Monday, April 27, 2015

End of the Semester

We are in the homestretch, people.

This means -- among other things -- that I must design exams, and design study-sheets for those exams, and walk students through review sessions over the study sheets for the exams.

It means I must hold office hours so that students can come to my office with last-minute drafts of papers for me to look at, and talk to them about.

It means I must hold office hours so that students who have not actually attended class all that often, or studied that much, can come to my office in a panic wondering whether they will pass, and what they can do about the fact that they probably won't. (And I can talk gently to them about the True Facts of Life.)

It means, and this is the very saddest part, I must grade papers and exams and then Reckon Up Final Grades.

This is my least favorite part of the whole bit of teaching.

See, in my worldview, teaching is about, well, teaching.

Students come to the university to learn.  I exist as a teacher in order to teach.  We're in this together.  It's a road trip, a journey, an adventure.  An essay into experience, if you will.  We find out, the student and I, what we can, in the time we have, about Working Class Literature, or about Fiction Writing, or about English Grammar.

And, you know, some students are really good at finding that out -- just as some students are really good at Aikido -- and some students are less good.  That's how the journey is.  We all travel our own road.  We learn what we can on that road.

So it kind of annoys me to have to grade students, most of whom are (in fact) trying their best to learn what they can.  This student -- trying as hard as she could -- traveled a C distance.  This one -- who in fact didn't have to try all that hard -- traveled an A distance.  This one tried very hard, but traveled a B+ distance.

And if it was just a road marker, you know, that would be one thing.  But there's such a moral component attached to grades in this country; not to mention a possible commercial component, since students can keep or lose scholarships and financial aid depending on their GPA.

And yes, some students can deserve low grades -- I have a few students who just didn't attend class or do any work, for whatever reason.  Maybe those students deserve the F or D.

I still don't like it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

New Grounded Parents Post: On Blocking and Unfriending

A new Grounded Parents post by your own delagar is up.

It concerns when and why we should shut the (virtual) door on people.

Go here to read it: On Blocking and Unfriending and Muting and Silencing in General.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Interesting Comment

I got an interesting (though Anonymous!) comment on an old post, Working Up Reading Lists, and though I started to respond to it there, I found I had so much to say, that I decided to respond it it in an actual blog post instead.

Here's the comment:

Every time you post about the books/classes that you're teaching, I wish I has had a professor like you. 
Given the choice between studying Shakespeare's Twelfth Night for the 13th time versus actually getting to discuss Joanna Russ or George Orwell, there's no contest.

Given the classes required to graduate all have titles like English Drama (nothing but Shakespeare), English Fiction (nothing but Shakespeare), Study of a Single Author (choice of Shakespeare or Desiderius Erasmus), ect, You seem to have so much freedom in the choice of what to teach and how to teach it.

And my answer:

Thank you!  And yes!

We've really designed a pretty good program here, you're right.

Partly that's because we're a very new university -- we've only been a university since 2003 -- which means we've had the chance to build ourselves from the ground up.  I was part of this construction process, one of the professors who built the very earliest English curriculum for the department.  We looked at English departments all over the country, and basically kept what looked it would work best for ours.

Mostly, though, it's because we've got a really good faculty, good at working together, good at thinking and making decisions; and we've gotten really lucky with our Chairs, who have also been excellent at their jobs.

The curriculum is a work in progress.  We're always messing with it.  For instance, the Working Class lit class I'm teaching in Fall 2015 is possible because we created a class about six years ago called Literature of Diverse Cultures.  We built this out of a need to fill the gaps in our students' knowledge of various literatures -- to wit, these students weren't doing well on Praxis exams, and on the GRE, and so on, which showed us they didn't have a grasp on the kinds of literature they needed to know.

So we made this box, this bin course, which we could use to teach whatever sort of course we needed, which would let students read works from various cultures.

That's not all we did, obviously!  We had been requiring Chaucer and Shakespeare; we added a Major Authors course which students could take instead of one of those, or along with one of those.  Major Authors can be any Major Author, from Toni Morrison to Laura Ingalls Wilder to John Steinbeck to (some day I hope) George Eliot.  I taught Octavia Butler as a Major Author several semesters ago.

We created a YA class.  We have an Introduction to Cultural Studies class.  We got rid of the four surveys in American and Brit lit, and added Global Lit and American Lit instead.  Lots of revisions like that.

And we have just added a Popular Literature class, aimed not just at English majors, but at all the university.  That's the one I'm teaching as Utopian/Dystopian Literature this Fall.

Among other things, this way of handling the curriculum allows us to respond more organically to what our students require.

But also, obviously, it's a great deal more interesting, for both students and the professors.

And you know what: there's nothing wrong with that.

(Image: UAFS as a Utopian Space.  Because I amuse myself.)

What I'm Reading Now

This is the latest in a series of (basically) very brief book reviews.

I'm still reading / re-reading a lot of Terry Pratchett.  I haven't yet read all of his work, so some of this reading is new to me; and some of his novels I had only read once -- unusual for me.  When I like a work, I usually read it nine or ten times -- not in a row, mind you, but over the years.  Some books, like Middlemarch and True Grit and Woman of the Iron People, I have read so many times I've lost count.

Anyway!  Right now I am halfway through Thief of Time, which is a Pratchett book I had never read before.  It's one in the DEATH series, and more than that, one of the DEATH series with Susan Sto Helit's character in it. If you haven't read Pratchett, you might not know how delicious a time I've having.

But trust me.  DELICIOUS.

L. Neil Schulman, The Rainbow Cadenza 

This one I read thinking I might use it for my Utopian / Dystopian fiction class in the fall.

I won't be; and I wouldn't normally even review it here, because I didn't like it much; but I'm going to write the review, for a specific reason I'll get to in the next review.

Many people do like this book -- or did, anyway; it won the Prometheus Award for Libertarian SF in 1984.

And it's not a terrible book.

Not very good, mind you: it's full of Very Intelligent Men Explaining Things About Life and The Nature of Humanity to our hero(ine), who though she is supposed to be brilliant mostly stands around responding to their lectures with comments like, "I never thought of that," and "I suppose that's true."

It's also, yes, Libertarian.  So Government Is Stupid.  The premise of the book is that a way to control the gender of children conceived is invented. Or, more specifically, men can control their ability to fertilize eggs such that they will only release male sperm.

According to the conceit of the book, governments of all countries immediately begin providing tax breaks for people who conceive male children; and tax penalties for those who conceive female children.

Why?  Well, because, apparently.  There is some handwaving about how the male children are necessary for defense, but a little thought shows that this is untrue.  And a huge bank of young males is a huge social problem, as every society knows. (To his credit, Schulman does appear to have noticed this.)

Why, really?

Well, so Schulman can build his story, which is a world where there are seven males for every female.

In this world, Schulman claims, it would just make sense for every young woman to be drafted into the military (the Peace Corps, it's called) at 18 and be forced to have sex -- to be raped -- ten times a day, by ten different men, for the next three years.

Because if men can't have sex with women whenever they want to, then they just riot and commit crimes and die.

Oh, wait.  I forgot this part.  The men are rioting and committing crimes.  There's this other part of Schulman's world.  See, if you're a woman and you refuse to enter the Peace Corps and be raped ten times a day, then you're made a Touchable.  Now anyone (usually men, but women take part too) can hunt you at will, and rape you whenever they like, for the rest of your life, also beat you and murder you.

Schulman does not, mind you, approve of this world he's built.  He's a Libertarian.  He doesn't think the government has the right to draft anyone -- even women! -- or force anyone to do things against their will for the good of the community.  He's just making a point about how evil it is to draft young men into the military to fight for their country.  By writing a novel in which young women are drafted into a military to be raped for their country.  And then hunted down and raped and murder when they try to dodge the draft.

Same exact thing, why are you getting upset?

Anyway.  The big problem with the novel, besides the endless intrusions of lectures from Very Intelligent Men, and the obsession with scatalogy, was the main character, Joan Darris.

I can see we're supposed to think Joan is a Tough Female Character, but in fact she is both cardboard and contradictory.  She endlessly proclaims her Libertarian dicta, how she owes nothing to no one, and will not allow anyone to make claims on her life, blah, blah, blah; and yet then risks both her life and her freedom to raise her mother from the (literal) death.

(What is this Libertarian obsession with literal immortality?)

The other thing that makes this novel not work for me -- well, two things, really.

(1) I don't believe for a minute that governments would give tax breaks to encourage male births; nor that they would continue to do so when they saw what a crisis it was causing; nor that women would continue to have six or seven male sons for every girl child, as Schulman shows is occurring in the book.  Schulman handwaves this as being for the "tax-shelter," but this tells me he cannot have raised a child.  No one has kids, or raises kids, for the tax breaks.

Nor do I believe every women would be having nine or ten kids, as Schulman shows them doing here, when they have a free will choice to do otherwise.  Taxes or no taxes.

(2) I don't believe for a second that in a world without women -- a world where women are scarce --drafts for rape centers is how things would shake out.  Why don't I believe that?  Because we have actual evidence for societies where women have been made (artificially) scarce.  Not as scarce as Schulman posits, but scarce. We can see what happens in those societies, and we have seen it.

For an instructive comparison, we can look at another book that posits a scarcity of women:

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife
Meg Elison

I came across this book quite by accident -- it was recommend on someone's blog somewhere, I think?  I don't even remember.  But thanks to whoever recommended it, because wow, what a great book.

It won the Philip K. Dick Award for 2014.  Well-deserved.

It's a post-apocalyptical story (one of my favorite sort).  A lethal virus erupts, killing nearly everyone, but -- importantly -- killing many more women than men.  Also importantly, it kills most children, and all infants, either before, at, or just after birth.

So.  You can see the problem.  Almost all the men are dead; but of the ones that are left, many of them will see woman not as equals, not as people, but as objects, as trade goods, and as limited trade goods at that.

For much (but not all) of the novel, we are in the point of view of the Unnamed Midwife herself, who was a Nurse Practitioner in Labor/Delivery in San Francisco, and so saw the plague from the start.  Early on, she realized the inevitable results that will follow from her being one of the few surviving woman in the world.  Her shrewdness and actual human toughness (as opposed to Joan's bogus toughness) as she copes with the world she encounters is brilliantly handled.

It also doesn't hurt that the writing and world-building is just lovely.

So -- what happens, in a world where women are more rare than diamonds, more precious than gold?

Bad things, as you can imagine.  Elison writes about them with clear-eyed honesty.  There are no stock villains here; no lectures; and while we do have heroes, they are human heroes.  Even the bad guys are human, in that Elison makes it clear to us why they act as they act.

If you want to read a book about a society where women are rare, this is your book.

And don't worry.  Parts of it get very dark, but the ending is (sort of, more or less, pretty much) happy.

This is science fiction the way it's meant to be.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

In Case You're Curious

Every now and then I accidentally post things from my teaching blog here.

I delete them right away, but in case you're curious -- WTF, delagar?  What was that post about T.S. Eliot you shame-deleted? -- here's my teaching blog, entirely for your amusement.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Review: The 100

So I am (finally) watching CW's The 100, after seeing it recommended on any number of blogs and SFF pages.

I started watching it twice before and quit about ten minutes into the pilot each time because, oh my God, the voiceover in that opening is so terribly cheese-filled, plus so MUCH WHITE GIRL PAIN.  And tbh the first ten minutes are pretty bad: bad writing, bad characterization, bad acting.

Push through, though -- and push through (maybe) the first few episodes, where spots of this terrible writing and acting will continue to occur, because this series does get better.

Here's our premise: Apocalyptical nuclear war, about a hundred years ago.  Up in space, people who had been living on twelve space stations think they are the only survivors.  They have been trying to last up there until the earth becomes habitable again.

BUT: the stations are crashing.  Soon they will no longer support life.

MEANWHILE: their (military-run) society has become increasing despotic as their resources run out.  Every crime, however small, is punished by death.  Juvenile offenders get a reprieve until they come of age -- then they're executed.  So these 100 juvenile offenders, instead of being executed, are used as lab rats: sent down to Earth to see if it will now support life.

100 young criminals, ages from about 12 to nearly 18, their crimes ranging from theft of supplies to actual murder, dumped -- with nothing but the clothes on their backs -- onto Earth.

What happens next?  (Lord of the Flies X Road Warrior?  Maybe.)

Problems I had in early episodes: Too much whiteness, too many male characters, plots too predictable.

All of these problems went away pretty fast, though.  By episode three or four (I can't remember exactly) more women characters came to the forefront; we'd stopped seeing nothing but white faces; and yeah, the writers started having a lot more fun with the possibilities.

The problems of leadership -- the moral quandaries a leader has to deal with, in a society under threat -- that's being dealt with very well.

Also, the Othering of the enemy: nice work on that.

We also continue to see life on the station (the adults who sent these kids down to Earth); and, as Season 2 starts, the adults come down to Earth.  You remember the end of Lord of the Flies, when the Naval Officer appears on the island, and we see Ralph and Jack as just little boys again?

Imagine now that the Naval Officer had come to live on the island.  With a whole boatload of his fellow officers.  I'm only on episode one of Season 2.   Can't wait to see how it plays out.

ETA: Oh!  I forgot one of my other major complaints about the show.  SO HETERONORMATIVE!  But!  Apparently this is unso.  In Season 2, it becomes revealed that our hero, Clarke, the tough chick who rules in Season 1, is in fact bisexual.  The show's writers claim that they didn't address LGBT concerns because in the future it's no big deal, so it just didn't come up. I think we'd have something other than straight romance everywhere then, but wevs, writers.

Friday, April 10, 2015

New Issue of Crossed Genres: Issue 28 Silent Communication

As always, in this issue, Silent Communication, our contributors responded to the genre in different, and fascinating, fashions.

Our first story up, "Loud as a Murder," by Sarah L. Johnson, who is our Spotlight Author (that is, our writer who is making her first professional sale with this piece) has an autistic protagonist, wonderful writing, wonderful characters, and a wonderfully constructed plot.

Our interview with Sarah is here.

"Trollbooth," by Maureen Tanafon, is far from your typical fairytale.  The silent communication here arises from our deaf and mute protagonist, who is also both the strength and moral force in her small family -- and something of a trickster.  A short and powerful story.  (Also a great pun.)

Finally, a heartwarming story from Megan Neaumann about language barriers in multi-cultural families -- here, a young American-born girl, June, who speak only English, and her grandfather from Hong Kong, who speaks only Catonese.  An disaster opens a brief lane of communication between them in "A Language We Shared."

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

How I Stopped Being a Libertarian

My kid loves this story, and it occurs to me that I've never told it on the blog.

I grew up ignorant, y'all.

I don't mean just a little ignorant.  I mean, like, amazingly ignorant.  Louisiana ignorant.

As I often tell my students when I am teaching and we hit some huge gape in my knowledge-base (like the fact I didn't whether the Suez Canal was in Latin America or where the hell it was), "Hey, I was educated in Louisiana -- y'all are lucky I can read and write."

This is all by way of preface to explain how I happened to grow up both anti-feminist and Libertarian.

It's because I was, for so long, an autodidact.  My schools did not educate me.  They either tormented me with entirely useless knowledge -- trying to force me to memorize by rote data I had utterly no interest in (dates and facts about Louisiana history; how to spell various foreign capitols; the structure of a five-point essay, oh my hell, I get sleepy just thinking about it); or they shouted at me for sins I could not help (I was poor and badly dressed and badly socialized); or they ignored me.

When they left me alone, I retreated to the world that comforted me: books and writing.  I started reading very early.

One of my early memories: my first grade teacher mocking me when I wanted to check a copy of Farmer Boy out of the school library.  She insisted that I didn't know how to read yet.  I insisted I did. Just read it to me then, she said.  I opened it and read the first page.  And then next.  And then next.  "All right, all right," she said angrily.

"Shall I let her check it out?" the librarian asked sweetly.

This is the same first grade teacher who smacked me in the head with my math book for reading a book during her math lesson, BTW.

ANYWAY: I spent much of my young years, in school and out, reading and writing.  But all this reading was entirely self-directed, because almost all of my teachers were just awful.  (I had a really good American History teacher.  And a really good French teacher.  And a semi-good Latin teacher.  But that's it.)  So I ended up reading just a boat-load of Conservative/Libertarian SF, because that's pretty much what was available in my sad little public library / school library. Lots of Heinlein.  Lots of Niven.  Lots of Pournelle.  Lots of Asimov.  Lots of Bradbury.  Lots of Henderson.

I also read Joanna Russ' The Female Man, mind you, and Ursula LeGuin and John Varley -- but overwhelmingly, I was being overwhelmed with Far-Right Libertarian fiction.

Though I managed somehow to avoid reading Ayn Rand (I do remember picking up her books and looking at them, especially that giant door-stopper Atlas Shrugged; I would say it was the awful writing that saved me, except, well, I read Pournelle, didn't I?  And Asimov is no fucking stylist, say what you will about him otherwise) I emerged at twenty years old an actual, yes, a really truly capital L-Libertarian.

One of those who, if there had been an internet then, would have been arguing with people on the internet about how obviously Libertarianism was the OBVIOUS best way for us to go!  How Voting Only Encourages THEM.  How Taxation is Theft.

All of it.

Oh, the arguments I made to (and at) my Liberal and Conservative friends.

Oh, how certain I was in my Virtue and purity.

Also, I read a lot of Libertarian tracts.  I mean books.

Left-leaning Libertarian, mostly.  I was steadily moving away from the Right all through this time.

I was also reading many more books, though, because I had gone on with my actual education.  I was finishing my BA, and then -- after that -- going on to graduate school.  I had good teachers, not the terrible ones I had had as a kid.  My reading was being directed, by professors who knew how to assign excellent texts.  My mind was being engaged by people and classmates who knew how to think and how to argue.  I was reading Octavia Butler; I was reading Jane Austen; I was reading George Orwell; I was reading George Eliot, and Plato, Tolstoy and Catullus, Tiptree and C.J. Cherryh and Virginia Woolf.

Then -- this is the part of the story my kid loves -- one day I was on a holiday trip with my family.  This was back when I still did that, went on vacations with my family.  We all rented a houseboat.  Uncles, cousins, nephews, me and my brothers, my parents, drifting around on the Buffalo Lake in Northern Arkansas.

And I'm standing on the porch of this houseboat, eating BBQ'd ribs, explaining Libertarianism to one of my uncles.  Telling him about being a Libertarian.  Because he'd asked, you know, so I have to give him the sermon: Why Being a Libertarian is Great.  Why EVERYONE should be a Libertarian.  Why Politics is a Lie.  THROW OFF YOUR CHAINS.

And so on.

Only, about two minutes into this speech, while I'm licking BBQ sauce off my fingers, thinking about the next sentence, it comes to me that I don't believe a thing I'm saying.  Good God, this is all bullshit, I remember thinking.  Why did I ever believe any of this?

I stood with the BBQ'd rib in my hand, staring out at the lake.  The sun was setting over it.  My old, grey uncle waited politely for me to finish.

"Oh, well," I told him.  "It's not really that interesting."

"Okay," he said.

"I'm going for a swim," I said.

"That sounds nice," he said, and I wandered away.

That's how I stopped being a libertarian.  I was 26 years old.

A little later -- maybe three years later? -- I started becoming a liberal.  And a feminist!

Never looked back.