Sunday, December 30, 2007

When Johnny (& Janey) Don't Read -- then what?

After reading my colleague Anne-Marie's post about Caleb Crain's New Yorker article "Twilight of the Books," -- getting a head start before my copy arrived in the mail -- I wanted to comment on some parts that seem particularly relevant to my argument class - the struggles to get students to think analytically and critically about what they read. (But do go and read the entire piece, which is excellent.)

Crain says:
More alarming are indications that Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability. According to the Department of Education, between 1992 and 2003 the average adult’s skill in reading prose slipped one point on a five-hundred-point scale, and the proportion who were proficient—capable of such tasks as “comparing viewpoints in two editorials”—declined from fifteen per cent to thirteen.
And "comparing viewpoints in ...editorials" is exactly what I want students to do in my class. This term they will be compiling editorials and op-ed pieces into a portfolio and responding. The challenge is for them to move beyond the response of "he's right/wrong" to more critical and analytical thinking. We teach about Aristotelian appeals, and while students always claim to be most attuned to logical logos, in fact they are as susceptible as anyone to pathos and ethos, the essence of television ads, whether commercial or political, even TV shows.
There is something to gain [from watching TV], of course, or no one would ever put down a book and pick up a remote. Streaming media give actual pictures and sounds instead of mere descriptions of them. “Television completes the cycle of the human sensorium,” Marshall McLuhan proclaimed in 1967. Moving and talking images are much richer in information about a performer’s appearance, manner, and tone of voice, and they give us the impression that we know more about her health and mood, too. The viewer may not catch all the details of a candidate’s health-care plan, (emphasis mine) but he has a much more definite sense of her as a personality, and his response to her is therefore likely to be more full of emotion. There is nothing like this connection in print.
And because our students read less in print and watch more on the screen, the effect can be a greater challenge for analysis. As Crain points out:
Emotional responsiveness to streaming media harks back to the world of primary orality, and, as in Plato’s day, the solidarity amounts almost to a mutual possession. “Electronic technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement,” in McLuhan’s words. The viewer feels at home with his show, or else he changes the channel. The closeness makes it hard to negotiate differences of opinion. It can be amusing to read a magazine whose principles you despise, but it is almost unbearable to watch such a television show. And so, in a culture of secondary orality, we may be less likely to spend time with ideas we disagree with.
This certainly was true even with the assignment to read chapter 28 of our textbook Everything's an Argument, which contains essays on the topic of America's reputation abroad - "Why do they love us? Why do they hate us?" A surprising number of students were not only shocked to discover that America is not universally loved, but also angry. They had no doubts about their belief. This ties in to Crain's comment that,
[s]elf-doubt, therefore, becomes less likely. In fact, doubt of any kind is rarer. It is easy to notice inconsistencies in two written accounts placed side by side. With text, it is even easy to keep track of differing levels of authority behind different pieces of information. The trust that a reader grants to the New York Times, for example, may vary sentence by sentence. A comparison of two video reports, on the other hand, is cumbersome. Forced to choose between conflicting stories on television, the viewer falls back on hunches, or on what he believed before he started watching.
And that lack of critical thinking is a real problem. Teaching students to evaluate and be skeptical of what they see and read is, of course, a main goal of a college education. Crain has laid out the history of this dilemma well.


Friday, December 28, 2007

Update on Golden Compass

I just read this interesting article / interview by Hanna Rosen about The Golden Compass and author Phillip Pullman from The Atlantic, on the question of whether or not the books and film are or are not about killing God and I wanted to update my post of Dec 19. See what they say.

Says Rosen:
When pressed, Pullman grants that he’s not really trying to kill God, but rather the outdated idea of God as an old guy with a beard in the sky. In his novels, he replaces the idea of God with “Dust,” made up of invisible particles that begin to cluster around people when they hit puberty. The Church believes Dust to be the physical evidence of original sin and hopes to eradicate it. But over the course of the series, Pullman reveals it to be the opposite: evidence of human consciousness, a kind of godlike energy that surrounds everyone. People accumulate Dust by “thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on.” It starts to build up around puberty because, for Pullman, sexual awakening triggers the beginning of self-knowledge and intellectual curiosity. To him, the loss of sexual innocence is not a tragedy; it’s the springboard to a productive and virtuous adulthood.
So maybe protesters are jumping the gun or painting a broad brush. Not using a "subtle knife" to make a joke. Nevertheless, I stick by my original assessment that the film lacks a sense of love and compassion, and that I did not find the heroine Lyra to be likable.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Ray Carver - part 1

I'm calling this part 1 because I know I will want to say quite a lot more on this subject and am running out of time today, but I want to get started. My interest in Carver is indirect and maybe atypical: My friend and poet Jim Sommers (Grants Pass, Oregon) knew Carver and shared a house with him at one point in the 1980's. Sommers is still friends with Tess Gallagher, Carver's widow, so when the collection of Carver's poetry All of Us came out in hard back, I was eager to read and review it. (If I can find a link to that review, I'll add it here). Anyway, I really love Carver's poems much much more than his short stories, which I find depressing, and maybe I have an answer. The short stories I have read are not the full Carver.

This week's New Yorker prints Carver's original version of a short story "Beginners" which Carver's editor Gordon Lish turned into the well known short story "What We Talk about when We Talk about Love." You can see the differences between Carver's original and Lish's revisions in this edited manuscript version. Carver's is fuller, softer.

Says "The Take" (see below):
In Carver's version, the story goes on to describe with some warmth the old man's stories to the doctor about his life with his wife, and explores the man's joy when he's finally well enough to visit her in her hospital room. A nurse previously known as "a tough lot" starts weeping at the sight, and the doctor himself seems profoundly affected by it. It's a touching passage that lends the story as a whole a much more bittersweet flavor, even as we can clearly see what about it felt baggy and sentimental to Lish.
And according to this exchange of letters between Carver and Lish, Carver was beginning to see - and worry about - the extent to which Lish was reshaping Carver's stories into something else - not necessarily something bad or less worthy, but something that Carver felt was not his own.

Now, Tess Gallagher is working to reprint the originals, which some critics, such as "The Take" column in The New York Magazine, are cautiously in favor of, if I read this post The New Yorker’ Publishes Raymond Carver's Original; Is It Better Than Gordon Lish's Edit? correctly. They say:
What's good about this new (old) version? For those of us who find Carver's minimalist despair wearying, his version of the story is much gentler than Lish's scathing edit.
On the other hand, they also say:
What's bad about this new (old) version? Well, we can't say we're particularly heartbroken that Lish edited out this deathless section
(and repeats the long section about the restaurant). As for me, I like detail, digressions, fullness and softness. So I will look for the reprint new/original short stories and see how it goes. Still, I can recommend the poems highly. They are direct, vivid, real.

ps: this version of New Yorker online seems not to have the page of introductory text shown in the paper copy of the magazine before the exchange of letters


Snapshots of our lives

Over this holiday, there has finally been time to catch up on the New Yorker, and enjoy John Updike's "Visual Trophies," a review of a new book The Art of the American Snapshot 1888-1978 and exhibit at the National Gallery of Art of 254 snapshots from the collection of Seattle collector Robert E. Jackson. This book/exhibit/collecting urge touches on several interesting points: The history of photographic technology; the history of photographic marketing and sales and how Kodak and Polaroid, among others, changed the way Americans view themselves and their families. What is considered image-worthy? Updike raises some important questions:
It is good times, happy times, that we wish to preserve. In its ads of the twenties and thirties, Kodak insistently pushed its product as the recorder of family life. “I’ll show ’em a real family!” one jubilant snapshooter brags (“He’s something to brag about, that new baby of yours”); another spread shows two commuters on a railroad platform, one of them enviously studying the other’s snapshots and thinking, “I felt ashamed. He was so proud of his children; why hadn’t I taken snapshots of mine?” A third ad simply advises, while a proficient mother photographs her two children in their lunch booth, “Let Kodak keep the story.” The camera both exalted and invaded domestic privacy—“Candid photography is making us human goldfish,” one pundit wrote in the journal Photography in 1938.
And this led to important changes in special events, rituals:
At many a wedding, the hired photographer replaced the minister as the central officiator.
Now, the ones recording the event were also directing the event - we are not living our own lives but only vicariously as actors at the direction of others. And what was the point?

Updike admits he was not immune:
The photographic impulse, as I experienced it in my days as a Nikon-toting daddy, wore two aspects, the creative and the commemorative. The first sought to catch, in the plump snap of the shutter, something vivid and even beautiful in its color and contour; the second aim, more realistic though in a sense grander, was to halt the flow of time.
If the unspoken goal was to halt the flow of time, then what images are considered worth keeping? Well, all of them. But then what do we do with these images once we have them? Boxes and boxes of images, unsorted, uncataloged, often unlooked at again. Updike admits that he is like many Americans with unsorted stacks of photos.
My own shoeboxes of curling, yellowing snapshots derive their fascination almost entirely from my personal connections with the depicted matter—grandparents and parents, cousins and schoolmates, houses I once lived in, vistas and furniture lifted from my private temps perdu.
Like Updike I also have shoe boxes, though most recently my saved photos are in Whitman's Candy Sampler boxes. Portland author Chelsea Cain has plastic storage tubs.

Cain's Dec 19 post "Let's Go: Green Thermos" from the Oregonian, describes what happens when the pictures are left behind for surviving family - in this case, her mother's photos looked at after her mother died:

And then, the photographs. There were boxes and boxes of them. Photographs of her childhood, of mine, of us, of friends, old family photographs, photographs of other peoples' families that she'd bought in thrift stores or at garage sales, a hodgepodge of flashes of lives now gone.

I went through the photographs in the days after she died and put together an album to have out at her service, pictures of her through her life, and pictures of the people she loved.
Why do we do this? Take photos and save them. I think Updike is right - creative and commemorative - a hope to halt time. So our snapshots may not compare esthetically with those of the great photographers, but they fulfill an important role in our lives and give us back the times we have lost. Sometimes, the emotions are too much.

Recalls Cain:
It was months before I started to go through the photographs again. I told myself I was going to organize them. Some were in envelopes, some were in plastic boxes, some were in albums, most were loose. I tried to separate them into stacks. Mom. Mom and me. Mom and friends. Nature. (Thirty percent of the pictures my mom took were of flowers.) But I would get distracted by the images and my memories and eventually give up on the organization and get caught up in the pictures. It's been 10 years now. I've upgraded the boxes from cardboard to plastic tubs. The organization project? Not so successful. I keep trying. Every couple of years, I get those boxes out and start making stacks.
But of course she got sidetracked by memories and the photos remained unsorted. Cain comes right back to the modern problem, the problem that faces the cartoon Cathy character and brings us to the question of why - why take pictures, why keep pictures, what to do with the pictures. The tangible souvenirs, memories, have changed now with technology. Just as social networking online is not the same as a face-to-face visit, so Cain, says, there's a difference with paper versus online images:

A few years ago my sister-in-law got a digital camera from her husband for Christmas. She had it the first couple of times we visited, and then the next time we saw her it was gone, and she had her old film camera again. "What happened to the camera?" I asked her.

"It was fine," she said. "But I missed picking up the photographs." She said that she loved taking pictures, and she loved having pictures, but the thing she loved most was going to pick up the photographs and taking the envelope to the car and opening it up and seeing what had turned out. That moment, that five minutes, that was one of her favorite things.

She'd tried to get used to the digital camera, to embrace all it had to offer, but in the end it just wasn't worth it. Life doesn't have a lot of those moments, those favorite five minutes, and she missed her connection to those images, a connection that just wasn't happening on that little LCD screen, where each picture was vetted, deleted, restaged.

We have a digital camera, and a thousand images, all saved in files on a hard drive. I need to print them out and put them in a box. So my daughter has something to organize.

The pervasiveness of this phenomenon of photographing everything and saving it -- and the frustration -- are often the joke in the Cathy comic strip by Cathy Guisewite. I wasn't able to find a particular episode from the past to link showing Cathy surrounded by thousands of unsorted photos (and now, by thousands of digital camera memory sticks), but today's cartoon jokes about not having downloaded holiday photos etc. Modern technology does allow - encourage? - more immediate selection / deletion / of digital photos (even iPhone photos).

I recall reading that Socrates worried that the new technology of writing would erode memory. Individual memory, maybe, but writing created / aided / institutional memory. Now, I suspect that the same is true for photography. And with the perspective of a hundred plus years, we can see how this image capturing is playing a role in our lives.


I wondered what this Google Friends thing was

Miguel Helft at the New York Times has helped me understand the new Google Friends feature on my Google blog reader - and I don't like what I hear, if I understand it. Yes, I find the Google Reader very helpful to keep track of blogs by friends and colleagues. But I don't necessarily want to share that with everyone. As far as I know, though, I haven't used the Google Talk feature, so maybe I'm "safe" as Helft explains it. Has anyone else? I certainly see Helft's point that just because I might talk with someone about an article or item, that doesn't necessarily make us friends.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"Writing to Change the World"

Mary Pipher, author of the excellent Reviving Ophelia, has a new book (July 2007) Writing to Change the World, which is receiving good reviews from some folks but poor reviews from others. Says Amanda at Literary Illusions,
While I recommend Reviving Ophelia to every parent, teacher and social worker I meet, I cannot recommend Writing to Change the World to anyone. It is unfortunate that a writer that influenced a generation of therapists cannot explain to others how to write with passion.
Amanda illustrates her frustration with this paragraph:
The most disappointing moment in the book is a letter Pipher wrote to her city commissioners. The letter expressed her desire to keep a motocross course from opening next to the Spring Creek Prairie that she often walked. She admits her letter was pompous, ineffective and written in the wrong voice. Pipher contrasts her inappropriate letter with a powerful letter written by a friend, and it becomes clear just how inadequate Pipher’s letter really is. While I’m sure Pipher included these letters to show that even a published author may misunderstand his/her audience, her letter was so terrible that it led me to question all her writing advice.
So I will have to read it myself and see. I hope I do not feel as gloomy about it as Amanda does.

I first found Writing to Change yesterday in the OSU bookstore while hunting Christmas gifts for writer friends. Pipher's book looked just right for my WR 222 class which is argumentation "writing to the world" using Lunsford et al's Everything's an Argument. Pipher has a chapter on blogs, too, which is a new addition to the class - not keeping a blog, but reading and commenting on others. Check the Amazon link to see the Table of Contents and an excerpt (which apparently does not allow me to paste a sample here for you.) So, although I have not yet read it, I will read it and I will see what can be usefully shared.


Rain - "The blessed, bountiful, horrible rains"

Sallie Tisdale, lovely regional author, writes in Sunday's Oregonian about rain. She says she has "become a connoisseur" of rain, and yet
Then there is the rain that drives me mad, the cold and steady rain that falls for days from dark, lowering skies. A gutter slips from its catches, water cascades off the roof, drips down the basement walls, washes away the soil. Suddenly murderous, I break an appointment and refuse to answer the phone. The house feels as damp as the wet street outside my wet window, my wet shoes and my wet coat and my wet heart.
And many of our students - especially those who come from Hawaii, find winters on OSU's campus depressing. For them as for Tisdale,
So, we have gray skies [here in Oregon] -- so does Paris. Why does it feel like so much more than it is? Because there is a certain incessant quality. Because it can and does sometimes rain for weeks. (Our record is 34 days straight.) Because I prefer the sun. Because that one inch of rain on our rainiest days -- that one is falling on me. I am ashamed, cursing at this tender weather, so much easier than many people manage all year round. Imagine the wettest spot on Earth: the lovely Mount Wai'ale'ale in Kauai, Hawaii, where it rains about 460 inches a year.

And here's an interesting fact that Tisdale points out:

The Northwest has several of the world's steepest rain grades, where the amount of moisture drops dramatically in a short distance. In the Olympic Range, precipitation can range from 200 inches in the center of the mountains to about 15 inches on the eastern side. In the 20 miles between Sisters and the Santiam Pass, annual precipitation drops more than 60 inches.

These geographic differences - "orthographic enhancements" - are what contribute to the especially heavy snows we lived through those winters at the rim of Crater Lake when we had our cross country ski business and the weather forecast for snow "locally heavy at times" usually brought us 2-3 feet more than elsewhere. A kind of lake effect perhaps.

Anyway, says Tisdale,

I am mostly used to[the Oregon climate] now. I love the spring and summer and fall. I love the green. And the rains have become the walls of the cave where I spend the cold months. In here there is a fire and family and light.


Turning to - away from? - the Golden Compass

We saw the film The Golden Compass on Monday, our every other year film outing at Christmas time in our little local theater. The last time we went it was Narnia, and these two films make an interesting comparison. In both cases we have wars of good and evil and lots of charming animals, though I thought the characters in Compass were generally more selfish other than the exiled prince of armored bears -- Iorek -- who acts with more dignity and honor and compassion and selflessness than the rest. In reading the plot of the book(originally called) Northern Lights versus the film on Wikipedia, it becomes clearer why some people are protesting the film/book as an attack on religion, especially Catholicism. See ABC News item. Wikipedia claims that the British author Phillip Pullman is an atheist.

An office colleague yesterday told me that she believed that the author Pullman hated CS Lewis (author of Narnia) and created a plot where the children destroy God. I must say I didn't get a notion of children out to get God from the film (though it's only part 1 of a trilogy). However, I did notice that the evil organization, The Magisterium, showed resemblances to the Vatican. But what seems illogical about the protest is that the Magisterium wants to remove free will whereas I always thought that Christianity was founded on the notion that God gives people free will.

ABC news has its own long blog conversation . And check out Technorati which lists 19,076 blog posts on the topic. Many bloggers refered to Phillip Pullella's article from Reuters today (?) on the Vatican's statement about the film. Says Pullella:
"In Pullman's world, hope simply does not exist, because there is no salvation but only personal, individualistic capacity to control the situation and dominate events," the editorial said.
Now, on this point I agree (rare to agree with the Vatican!) because after the film I said, all the characters are so selfish, whereas in Narnia, there is much more effort to help and give to others.

Obesity ghettos?

When my students in WR 222 want to argue about obesity rates and causes (going deeper than the obvious - too much food, too little exercise), I have lately been steering them to consider the correlation/causation between poverty and obesity. Now, news from Canada, illustrates this in a new way with an obesity map overlapping regions of obesity with locations of fast food restaurants. This notion of geographic determinism is not new. David Zinczenko's "Don't Blame the Eater" excerpted in New York Times Nov 23, 2002 (and reprinted completly in the They Say, I Say textbook we use) makes this very clear:
Shouldn't we know better than to eat two meals a day in fast-food restaurants? That's one argument. But where, exactly, are consumers -- particularly teenagers -- supposed to find alternatives? Drive down any thoroughfare in America, and I guarantee you'll see one of our country's more than 13,000 McDonald's restaurants. Now, drive back up the block and try to find someplace to buy a grapefruit.
The same notion of healthy food deserts is echoed in Lisa Takeuchi Cullen's June 4, 2004 article for Time "Not too rich or too thin" where she notes:
Processed foods aren't just cheap, tasty and filling. They're also more accessible. One study found that 28% of Americans live in what nutritionists call "food deserts," places where big supermarkets are at least 10 miles, or a 20-min. drive, away. People who live in these places wind up buying much of their daily groceries from convenience stores or gas stations, where they can find Chef Boyardee but not baby carrots. Some communities are trying to remedy this. Philadelphia, for instance, recently announced a $100 million effort to open 10 supermarkets in urban neighborhoods. But for much of the country, says Troy Blanchard, a sociology professor at Mississippi State University who studies this issue, "you have people who are literally distanced out of healthy diets."
Poverty ghettos are often fast food ghettos which not surprisingly leads to obesity ghettos. We are not only what we eat, but as the Canadian Press points out "where we eat." This makes the war for health a lot more complicated

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Holidays are the time to read - I hope

I'm hoping for some reading time this holiday season. Of course I'm always reading - but mostly student papers - which still stand in stacks on my office floor waiting for me to finish grading. But when I'm done - well, Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, is still waiting on my coffee table, recommended by my librarian friend Paula, and I bought myself (secret Santa) the new Jan Karon Home to Holly Springs, which I am sure will be delightful (Joyce McClurg of USA Today thinks so). But today's news mentions Patricia Hampl's new memoir The Florist's Daughter, which sounds great. I loved her spiritual memoir/travel book Virgin Time, both for herself and for her writing. So this new memoir is tempting. Plus, I loved working in a florist shop and would enjoy the insie look at her father's business. The review by Marjorie Kehe points out the Hampl loved her father more easily than her difficult mother. I can relate to that as well. Reading the New York Times Book Review was how I taught myself to write and introduced a freelance writing career, and "when I retire" I plan to revive this goal. But it also links to my other jobs - bookseller and librarian. So - as my mother would say - "we'll see."