is exactly androgynous, it most certainly is nondescript. In short, I am not the sort of person that should come to mind when you are wondering who to ask for fashion advice. Not in any way.

      Nevertheless, the dinner invitation did present a interesting dilemma. What is expected of women at a "coat and tie" event? I presume that in the business world this almost certainly means that the women are expected to wear skirts/dresses... but in academia, fortunately, most people are progressive enough to know better than to insist on that. (You won't be surprsed to learn, I am sure, that most of the women at the dinner were in dresses and heels, by the way.) So, I wanted to take a straw poll among (both male and female) readers of this blog: How would you have interprested the dress code for the women?

      Monday, August 27, 2007

      Man Love

      As I mentioned a little while ago, I am in the process of teaching The Epic of Gilgamesh. One of the themes we are concentrating on in my seminar this semester is "friendhip," so the relationship between the epic's two protagonists, Gilgamesh and Enkidu (pictured above), is a wonderful example with which to begin. Our next text is Homer's Iliad, in which we will follow the equally beautiful, equally tragic friendship between Achilles and Patrochlus. Of course, these stories are epics, so the friendships we are discussing are between larger-than-life men: strong, powerful, beautiful, and heroic men.

      However, as many of you will remember, the love that fuels those friendships is often romantic, even erotic. It is almost impossible to discuss the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu without discussing the obvious homoeroticism. Gilgmesh has two dreams foreshadowing Enkidu's entry into his life, which his mother interprests as the coming of someone who will not only be Gilgmesh's equal, but whom Gilgamesh will "love like a wife." The first encounter between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is a passionate wrestling match, which ends abrubtly when the two embrace, kiss and decide that they are to be friends. And Gilgamesh's profound despair after the death of the friend he loved so dearly spurs him on to farthest reaches of the earth (and beyond) to seek his own immortality.

      Pretty much ditto for Achilles and Patroclus.

      I am amazed at the way that my students, in general, do not balk in any way at this passionate love affair between men in epic literature. Their reaction, or lack thereof, flies in the face of many studies concerning the contemporary tolerance (or lack thereof) of homosexual relationships. Those studies tell us that the hardest thing to overcome in the pursuit of gay rights is "the ick factor"-- that is, the unconscious, automatic revulsion at the very idea of homosexuality. Otherwise tolerant and even liberal people often cannot bring themselves to advocate gay rights because, once their imaginations are activated, they can only picture homosexuality in the basest of images.

      The dissonance between my students' reactions to man-love of the "epic" sort and their reaction to the mention of it between their contemporaries illustrates an interesting, and pervasive, characteristic of modern homophobia. Homosexual relationships have been so over-sexualied that it is almost impossible for some people to consider any of the other factors that figure into human partnerships-- love, trust, compassion and friendship, tenderness and mercy. I wonder what it would take to re-shape the collective imagination of homosexuality, such that it is not immediately reduced to the sexual act. I hope that working through texts like Gilgamesh and the Iliad aid a bit in that transformation. These are beautiful, and ultimately heartbreaking, stories of love-- love so powerful that the (gender-)identity of the lovers seems to melt into the background.

      Here's hoping we can encourage a lot less "icks"... and a lot more "awwwwws".

      Thursday, August 23, 2007

      Have I mentioned that it's HOT?

      Still registering over 100 degrees every day here in Memphis. My own heat-related misery was coumpounded in 2 ways yesterday, leading me to believe that the end (or my end, anyway) is nigh.

      First, we had Convocation yesterday afternoon. It was about 107 degrees when the "procession" started, during which we make about a quarter-mile march outdoors. And, yes, that was a procession IN FULL ACADEMIC REGALIA!! Now, I was actually excited to be wearing my funny-PhD-outfit for the first time, but that was only because I wasn't aware that the regalia is made out of some material clearly designed for participating in the Iditarod. Which leads me to wonder... why IS academic regalia so hot and heavy to wear? I mean, for the most part, one only wears the full regalia in August and May (for Convocation and Commencement)-- neither of which are cool-weather months. Those things are hot, hot, HOT!

      Then, to add insult to injury, I discovered after returning home last evening that my downstairs AC wasn't running. It wasn't yet scorching hot in my house, so I think it must have gone kaput sometime in the late afternoon, but I had to sleep without it last night. Ugh. Needless to say, this is NOT a good time to try to contact an AC repairman, since the weeks of 100+ weather have wreaked havoc on everyone's AC. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I can get someone today (which is supposed to only reach a tame 105 degrees).

      Please, please cross your fingers, too.

      Tuesday, August 21, 2007

      I Love Roller Derby

      I went to my first Roller Derby match last weekend. It was a double-header-- the Women of Mass Destruction vs. The Angels of Death, followed by the Legion of Zoom vs. the PrissKilla Presleys. I expected it to be campy and entertaining, which it was, but what I didn't expect was to learn that this was a serious sport, which it definitely is. Incidentally, my commencement ceremony was supposed to be that night... but, hey, if you're going to miss getting "hooded" for your PhD, what better thing to be doing instead than sitting at the Roller Derby!

      It took me about 45 minutes to figure out the nuances of Roller Derby ("pivots" have the stripes on their helmets, "jammers" have the stars, and only the "lead jammer" can call off a jam), but once I understood the basics, I was hooked. These women are no-joke athletes. The bouts consist of two 20-minute rounds, and this is a full-contact sport. During the second bout, my friends and I sat in the "suicide seating" (so-named because spectators sit very close to the action on the "curve" of the rink, and are in danger of being mauled by Derby girls if they spill outside of the regulation field of play, which they often do).

      Of course, it is also campy. All of the players have alter-egos (one of my friends is named Cleopatra Bones, other sobriquets include Smashimi, Ragin' Caucasian, Lynn Sanity, Wheelie Wonka, etc.). And, yes, they do dress rather provocatively. There's a slightly profane but otherwise hilarious MC who calls the action and keeps the crowd going. You can check it all out at the Memphis Roller Derby league site. The Derby girls come from all walks of life-- college kids, moms, professionals. And the teams have even adopted little kids as "mascots," whose job it is to skate around during the breaks wearing the team colors and flying the team flag. Soooo cute.

      I encourage you all to find out if you have Roller Derby in your town. You won't be sorry.

      Sunday, August 19, 2007

      Older, even if not Wiser and Better-Looking

      August 19- a good day for babies. 1973- a very fine vintage. As it just so happens, that was my birthday. August 19th is also the birthday of Bill Clinton, Orville Wright, Ogden Nash, Fred Thompson, Christian Slater, Tipper Gore and John Stamos. And the same day that Groucho Marx died. Heady times, indeed.

      I've retired my poofy-sleeved dress (pictured, left) and I probably won't be showing as much leg as I did in my younger years, but the Big Day has come again and I will somehow mark the occasion. Diabetes prevents me from eating birthday cake, but I can still blow out the (now, quite numerous) candles and make a wish. Here's what I wish for my birthday:

      1. I WISH for a break in the heat here in Memphis. It's been 12 days (and counting) of over 100 degree heat, but there's a chance that today we may have a "cool" snap, with the high temperature reaching an almost frigid 99 degrees.

      2. I WISH that I don't trip and fall on the way into my first class on Wednesday.

      3. I WISH, once again, for somebody to find a cure for diabetes.

      4. I WISH for a book contract before my birthdy next year.

      5. I WISH that John Edwards would be elected our next President.

      6. I WISH for world peace... or at least peace of mind for myself.

      7. I WISH for the next year of my life to be happily uneventful.

      That's probably enough. Here's to all the fellow-Leos out there!

      Friday, August 17, 2007

      Promesse d'honneur

      I've been immersed in the long "orientation" process for the past week. Although much of that process is tedious and mind-numbing, I found at least one part particularly interesting. My new academic home operates on an Honor System, something that used to be de rigeur for liberal arts colleges, but is unfortunately not so much anymore.

      Our Honor System includes three pledges: an Honor Code, a Social Regulations Code, and a Commitment to Diversity. Violations of the Honor System are interpreted and adjudicated by an Honor Council, comprised entirely of students elected by their peers. By all accounts, everyone takes the Honor System very seriously here. I've spoken to several alums over the past couple of months, and not one has failed to mention the Honor System. And one of the first things I noticed on campus was the fact that students regularly leave their valuables (purses, bookbags, laptops, etc.) lying around, which was both a major departure from my experience at large state schools and probably the best testament to the effiacy of the Honor System here.

      It's interesting to be around young people who have a concrete sense of what their "honor" is, what it's worth, and what needs to be done to maintain its integrity. I have often found, when teaching ethical theory for example, that it is very difficult to talk about "virtue" or any of the particular virtues (generosity, modesty, piety, courage, temperance, etc.) , as students tend to hear these terms as ambiguous categories with no concrete referents. The Honor System, it seems to me, reinforces Aristotle's claim that virtues must be practiced in order to be known. The students here pledge their honor at the beginning of their first year, and they affix their sugnatures to that pledge, which is on public display in one of our main buildings. Similarly, they must "pledge" every assignment and test that they turn in for classes. They are constantly reminded of the value of their honor and constantly given opportunities to become proper practitioners of phronesis.

      Now, the cynical Sartrean in me suspects that there is more shame than virtue at work here. When students pledge their honor, they become like Sartre's voyeur in Being and Nothingness, who hears a bump in the hallway as he peeps through the keyhole and is ashamed, not because he is actually caught, but because intersubjectivity always implies the potential to be caught (to be "looked at" instead of being the one "looking"). The Foucaultian in me also suspects that the Honor System is yet another disciplinary practice which allows institutions to exercise the power they need to be "institutions," that is, the power to produce the kinds of subjects who reproduce the power that produced them.

      But, I'm intentionally repressing those cynical alter-egos in favor of the Derridean in me, who thinks that constantly making promises (and placing them in the public trust) is a fine way of making a better world. And I want to ask: did any of you attend schools with an Honor System? What was your experience of it?

      Thursday, August 16, 2007


      As you probably know, today marks the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley's (alleged) death.

      Some say: The King is Dead.

      I say: Long live the King!

      Monday, August 13, 2007


      I have to give props to one of my friends, who will remain nameless for reasons of professional interest, for the following insight.

      There's an old saying that goes: "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime. At SPEP, the aim is neither to give a man a fish nor to teach a man to fish, but just to convince a man that 'fishing' is cool."

      As much as I hate to admit it, I didn't have to ask my friend to explain what he meant. I've definitely seen my share of the pomp-and-circumstance papers at conferences of late. Whole lot of thunder, whole lot of lightning... no rain.

      But there is an even more specific variety of critique that I think he was aiming at, and that is a criticism of a certin "cult of personality" philosophy. To be an expert at this, one needs only to intimate a profound observation, to gesture toward or call into question or (my favorite) to problematize a particular theme or concept, in order to draw attention to it, but without actually saying anything substantial about it. To go back to the fishing analogy, it's as if these people aren't really aware of the fact that somebody might be hungry and might actually need the fish. Or they don't care. Either way, it's all about the presentation of the illusion of serious thought. (See my post on "The Prestige" for elaboration.)

      So, let me state my position clearly. Fishing is, in fact, cool. But it's only cool because it's a way to catch fish. If you're going to take the meat out of the equation, you might as well be standing on the riverbank picking your nose.


      Saturday, August 11, 2007

      A Knock at the Door

      This morning, I had my first evangelists come to the door. Well, not the first in my life, but the first since I've been back in Memphis. I have to say that I was feeling a bit neglected, as such visits are pretty much standard fare around these parts, and I didn't understand how my house kept getting missed for the almost 3 months I've been back.

      But there they were: a man (early- to mid-fifties I would guess, with a winning smile a a beautiful head of salt-and-pepper hair) and what I presume were his two children. The daughter was probably 13 or 14, with a blonde ponytail and a forced smile; the son was perhaps 11, totally distracted, a little funny-looking in that way that pre-teens are, but with a perfectly-frayed St. Louis Cardinals cap that he wore a bit too far down over his brow. Dad did all the talking-- quick, amiable prose with an inviting tenor to it-- and Son and Daughter dutiful stood by, waiting for their cue to hand me one of the dozens of pre-printed cards in their hands.

      They were Baptists, from a huge church around the corner that, I happen to know, my neighbors across the street attend. We get all kinds of door-to-door evangelists here, not just Jehovah's Witnesses like a lot of places. (We do get JW's, too.) One thing that I like about the Baptists' visits is that they are always brief, really friendly, and the people are usually relatively wholesome in appearance, even good-looking. Dad told me that if I didn't already have a worship home, they would love to have me come join them at theirs. Son and Daughter smiled and nodded, as if they just realized that Dad had made a really good suggestion like "I think we should order in pizza tonight." I thanked them for stopping by and told them to stay cool, because even at 10:30 am it was already pushing over 100 degrees. The card they gave me, which I didn't look at until after they left, read:

      "The purpose of Union Avenue Baptist Church is to GLORIFY GOD by becoming an AUTHENTIC BIBLICAL COMMUNITY that KNOWS CHRIST and MAKES HIM KNOWN."

      I wondered how many people were on the committee that constructed that copy. Then I imagined an older woman on the committee who had just been introduced to computers and who believed that writing things in CAPS was the best way to indicate importance and not, as her grandchildren insisted, the graphic equivalent of yelling. I think everyone else on the committee probably knew she was wrong on that one, but maybe she had been in the church for a long time and made a large contribution to the newly constructed Recreation and Outreach Center in the name of her late husband, who was a retired pastor. I wondered how an AUTHENTIC BIBLICAL COMMUNITY might define itself, and whether or not there was secretly a Heideggerean on the committee. Then I laughed at the idea of a Southern Baptist Heideggearean, though I knew in my heart that there must be one somewhere, perhaps even a lot of them, but probably not enough to make a community.

      My father was a preacher and sometimes, near the end of his sermons, as the clock was quickly approaching noon and the congregation was getting restless, he used to say something like: "And this is my last point, because I know we need to get out of here in order to beat the Baptists to the white meat." I always thought that was hilarious. But I realized at some point in my life that I subconsciouly associated all Baptists with the breast and wing parts of fried chicken. And I wondered if, in the mysterious operations of their church services, they secretly plotted to get out a few minutes early in order to beat the rest of us to the good stuff. Of course, if that was true, they would suffer no consequences for this vice, as we all know that Southern Baptists believe "once saved, always saved." I think I resented Baptists for that.

      So, I want to say to my visitors this morning that I must respectively decline your invitation. You're nice folks, really, and I'm sure you are doing your best to become an AUTHENTIC BIBLICAL COMMUNITY... but the thing is, sadly, fried chicken is a limited resource. We're all doing our best to get ours.

      Tuesday, August 07, 2007

      Must... Have... Siesta

      It is hotter than hell here right now. Hotter than Georgia asphalt. Hotter than a harlot in church. Hotter than a June bride in a feather bed. Hotter than the devil's underwear. Hotter than a $2 pistol on the Fourth of July.

      It's August in Memphis. It's hot. And it's humid, so the heat is swampy hot. Oppressive.

      The heat index yesterday was 106 degrees, and it is supposed to reach 110 today. The overnoght "lows" are still in the 80's. I suppose that most people have at some point in their lives felt over-100-degree heat. But if you've never lived in a place where those temperatures are sustained for days, and weeks, on end, then I'm not sure that you can really appreciate the misery of it. When August arrives in Memphis, it's almost as if you can hear a collective groan and see people steeling themselves for the "dog days" ahead. Everyone knows it's going to miserable and everyone knows it's going to be long, and everyone knows that there's nothing that can be done about it. I mean, it's over a hundred degrees outside! (Just wanted to repeat that for added emphasis.) Most people I know, around this time of year, are forced to walk out of the room during the weather forecast part of the evening news. The forecast is always the same: many, many more days of the same. I feel sorry for the TV weather guys-- they look so sorry and so pitiful. There are definitely days when, in the futility of it all, I want to shoot the messenger myself.

      There was a story on NPR this morning on the merits of the siesta. It turns out that, earlier this year, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health studied Greeks and found that those who partake in the afternoon nap have a lower risk of heart disease. And, similarly, scientists at the University of Manchester have found neurological benefits to the siesta. Neither of these studies has much to do with the heat of the afternoon, but rather the finer points of the biological process known as the postprandial dip. So, let me offer another argument in praise of the siesta.

      When it gets as hot as is does here in August, you can't move. You can't think. You can't even breathe since the air is so thick that it feels like you could cut it with a knife. In the afternoons here in Memphis, people just scurry from one air-conditioned refuge to another. And, even still, there is no AC system adequate to counter the raging beast outside. So, I say, take a nap... and dream of cooler places.

      We Southerners could take a pointer or two from our sub-tropical comrades in the "global" South. As it says in the Good Book:

      And when ye see the south wind blow, ye say, There will be heat; and it cometh to pass

      Sunday, August 05, 2007

      Our Town

      Robert Gordon (author of one of my favorite books, It Came from Memphis) once said that Memphis "could be easily mistaken for a town of doughnut shops and churches." So, I've decided to apply Gordon's formulation to the other places I've lived. If you cuurently live, or have previously lived, in any of the following places, I'm open to suggestions for perfecting the formula!

      Nashville... could be easily mistaken for a town of manufactured heartbreaks and big hair.

      Boston... could be easily mistaken for a town of victims of cosmic injustice who drown their sorrows in beer and victims of cosmic injustice who want to fight you about it.

      Syracuse... could be easily mistaken for a town of trucks with snow-shovels attached to the front and the nasty, massive piles they produce.

      Hartford... could be easily mistaken for a town of NYC/Boston commuters and people who know how to make a chile relleno properly.

      Philadelphia... could be easily mistaken for a town of Eagles/Phillies/Sixers fans and second-class citizens.

      State College... could be easily mistaken for a town.

      So where are you? And what could your town be easily mistaken for?

      Wednesday, August 01, 2007

      Women: Know Your Limits!

      This may be one of the most hilarious things I've ever seen. But, then again, I tend not to know my limits...