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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Plutocrats and Popular Science

As I finished reading Jane Mayer’s article, “Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging a War on Obama,” in this week’s New Yorker, an image of these brothers’ names flashed into my memory. David H. and Charles Koch inherited the oil refining business turned uncategorizable and behemoth conglomerate that has made them two of the richest men in America from their father, who also instilled in them the same doctrinaire libertarianism that is undermined by such nepotistic windfall legacies. Mayer details how the Brothers Koch launder millions to causes friendly to their business interests, like those opposed to environmental regulations, by setting up various think tanks and foundations few suspect have any ties to them. And here I thought Exxon Mobil was the big force behind the Cato Institute.

It’s disturbing enough to discover how many so-called grass roots movements were produced and funded by people whose conservative ideology serves as a transparent veil for self-interested plutocratic aims, but in the final sections of the article we find out that the Kochs may be influencing public views on the science of human evolution. While reading about the prominence given to the theory that the rapid expansion of brain size that transformed our lineage from bipedal apes to humans occurred as the result of centuries of erratic climate shifts in The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, I remembered also seeing the name Koch at the end of PBS’s series on human evolution, “Becoming Human,” in which the unstable climate theory likewise featured prominently.

According to Mayer’s article, the Koch’s are major underwriters of Climate Change Denialist propaganda—like that regularly coming out of Cato. Of course, the idea that rapid climate change in the Pleistocene brought about human braininess is not at odds with the scientific consensus that anthropogenic global warming is real and poses a severe threat; it’s a matter of framing. A devious propagandist could easily tweak the presentation of the theory and subsequently use it to make the real threat seem less ominous, which is exactly what many accuse the Kochs of doing at the Smithsonian. And now I find myself wondering, how much currency does the unstable climate theory really enjoy in the paleoanthropology community? John Hawkes, for instance, wrote of the show on his blog that it "may have gone a little too far in the 'climate made everything happen' direction."

The issue of funding for things like museums and public television is fraught with scary questions like this. I consider it one of best arguments against conservatism that private funding for these public presentations of science has such great potential for this type of distortion.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Another Damn Great Book: Review of "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet"

I read a couple of reviews of David Mitchell’s “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” before deciding it was a book I really needed to squeeze onto my slate before the summer’s end. Everything I read was high praise. Even before receiving the Amazon box in the mail, I imagined writing, either in a blog or in a Facebook post, “As a writer, you sometimes come across a work that makes you want to scrap everything you’ve ever written and start all over again.” Did “The Thousand Autumns” make me feel that way? Well, it’s a really good book. I’d even say it’s a great book. That my expectations could have been even greater raises some interesting questions.

One word has to follow another, one way or another. But no sooner was I surprised by the simplicity of Mitchell’s narration than I was engrossed in the plight of Jacob de Zoet, a clerk charged with sifting through the company’s ledgers to uncover the corruption of his fellow Europeans. The scenes, whether aboard a ship, on the artificial island called Dejima built to keep the merchants quarantined from mainland Nagasaki, or in a mountain shrine, are all close and fraught with the tension of trapped humans. We find out early on that Jacob is an honest and intelligent man surrounded by more questionable individuals. And we simultaneously begin pulling for him to make it through his foreign stint back to his fiancée back in The Netherlands. In part two, the narration shifts focus to two other characters, both of whom like our conscientious clerk turn out to be honorable and incorruptible in the midst of unspeakable venality and cruelty.

The pattern of the one good character set upon by numerous bad ones is well in keeping with the theory of narrative explicated in William Flesch’s “Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction.” Each of three main characters performs deeds of self-sacrificial altruism, Jacob by refusing to sign the new chief’s dishonest inventory, the interpreter Ogawa by trying to rescue a midwife from the mountain shrine, and the midwife herself, Aibigawa by returning to that same shrine after successfully escaping so that she can minister to her pregnant fellow prisoners. And then of course there’s the bad guy, the one who’s not simply selfish and unscrupulous but positively evil. Abbot Enomoto is the leader of the shrine which he uses as a farm for newborn infants in an attempt to stave off aging and death. We read on in suspense as to whether the goodies will persevere and the baddies, Enomoto chief among them, will get their comeuppance.

The problem is that once I was through the first part of the book and starting to learn about the shadowy shrine and the circumstances under which midwife Aibagawa found herself trapped there I also stopped finding enjoyment in orienting myself in the foreign setting among all the colorful characters and started to feel like I was reading something closer to genre fiction than anything I’d call literary. For one thing, aside from a hostile doctor, Marinus, none of the characters undergoes much of a change. The goodies stay good, the baddies bad. For another, the separation between the good guys and bad guys is so vast it strains credulity. At points during Ogawa’s rescue mission I found myself being reminded more of “Sin City” than “War and Peace,” especially when the violence and misogyny are so lovingly expressed, as when Ogawa overhears two guards at the redoubt of the shrine:

“Before we was married, she was, ‘No, after we’re married I’m yours but not till
then,’ but since the wedding she’s all, ‘No, I ain’t in the mood, so paws off.’ All I
did was knock sense into her, like any husband would, but since then the demon
in the blacksmith’s wife jumped into mine an’ now she won’t look at me. Can’t
even divorce the she-viper, of fear her uncle’d take back his boat, an’ then
where’d I be?” (308)

By the time I was finished with part two, I was wondering what great truths about life I was being brought face-to-face with, what mundane experiences were being made wondrous, even sacral. There are some human universals worked out in the novel, like the confrontation between venal men and those more conscientious, the predicament of those unfortunate enough to be born to lower orders, the sorry state of women in patriarchal societies. And the story has plenty of poetry in its descriptions and characterizations that seamlessly compliment rather than encumber its momentum. Yet I kept closing the book at the end of the day without any sense of discovery. Learning yes, about The Dutch East India Company, Japan at the turn of the 19th century—which was inconsequential to them as they have their own way of reckoning the days. But discovery is a more complicated matter than mere learning.

At times, Mitchell’s sprinkling of one-line descriptions of a scene into arch and pseudo-poetic dialogue, both inner—denoted by italics—and outer, fraught and ominous, struck me more as an annoying mannerism than a virtuoso melding of form and narrative. He even has a habit of splitting lines of dialogue with dashed explications. “He"—Jacob notices the English captain watching them through his telescope—“believes we Dutch are cowards.” And later on the same page, “Why”—Jacob’s voice is taut and high—“why do the English do that?” (440). At times, this breaking in of the author failed to give a sense of many things happening at once, and read more like one damn thing after another. This is especially true of the scenes in which prayers or psalms are being recited.

“‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…’”
…and Jacob still has the scroll, and I’m sorry, I’m sorry
“‘I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff…’”
Jacob waits for the explosion and the swarm and the tearing. (444)

One’s mind goes back to the climax of the movie "Titanic." And there’s even one of those teasing scenes that have the character waking up from what’s clearly a dream to what just might be reality but turns out to be yet another nested dream (343). Prior to this book, I’d only ever encountered these in movies.

I have to stress though that these complaints are all quibbles, and there are plenty of high points to counterbalance them, such as the various points when the several characters tell their stories and jump from page into life. But as a writer I found myself posing the questions to myself as I read, “Could I have written something like this?” and “If had the aptitude and resources, would I write something like this?” Mitchell clearly researched his setting thoroughly, and working out the plot must have been a painstaking endeavor. And this thoroughness and planning make for some magical storytelling.

But only at a few points did I find the novel to be formidable, in the sense that I simply couldn’t fathom how Mitchell had pulled off his tricks. (I don’t mean this as a boast—I’ve yet to publish a story, while Mitchell has been shortlisted for Booker Prizes.) And after the first part, I struggled with a sense that the book simply wasn’t important. Like other genre fiction, its pleasures were more escapist than topical. I’m not suggesting every book need feature or allegorize current events, just that there has to be some greater compulsion to write, which later becomes a greater compulsion to read. That is the most formidable trick of all. As of yet, I can’t fathom how one pulls it off.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Fault and Default in Teaching Styles

When the chair of the English Department sat across from me in his office and admonished, “It’s not going to be anything romantic, like making some special connection with a bunch of likeminded students; you’re going to be trying to teach a bunch of people who don’t want to learn,” his warning resonated with my college experiences all too well. Of course, I never believed I would be stepping into “Dead Poets Society” and I didn’t really care. I’m a writer, not a teacher. I was just accepting the position to spruce up my CV and get my tuition covered. So, the chair of the department (who I won’t name here) and I had the same attitude toward the material: it’s hard, but it’s worthwhile—show me that you’re willing to put forth the effort or be on your way.

Still, I was a bit disturbed in the middle of my first semester teaching by how apathetic and lethargic my students were. So I went to the office of another professor, Damian Fleming, who had taught a Chaucer course I’d loved the previous semester. “The Canterbury Tales” in the original Middle English could have been drudgery, but Dr. Fleming had a playful approach that made it irresistible—at least to a geek like me. When I described to him my concern he recognized my predicament immediately. “Do they just sit there with this look on their face like, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’” That was exactly the look I was getting. Dr. Fleming had a few practical suggestions, like having everyone in class speak up, even if it’s just to read out loud, as often as possible. But what really impressed me, and continues to impress me, is that he has come to exemplify for me an attitude toward teaching diametrically opposed to my own default mindset—and he’s a much a better teacher.

The attitude Dr. Fleming subcommunicates is that this stuff—Old English, diphthongs, metathesis—may be arcane and boring, but we’re all fun people so we’re going to have fun with it. Before long, it dawns on you that the material can’t actually be boring if you’re enjoying learning about it. At the same time, you’re seeing evidence of how important all you’re learning about really is every time you read a paper or watch the news—Is English endangered by Spanish-speaking immigrants? Will texts and emails ruin the language?—and suddenly it’s anything but arcane. The difference between Dr. Fleming’s approach and that of the department chair is that the better teacher takes responsibility for student engagement while the lesser teacher places that responsibility solely on the students.

After three semesters of teaching, I’ve realized I’m not content to follow the aloof approach to managing a classroom. I realize I can’t rely on my fascinating anecdotes and quirky asides to convince students that what I’m having them do is worthwhile because my personal style—anyone’s personal style—is hit-or-miss. Some will like it. Some will be put off by it. This is true of the material too; some people will never really get into writing or reading at any point in their lives. But what I can do, and what Dr. Fleming does particularly well, is subcommunicate that the material is interesting and that the tasks are worthwhile. That’s why I’m excited to be reading “Teach Like a Champion” by Doug Lemov. (Don't let the corny title fool you.)

I’ll probably do a full review of Lemov’s book sometime soon (I’m not finished with it yet) but for now I’ll just relate some of the thoughts and realizations I've had as I’ve been reading it. When you get that why-are-you-doing-this-to-me look everyday, you unconsciously begin to make deals with the class, conceding, for instance, that the lessons are boring, but promising to get through them as quickly as possible. Or you concede that the work is tedious—and perhaps even pointless—but you promise not to make it any longer or any more complicated than it has to be to meet the standards set for you by the department. This latter is a big problem for me because I often find myself at odds, ideologically, with the professors and heads of The Department of English and Linguistics, a majority of whom are true believers in the vagaries of Rhetoric or the absurdities of Postmodernism. So it’s easy for me to end up in a position where I’m emphasizing that I’m just a student like everyone else in my class, and I think a lot of what the department promulgates is silly and pointless too. The corollary is, so let’s just work through it all together as quickly and painlessly as possible. Meanwhile the class’s opportunity to really experience the best of what writing can be in any profound way is lost.

“Teach Like a Champion” offers several techniques for getting the class engaged without cutting such deals. No Opt Out, for instance, has teachers come back to students who’ve passed on a question in class, so they learn they can’t simply get away with not paying attention or not doing their homework by pretending not to understand. Right is Right is an important technique for me because I tend to meet students halfway when they’re trying to work through a complicated question, feeding them most of the answer, which really robs them of the opportunity to do it completely on their own and breeds laziness by sending the message that if you just try a little I’ll do most of the work for you. The technique has the teacher insist on a right answer before proceeding, and resisting the urge to fill in the blanks of incomplete answers.

One of the thoughts those students who wear that accusing and terrorized expression are having is probably, I don’t feel like I know this stuff very well so I hope he doesn’t call on me or ask me to do anything. But what if every student in the class knew he or she was going to be called on, knew they’d have to participate and contribute their take on the reading or on the question at hand every day? No Opt Out is good for instilling this expectation and fostering preparedness. But the most important technique on this front in “Teaching Like a Champion” is Cold Call, which has you choosing students to call on randomly—not punitively, which backfires—sometimes regardless of whose hands are raised. This sends the message that the material is important enough that everyone should be able to answer questions on it. And the class itself is important enough that you won’t ever be allowed to sail through it daydreaming.

By applying these and other techniques I hope to be taking responsibility for classroom engagement and not falling back on my default approach of buddying up and making deals. Maybe my students will come away thinking I’m a martinet (I’d be happy if they used that word), but I hope they also come away having lost just a little certainty in their belief that writing is inherently boring and pointless, something you have to do a little of to graduate but beyond that the domain of other people who are more interested in it. Of course, I don’t expect wild success at first application of a bunch of techniques I learned from a book (though it does come with a dvd). I do, however, believe the change in mindset will have an effect on its own.

First Impressions: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell

[This truly is a first impression as I've only started reading the book.]

Stylistically, the story progresses unencumbered by flourishes. This is not to say the prose is sparse or that the narrative isn’t devoid of abundance. For one, it is chock full of phrases and vocabulary dating to the period—1799 on a Dutch trading post on the shore of Japan—which would take a great deal of time and effort to track down but which the wise reader trusts the author to have researched and accepts as good texture for a historical work. For another, the novel is expansive in a way few seem to be, interested in several characters, not rushing to put any single one through a moment of reckoning. The complexity of the setting and the breadth of the narrative allow for a wonderful immersion reminiscent of “Anna Karenina” or other classic historical novels. And there are startlingly good descriptions subtly woven into the narrative, as when “cicadas shriek in ratcheted rounds” (29) or when one of the characters, Ouwehand, says to another in morning passing, “Another furnace of a day ahead” (30). A clock even becomes something of a character in its own right. “The Almelo clock divides the time with bejeweled tweezers” (36) is just one of several lines devoted to it.

Jacob is a clerk working for the Dutch East India Company on an artificial island on the shore of Nagasaki, hoping to earn enough to convince the father of his amour he would make a worthy husband. As a clerk and an amateur artist he is detail-oriented, opening the door for plenty of that good narrative texture and even a few illustrations. As of yet (I’ve just finished chapter 7—the first 90 pages) there is too much incident and description to allow for much psychological depth. Jacob is lonely, misses his fiancée Anna, is unaccountably taken with a disfigured Japanese midwife, and prevented from making friends by his official task of searching out irregularities in previous years’ accounting so those responsible can be duly punished and corruption weeded out.

There is also much discussion, most interestingly with the Japanese interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon, about romantic love and marriage, a topic which seems to render most westerners wistful. Ogawa believes “A man should love his concubine, so when love dies he say, ‘Goodbye,’ easy and no injury. Marriage is different: marriage is matter of head…rank…business…bloodline” (86).Tellingly, Ogawa follows this with a question: “Holland families are not same?” Jacob responds, “We are exactly the same, alas.”

Will Jacob make it through his service unmolested (or without further molestation after a certain Dr. Marinus’s ill use of his body in a scene painful to read)? Will he come away with a sufficient fortune to satisfy his would-be father-in-law's ambition? Or will he fall in love with Miss Aibagawa, the midwife, and forget Anna? How will his sensitive and romantic and conscientious mind see him through these travails? The reading is brisk and delightful so I’ll have answers soon enough.