Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dr. J's 2013 Year in Music

Today, I begin my annual Year in Review lists for 2013.  (If you're feeling nostalgic, you can check out my past lists for the 2010 Year in Review, 2011 Year in Review and 2012 Year in Review.)  I make several lists every December, but almost every year, the Music list is my favorite to compose.  That said, unfortunately, I have to count this year as a notable exception.  For reasons I can't quite explain, this just wasn't a big year for music.  Not for me, at least.  Looking back, I found that there were only a handful of albums released in 2013 that made me sit up and take notice, and very few of those were ones that, I suspect, will stand the test of time. That's not to say, of course, that there weren't plenty of songs that found their way onto my regular playlists, but rather that they did so independent of their album's cohorts.

As a consequence, I've decided to amend my usual practice of including only albums on this year-end Music list.  Instead, I'm listing singles, because imho 2013 offered up a lot of really great singles on otherwise ho-hum albums. (Don't worry, though, I'll let you know in what follows if the whole album is worth a listen.)  In no particular order, here are my picks for the Best of the 2013 Year in Music.

Justin Timberlake, "Drink You Away"
My hometown Memphian JT's The 20/20 Experience is most definitely one of the exceptions to my 2013 no-albums proviso.  This is an amazing album that hits on all cylinders: pop, rock, soul, R&B... that is to say, in every single way that 901 music does and always has hit. One of the things that I love about JT is that, despite his former boy-band-cum-Disney career path, he's never totally let go of his River City roots.  For those of you who may not know, Memphis has always been a bona fide melting pot of musical genres and talents.  We're not Nashville, Chicago, Austin, New York or L.A.-- by which I mean, among other things, that we're not a town where talented musicians go to make it big-- but Memphis is, and will always be, the town that talented musicians have to at least pass through to be the bona fide talented musicians that they are.  The 20/20 Experience is chock-full with chart-toppers, to be sure, but my personal favorite is "Drink You Away," which is sooooo gritty, gutsy, raw and pathos-laden that it might as well be the theme song of each and every Memphian:

Pink ft. Nate Ruess, "Just Give Me A Reason"
If you picked two vocalists for whom I have a totally pathological adoration, Pink and (Fun. frontman) Nate Ruess would be the two.  Generally speaking, I don't count myself among the sentimental types, but "Just Give Me A Reason," by these two, absolutely gutted me the first time I heard it.  And, to its credit, has done so over and over again every single time I hear it again.  No kidding, I would put this song in the same category as Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and Willie Nelson's "You Were Always on My Mind" and (what is, in my view, the saddest song ever written) Sugarland's "Very Last Country Song."  All that is to say, this song accomplishes everything that is wrong about love in every way that is right about music and songwriting.  There is very little more desperately and fundamentally empathy-inspiring to anyone who has ever loved than the lyric "just give me a reason" why it cannot be so.  Alas, were it the case that broken loves are only just bent:

Lorde, "Royals"
It took me a minute to love this song, which I was initially suspicious of because it was just sooo damn catchy, but then I looked up the lyrics and completely got on board.  (Also, for the record, Lorde's entire album Pure Heroine is worth every every minute.)  This song, in particular, is such a welcome relief from the diamond-bling commodity fetishism of most pop music.  Special kudos to Lorde for making a virtuous attempt to recalibrate our desires.  Some of us, anyway, crave a different kind of buzz, f'real.

yoncé, "Pretty Hurts"
So, I haven't spent enough time with
Beyoncé's album, which was only "surprise"-released just this last week, to know whether or not I can recommend the whole album just yet... but I can reccomend, without any hesitation whatsoever, her single "Pretty Hurts."  Beyoncé, perhaps the prettiest human alive, has clearly disavowed the merits of that particular quality of hers on this album and, what is more and better, has also distinguished herself as the closest anything pop music has ever produced to a bona fide feminist.  Who runs the world?  Queen Bey,

Katy Perry, "Roar"
I still can't decide what I really think about Katy Perry on the whole, but daaaa-yuumn can she produce some catchy hooks.  Her song that, despite myself, I could not get out of my head this year was "Roar," the chart-topping hit off her album PRISM.  I'll admit that this has been a tough year for me, and so I was particularly vulnerable to the draw of empowering anthems like Perry's "Roar."  C'mon though, you gotta admit it, sometimes we all just need to proclaim that we are champions, and you're gonna hear us roar.

Daft Punk, "Get Lucky"

This couldn't even count as a  2013 "best of" 2013 list, really, without Daft Punk's "Get Lucky."  I, however, have a personal story about this one. This summer, I was filming a documentary about Memphis musicians, which required me to spend roughly 12hrs a day/night on Beale Street.  Almost every single day when I left my apartment to go down to Beale, and every single night when I left Beale, I kid you not, the moment I got into my car and turned the key, Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" was on the radio.  So, as fun and carefree as the song is, it will forever remind me of the long, hard days and nights of documentary filming that I endured (and, tbh, enjoyed) this summer.  And. by virtue of that, it will forever remind me of the summer of 2013:

Lady Gaga, "Applause"
After three years of humming and hawing about it, I'm now ready to say for the record that I think Lady Gaga is a genius.  Her newest album, ARTPOP, is not her best in my view, but that's a far shot from a bad review.   Lady Gaga is nothing short of a meta-pop artist, and "Applause" is, above all, evidence of her meta-pop-consciousness.  The first time I heard this song, I could not help but think that it reminded me of the first time I heard Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt"... by which I mean, I thought to myself: "I know when you sang this you didn't mean it." There's a part of me that knows that Lady Gaga really does live for the applause, but hardly (I hope) in the way that this song communicates.  Rather, I suspect she lives more for the anti-applause, whatever that may be:

Pitbull, "Everybody F*cks"
It's only been in the last few years that I've really found myself moved by what generically falls under the genre of "house" music.   I spent more than my share of nights in dance clubs in my 20's, but I've for the most part steered clear of them since. (And, fwiw, I'm inclined to think that kids in their 20's do as well.)  Whatevs.  I ain't too old to push back the furniture and crank up a track like this at home when I've got enough party people in the house.  There are a lot of "f*ck it, it feels right" songs out there, I know, but this is the best one of 2013.  Buh-leeee-dat.

Kanye West, "Blood On the Leaves"

In my experience, anyway, there are people who like Kanye West and people who don't (understand him).  On whatever side of that fence you find yourself, you've got to appreciate this bizarro historical mash-up of Kanye's version of (what Frantz Fanon would call) l'expérience vécu du Noir and Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit." This song is such a strange fruit itself, the product of a tree deeply rooted in the long history of African-American hope and desperation and cultural schizophrenia.  I can't put into words, exactly, why I continue to believe that Kanye is a genius, but it's at least in part due to his absolutely balls-to-the-wall, uninhibited, uncensored and unrestrained parrhesia, evidenced in no small part in this song. I'm still acclimating myself to the rest of the Yeezus album, and I can't at the moment recommend the whole, but this is a track that easily made it to the top of y 2013 list:

So, that's it for my picks for 2013.  Friends of mine will notice, I'm sure, that I didn't list any country or roots albums/songs this time around, but I won't make any apologies.  These were the tracks that kept Dr. J moving and shaking this year, for better or worse.  As always, though, please let me know what I missed in the comment section below.

Next up: 2013 Year in Politics

Friday, December 13, 2013

Grading War Letters to Home, Day 9

These are the letters from the ninth (and final) day of the Grading War.  If you landed here by accident and don't know what you're reading, click here for the backstory.

One last note:  this whole #GradingLetterstoHome adventure was great fun, and a very welcome relief from the drudgery of grading.  Thanks to Marcus Battle for coming up with the idea in the first place, and special thanks to my fellow letter-writers over the last week or so: Charles McKinney (Rhodes College), Susan Satterfield (Rhodes College), Art Carden (Samford University), Zeke Leonard (Syracuse Univeristy) and Marcus Langford (University of Cincinnati-Blue Ash).  To of all my Civil War-enthusiast friends, I want to say for the record that I am aware that real wars are brutal and cruel, and that grading is a misfortune of an entirely different ilk.  To my students, I want to say for the record that I do not think that you are the Opposition.  To everyone unable to understand an extended metaphor, I got nothing for you.

13 December 2013, 1:38pm
Dearest Charles,
Dare I write it? Dare I say it aloud? Dare I even think it? Just this morning, our regiment laid down arms and watched as the truce between ourselves and the Political Philosophy Company was signed, certified and dispatched in the saddlebags of our respective couriers, to be carried on swift and noble steeds back to the Command Posts. I report to you now, dear Charles, that I am given reason to believe that the end to this protracted struggle is blessedly nigh.

We have but one more battle to fight here, and we will endeavor with all our courage and might to bring that dread encounter with the Existentialism Company to a speedy resolution. Our side has, I admit with some embarrassment, avoided them thus far, constantly revising our strategies and re-routing our efforts each time we heard the muffled thud of the E.C.'s boots close-by. But no more! We chomp down now on the steely bit of our Fate, hard and determined like beasts of burden in the field.. By hook or by crook, we shall not sleep another night at War.

So confident are we that the finale is within reach, several of the men and I have already begun making plans for our celebration of its much-anticipated end. Mark my words, dear Charles, that together our Company will travel homeward tonight on wings like eagles', and we will rest ourselves, at long last, in our familiar seats of our familiar watering-hole back home, in the company of friends for whom our hearts have desperately longed. Full of joy and full of love for one another, we will fill ourselves with spirits and all the fried chicken wings that we have been so long denied. We will revel in the music of home, in laughter and in dancing til the wee hours, and we will know that it is good.

I pray you and yours see a similar Vision of Home, close enough to believe in, to encourage your hearts and, above all, to realize. I remain, even in these last hours, as ever,
Your friend,
Leigh M. Johnson

Dearest Charles,
It is with my most full and gladdest heart that I draw myself away from the celebrations, only for a moment, to relay the happy news of our Company's long-awaited VICTORY in the Grading War! Hallelujah, hallelujah and a thousand more hallelujahs! Already we've begun feasting like Kings here. We've uncorked the first of what is sure to be many bottles of spirits, we've joined up with the men in neighbouring Companies to trade stories over the fire and, to be sure, we've unleashed a manner of Revelry that resounds with no less thundering reverberation than the most glorious chorus of Angels!

This will be my last dispatch to you, my exultant peroration to our lengthy and heart-wrenching correspondence over the last several days. I entrust this missive to our courier, and bid him a fond farewell, with every hope that my letter finds your Company immersed in the same saturnalia as ours, clinking your glasses and packing your bags to Home as we do now.

This Grading War has both tested and refined all of our moral backbones, my friend. I, for one, have come to see the Opposition as not only deserving, but also worthy, of my respect. God forbid I ever enter into such a battle again but, should that inevitability come to pass, know that you hold within your hands now evidence of my pledge to not feign ignorance of memory of these last nine days. Let it be the case that those memories will, God permitting, both direct and correct my path next time.

As the prophet Isaiah foretold, we shall henceforth run and not grow weary, we shall walk and not be faint. But not tonight, dear Charles, not until we drink ourselves, tonight at least, into oblivion.

Whatever state you find yourself in whilst you read these words, I pray you take comfort that your friend's is a triumphant state. I remain gleefully (and unapologetic in my bliss), as I have been devotedly throughout these days and as I remain, as ever,
Your friend,
Leigh M. Johnson

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Grading War Letters to Home, Day 8

These are the letters from the eighth (and penultimate) day of the Grading War.  If you landed here by accident and don't know what you're reading, click here for the backstory

12 December 2013, 3:28am
Dearest Leigh
I hope this dispatch will find you in good spirits and in the very best of health. I must apologize for the delay in my correspondence. This week, we have faced trials and challenges that would surely test the Faith of Abraham. I fear that this Cursed Grading War is getting the better of me. At the beginning of these Current Hostilities, I could find joy in the Serenity of the Evening. I could, if only briefly, take solace in the camaraderie of my fellow soldiers. But This War mocks serenity and has no more regard for solace than it does a pocket full of gullyfluff. It destroys everything in its wake, and chokes off what little relief I dare to seek for myself. More often than not, I am sullen. Just a few days ago, I almost engaged in fisticuffs with another soldier, having been driven to near madness by the incessant chattering emanating from his bone box. I am short-tempered, and fearful. Though I survive this seemingly incessant War, I fear it has taken a toll on me that I will not soon be able to measure.

As you know, I cherish each and every letter I am fortunate enough to receive from you. But your last note left a hole in my heart. I had heard but unconfirmed rumors of Art’s demise. Your confirmation of this woeful reality was almost more than I could bear. Phineas was right to weep, as were you. I too wept, and felt as if I had been mortally wounded. I raised my voice in Boundless Sorrow and Tortured Reverence for our dearly beloved fallen friend. Several years ago, at one of my first postings during The War, Art took me in and treated me like a member of his own family. His blazing heart and enduring friendship helped to beat back the isolation and desperation brought about by the Dogs of War. We will not see the likes of him again. May Providence smile upon him, and hasten his journey Heavenward.

I was most heartened to hear of your company’s successful resolution in the struggle with the opposition’s Ethics Class Company. Huzzah! Their reputation for tenacity was no doubt well earned. Indeed, it made its way to our encampment. The truce you reached was, most assuredly, an honorable conclusion to your engagement. The Courage and Commitment that your company is known for is a Beacon from which we all draw inspiration. When you say that the Rebels are well equipped for this battle, you speak the truth. They have provisions aplenty. Their quarters are resplendent. Their materiel is unsurpassed. Time and again, I have heard our forces whisper, under their breath, in the still of the night, “how can we compare and hope to prevail against their seemingly endless onslaught?” You and your fellow soldiers are pointing the way forward for all of us. And for this matchless gift, we cannot repay you.

We can only hope to imitate your accomplishment. In our corner of the War, we are hoping to prevail in the near future against the African American Survey Company. Our first concern is the sheer size of the Company. They are legion! When they march towards our position, we can feel the earth shake beneath our feet. They are a cacophonous lot. And they are ceaseless. We have been engaged in pitched conflict with them now for the better part of a week. They batter us, seeking to break us. But we will not break. In the Book of Jeremiah, God tells his Prophet “they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you.” Despite my resolute Faith, I do not know what will come – victory or truce. But I know this – we will not be defeated.

I was heartened to hear from Susan! Her strength, determination and courage are truly inspirational. Please give her my warmest regards if you should by chance see her again. I also drew sustenance from correspondences from Charles F. Peterson and Sarah Von Der Lippe. Their letters will surely help to sustain me.

I hope that we see our way through to the conclusion of this terrible Confrontation. Until then, I remain yours, always, in the Eternal Bond of Friendship Forged in Blood and Fire,
Charles W. McKinney

My dear Friend, Leigh,
It was with great Joy that we received word of your Deliverance and most unexpected Triumph as you and your unit shouldered Arms and began the long March. Our dear Family has faithfully sent along News and though our fields of Struggle are miles apart it has enheartened every one of us in our Unit to know that we are not alone in our hardship.

I wish you a speedy return home, as we all wish for same, and look forward to the day that we can reminisce about our days in the line of Battle and enjoy the fruits of a good fight well fought. I hear from Father that he has (against all hope) procured a half-barrel of good Kentucky whiskey and he promises to save us some for a Homecoming. I wrote to him that he should bury it behind the barn if we are to hope for any of ti lasting until our Return!

As for us, our Unit has seen some action here, and had a great Battle yesterday and the day before. Though there were losses, we have come through with a right good Will, and even last night some small Song and Jest around the fire.

I hope this finds you well, though I know you are on the move and it may find you very late, and I wish you a speedy Journey.
With great Affection,
Yrs, et c. et c.
Ezekiel Beaum'nt
13th Bttn, Design Corp

Dear Charles, 
I hope you will excuse the brevity of my communication but I, like you, write from the front line of this war without end. However brief, I think I can convey to you something of the gravity of the situation.
As I scan the opponents' lines I readily see that many of the strategies and tactics I adopted over the previous months have had but little result. The enemy lines, while thoroughly confused and but lightly armed, are of such great number as to overwhelm the few forces I have at my command. Still, I trust that the moment is not far off when I can call a halt to my activities in this campaign and begin the process of regrouping for our next battle.
Eagerly looking forward to the time when we can see each other again, I remain your humble comrade in the battle,
David Barber
Click here to proceed to DAY NINE of the Grading War Letters

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Grading War Letters to Home, Day 7

These are the letters from the seventh day of the Grading War.  If you landed here by accident and don't know what you're reading, click here for the backstory.

11 December 2011, 9:09am
Dearest Leigh,
I know not whether this missive will find you, but I pray that, if it does, it finds you well. The last report I heard, you were fighting bravely on the front – as if that word retains any meaning now, with the whole land submerged in this hopeless and savage war. 

The chaos of the world around us is mirrored in the dissolution of my soul. I began this war full of hope, ideals, and convictions, a sacrificial victim proceeding willingly to the altar of knowledge. But now my will has been broken, and my hope of leaving the world a better and wiser place is quickly fleeing. My only wish now is to see an end to this war. Time should bring a resolution nearer, but it seems to push it further away, as the enemy prays (if the godless can have prayers) only for an extension. 

What a savage beast we face! How can he ever be tamed? I hear tell of those who live in squalor, denying the comforts of repast and toilet so near to hand, only to display their grit and depravity. Meanwhile, with no supplies in our own camp, and no one brave enough to seek them out, we waste away pleading for those provisions that the enemy cheerfully renounces. I am almost ready to yield to them now, yet I fear the brutality with which my surrender will be met.
I keep you in my prayers, as always, yet (God forgive me!) I know not whether they be heard.
Yours in truth,
B. Satterfield

Dearest Charles,
I take up my pen now, unexpectedly this mid-afternoon, only by virtue of the blessed report that one of our company's most hard-fought struggles has, at long last, arrived at an end. Just moments ago, we put to rest our protracted battle with the opposition's Ethics Class Company, a regiment that proved itself, over and again, no less brave and determined and noble as ours. Despite whatever reports may arrive in advance of this missive, you should rest assured that ours was not a surrender. It was, rather, a truce. We met the men and women of the Rebel Ethics Class Company with the same celebrated determination and resolve that heretofore has defined the men and women in our ranks. We engaged them with the Courage and Commitment for which we have come to be known and honoured, rightly, as soldiers in the Good Fight.

And yet, dear Charles, we found them so well-equipped for this battle, and so convincingly so, that we could not help but lay down our far-superior Grading weapons in respect, in deference to their efforts, if not also true and abiding admiration of them.

As you are no doubt aware, we continue to endeavor in this Grading War on several erstwhile fronts. As I write, even now, still standing at our gates, are the Rebels from the Existentialism Class Company and, what may be unimaginably worse, the Political Philosophy Company. i confess that many in our regiment, including myself, can only pray for a resolution with them as easy as that we found with the Ethics Class Company. We pray for that, I confess, almost as desperately as we pray that we might be spared the indignity of strapping up our boots for another day.

Continue to submit whatever pleas to the Almighty your men are able to spare for us, dear Charles. We all continue to pray for you and yours. Forgive me the perpetual hope that this all may soon come to its end, as it must, in time, surely. In the interregnum I remain, yours in friendship and, more importantly,
Yours in the Right,
Leigh M. Johnson

PS-I cannot be sure, of course, but I trust you also received the recent missive from our dear friend Susan Satterfield, who finds herself deep in the trenches of this Grading War. She is so very brave, so very noble and so very vulnerable, dear Charles. I hope you can find it within yourself to reply to her post haste, even as that effort, God forbid, may prevent your reply to me.

Click here to proceed to DAY EIGHT of the Grading War Letters

Philosophy's Next Generation of Auteurs

Once again this semester, I assigned short-film projects to the students in my Existentialism course.  And once again, the products of that assignment (which I only just finished grading) were amazing.  I've employed this assignment in select courses for the last several years and each year the students' films have gotten more and more impressive.  Only four years ago, when I first tried out the idea in a class, the students were both terrified and completely at a loss as to how to go about producing their own short-films, but now... well, they're nothing short of a bunch of little auteurs.  One can hardly blink these days before technology, access to technology and familiarity with technology jumps ahead of you at the speed of a micro-blink.

If you're interested in reading about how I developed this assignment, as well as some of my pedagogical reasons for doing so, I've written about it several times before on this blog.  (Check out my posts Philosophy Done Another Way from Fall '09, Thinking In Images from Fall '10, and Concepts in Motion: Why You Should Assign Short-Films in Philosophy Courses from Fall '12.)  As I explain in those posts, and perhaps despite what you may be inclined to think, my short-film assignment is not an "easy" assignment.  It's really, really not a strategy for avoiding work on my part or on the part of students. As has been repeatedly (and vociferously!) confirmed by my students, this assignment requires just as much time and thought as writing a paper, probably more editing-time and editing-work than a paper, as well as a lot of other skills that students don't typically employ in more traditionally-formatted compositions: creativity, imagination, digital literacy, synthetic thinking and the courage to put oneself and one's work "on display" in a way that most students fear dreadfully.  Because this is a non-traditional assignment, I admit that students do tend to engage it with far more enthusiasm then that with which I've seen them engage essays.  Just because something is fun and enjoyable doesn't mean it isn't also difficult and valuable, though.

At any rate, we're at the end of another semester, which means that I get to share again some of the best of this term's student films. (If you're interested, all of the films from this course can be viewed here.)  They were all impressive in their own way, but three stood out from the rest this semester, and I'll tell you why in what follows.

The first of my three favorite student-films this semester is by Grace Mosley and James Rigney entitled I Am Not An Inkwell.  A little philosophical background may be necessary for this one: the title of this film is a play on Jean-Paul Sartre's description of the difference between être-pour-soi (being-for-itself) and être-en-soi (being-in-itself).  In his 1943 text Being and Nothingness, Sartre argued that human beings, because they are free, do not exist in the same way as objects, which are determined entirely by their facticity.  That is to say, in semi-plain talk, a human being cannot "be" a human being, to use Sartre's formulation, in the way that an inkwell is an inkwell.   That ought to be enough preliminary philosophical background, I hope, to understand and enjoy this:

What I particularly like about this film is that it gives us a real, real-time glimpse into how Millennials ask existential questions.  And also to whom (or in this case what) they ask those questions, namely: Hollywood, Google, Facebook, Twitter and the billions of other digital iterations of human beings that make up the Internet.  Another thing I like about this film is that I can use it, in the future, to show just how little "technical" resources one needs in order to complete this assignment.  You don't necessarily need sophisticated editing software, or even a camera, to make a short film like this one. Almost the entirety of I Am Not An Inkwell was made with one of the many and widely-available screenshot/screencapture programs, which are easy to use and which any student can download for free.  Philosophically speaking, I'm also impressed with the film's implicit suggestion that, when attempting to "define ourselves" or answer existential questions, we remain ever susceptible to falling into yet another of (what Sartre called) "patterns of bad faith."  The lingering irony of I Am Not An Inkwell is, of course, that the protagonist undertakes the project of defining herself throughout as if she were an inkwell, as if there were some set of propositions that could accurately capture the definition of her being-for-herself, when all the while it ought to have been clear to her that the activity of undertaking the project itself is the answer the she is seeking.

The second of my favorite student-films is by Sophie Osella and Hannah Chimowitz, entitled Billy Tripp's Mindfield, a short documentary about real-life Tennessee sculptor Billy Tripp, creator of the (equal parts bizarre and fascinating) art-installation-cum-autobiography that he's been working on for years and has dubbed "The Mindfield." (For some background, and in advance of watching this film, you should read the brief explanation of his project on Billy Tripp's Wikipedia page.) Both Hannah and Sophie are Philosophy majors, so I had (very) high expectations from them for this assignment.  They did not disappoint.  Sophie is also one of Rhodes' budding student-filmmakers (she and I worked on a documentary together last summer) and this film is evidence of the kind of subtle and reflective camerawork that characterizes her cinematic style.

Billy Tripp is as much an enigma as his Mindfield, and I especially like that Sophie and Hannah's interview with him (and their careful editing of that interview) did not entirely vacate this man and his work of mystery or absurdity. When I give my Existentialism students the short-film assignment, I tell them: "if you want to film a man sitting on a park bench for six minutes, that's fine with me, as long as you can explain why and how that is somehow representative of what we've learned in this class."  Interestingly, this project is more than a little bit like filming-a-man-on-a-park-bench-for-six-minutes, though Sophie and Hannah somehow managed-- through brilliantly minimalist, incomplete and only barely explanatory first-person narration-- to make its deeply existentialist import abundantly evident.  Conventional filmmaking wisdom advises against working with children and animals, as they are notoriously unpredictable and unreliable, and I'm sure the same must also apply to eccentric, rural, uncategorizable and unknown installation-artists. Of all the student films I've seen in the last several years, this was by far the most risky project and deserves a special kind of congratulations for its eminently successful execution.

The last of my favorite student-films (and, at the risk of playing favorites, I'll nevertheless admit that this was my favorite) is the one submitted by Chris Lemanski, Ben Smith and Schaeffer Mallory entitled Raising A Child As An Existentialist.  This film is hilarious, but it references far too many thinkers and too much material for me to provide an adequate set-up, so you'll just have to trust me that there are quite literally dozens of existentialist "inside" jokes packed in here that are nothing short of comedy gold.  I lost count at some point, but this film explicitly or implicitly references all of the following philosophers: Sartre, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Camus, Kafka and Beauvoir, Seriously, impressive.

There are too many things to love about this film.  Aside from the astoundingly comprehensive amount of material that it (in every instance, correctly) references, the film's more general frame of "raising a child as an existentialist" is really a brilliant narrative structure.  As every educator knows, after all, nothing demonstrates one's comprehension of material better than being able to teach it effectively.  And what is the project of raising a child if not one very perilous, very protracted and very difficult exercise in teaching?   From the thrown-into-the-world opening scene to the thrown-into-another-world finale, these guys have hit the mark throughout.  Extra kudos for what also may be the best subversion of heteronormativity I've ever seen in any student's work, ever.  And, cinematically speaking, that shot of the young Søren trapped and raging in the Underground is plucked right out of the Tarantino Handbook.  Not for nothing, but the assignment only requires a six-minute film, and as everyone who's ever undertaken such a project will attest, every minute of film requires hours upon hours of work.  This is just a little over a fourteen-minute film, without a second of boredom in it at all.  I mean, seriously, whoa. Perhaps the greatest of this film's virtues, of which there are many, is its creators willingness to just really engage its own vision and story, with a balls-to-the-wall, friends'-judgment-be-damned, bordering-on-possible-humiliaton-inspiring uninhibitedness. Would that it were the case that students wrote papers with the same commitment and abandon!

For all the doubting Thomases out there, let me just register again and for the record my complete endorsement of short student films as a pedagogically-valuable assignment.  And, not for nothing, one of the most eminently enjoyable things to grade!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Grading War Letters to Home, Day 6

These are the letters from the sixth day of the Grading War.  If you landed here by accident and don't know what you're reading, click here for the backstory.

10 December 2013, 11:45pm
 Dearest Charles,

Today, we persevered.

Your friend,
Leigh M. Johnson

Click here to proceed to DAY SEVEN of the Grading War Letters

Monday, December 09, 2013

Grading War Letters to Home, Day 5

These are the letters from the fifth day of the Grading War.  If you landed here by accident and don't know what you're reading, click here for the backstory.

9 December 2013, 10:55am
Dearest Charles,
I received your note and hope you do not mind that I shared it aloud with the boys at breakfast this morn. We spent the better part of yesterday mending camp, replenishing supplies and tending to other corporeal demands. Our Rations had been reduced to little more than Toast & Beans, a half-can of Hominy, the last bit of Hardtack and very weak Coffee. You can imagine, I am sure, how loud were our Hurrahs when, late yesterday afternoon, the Quartermaster’s silhouette appeared out of the fog and, with him, that of his several bags heavy with relief! For now, it looks as if we will be spared that horrible disorder of the stomach & bowels plaguing the men in neighbouring camps.

I return to the front in short time with Resignation, knowing (if not willing) is sure to be a protracted one. Though I share your confidence that we do indeed fight to loosen the stranglehold with which Error, Miscalculation and Ignorance diminish our breath, I regretfully do not share your Faith that this Grading War is a noble one. In fact, dear Charles, I am given reason to suspect that many among the Rebel forces fight for Ideals, if not identical to yours and mine, certainly as noble as ours. ‘Tis a wretched shame that the faceless Powers commanding and directing this War continue to see it proper to send us all into battle, young and old, day after wretched day, under the banner of that increasingly tattered and increasingly ignoble Grading Flag.

There is glory in Truth, in Probity, in Rightness and in Wisdom, to be sure, my friend. But I confess to you now, on this my Fifth Day in the mud & cold: I fear there is no glory in Grades. At most there is but a poor reflection of that True Glory, and if we see the Virtues for which we fight in Grades, then we see them, as Paul wrote, only as if looking through a glass darkly.

Be strong, dear Charles. It is still very cold out, and Nature seems slow in righting herself. I eagerly await every good report from you and remain steadfastly, hopefully and fondly
Yours in Friendship and in Truth,
Leigh M. Johnson

Dear Charles, Dear Leigh,
Allow me to introduce myself as you likely do not recognize the hand in which this missive is written. My name is Phineas Hezekiah Spotweld, and I was a close friend, compatriot, and confidant of Art Carden. Though it has been many days since he last supped with you upon succulent fried fowl at a place called "The Rat," know that he spoke of you often, and fondly.

It is with heavy heart that I recount the conditions of his demise. He was heartened during this Great Grading War, for he had many students who wrote able and compelling analyses of monetary policy and of the institutional foundations of the wealth of nations. Many we're able to use "The Economick Waye of Thynking" to explain a great many things, but our good friend was hobbled for a while by a student who drew an upward-sloping demand curve. He never fully recovered, and he met his untimely demise in a Scantron machine explosion caused by a scoundrel who filled in his bubble sheet with a #3 pencil.

I know not what his last words were, though I'm sure his last thoughts were of you and of the righteous and noble cause for which this Great Grading War was begun. When you are tempted to hang your head or to weep with frustration, remember your dear friend. Continue fighting. Carry your head high and your banner proudly. Treasure the memory of the great many economists, physicists, philosophers, and Bothans who have died to bring us to the cusp of victory. I am, and shall remain,
Respectfully Yours,
Phineas Hezekiah Spotweld
3rd Samford Mounted Lecturers

Brave Charles,
I write this last, brief letter tonight before taking supper with the men and retiring for the evening. I send it with a heavy heart, having heard just this afternoon (as you must have also) of that dear boy Art's untimely expiration. Phineas was weeping still when he placed the news in my hand, and ere long I found my cheeks glistening with the same sorrow. Our friend Art was a strange one, with views as odd and sometimes ill-fitting as his lanky frame, but he was beloved. He always loathed this Grading War. He, above all others, should not have been one of its early casualties. (Really, the first to fall should have been Josiah.) I will miss Art, as I miss you now, but I will sleep tonight in the warmth of memories of a thousand better days with Friends, both quick and dead. Stay warm, persevere, and have confidence that I remain, as ever,
Fondly Yours,
Leigh M. Johnson

Click here to proceed to DAY SIX of the Grading War Letters

Help Stop the Hastening of Death in Tennessee

I was recently asked by a colleague, Dr. Lisa Guenther (Philosophy, Vanderbilt University), to add my signature to an open letter to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, petitioning him to suspend the scheduled execution of 10 inmates beginning in January.  I agreed to lend my name to the petition alongside several others in a coalition named "Tennessee Students and Educators for Social Justice."  For a long time now, I have believed that capital punishment represents a great injustice, both in principle and in practice.

Tennessee has put six human beings to death since 1960, though none since 2009.  The reasons behind the state's recent push to hasten executions are as many and as varied as they are mysterious. Only five years ago, an American Bar Association report on Tennessee's death penalty laws, procedures and practices determined that "the state of Tennessee fails to comply or is only in partial compliance" with its basic recommendations.  None of those noncompliance issues have been corrected since the report, and just in the last year three different men on Tennessee's death row (Ndume Olatushani, Timothy McKinney and Michael Rimmer) had their convictions overturned. 

Dr. Geunther, both a theorist of and an activist for prisoners' justice and fair treatment, has worked tirelessly to shine light into this unfortunately dark corner of our polis.  I urge you to read and seriously consider signing the Open Letter to Governor Bill Haslam.  (If you are not a Tennessee student or educator, but would still like to show your support, there is a separate petition you can sign here.)  There is strength in numbers, and every extra signature demonstrates that our numbers are too great to dismiss without attention.

As a philosopher, I can understand, even if not sympathize with, the fact that many still believe the death penalty to be just another form of punishment, differing from other legal penalties in degree but not in kind.  I believe the difference is a difference in kind, and that any Court or any State that exercises its authority in this way is the weaker for it.  Even if I could find some way to relieve my moral objections to capital punishment, I would still find it impossible to sanction its current application and practice. There is an ever-widening gulf that separates those with access to adequate legal counsel from those without it, those who the court system considers without prejudice and those who it exercises prejudice against, offenders who we treat as if they can be reformed and offenders who we treat as if they are best discarded.  Until that gulf is eliminated, justice and fairness remain but a charade. 

For your consideration, I am copying the Open Letter to Governor Bill Haslam below.  I do hope you can find your way to signing it.

Tennessee Students and Educators for Social Justice
Open Letter to Governor Bill Haslam

 As students and educators, we seek to understand the world and to share our understanding with others through a practice of critical thinking and responsible action.  Therefore, we cannot remain silent as Tennessee plans to execute people in the name of justice.
We call upon Governor Bill Haslam to suspend all scheduled executions immediately, and to commission a full and transparent review of capital punishment in Tennessee.
A 2007 American Bar Association report on Tennessee’s death penalty laws, procedures, and practices found that “the State of Tennessee fails to comply or is only in partial compliance” with its basic recommendations.  These include the following areas for reform:

  • Inadequate Procedures to Address Innocence Claims
  • Geographical Disparities in Tennessee’s Capital Sentencing
  • Excessive Caseloads of Defense Counsel
  • Racial Disparities in Tennessee’s Capital Sentencing
These issues have not been resolved in the current system.  For example:

  • Since 2012, three men on Tennessee’s death row have had their convictions overturned: Ndume Olatushani (Nashville Scene), Timothy McKinney (Democracy Now), Michael Rimmer (USA Today).  The state has officially exonerated three people: Michael McCormick (2007, after 20 years on death row), Paul House (2009, after 23 years on death row), and Gussie Vann (2011, after 17 years on death row) (DPIC).
  • There are persistent geographical disparities in capital sentencing.  For example, more than a third of all death sentences in Tennessee arise in just one county: Shelby County (Memphis – only 14% of the population of Tennessee) (The Nation).
  • In Shelby County, public defenders have caseloads that are 3 to 4 times higher than the national average (ACLU).
  • African Americans make up approximately 43% of Tennessee’s death row population but only 17% of the state’s total population (TADP).
In addition to these ongoing structural flaws in Tennessee’s death penalty, we now face new issues concerning the method of execution:

  • In 2011, Tennessee and several other states had to turn over their supplies of sodium thiopental, one of the drugs in the three-drug execution protocol, because of the circumstances under which it was acquired (New York Times).
  • A lawsuit was brought against the FDA for allowing the drug to be imported by state corrections departments without proper inspection and approval (Death Penalty Info).
  • This year, Tennessee switched from a three-drug protocol (involving sodium thiopental) to a new one-drug protocol (pentobarbital).  But it is not clear how the state intends to secure a supply of the new execution drug.  Neither drug is manufactured in the US, and pharmaceutical companies based in the European Union have banned the use of their products for state execution (The Tennessean).
  • This year, Tennessee legislators passed a law that allows compounding pharmacies to mix drugs without a prescription (NPR).  This law would permit the state to order execution drugs directly from a compounding pharmacy in Tennessee, bypassing EU trade restrictions.
  • In April 2013, Tennessee legislators amended a law guaranteeing confidentiality to any “person or entity involved in the procurement or provision of chemicals, equipment, supplies and other items for use in carrying out a sentence of death” (TCA Section 10-7-504(h)(1)).  This means that a compounding pharmacy in Tennessee could accept a contract to produce execution drugs without disclosing its name to the public.
This series of events raises many ethical, political, and practical questions: How can we be sure that execution drugs prepared by a compounding pharmacy would not produce unconstitutional pain and suffering?  Doesn’t the public have a right to know who is making the drugs used to execute people in our name?  And why are we using drugs otherwise meant to heal people in order to kill them?
There are also enduring ethical, political, religious, and practical reasons to oppose state execution:

  • Those of us who identify as people of faith demand the suspension or the abolition of the death penalty in Tennessee because our faith in the God of life compels us to seek justice that is truly equitable and that restores to life that which has been broken. As people who bear witness to the power of healing, we call upon the Governor to set about healing the demonstrably wounded and wounding death penalty system in Tennessee.  Because Governor Haslam is also a person of faith who believes in the God who fosters life and who asks us to do the same, we ask that he halt and address the problems in this current system that foster neither justice nor life.
  • Since 1976, over 140 people have been exonerated and freed from death row in the US.  That’s one innocent person for every ten people who have been executed.  How many more innocent people have we executed, and how many are still slated for execution?  (One For Ten)
  • 88% of leading criminologists in the US do not believe that the death penalty is an effective means of deterrence.  This view is supported by empirical evidence; for example, the murder rate in death penalty states is consistently higher than the murder rate in non-death penalty states (Death Penalty Information Center).
  • Many people across the political spectrum believe that the death penalty fails to provide closure for the family members of murder victims (Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, TADP).  Some Tennesseans, such as Hector Black, have found peace through restorative justice after the loss of a beloved member to murder (NPR).
  • No one knows how much the death penalty costs in Tennessee because a full study has never been conducted in this state.  But in other states, death sentences have proven to be far more expensive than other sentences for first degree murder, and we have no reason to believe that our state expenditures would be significantly different.  For example, a 2008 study in Maryland showed that a death penalty case (including investigation, trial, appeals, and incarceration) cost an average of $3 million; that’s $1.9 million more expensive than non-death penalty cases (TADP and Death Penalty Information Center).  Taxpayers in Tennessee have the right to know how much it costs to maintain the death penalty.  Couldn’t we use money saved from stopping executions to open cold cases and to address the social conditions that drive violence and crime?
For these and other reasons, we call upon the Governor to halt executions until we can be sure that the system is working in the service of justice rather than against it.
As students and educators who seek to foster critical thinking and responsible action, some of us believe the death penalty should be abolished, while others believe it should be suspended until systemic flaws are fully addressed.  But we stand united in our critical opposition to the death penalty as it is currently practiced in Tennessee.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Grading War Letters to Home, Day 4

These are the letters from the fourth day of the Grading War.  If you landed here by accident and don't know what you're reading, click here for the backstory.

8 December 2013, 11:35pm
My Dearest Leigh, 
It is my sincere hope that these few words find you well. I have had no time to write, hence the extended delay since my last note to you. Please know that I find it an Exceeding Joy to hear from you. Your every written expression is a salve to me. Indeed, I count your letters as one of the more tangible bits of sustenance that I am able to receive. 

Please know that I share the burden of fatigue and exasperation with you. Sadly, I too have had to engage our worthy opponents. Just two days ago, we received word that the Rebels had moved to a position dangerously close to our own, and that they were amassing troops, perhaps to engage us in one last bloody encounter. And so, last night we were awakened by the Colonel and made to march to a new position. We maintained a small sliver of hope that this new area would strengthen our position, but we were mistaken. The Enemy struck at us, with a force I had not seen matched in previous encounters. I have been in pitched battle for the last two days. Regrettably, like you, I too found myself face to face with our Adversary – a grim face young man. He ignored my entreaties and appeals to reason. Indeed, he countered them with half-truths, innuendo and a cascade of falsity that shook me to my very core. His every Pronouncement was a Perversion, his every Assertion Laden with Inaccuracy. He was confident, overly so. But, like Icarus, the persistent overestimation of his abilities proved to be his undoing. In the end, Justice – and Judgment – won out. Pride does indeed go before The Fall. 

As to your question, my cherished friend, about whether we are on the side of right – this I cannot say. I can give you no answer to this that would not in turn give me pause. But I do know this – you are most correct when you say they are like us. My Adversary from the other day, he was but an echo of my younger self. The calumnies that tumbled past his lips remain lodged in my ears because I too uttered them a short time ago. Yes, you are right. They are like us. They ARE us. And perhaps, since they are in fact us, perhaps this is why we must engage in this Struggle. In an earlier letter, one that I will cherish to the end of my days, you spoke of the necessity of Hope. And now, Dearest Leigh, perhaps it is time for us to consider another one of the Gifts of Providence – Faith. I have Faith in the Worthiness of Our High and Noble Cause. I have Faith that this wretched Grading War is Fought for a Purpose, to stand against Error, Miscalculation and Ignorance. I have Faith that my Comrades Vincent, Amy, Stephanie, David, and Susan share this belief, and will continue to fight alongside me. And I have Faith in you. 

And so I Fight, buoyed by the Faith that my effort, our effort, will not be in vain. I fight with the Faith that the trail we blaze with our actions will make a way for others to continue the Battle. As Hopeless as it may seem, it is Faith that would have us strive to leave a footprint in the disappearing sand so that, as Longfellow says, “A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, Seeing, shall take heart again.

Today has been a long day. I spent the most of it engaged in this cursed struggle, and will do so again tomorrow. But I will cherish your correspondence and it will help sustain me, God Willing, through to the end of this melee. As ever, I hope that you and your allies remain safe.
Yours in Eternal Friendship,
Charles W. McKinney

Click here to proceed to DAY FIVE of the Grading War Letters

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Grading War Letters to Home, Day 3

These are the letters from the third day of the Grading War.  If you landed here by accident and don't know what you're reading, click here for the backstory.

7 December 2013, 11:20am
Dearest Marcus,
Oh Happy Day! This morn found my heart both gladdened and relieved after procuring news that Providence continues to shelter dear Charles from the most savage indignities of this Grading War. Just last evening, our beloved friend dispatched a treasure chest's worth of encouraging words in a brief missive to me. Even as I read them shivering in the dark and cold Silence of mid-night, I could hear the full-voiced wisdom and familiar aplomb of that baritone Sage ringing from his page.

Despite that Good News, I regret to report that already this War has begun to fray the moral fibres of my Soul, tested my spiritual devotion and given me pause. I find myself at intervals querying much that we Lambs of God have been taught, much upon which I have relied, much of what I heretofore have taken to be unquestionably True. Forgive me, dearest Marcus, when I confess: some of the Revealed truths of Scripture are now manifest as puzzles to my mind. The greatest enigma afflicting me at present, formulated as humbly as it is imperfectly, is this: Why did our blessed Saint Paul, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, give to Love a privileged place in the triumvirate of Faith, Hope and Love?

I say to you now, dearest Marcus, that our friend Charles' recent letter to me, coupled with the increasingly unbearable paucity of the like from you, inclines me to believe nothing more resolutely than that Saint Paul was wrong. The greatest of these is Hope.

But no more of this solemnity! I've availed myself of a hearty (even if tardy!) breakfast today and, as I write now, I am mere moments away from returning to the front rested, nourished, emboldened and hopeful. I dispatch this post, as ever, with love and devotion, with prayers for your Health and also that of Josiah, and I remain steadfastly and devotedly and
Lovingly Yours,
Leigh M. Johnson

Dearest Leigh,
I hope my slender missive finds you comforted by the fact that our mutual endeavor – this horrible Grading War – will be soon ended, at least for a while. I too am heartened to hear from you! Your kind and thoughtful words gave me proof once again in the kind hand of Providence. It is a much-welcomed salve to my current situation. Your words warmed me, even in the midst of a seemingly endless night, a night bounded by cold weather that, like the Hounds of Hell, persistently nips at the very fabric of my being. Yes, your words were most welcome. I hope you will not mind, but I could not help but share them with a few of my compatriots – dear comrades who have not heard hide nor hair from any of their loved ones. Of course, they fear the worst – that this damnable War has gotten the better of their brethren. All I can offer them are my own solemn appeals to Hope – and the words of your letter. While these are not words sent by their own kin, they are words that nevertheless provide some small succor to those who hear them. 

Dearest Leigh, I wish not to burden you with my persistent lamentations. And yet, only you can understand the depths into which this irredeemable odyssey drags my weary heart and fatigued mind. It seems as if many of my young charges – those who would lay claim to my tutelage – have neither heeded nor honoured the core of my instruction. A season of reckoning is now upon us; their various deficiencies are laid bare as I hear back from them. Their reports are a hollow mockery of the Language. At the merest investigation, their swelling phrases and garrulous insights are revealed to be nothing more than, to quote a learned man, “brass fronted impudence.” They quibble with me incessantly about the direction that I provide, and then proceed to disregard that very direction! Their musings are the plainest puffery. Their powers of argumentation seemingly crumble with a wisp of inquiry, at the slightest intimation of debate. Indeed, I grow weary of this Grading War, for it reveals in me a resounding uncertainty as to the quality of my tutelage. It forces me to look within the abyss, my dear Leigh, and question the very cause upon which I have staked my Sacred Oath.

Your letter means more to me than I can say, dearest Leigh. For in it, you have reminded me to take solace in Hope. Having done this, I am also reminded of the pupils who have shown themselves to be admirable, thoughtful and brave in the midst of this most trying of times. This Grading War is a scourge. It robs us of the full usage of our fragile faculties. Perhaps worst of all, it blinds us to the glimmer of progress that many of our weary soldiers make. Steven – a bright-eyed boy from Ohio – has rendered a persuasive report, most persuasive indeed. Susannah, from faraway California, has crafted a document whose words and thoughts echo the strength and intelligence she inhabits. Young Jennifer from Boston, wise beyond her years, has shown herself to be a most worthy constituent. Yea, though we walk through the Valley of the Shadow, Hope reminds us that we need not – indeed cannot – walk it alone. You have reminded me that Hope can be a beacon for us in this dark hour. It is a lesson that I shall not soon forget. 

I will leave you now to return to the front line in this execrable Grading War. But I will do so having been nourished, both by your words and a hearty meal that will, God willing, sustain me for the treacherous undertaking that lies before me, before us. It is my desire that these few words, while written in haste, will find you comforted in the knowledge that you are not alone in this endeavor. It is Hope, indeed, that sustains us. And it is with a hopeful heart that these words will find you well.

As ever, I remain yours in this Eternal Struggle, and pray that the Hand of Providence protect you and keep you.Your humble friend and compatriot, 
Charles W. McKinney

Dearest Charles,
Cherished friend! I take up this pen now, an instrument all-too-deficient for the task with which I charge it, after an admittedly brief service on the front today. I confess, dear Charles, that I am weary. I am tired. My early retreat from the battle on this day comes on the heels of two very long, hard-fought engagements. One can only strive as one is enabled by Fortune or Providence. I am confident that your Heart must confirm as much, if not also your Body.

I trust this letter finds you (and our Fellows alongside you) safe, warm and still persevering in the Struggle. I received your most recent missive only this last eve, with equal parts relief and delight. I understand from your report that your current post is close-by, though unfortunately too distant for us to exchange the long-overdue and reassuring embrace that might serve as our mutual salve. As you read this now, assuming as I must that Providence has not yet seen fit to alter my current state of affairs, I grievously report that I am not well. I fear my beloved Marcus, dear to you but far dearer to me, may have become—a consequence either of poverty or vice, I cannot be sure—yet another casualty of this War. For days now, I’ve received no word from him, despite my regular dispatches home. My heart aches tonight no less painfully than Job’s, though I cannot find within myself the strength evidenced by Job’s exemplary Patience. And so I write to you now, rather than to my dearest Marcus, as a fisherman casts his line out into fallow waters, hoping against Hope for some solicitous confirmation from the indifferent deep

Today, Charles, I found myself face-to-face with one of the Rebels. Her visage was desperate, exhausted and inconsolable, and I cannot help but report to you that I saw in her my own likeness. I ask you this, and only you, dear Charles: are you confident that we are on the side of Right in this War? My brief encounter with the Opposition inclines me to believe that they are like you, like me and like all poor Souls in these wretched trenches we share. They are, as I have borne witness, nothing more or less than the spiritual kin of Job. Do you not also wonder, in the cold and dark we now suffer, why this a War at all? Dare I ask you if this current conflict is, unthinkable as it may be to us now, nothing more than a charade? Who profits, my friend? Who gains? More importantly, who is destroyed? Who are our enemies, after all?

God forgive me this thought, but what if we simply refused to engage this War as it has been given to us to fight?

On that suspicion, no doubt blasphemous, I retire for the day. Godspeed the end to this ridiculous Conflict. As ever, my thoughts and Prayers remain with you and those beside you. In Hope and solidarity and, of course, in Friendship, I remain
Your Loyal Confidante,
Leigh M Johnson 

I worry you may have fallen ill or, worse, that you have been beset by a Darkness so paralyzing that it prevents you from taking pen in hand. You must be aware by now, I trust, that I remain desperately and utterly in need of some reply from you. Please, my dear, send word of your condition post haste. I can only hope that whatever Misfortune conditions this protracted disappointment of mine has landed not on your (our!) sweet doorstep, but rather that of the incessantly unreliable Josiah's.

Neither of us were ever fond of, or trusted, that boy, I know. I won't tell Charles if you also wish Josiah ill.

With impoverished yet steadfast devotion, I remain,
Increasingly Suspiciously Yours,
Leigh M. Johnson

Dear Leigh,
It is my hope that, the merciful Creator holds you close to his everlasting bosom.  With regret, you will find the tenor of this letter, mournful, melancholic even. I find myself lost in an infernal wood of run on sentences, awkward phrases and split infinitives. It is as I am wandering through the Inferno of Dante himself yet with out the sanctified presence of a Virgil. I lie in the depths of an un-spell-checked miasma. But I take comfort in the knowledge that like Beatrice waiting for Dante in Paradise, that at the end of my toils, the Registrar awaits with open arms and final grade submission forms.

  Like a naïf I once believed my commitment to academe to be righteous in its bearing, that my life would be one of glorious invective. However, in the growing shadows of the shortening days at the end of the semester, doubts plague me, I am no longer certain of my place in the grand scheme of Creation. Oh but for the refreshing sweet air and tender times of Winter Term! But now, I must away from my correspondence and return to my labors.
My regards
Charles Peterson

Click here to proceed to DAY FOUR of the Grading War Letters

Grading War Letters to Home, Winter 2013 (The Unabridged Collection)

Preliminary note: If you're here because you're checking back for updates on the Grading War archive, rest assured that new letters are still being added as they appear.  However, this was getting a bit on the long side for a single post, so I'm breaking up the letters by day now.  Click the following links for quicker access.  (Updates posted more or less close to midnight every night.)
Day 1 (December 5)  | Day 2 (December 6)  |  Day 3 (December 7)  |  Day 4 (December 8)  |  Day 5 (December 9) |  Day 6 (December 10)  |  Day 7 (December 11)  |  Day 8 (December 12)  |  Day 9 (December 13)

The Grading War backstory: This semester I have a truly ungodly amount of pages to grade.  I taught three courses (Ethics, Political Philosophy and Existentialism), each of which required final papers, so I have at present  over 500 pages of student-writing to grade in just under a week.  Now, reading 500+ pages in a week under normal conditions is no big deal, really.  But grading-reading is not reading-under-normal-conditions.  Not by a long shot.  I explained it to my mother this way:  it's like having to read War and Peace, TWICE, in the course of a week, only you're reading a "rough draft" of War and Peace that requires critique/editing throughout, and it starts over with entirely new characters and an entirely new plot every 12 pages or so... and, most importantly, IT ISN'T WRITTEN BY TOLSTOY..

Here's the thing: no matter how much academics love teaching, their discipline, the topic of their course and/or their students, nobody loves to grade.  (My colleague Art Carden used to say: "I teach for free.  They pay me to grade.")  And because academics continue to indulge the fantasy that their travails are not only uniquely their own, but also of monumental importance to the rest of you, they tend to complain a lot and loudly when the Grading Season rolls around every May and December.  To wit, this past Thursday, after the first few hours of grading and remaining dwarfed by the massive pile of grading-still-to-do in front of me, I posted the following status update on Facebook:
Grading-Break Report #1: Have been working since 7am. The pile remains massive, seemingly immune to my efforts at reducing its power or size. I think it just laughed out loud. I blink hard in a demonstration of pride and bravery. I will not cry.
One of my friends (Marcus) commented that I should start penning these reports "in the tone of Civil War letters home."  I agreed, on the condition that Marcus agreed to being be my addressee, which he did.  And that, dear readers, was the beginning of the Rhodes College/Facebook/Twitter phenomenon now appropriately hashtagged as #GradingWarLetterstoHome. 

As happens with these sorts of things, others have decided to join in the fun.  My colleague, Charles McKinney, is writing similar letters during his grading breaks, bravely contributing his share as a Scribe of this War.  For posterity, if not also for a chuckles, I've decided to collect our missives here on my blog.  I'll update each time a new #GradingWarLettertoHome appears, so you'll have to keep checking back, and I'll keep them in chronological order.  You can read the letters by the PostDate by clicking the different "days" of the Grading War at the top of this post. 

Here they are and here they will continue.  Reports from the front-lines, updated daily until the Grading War mercifully ends.

Click here to read Day One of the #GradingLetterstoHome

Friday, December 06, 2013

Grading War Letters to Home, Day 2

These are the letters from the second day of the Grading War.  If you landed here by accident and don't know what you're reading, click here for the backstory.

6 December 2013, 10:05am
Dearest Marcus,
I take up my pen this morning to inform you once more of my disconsolate station. Please pardon the poor condition of this missive. You no doubt hold it in your delicate hand now soaked and tattered by the wretched weather conditions that have beset us. Pardon also the weak penmanship, the lack of Poetry in these lines, the ineptitude of my authorship. An icy cold paralyzes both hands and mind this morn. Only Prayer and memories of you keep my Soul safe from the same frozen ruination.

I return to the front today with a heavy heart as I have yet to receive a reply from you. Our young mail-boy, Josiah, was always a delicate and sick creature. I pray his fragility has not prevented him from dispatching his most important of Duties: carrying home my news and my love to you, dearest Marcus. What little I have seen of the Grading War, already far too much for one Soul, has convinced me that its greatest cruelty is this unbearable loneliness.

Steeling myself once more for today's fight, I expectantly await some affirmative report of your Welfare and remain, as ever,
Constantly Yours,
Leigh M. Johnson

PS- Unfortunately, I am unable to send news of our friend Charles, who is stationed nearby but from whom I have received no word of late. You should carry a positive report to his family nonetheless. In the meantime, we can hope together that Providence finds a way to make your false report a True one.

Dearest Marcus,
I pray this finds you well and taken neither by fever, hunger, exhaustion nor the wretched loneliness that animates my pen now. It is late afternoon here. The Wintry Hell, which I only scarcely described in my previous letter, continues. It is punishing, dear Marcus, as merciless as it is relentless, simultaneously freezing and burning what remains of my and my compatriots' Will to persevere. I will not frighten you with the horrific details, but today's battles have been particularly disheartening.

And so, I have withdrawn to a nearby billet where I have found a moment to write, a hearth and, I confess, also a bottle of spirits.

This moment to think on you, the comfort of the fire and the blankets here are a welcome respite, but the spirits' warmth is truly a Godsend. I must confess that some of the others look upon me now askance and with the Judgment of a stern Parson for my present indulgence. They insist it is far too early in our struggle to mollycoddle the drunkard's vice.

To them, and to you, I say: Each must endeavor to survive this War as she can and as Providence permits, for there are no Guidebooks in the State of Nature. I doubt I will return to the front again today, though I will remain, as ever,
Very Fondly Yours,
Leigh M. Johnson

PS- It pains me to relay that I am no longer certain of our friend Charles' fate. He promised regular reports, but the silence from his front is now deafening. Please say a prayer tonight that the Darkness has not fallen over his eyes.
PSS- As you are able, please also send report of Josiah.

Dearest Leigh,
I pray this meager note finds you comfortable and protected from the many and various enemies and obstacles that persistently nip at our heels. It is my sincere hope that you suffer from none of the sickness, despair and loneliness that dog our weary steps and invade our mirthless dreams. As I hurry to complete my note, night falls. The cold and the persistent rain have conspired to place a blanket of ice over my fellow soldiers and me. The cold is merciless, my dear Leigh. I fear that many will not survive till the morning. And yet, we must push on, even in the face of this despair. Our dogged determination would have it no other way.

As we are wont to do from time to time, a few of the men and I gathered around a small fire to recount merrier times in the Grading War. There was Abraham, a sturdy fellow from Albany, New York, Frederick, a jovial blatherskite from Pittsburgh, and Peter from Dayton, Ohio – slow to talk but quick to laugh. All recounted moments that made them smile in the midst of this seemingly endless War. All seemed able to, if just for a moment, make some sense of the chaos in which we find ourselves. When they had all finished, they turned to me. I tried, Leigh, I truly tried, to conjure up a story that would bring some small solace, some vanishing wisp of pleasure to these men with battered bodies and broken spirits. But alas, I could conjure no image of a happier time. And so we fell silent, and took solace in the heat of a slowly dying fire.

When I read your note, I was heartened by the fact that you had found the comfort of a fire, blankets and a bottle of spirits. I take joy in your indulgence! And pay no mind to those who would interfere or otherwise hinder your justifiable pursuit of respite. I say to you, and anyone else who should happen upon these musings, you are more than justified in your pursuits, for you too know the unspeakable pain and indescribable anguish of this Grading War. So, find your pleasure. Find your comfort. Revel in what little sanctuary you discover along the stony road we trod.

One of the ancient Greeks wrote that “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, against our will, comes Wisdom – by the awful Grace of God.” If this is any true measure of Wisdom, I daresay that you and I – and all who endure this Grading War – are wise indeed.

I will try to write you again, but I cannot be certain of it. I will remain, as ever,
Very Fondly Yours,
Charles W. McKinney

Click here to proceed to DAY THREE of the Grading War Letters