Thursday, September 17, 2009

good news! god's shitty car fleet and shallow faith.

so it's official. i am a resident of canada until 2011. today i went to the border at sumas. there are all sorts of funny rules about border stuff. one of them is not to be funny. i had one friend who, when asked if he was bringing weapons into the country, said "just these guns" and held up his arms. the border agent was not amused, and said humorlessly, "pull your car over and come on in." they proceeded to interrogate him and his wife for almost 2 hours.

another funny rule about the borders is the sudden change that happens when you exit one building and go into the next. one second, you're in canadian jurisdiction. the next, it's american. anyways, along those lines, when i went to apply for my canadian work visa, i was told that i had to actually walk over to the american building and walk back so that i would be entering canada and then applying. i could not apply unless i was coming in.

anyhow, despite walking to the american side and returning, they told me i didn't have the correct documents to apply and that i needed something called a labor market opinion. unfortunately, that would take weeks, and i needed the visa asap!

i called jill and she, being the wonderful woman she is, scoured the canadian immigration website, and found that i could apply for what's called an open visa (because of her job). so we went down to the border again TONIGHT and got it without a hitch. in the end, it was a better and less restricted work visa. that's good news.

it was also a good reminder that just when i thought my life was going well, little things can throw a big snag into it. and the lesson i learned (and quickly forgot) when our camry was giving us trouble on the road west was "the car doesn't get you there. God does." (to which i'd often add the refrain, "it's a bummer God keeps such shitty cars, though.")

so today while there was a big snag looming, i happened to be listening to david bazan's new album, curse your branches. i've been a fan of bazan's christian/sad bastard act, but his new album marks a definitive break. some have even called it his "break up" album with God. (the title curse your branches should have given that away). i was inclined today to agree with bazan: "all the fallen leaves should curse their branches." but then things ended up working out.

it makes it seem as though i have a shallow faith, to sway so much at the shadow of trouble. reminds me of that verse (oh yea, that verse...) from james about men who doubt being like ships driven around by the waves. men who doubt are unstable.

so, in honor of doubt, and david bazan, i'm going to try and blog what i envision to be a three part review of his album. we'll see how it turns out. could be terrible.

p.s. one last thing: vonage in canada is the bomb. we have an american virtual number, so all our american friends can ring us...and we have a canadian number so our canadian friends can ring us as well. huzzah!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

connoisseur of style (manuals)

as i settle into my new life in langley, bc, i am re-entering a place i haven't been in a while: the academic world of patrick henry college. by that i mean that i'm mostly returning to the basic lessons i learned there and applying them as i begin to teach foreign students who aspire to attend north american graduate school. in my usual cavalier style, i have dismissed most of the stuff handed to me and insisted on reinventing the wheel. instead of looking to one textbook, i am culling through all the collective manuals i have consulted in the past, like strunk & white and my old rhetoric book. i am also taking lessons from other style manuals that are new to me, such as joseph williams's book.

this is not to say that for the last several years i haven't ever consulted the trusty old elements of style, or that the lessons taught to me were forgotten and left unapplied. indeed, dr. smith's rhetoric class was one of the best classes on how-to-BS that i've ever taken (it also taught me about substance, fyi). but i am consulting them more often as i attempt to go about teaching writing myself. it is true, what they say about teaching. you never learn it better than when you teach. this summer, for example, i taught a philosophy class and finally acquired an actual affinity for aristotle that i had been pretending to have for years. going back through these style manuals has really turned me into a beast of style. whether it's a good or bad beast remains yet to be seen.

on a separate note, i wonder what mrs. bergel, my 11th grade english teacher, would say if she knew i were teaching writing. she would probably be proud (and confused). though in truth, my ability to write really has nothing to do with her. in fact, she almost turned me away from writing with her withering red slashes. she was one of those frustrating teachers who would destroy my papers on account of poor writing but never offer a helping hand. now that i think about it, i don't think i ever had a teacher lend a helping hand. i just learned at some point, i guess? i remember my 12th grade teacher enjoyed my writing much more, and i felt empowered. but i don't think i really got a handle on writing until somebody handed me a copy of strunk & white. or rather, made me buy a copy. so perhaps i should thank dr. smith. he had the same withering red pen (i once watched him grade a stack of complex bibliography exercises without ever consulting a manual himself; the man was a certifiable genius), but at least he gave me the tools to correct it myself.

incidentally, i would like to say that having gone through several other style manuals, i still believe strunk & white is perfectly useful. anyone who doesn't take a style manual with a grain of salt should have their head examined. yeah, strunk & white can seem a little bossy at times, but so can the people who excoriate it so viciously.

EDIT: for all you wonderful people who are reading this (none, i suspect), don't take this post as an opportunity to write nasty comments on my style and grammar. it's a blog for strunk's sake!

Monday, June 08, 2009

is billy collins killing poetry? and the poetic line

over at first thoughts and siris they're having a small informal symposium on a question that essentially boiled down to this: is billy collins writing slam poetry for the upper middle class? you can say what you will about billy collins, whether you think he's killing poetry or not. i believe poetry has a pretty high tolerance level for bad writing (it's been happening for years), and if billy collins is the end of poetry as we know it, it would certainly not be for the reason that he is writing slam poetry for yuppies.

i cannot, however, let the post by the blogger at siris go by without response. he urged us to consider the collins poem 'another reason:
The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.
You could take the same thing and write it all together with no change, and it would be part of an essay, or of a novel, or of a letter home:
The neighbors' dog will not stop barking. He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark that he barks every time they leave the house. They must switch him on on their way out.
And you will have lost nothing. It is a poem, in the most basic sense that it is crafted language for the sake of the language, but the differences between Billy Collins and (say) Garrison Keillor, setting aside topics, are entirely incidental.
he is actually making this point along the way to his inverse point, that scattering whatever random sentences you find around a page does not necessarily make it poetry (an advertiser could do this, he says), but the fact remains that changing these lines does change this poem fundamentally. siris mistakenly thinks that because a poem is endstopped at normal breath points, therefore it would be the same were it in paragraph format. this is simply not true. all that an endstopped breath means is that the poet wanted the momentum of the line to end there, and not carry on into the next line. to say that collins in a paragraph form is the exact same neglects completely the possible elements of tone embedded in lineation. and with a poet like collins (or keillor) , it's not a stretch to say that tone is 9/10ths of the poem. for a helpful essay on tone, check out real sofistikashun by tony hoagland

siris also makes what i think is an unhelpful distinction between verse and poetry. i suppose it's helpful if you want to have a term that refers only to a relatively strict formal aesthetic, but this seems based more on a bias towards aesthetic rather than helpful distinction. especially when you consider the fact that someone who would fall under siris's category of "poetry" but not "verse" would be robert lowell. if you look at lowell's most famous poems, however, it would not be hard to turn them into his definition of "turns and returns of language":
Thirsting for
the hierarchie privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
Thirsting for the hierarchie privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore, and lets them fall.
you can see that lowell does indeed have a very simple rhyme scheme at work here, but he has chosen to deliberately lineate this poem differently.

poetry, is not only, as he concludes, "the craft of making excellent language" (and therefore great prose can be effective in the same way that a poem is ultimately). there is a deliberateness in poetry that does not exist in prose. a writer of prose does not intend to do anything except write in paragraphs. a poet, however, always has the options of writing in more than just a paragraph. therefore, the decision to write in lines or paragraphs, or in hypertext even, is a deliberate decision (and therefore, indicative of a reason, or at least the potential of a reason).

this is distinguished from ads, however, because an ad is, more or less, limited by the page on which it is printed. hence line breaks come from another necessity than the decision of the poet (though such a necessity can sometimes be parallel in reasoning to poetry, as for instance, in the timing and pace of text on an ad). in this sense, form poems are more likely to share a relationship with ads, because their limitation is, in some sense, imposed upon them (though again, by the deliberate choice of the poet). this stands in contrast to free verse, which 'ideally' allows the poem itself to determine its 'form' (the meandering and occasionally anxious timing and rhyme scheme of "Prufrock" being the perfect example of this).

A Whole 'Nother Reason Higher Education is Collapsing...

From Edge Magazine:

"Universities are finally losing their monopoly on higher learning", he writes. "There is fundamental challenge to the foundational modus operandi of the University — the model of pedagogy. Specifically, there is a widening gap between the model of learning offered by many big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up digital best learn."

The old-style lecture, with the professor standing at the podium in front of a large group of students, is still a fixture of university life on many campuses. It's a model that is teacher-focused, one-way, one-size-fits-all and the student is isolated in the learning process. Yet the students, who have grown up in an interactive digital world, learn differently. Schooled on Google and Wikipedia, they want to inquire, not rely on the professor for a detailed roadmap. They want an animated conversation, not a lecture. They want an interactive education, not a broadcast one that might have been perfectly fine for the Industrial Age, or even for boomers. These students are making new demands of universities, and if the universities try to ignore them, they will do so at their peril.

Contrary to Nicholas Carr's proposition that Google is making us stupid, Tapscott counters with the following:

My research suggests these critics are wrong. Growing up digital has changed the way their minds work in a manner that will help them handle the challenges of the digital age. They're used to multi-tasking, and have learned to handle the information overload. They expect a two-way conversation. What's more, growing up digital has encouraged this generation to be active and demanding enquirers. Rather than waiting for a trusted professor to tell them what's going on, they find out on their own on everything from Google to Wikipedia.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Collapse of Higher Education?

As you may have noticed, I am a sporadic blogger. I will post incessantly for a week, and then nothing at all. It is all related to my level of down time, in which I am able to just be lazy and ponder possibilities. As we speak, despite my insane amounts of work to do, I am doing a bit of self-imposed laziness. It's good for the soul. Tomorrow, though, I hit the books hard.

In the meantime, you may have noticed (if you follow my Google Reader share feed) that I've been posting articles about the collapse of higher education...or at least one. This particular article notes a series of disturbing trends that anyone who has ever been involved in higher education over the past few years will have noticed:
With tuitions, fees, and room and board at dozens of colleges now reaching $50,000 a year, the ability to sustain private higher education for all but the very well-heeled is questionable. According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, over the past 25 years, average college tuition and fees have risen by 440 percent — more than four times the rate of inflation and almost twice the rate of medical care.
I'm all about working hard to pay for your education. I'm all about waiting tables, being a teaching assistant, working construction during the summer. But those are pretty bad figures...tuition and fees at four times the rate of inflation and twice the rate of medical care?? That's just insane, my friends. Nothing can sustain those sorts of increases.

I suppose I could just say, let the markets decide, but we all know it is the trend of the government to prop up failing institutions, especially those deemed "too big to fail." So what is the college's options? Fail...OR expand at such an exponential rate, push through students during the sugar rush of false growth, that by the time the numbers don't add up, you've become too big to fail, hired too many people to fire without serious consequence, given out too many degrees that may become worthless. Conspiracy theories beside, I don't think I have to argue you into the belief that the consistency of these degrees would have been worthless long before the institution backing them failed. But degrees have become such a commodity, to not have one would render you useless to society, apparently.

This is not to say that I did not benefit from higher education. Indeed, I did. I received public funding as well (it really wouldn't have been possible otherwise these days). But there is no doubt in my mind that our current education system, given the title "bedrock of democracy," have come to mirror our own federal government: bloated, disconnected, and vacuous. Yet I am told, there is no other way! And education must continue! What would we become without education?? So, I read this with interest:
You probably haven't heard of the Ukrainian Catholic University - but I suspect that is going to change. For this wonderful institution offers a philosophy of teaching in radical contrast to the moribund model of Catholic further education found in this country and much of the West.

"You must look into this place," my (Anglican) friend Edward Lucas, author and Eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist, told me. "It's quite amazing." And it is. This university, run on a shoestring, teaches not only the liberal arts and trains Eastern-rite Catholic priests, but also places a community of mentally and physically handicapped people at the centre of its spiritual and social life.

Issues of affiliation aside, I suspect there is a passion at the center of this university that makes it a wholly different sort of place than our modern academy, which has, as Paglia has pointed out over and over again, become a four year booze-fueled, sex-infused resort town funded by mom and dad.

What has changed our current education system. I don't think I've ever been in a class (grade school to my masters) where I did not have a teacher or professor NOT complain about funding. Don't get me wrong. I have no doubt that most of the money that should go to the teachers and programs, gets sidelined into other 'ventures.' But just from this short description, I sense a passion for learning (and the scopes to which learning should reach, that is, compassion) that I desperately wish had been present in my undergrad. Again, this is not to say I did not have a good experience in undergrad or grad school. I felt like I had a better lot than most. But I know my experience is a rarity.

OK, so what this boils down to is my feelings on what should drive higher education, and I'll just state it outright. We have made higher education too education focused! This might seem to contradict what I've said. But the ancients used to consider education a sort of soul-formation. Until we come to understand the place of education in the scope of the rest of society, it will become bloated by self-righteousness and then later collapse in a heap of irrelevant drivel.

Socrates would have said it better, I know.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Psalm 1

Blest is the man
who doesn't sit, stand, or walk
with fast talkers.
Blest also
is the man who doesn't
shit in his own bed or stand
under the coconut tree he rattles.

Blessed even more
is the man
who doesn't shake for coconuts
when there are none.

You are like that tree.
You have a season.
Patience is a virtue.

But God is not
like us lowly sod, man.
He instead is the gardener
and His garden grows
at His command.

Monday, May 25, 2009


To seattle/vancouver. I think i have flown more in the last year than most of my life combined.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

on my own opinion

i learned the hard way last november how your opinion can get you into trouble. or more accurately, being too concerned with your own opinion. that is, letting other people know what you think all the time. it's a problem pretty much as old as humankind itself. and i struggle with it.

the problem last november is that there were so many opinions swirling, and it was so easy to get caught up in the mania of the election and forget that, hey, we go through this every four years, and despite the fact that our society may actually be slowly disintigrating, this election alone could not change that.

the hyped sense of urgency is manufactured every few years (in direct relationship to the magnitude of the election) by the parties to try and "get out the vote." ironically, i believe it actually has a lot to do with the way that americans approach (or neglect) elections. everything is do or die, and most people don't like being put into that sort of situation. it's a little like when i would try to diet in the past few years...get myself hyped up to believe that it was now or never. and then when i failed, i despaired. with urgency comes inevitable despair. similarly, most americans either feel an unnecessary urgency and/or despair.

two items managed to capture this almost perfectly:
1. south park's episode on "vote or die" is absolutely perfect when it comes to describing the way that our society approaches voting. when you refuse to vote, you are immediately relegated to the extreme wings of society (where else would you go, right?).
2. the onion captured the perfect post-christmas-esque let down most obama supporters felt after a year solid of obama frenzy.

concerning the problem of my own opinion. to put it simply: i got caught up in the frenzy of urgency and despair. starting up my own google reader feed had a lot to do with this, honestly. the constant stream of information and ideas made it impossible for me to remain evenhanded. any strong opinion (and there were many!) was enough to send me off the deep end.

unfortunately, i had an outlet for this instability: the facebook feed. i was posting articles like crazy. in the end, however, without meaning to, i ended up hurting a very close friend, not so much because of my opinion, but rather because of the insensitivity in which i posted it. it didn't even register to me at first, that i might hurt somebody, but i was so far off the deep end, i'm not too sure anything would have registered.

so now, you might ask, why am i blogging? isn't blogging centered upon the immediate publication (and hopeful exultation) of one's opinion? well...yes. but, let's be honest...blogs are old school. and on the constantly sliding scale of the internet, when compared to twitter and facebook feeds, blogs are the place of disciplined opinion. that's the problem with twitter, on a more fundamental level--it's unbridled opinion without discipline. or at least, being a new medium, it invites that lack of discipline. nowadays, it's the blogs that finally have come into their own as opinion that is finally coming under the reign of self-control. all those who were completely unbridled have left blogs for twitter. let's face it, when my old agrarian leaning prof, mark mitchell, is blogging, something has come to the blogosphere that is worth holding onto.

and so, it is with this in mind that i plan on blogging in such a way that is disciplined in opinion, in hopes that i actually have something interesting to say.

oh, and i thought of a catchy new phrase to describe this blog....punctuation, without capitalization. like?

academia and the art of motorcycle repair

my lovely fiance passed along a great article to me from nytimes magazine about work with your hands, by matthew crawford, a PHD graduate from chicago (and postdoc fellow for the committee on social thought) who now works in a motorcycle repair shop.

one of his starting points is the dismantling of shop classes in the 90s:

educators prepared students to become "knowledge workers." the imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy.

i remember this dismantling. by the time i took "tech ed" at my school, the equipment had become run down (not to mention out of date), and the teachers were demoralized to the point of idiocy. tech ed had become a required anacronism in our scheduling. crawford continues:

when we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. we idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice foro thers their work may ential....but what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it?

crawford continues with some very interesting anecdotes about the work he's done actually using his degrees, and as you might expect, how unfulfilling it was, even denigrating. our attitude that we might be able to "take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy" seems to have wreaked much havoc in this most recent generation. all you have to do is watch a few middle schoolers send hundreds of texts and hour (seriously), and then wail in literal pain if their parents take their cell phones away to see the damaging sway of information's constant stream.

but the larger point of crawford's is work and economy. what has our economy turned our work into? this, of course, all seems to connect to a wendell berry article i've been reading lately, "racism and the economy." he starts with this same attitude towards work that crawford identifies and ties it to issues our country has been struggling with for years:

the root of our racial problem in america is not racism. the root is in our inordinate desire to be superior--not to some inferior or subject people, though this desire leads to the subjection of people--but to our condition. we wish to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything--of ourselves, each other, or our country. we did not enslave african blacks because they were black, but because their labor promised to free us of the obligations of stewardship, and because they were unable to prevent us from enslaving htem. they were economically valuable and militarily weak.

it makes a lot of sense to me that racism could be our quickest excuse out of history. we think, we are much superior, we believe, because we are not racist. we have solved the essential problem of slavery, which was hatred because somebody looked different. yet we have progressed beyond that irrational contempt, we have moved forward and will continue to move forward.

but what if berry's right, that there is something more fundamental at stake, something that is still motivating us, something, indeed, that motivates our very idea of progress? is it possible that the issue berry identifies is responsible for both slavery and affirmative action? berry says so:

the problem of race, nevertheless, is generally treated as if it could be solved merely by recruiting more blacks and other racial minorities into colleges and then into high-paying jobs. this is to assume, simply, that we can solve the problems of racial minorities by elevating them to full partnership in the problems of the racial majority. we assume that when a young black person acquires a degree, puts on a suit, and achieves a sit-down job with a corporation, the problem is to that exten solved. the larger, graver, more dangerous problem, however, is that we have thought of no better way of solving the race problem.

i forget who it was that said something to the effect of to be well adjusted in a profoundly sick society is no virtue. the problem is not a race problem, berry says, or even an economic one, but a moral and spiritual problem. we have not actually solved the problem of slavery, we only got a better slave: technology, powered by oil (or some future magical boundless green energy). we live in a society that seeks to escape what is aptly summed up in the curse of genesis:

so the Lord God said, the woman, "you will bear children with intense pain and suffering. and though your desire will be for your husband, he will be your master." and to adam He said "because you listened to your wife and ate the fruit i told you not to eat, i have placed a curse on the ground. all your life you will sturggle to scratch a living form it. it will grow throns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains. all your life you will sweat to produce food, until your dying day. then you will return ot the ground from which you came. for you were made from dust, and to the dust you will return."

you don't have to be a fundamentalist christian to see the whole of human history and struggle encased in that statement. foretold there is the last 200 years: slavery, energy dependency, patriarchy and the feminist movement, communism, its fall, out of control markets. scary.

The view from san pedro

Amazing if my crappy cell camera managed to get it.

Two blog posts coming your way when my lappy gets some yummy bandwith to gobble.