August 27, 2006

Tell me something about yourself...

Professor Samwick has a very interesting, very convincing post up this morning. It argues that the central reason why collegiate writing skills are in such a sorry state is that the emphasis of writing is clearly on self-expression (rather than clear communication) through much of our education.
There is no denying that many of the college students that I teach are extremely bright. As such, they have been encouraged from a very early age to "express" themselves. Writing for them is a very self-oriented process, as if it is a reply to the admonition, "Show us how smart you are."

This is acceptable for a student in grade school, but as a student matures, writing needs to become more about communication and less about expression per se. (This is true even if the purpose of writing is still for students to show us how smart they are.) Communication is oriented toward the needs of the audience, particularly the audience's need to be persuaded of something in order to change its mind. This is certainly the case every time I read a student's term paper, an article in a professional journal, or an opinion piece.
Professor Samwick also references another post that throws in the lack of reading as another reason why students are such poor writers. However, I think that post (and the sources it references) misses the point of why reading widely is important for good writing skills. I think too much faith is placed in the idea that a student can become a good writer simply by reading good writers. I somehow doubt that reading Shakespeare will elicit epiphanies of better syntax or that Wordsworth gives one an idea of how to make a convincing argument.

The reason why reading widely helps with writing well is that it builds up a reservoir of ideas and a depth of thought which one can bring to bear on new topics. If one does not have this reservoir, I cannot see how one can possibly think of something to say. I would not go so far as to say that this lack of something to say results directly in tortured grammar and poor argumentation, but in working with students attempting to write a paper, the first thing I realize is that they have very little idea of what could be said about their topic, mostly because they cannot enter into a dialogue with others who have thought and written on similar or connected topics.

I think this connects with Professor Samwick's point about self-expression in that many students seem to be taught that this larger dialogue is, not quite irrelevant, but unnecessary in the process of writing a paper. What is important is what comes from one's own mind.

Of course, when there is absolutely nothing in that mind, what is going to come out?

Not to prolong this post too much, but I think the fantastic play "The History Boys" can make an interesting point here.

In the play, two teachers, Hector and Irwin, exhibit very different ideas of what makes for good scholarship. Hector is of the opinion that the only way to get something out of the boys of any value is to fill their heads with Auden and Housman and the like, and simply skim from the top of what will be a marvelous collection of quotations and memorized couplets. Irwin believes that all of that is rubbish and what is important is contrarian thinking, a sort of method without content that seeks mainly to surprise and provoke. (A very good article about all this is found here, at Slate.)

One might think that I am about to say that a little of both methods together could provide what is necessary for proper writing. But, in fact, neither method is suitable, I think, though Irwin's does find success in the play. Both strategies focus on self-expression: Hector encourages meaningless bacchanals of poetry-quoting and Irwin openly describes history as only a kind of "performance."

However, standing in opposition to each other, the two strategies give the boys an example of a dialectic, and one which cannot be resolved in a perfect synthesis. I think, essentially, that most students are incapable of dialectical thinking because they are unused to having more than one idea in their head at a time, mostly due to the fact that their reading is so shallow and they are familiar with very few ideas about any given topic. When one does not have more than one idea about a thing before one, how can one possibly say anything oneself—how can one find a space in which to speak when one cannot see the terrain?

Batteries do not run, I believe, when only one electrode is in contact with something else. Self-expression is just that--an effort at contact in only one direction. Self-expression is not self-directed; it is outwardly directed, but it draws on nothing further. And that is, I think, what makes writing so poor in so many cases.

August 25, 2006

Manliness, once again

I suppose perseverance in the face of richly justified mockery must be manly, because Harvey Mansfield must by now be a great practitioner of it.

I never get tired of reading reviews of Harvey Mansfield's book Manliness. It's just so much fun to see Mansfield being taken to the woodshed over and over again.

Here, once again, a reviewer (Martha Nussbaum, basically the best person alive to refute Mansfield completely) massacres Mansfield.

But more than just an excoriation of a very silly man and a very dumb book, the review says a lot about what feminism is, and isn't, and what scholarship is, and isn't, and ultimately, what courage is, and what it definitely is not. Unlike Mansfield's book, it is quite valuable.

More Mansfield on LGB:

1, 2, 3, 4

August 24, 2006

Gunter Grass

You may have heard by now that Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass, author of Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) and many other (much worse) novels, has admitted to having served in the Waffen-SS, the combat wing of the SS, in a Panzer division in the late stages of WWII. He has remained silent over the years about his service, but not about the legacy of Nazism, which he has repeatedly urged Germany not to bury or ignore.

Grass is one of those rather ephemeral figures (from the point of view of an American) in the world-literary landscape. Essentially, his legacy (and his Nobel) stands only on The Tin Drum, and with the board's history of throwing a Nobel to some middling Mitteleuropean (hello, Elfriede Jelinek, Wislawa Szymborska, Imre Kert├ęsz) every once in awhile just to keep things even, well, it's hard for me to raise very much of a fuss about losing Grass from the ranks of writers whom we should respect or listen to/read.

But to understand why a) this is a big deal and b) Grass should be shunned (literally) by Germans, Poles, and the literati alike, read Hitchens's piece, then read the Slate review of Grass's Nobel award. Judith Shulevitz points out in the latter article how little there is to The Tin Drum, supposedly this anti-Nazi masterpiece, that can really be considered legitimately moral, how little sympathy Grass showed for the victims of the Nazis, particularly for the Jews.

Grass's history of vocal moral activism in Germany has been influential, and his place in post-WWII German literature is key, historically, at least. Reading this confession into those histories does make a significant difference, perhaps not for Americans, but certainly for Germans, especially as the trend of portraying the German people as themselves the victims of the Nazis becomes more widespread (e.g. the film Der Untergang/Downfall).

August 22, 2006

The D's Editorial Board and Spalding Today

Responding to an accusation of intimidating a student and snooping in his email, Spalding says in today's D:
It is important to note that when Stork responded by BlitzMail that he could not attend the group meeting, he requested that we let him "know of any other opportunities to discuss," which indicated a mutual desire to meet. Stork later commented via BlitzMail that "While we disagree on some of the issues, I would really appreciate the opportunity to hear things from a different perspective." As he requested, we set up another meeting. Rex Morey, Assistant Director of Alumni Relations for Young Alumni and Students, attended all of the meetings; this was not a special instance.

Stork referenced a BlitzMail of his that I had and suggested that I improperly accessed his BlitzMail account. I will take this opportunity to reassure Stork and other students that we take student privacy concerning BlitzMail accounts very seriously, and that officers of the College do not have access to student accounts. I did have a BlitzMail with me during our conversation but I did not know that it was from Stork because it was anonymous. It had been forwarded to someone in my office from another student who had said that it was circulating widely on campus... I maintained a neutral stance on the constitution and simply explained the rationale on those issues given by members of the Alumni Governance Task Force, which drafted the proposal.
The D's Editorial Board flatly rejects this clarification:
The explanations Spalding offers are largely irrelevant. If an undergraduate walks out of a high-ranking administrator's office with even the impression that he was bullied into changing his views, then that administrator committed a grave error. It should compound our alarm that administrators appear to be taking sides on alumni governance reform, an issue on which they are stewards rather than active voices.
Spalding's answers are not, I think, irrelevant. The issue at stake, fundamentally, is whether alumni and students can trust the administration to be truthful, clear, and encouraging of participation. In my opinion, the impetus driving the backers of the Lone Pine Revolution is an immense distrust of the administration and not merely ideological disagreement(s) with its members. Ideological disagreements, even over something as productive of passion as the state and future of Dartmouth, do not need to end up in such a fine state as this. That takes distrust--loads of it. And if what Mr. Spalding says is true, then I think one has to temper the corrosiveness of that distrust at least a little bit.

Secondarily, while I think it is wrong of the administration to profess neutrality and then to speak up for the AGTF draft, I also think it is dumb of them to have professed neutrality in the first place. I'm not sure what they gain by it, and I don't think there is a reason why they should keep their opinions to themselves. They have every right to vocalize their beliefs about what is best for Dartmouth. Of course, the line is drawn when opinions become orders and are underwritten by Dartmouth money, but the contribution of their thoughts to what should be a dialogue is not out of line.

August 19, 2006

Volokh Conspiracy Weighs in on Stork "Intimidation"

Four posts (all on one page!) from The Volokh Conspiracy—two from Eugene Volokh, one from Dartmouth Trustee Todd Zywicki, and one from Jim Lindgren—on the Stork Affair.

Also, Zywicki blogs a brief but comprehensive review of Dartmouth's history of free speech.

I'd like to draw out a comment from the second Volokh post that I hope some of you will comment on. The commenter begins by explaining about the weight a frat president can usually put on his frat to do something or other, and provides a little different view of the Stork Story.
So here's what I think happened. The "intimidation" started with Stork, who at the very least had suasion over GDE and the football team. He basically sent out quasi-orders saying "do not vote for the new constitution." Probably with a request to get others to do the same. "As the president of the fraternity" he expected to be obeyed (especially in such a trivial effort as this, one that coincided with the frat's interest). Stork also held positions at other organizations (at the very least the IFC [Inter-Fraternity Council], presumably others at well). The administration presumably was concerned that he would use those positions as well to send out "encouraging" emails to his "friends."

The administration's concern would not have been that he was making the troops march -- they like that; the heads of orgs serve as liaisons who can keep the students in line in a way the administration cannot -- but rather than he was making them march against the administration's interests. So they called him in and probably asked him whether it was appropriate for him to be pushing his subordinates around like that. They then mention that he's in other positions -- "We know you're VP of the IFC -- have you told them they have to oppose the constitution, too?"

Were they trying to muscle him? Sure. Were they secretly reading his email? Of course not. (And Stork's credibility is highly undermined by the suggestion that they were.) Were they threatening to go after him where he lives? Ha! All they were doing is trying to make him sweat. Which is fairly SOP for college administrators when someone publicly criticizes them -- they call the student in to talk about the problem and make him feel uncomfortable about it. Does it have a chilling effect? Sure. But mostly because it's just uncomfortable to have some older than you patronizingly question your beliefs.
Thoughts? I know nothing about the inner workings of frats or their power structure, so I'd be interested in evaluations of his claims by those that are.

August 17, 2006

Catch-up: Alumni Constitution Stuff

This is an interesting news item: Two writers for the website—Nick Stork and Andrew Eastman allege that they have been "intimidated" or at least confronted by College administrative officials in regards to their stated views on the pending alumni constitution, which both of them oppose.

While I don't know all the facts, I would say that jumping to accusations of intimidation and outright spying seem almost a little too hopeful on the parts of certain constitutional opponents, who wish to see nefariousness in every action taken by the AGTF, the AoA or the administration. Joe Malchow extrapolates these meetings into "a crackdown on freedom of political expression at my school" and PowerLine takes this "abuse of authority and apparent misconduct" all the way to President Wright, demanding "What did President Wright know and when did he know it?" Come on, there might have been a genuine interest in talking to vocal students who have sounded off against the Constitution.

What I wish to say here is not that I think these closed-door meetings were definitely benign, but that the constant vilifying on the part of both sides—pro- and anti-constitution—is and has been for far too long a knee-jerk reaction that crowds out real debate or analysis or even a serious consideration of the question, "Is our school going in the right direction?" Instead, other questions dominate—"Is the rescheduling of an alumni meeting actually a breach of the current Constitution?", "What nasty tricks is the other side playing?", etc.

I think the proposed Constitution is unfair and was drawn up with this unfairness purposely built in (which would be an abuse of power), but I think it was also drawn up in a way that genuinely does have the purpose of allowing and encouraging wider alumni involvement. I expanded a bit more on this idea here.

I think both sides come at the constitution from the same assumption: that they are fighting to give alumni what they really want, which is, of course, coterminous with what their “side” wants. The pro-constitution side, I think, really believes that the past two trustee elections have not been reflective of genuine alumni will, but have been the result of problems in the system that allowed Rogers, Zywicki, and Robinson to ride in on a small wave of discontent and confusion. I think they sincerely believe that the majority of alumni do not prefer candidates who bank on being “outsiders” for their electability. The anti-constitution side seriously believes that they are at the head of a growing movement deeply dissatisfied with the current trajectory of the College.

But the key point is, I think, that both sides feel that a Constitution that helps their side will be the fair(er) arrangement because both believe that they truly represent the will of a hitherto silent, or at least untapped, majority. This "silent majority" idea is always a dangerous position to take because it means that one's entire reason for being comes from transference of one's own desires onto a definitionally amorphous and mute mass of other persons. This is even more dangerous for the actual body of people supposedly constituting that "silent majority" when both sides construct themselves in this manner—it means, essentially, that the only real engagement is of one opponent with the other, and not with the real situation, independent of opinion or wish, and not with the real people who are supposedly being spoken for accurately. I think this is precisely what is being cooked up here, with an added helping of fear and paranoia.

Bon appetit.


I could not let today go without reminding you all that tonight, in select showings, the film Snakes on a Plane will be opening.

Check out the opinions of some of Dartmouth's Film Elite, my good friends Max Bentovim and Tyson Kubota:
[Max]: "This movie is going to be a cult classic," explained Max Bentovim '08. "It's either going to be an exceptionally good thriller or a campy laugh-a-minute comed, and either way I can't wait."

"There's definitely some biblical and sexual aspects to it that I'm excited about as well," he added...

[Tyson]: "'Snakes on a Plane' relates to American post-9/11 anxiety about flying, but simultaneously it recalls 1970s exploitation films and the constant interest in the limits of cinematic representation and pop culture," Tyson Kubota '07 said. "And it's snakes on a motherf*cking plane!"

As the director of the Dartmouth Film Society, Kubota has printed the number of days remaining until the release of "Snakes on a Plane" on the weekly meeting notes for every DFS meeting since the beginning of Summer term. He predicts that the movie will gross $150 million on its opening night alone.

"I hope to see lots of scenes of people having sex while snakes attack them," he said. "You know, people joining the mile-high club while snakes bite them."
I do too, Tyson, I do too.

This, I must say, is pretty cool

Big Green Bus in Times Square

I don't like Times Square, I hate Good Morning, America, and I really don't even care for New York, but I think this is awesome.

August 16, 2006

Who reads Persian?

Ahmadinejad has a blog. No shit.


Actually, there is an English version of the site--click on the second flag in the right hand corner. It's (surprisingly!) not an American or British flag--I'm not sure whose flag it is, actually.

Anyway, once you do, you will find amusing things like a poll asking, "Do you think that the US and Israeli intention and goal by attacking Lebanon is pulling the trigger for another word war" and a long description about Ahmadinejad's childhood.

One thing of note, though--you can actually leave a comment (probably screened) on the blog, which is more than I can say for Joe's Dartblog.

August 15, 2006

"What if 9/11 Never Happened?"

Asks New York Magazine.

I haven't had a chance to look through very much of it, but Andrew Sullivan's alternative history is pretty damn dumb. Thomas Friedman talks about China. Bernard-Henri Levy is downright ridiculous. And Tom Wolfe says this:
A local music genre called hip-hop, created by black homeboys in the South Bronx, would have swept the country, topping the charts and creating a hip-hop look featuring baggy jeans with the crotch hanging down to the knees that would have spread far and wide among white teenagers—awed, stunned, as they were, by the hip-hop musicians’ new form of competition: assassinating each other periodically. How cool would that have been?
I hate these counterhistory things.

Also, if you're interested in the Lebanon conflict, you might want to read this, Seymour Hersh's latest article, alleging that the Bush administration's reticence about a ceasefire is due to the opportunity it affords us of watching what amounts to a trial run for our bombing campaign of Iran's nuclear bunkers. A very cheery article.

August 13, 2006

Studentfucker Wins Primary, Continues to Fuck Student (Pictured)

Thanks, The Dartmouth!

I wonder what Paul Heintz is doing right now. One last strip, Paul. Just one more.

August 12, 2006

Who is The Dartmouth's Worst Op-Ed Writer?

We'll have to keep this poll informal, without the benefits of radio buttons or bar graphs or pie charts or things like that, but I am interested in your answers to the above question.

My vote, I think, has to go to Maxwell Bryer. There is something extraordinarily irritating to me about the way he manages to completely ignore the possible existence of even the slightest touch of nuance in any of his op-eds. Not only that, but he seems to feel that his audience is simply thick and cannot understand something if it is only said once. Exemplum gratia:
[S]ophomore summer remains a "real" term despite our deepest desires to transform it into "Camp Dartmouth" in both name and practice. The papers and exams are still there and the grades most definitely count. This is a fact that cannot be denied, sidestepped or ignored no matter how much beer in which we attempt to drown it. This is the unfortunate truth of sophomore summer that we must all accept.
Okay, well, while I'm at it (Ben Taylor, if you're reading this, I'm really sorry--I'm not trying to just start D-bashing, but this kid really pisses me off), here are one sentence summations of his 6 op-eds.
Well, there you have it—the authorial career of one Maxwell Bryer. May a boll weevil nest in his motherboard.

August 8, 2006

Vanity Fair Interview on Middle East Situation

LGB alum Chris Bateman '05, kind of a big deal in his own right, recently interviewed David Margolick for Vanity Fair. Margolick has covered the region extensively, and offers some insight not only on the current situation regarding Lebanon, but also the continuing issues with Palestine and the new Hamas government, and a broader picture of American foreign policy treatment of the region. I highly reccomend checking it out.

August 6, 2006

Talladega Nights: **

Although I try not to play up the Two Cultures meme too much, this movie may genuinely be a lot funnier to people that aren't from a Red State. If, like many Blue Staters, you find NASCAR and its adherents inherently bemusing, you will find much to laugh at. The film goes out of its way to point out the ramshackle way in which Christ, cars, consumerism and crudity combine to form some hideous gorgon of a culture, an attempt which occasionally hits the mark but most of the time seems like The Village Voice channelling Larry the Cable Guy. The movie is also very intent on inserting a latent homoeroticism into this culture, an effort which is, to be perfectly honest, silly and inaccurate. NASCAR is many things, most of them dumb, but it's not all that gay. Sorry.

I'm not by any means defending NASCAR culture. I'm just stuck between wishing Ferrell and Co. had done their homework and actually given us a full-blooded satire, and wishing instead that the filmmaking team had been more imaginative and created an entirely self-sufficient world independent of social commentary or reality, as they did with Anchorman. None of Anchorman's appeal or humor comes from the success of its representation of the 70s or newscasting, but Talladega Nights really uses the pseudo-reality of Red State America as a crutch for cheap laughs and meatless characterizations. This half-way point between parody and fabrication, between commentary and originality, is a perfect recipe for a half-assed, awkward film. If you don't believe me, watch American Dreamz, which is unsuccessful in exactly the same way.

Additionally, the movie looks and sounds as if it were almost entirely improvised. There are scores of lines, even complete gags, that are positively stillborn and that are inexplicably left in the cut. This is the MADTv version of a Will Ferrell film. The editing is similarly amateur and sloppy and the directing haphazard, with numerous shots that simply do nothing.

The moments of greatest comedic value are clearly the ones that are scripted and planned. If you see this movie, watch for the moments when a prop is used. That is when something was planned, and it will be funny. Any time you see two people merely speaking, the humor will have evaporated and you may safely let your attention drift.

Having said all of that, this summer's crop of films blows, and there are enough laughs in Talladega Nights to justify spending $8 or $10 when the competition is this bad. I laughed often, but not really all that hard, and neither did the audience. Of course, I was watching in a Red State.

Finally, a request to studio heads and casting directors everywhere: Please put Amy Adams in many more films.

August 1, 2006

More on Lebanon

This piece from Salon is a very important article, I think, in judging the conflict. It argues forcefully that Hezbollah fighters are not hiding among civilians to such an extent that would require or even justify such widespread and almost indiscriminate bombing as we have seen so far from Israel.

As with all Salon content, you will need to watch a short ad before viewing the entire article, but you do not need to register or pay for anything.

I will, however, skip to the end for you:
the analysts talking on cable news about Hezbollah "hiding within the civilian population" clearly have spent little time if any in the south Lebanon war zone and don't know what they're talking about. Hezbollah doesn't trust the civilian population and has worked very hard to evacuate as much of it as possible from the battlefield. And this is why they fight so well -- with no one to spy on them, they have lots of chances to take the Israel Defense Forces by surprise, as they have by continuing to fire rockets and punish every Israeli ground incursion.

And the civilians? They see themselves as targeted regardless of their affiliation. They are enraged at Israel and at the United States, the only two countries on earth not calling for an immediate cease-fire. Lebanese of all persuasions think the United States and Israel believe that Lebanese lives are cheaper than Israeli ones. And many are now saying that they want to fight.
I strongly encourage you to read the whole article.

Who seriously did not see this coming?

I'm a little late in blogging about it, but I think this needs to be said:

A .12 BAC isn't bad enough to excuse anyone's actions. It seems extremely unlikely to me that Mel Gibson said anything that he didn't really mean.