e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


greasy kid stuff

Another Thanksgiving in O'Fallon, Illinois. Very little writing, very little grading of student papers, and very little anxiety over tenurewritingdeadlinesuniversitypolitics. And I was thankful for *the absence* of that trio of real-world realities.

Since our O'Fallon pals have three small children--younger even than my siblings-in-law and most of my nieces and nephews--we immersed ourselves in kid culture. A little Go Fish, a little Dinosaur Dominos, a little bit of cruising around to look at the Christmas lights illuminating suburbia. And a weekend double-feature of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (the best HP film so far) and "Chicken Little" (Q: is it possible to be "extremely mediocre"? A: yes).

I knew Thanksgiving had to be a real, albeit short, break. The winter hiatus will be a whirlwind, thanks to a January 1 deadline on the book manuscript (not to mention a self-imposed new year deadline on the working-class poetics article), interviews with job candidates, and a new syllabus to finish.


tuesday round-up

  • It must be the end of November. I'm starting to get that burned-out feeling.
  • Thanksgiving. The long weekend couldn't have come at a better time. Tomorrow a.m. we're off to O'Fallon, IL. to visit old pals from Tucson, who now live in suburban St. Louis. I'll do the cooking on turkey day. I love cooking, and I'm pretty good at it, but being responsible for Thanksgiving food always freaks me out.
  • Saw the Johnny Cash film Walk the Line over the weekend. How could a film about Cash fail to please? Full of affecting moments: singing "Cocaine Blues" to prisoners at Folsom, watching a violent filmstrip about Folsom while still in the military and identifying with the hard-timers, singing "It Ain't Me Babe" as a duet with June Carter while his wife sits in the frontrow and being too strung out and confused to know who he's singing those words to, etc. etc. The pic uses rags-to-riches and salvation-via-the-love-of-a-good-woman and even VH1 trappings and tropes and probably neglects Cash's religious conversions and ambivalences, but comes out a winner anyway due to the unbelievable music and the performances of the two leads.
  • Best Johnny Cash song ever: "One Piece at a Time," about an auto worker who devises a plan to steal a Cadillac: "I'd sneak it out of there in a lunchbox in my hand. Now gettin' caught meant getting fired, but I figured I'd have it all by the time I retired. I'd have me a car worth at least a hundred grand." Song did NOT appear in the film, sadly.
  • Current writing projects: three entries ("Community Colleges," "Higher Education," and Vo-Tech Education") for Greenwood's Class in America encyclopedia; revisions to the introduction of New Rhetorics of Working-Class Consciousness, now--at last!--under contract with Pitt; article on working-class poetics and my grandpa's writings; a reflective piece about teaching the rhetorics of class for a special pedagogy issue of Living Forge; next term's syllabi.
  • UM Dearborn's hiring a writing program director. Not too late to apply.
  • Tonight's the last in MCHR's film series. 7:00, St. John's Church at 11-Mile and Woodward. Tonight's film: "Oil Factor: Behind the War on Terror," narrated by Ed Asner. Followed by what's sure to be a heated discussion.

more photoessays

I posted a few weeks back some links to photoessays that my Comp. 106 students had been working with online. I wanted to follow up that post by linking to a sampling of my students' Detroit photoessays, many of which are intriguing, rhetorically and visually. I need to do more reading on visual rhetorics (recommended sources anyone?), and perhaps think about a paper on photo essays for the Detroit edition of the Computers and Writing conference.

Anyhow, from the Comp. 106 group, here are some good reads (most of these are still works-in-progress):

The Game is Over
Open Space
American Baby
Out and About in Ferndale

These photo essays all use blogger as a canvas. Other students are using Power Point. I noticed that students were more engaged than usual when we did various workshopping and peer reviewing activities. I think that engagement had a lot to do with the visual component of the project. Next time I'd like to use the Photo Essay assignment earlier in the term, so the visual can become (early on) a heuristic for other writing and blogging that the students do.


Bait and Switch

I finally finished Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch, a somewhat tedious look at unemployed corporate America. Ehrenreich goes undercover, as she did in the superior but flawed Nickle and Dimed, this time to study the lifestyles of a white-collar workforce rightly fretting over increasing job insecurity. Essentially, Ehrenreich repeats the Nickle and Dimed experiment--to document her attempt to survive in low-wage jobs--this time with higher-prestige corporate jobs. Maybe because of the rehashed premise, Bait and Switch often reads like a movie sequel. Nickle and Dimed made waves in 2001 and had some revelatory moments, like the ruthless treatment Ehrenreich endures during her tenure as a waitress who is not allowed to rest for even a moment. Ethically, though, Nickle and Dimed was often on shaky ground, treating the real-life low-wage workers in the book like circus performers. And, as my students often pointed out (I taught the book for several years), Ehrenreich let her classism (ewwww, look at all the mayonaise and red meat they're eating...look at them sitting in church like fools) undermine her credibility.

In Bait and Switch, undercover Ehrenreich can't actually GET a corporate job, so she documents white-collar unemployment. She points out that 44% of the unemployed are from middle-class, "professional" and/or corporate lines of work. In the book she describes corporate job searches, networking events (with their frequent religious agendas), career coaches, internet pseduo-businesses meant to aid the job search, and the desperation of those using these services. Overwhelmingly (and not at all surprisingly), these job search services use a rhetoric of individualism and blame-the-victim that divert attention from the context of corporate unemployment (greed, downsizing, etc.). It's a familiar narrative and Ehrenreich offers few new insights, and fewer solutions to the problem.

How should folks concerned about these issues organize? How might the unemployed middle class and working class take common cause to fight the systemic abuses Ehrenreich describes? These questions, or other productive/proactive queries, aren't pursued in the book.

In fact, I kept thinking as I read Bait and Switch that the book underscores the limits of rhetorical analysis, or rather that the book uses a limited version of rhetorical analysis. What I mean is that there's no praxis, only a critique of language with no identified implications. Ehrenreich shows the uses of terms like "self adaptation" and "in transitions," obvious euphemisms, but doesn't reveal much about the constitutive value of the terms. Put another way, she doesn't do much with the "so what" question. Like the new Wal Mart film I blogged the other day, Bait and Switch doesn't do much to reach beyond the like-minded.


Wal Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

Last night, the MCHR screnned Robert Greenwald's new documentary "Wal Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," an uneven, long, but sometimes-compelling critique of the big-box behemoth. Greenwald made the outstanding Outfoxed film, an expose of Fox News, so I guess I expected more from his new offering. On the brightside, the film attracted over two-hundred people, and sitting in a church basement with that many people who give a damn tends to leave you feeling almost hopeful.

First off, saying something new and rhetorically effective about Wal Mart is tough. The Walton family's destruction of mom-and-pop stores, monopoly-like control over the retail market, union busting, refusal to give employees health care, and reliance on sweatshop labor to produce their cheap items are all familiar problems. And, as a high-profile lefty cause, invoking Wal Mart's problems prompts either nods from those who find their practices problematic or eye-rolling from those who don't. Hence, the challenge for Greenwald is two-fold: 1) reach beyond the already like-minded, and 2) tell us something we don't already know.

Here's what really worked in the film. Greenwald exposes Wal Mart stores, especially those out west, actively ENCOURAGING employees to go on public assistance, creating fliers telling low-wage employees to collect welfare, that the aid comes from their own tax dollars and they should obtain health care and other needs via public assistance. Greenwald juxtaposes this campaign with statistics about the huge number of Wal Mart employees who are indeed on public aid and the amount of tax dollars ($1.6 billion) that last year went to welfare for Wal Mart employees. That equation didn't surprise me one stitch, but it seemed like a great moment for convincing moderates and even fiscal conservatives that something is amiss.

Tax dollars essentially subsidize the largest and richest corporation in the world. Billions--literally--roll into the Wal Mart empire, but they can't offer health care or living wages to their employees, who in turn collect welfare, funded by tax payers instead of the billion-dollar industry that makes its fortunes on the backs of its health care-deprived employees.

Here's where the film lost that savvy. Later segments in the film focused on crime in Wal Mart parking lots. Now, I recognize the ethical obligation of the corporation to provide some safety for employees and customers, and I recognize the problematics the film point out about Wal Mart using its security cameras to bust union organizers instead of violent criminals...but I couldn't help imagining the reaction of corporate apologists and right-wingers (none of whom, to my knowledge, were at last night's screening) rolling their eyes and saying: "sure, it's the evil company's fault that someone got attacked outside its store." I'm not sure Greenwald anticipates this counter-critique. Talking to several MCHR members afterward, we also questioned the use of a rape victim's testimony during this segment of the film. The testimony was graphic and bordered on exploitative.

Next week's Tuesday night film, the last in the series, is "Oil Factor: Behind the War on Terror," with a post-film discussion led by Detroit Bishop Thomas Gumbleton. Bishop Gumbleton, as well as the film's subject matter, ought to attract another big crowd.

Six Degrees of Geoffrey Fieger, or Wednesday Free Association

\scintilla\ n. 1. a minute amount; an iota or trace. 2. A spark; a flash

Geoffrey Fieger:

Not a word of what Mr. Cox told you last week was true;

not a word. There was never a scintilla of evidence that I

had committed a crime. And yet, for the past week, my wife,

and those who care about me, have spent many a sleepless

night and fear-filled days because of Mr. Cox’s reckless and

false accusations.

Fieger does his part for Metro Detroit's twelfth graders by breaking out quite the SAT word during his press conference yesterday. "Scintilla." I must write a poem using the word "scintilla." To call Fieger's rhetoric over-the-top smacks of understatement. In fact, the previous sentence smacks of understatement. He even broke out the "Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last?" line, apparently fancying himself the victim of McCarthy-esque witch hunt.

For readers living outside of Detroit, here's the skinny. Fieger, a well-known (more on this later) local attorney, allegedly conspired to blackmail Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, threatening to reveal Cox's extra-marital affair if Cox didn't abandon an investigation into some shady campaign donations of Fieger's. Last week Cox and his wife came forward, admitted the affair, and alleged the blackmail. Fieger denied everything. Yesterday, the prosecutor's office announced it was "100% confident" that Fieger and his henchmen had committed blackmail, but didn't have enough evidence to go forward with charges. Juicy stuff, especially for a public hungry for intrigue now that Detroit's ugly mayoral race--a race full of scandal, innuendo, and personal attack--is over.

Here's where the skinny gets phatter. Fieger, Cox, and Prosecutor David Gorcyca all have political histories with one another. Fieger had vied for the A.G. job the year Cox took office and planned to to challenge Cox at the end of his term. They've been flinging partisan mud at one another for years. Gorcyca and Fieger are also political rivals, having spent the late 80s and early 90s fighting one another in the courtroom and in the media over suicide doctor Jack Kevourkian, whom Fieger defended and Gorcyca repeatedly attempted to prosecute. A messy web of motives, rivalries, rhetoric, scandal, and now-destroyed (presumably...but who knows?) political careers.

Here's one reason why it's probably a good thing that I went into teaching instead of journalism, which was my plan during several of my undergraduate years. When the press covers Fieger (as they often do--he's been at the center of various investigations into ethics violations over the years), inevitably his identifying tag line is something like "the prominent local attorney who defended Jack Kevourkian" or "Jack 'Dr. Death' Kevourkian's former lawyer and spokesperson"). If I were covering a Fieger story, I'd probably identify him with something like this: "the brother of Doug Fieger, who fronted 70s L.A. rock band The Knack, whose hit "My Sharona" is one of George W. Bush's favorite songs." Or: "whose brother wrote the song "My Sharona," which was covered by The Chipmunks on their seminal "Chipmunk Punk" record." And that just wouldn't be good journalism, unlike the always-stellar reporting of the Detroit media.

Here's my all-time favorite moment in Detroit media. One summer night in 1997 I was watching a local late edition of the news--the affiliate will remain nameless--and the newscaster--she'll remain nameless too--was covering the following stories: the death of Princess Diana and an Aretha Frankling concert. Maybe you can see where this is going. The transition went a little something like this: "The Princess of Wales may be dead, but the Queen of Soul is alive and kicking." Priceless.

So one year prior to that, I spent the summer (the summer after I graduated from college) as an intern in the office of the press secretary to Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer--writing press releases, helping to plan press conferences, etc. Frequently, I'd pass Geoffrey Fieger in the halls of the City-County Building. Once, he nodded at me and said "G'Morning." A friend recently told me that while waiting in line for an ATM, Fieger drove up to the bank, cut in front of three people and, when given dirty looks for cutting, acknowledged the crowd by saying "Yes, I am Geoffrey Fieger. Good to see you all."

I don't know how I lived away from this city for nine years! Sure is good to be back.


What's Going On?

Originally uploaded by bdegenaro.
Marvin Gaye. I pass this image each morning on my way to school. Visible along the Southfield, just north of Warren Avenue.

I always imagine a fictional extra verse from, say, "Inner City Blues" about liquor ads. Not sure what's most noteworthy, the irony of the ad given Marvin Gaye's drug addiction and alcoholism, or the irony of the ad given that the image is lifted from one of the most noted pieces of art-as-social-commentary of the rock era.

For the past month I've also passed about a dozen Martha Reeves for City Council signs. Icons of the motown sound. Odd representations. If only Smokey would open a burger chain.


Slavery documentary

Last night the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights screened the documentary "Slavery: A Global Perspective," a shocking, lo-fi expose of Ivory Coast's cocoa industry (slave labor has a hand in about forty percent of commercially available chocolate, according to the film) and India's carpet industry, two of the major global industries that utilize slave labor. Not sweatshop labor. Forced, unpaid labor performed in large part by children who are lured away from their homes, kidnapped, chained to looms, and beaten brutally. The doc. also exposed the more familiar use of domestic worker-slaves in London, New York, and Washington DC. In 2005, the filmmakers claim, there are about 27 million slaves worldwide, more than at any other point in world history.

Free the Slaves
Coalition Against Slavery and Trafficking

Next week's MCHR documentary is Robert Greenwald's "WalMart: The High Cost of Low Price," shown around Metro Detroit. See MCHR for details.


links to photo essays

My comp. 106 students are working on photo essays. For those of you with assignments foregrounding visual rhetoric, here are some links from one of my handouts that you might find helpful and/or interesting.

Caring for the Wounded in Iraq

Canto do Brazil

Stop and Smell the Sakura: A Photo Essy of Japan

Farewell to Bosnia

God in the Temples of Government

Looking for the Light: A Decade of Living with HIV

Shattered: NYC after 9/11

Sitting Down to Stand Up: The Quiet Defiance of Rosa Parks

A Photo Essay on the Great Depression

Sites with Multiple Photo Essays

Yahoo Photo Essays:

Time Photo Essays:http://www.time.com/time/photoessays


my favorite thing to cook in the fall

Squash Soup

*one butternut squash, peeled and cut into small cubes
*2-3 apples, any kind but preferably tart, cut into cubes with skin still on them
*1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
*4-5 cloves of garlic, peeled

Toss all of the above in a roaster with a couple tablespoons of good olive oil, a pinch of salt, and a couple pinches of chili powder, and bake for 45 minutes at 400 degrees, stirring once or twice. Put the roasted veggies in a blender with about 3-4 cups of vegetable stock and puree well.

Blend the following and then use as a stir-in for the soup: about a cup each of walnuts and either parsley or cilantro, a jalapeno pepper or your favorite hot pepper or a generous sprinkle of red pepper flakes, a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, and enough water to create a pesto-like consistency.