e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


the best of 2006

Ladies and gentlemen, the third annual top ten list (2004 and 2005 also available!). The music of 2006 that moved me, helped me to grade papers, soundtracked my morning commute to Dearborn, and kept me walking on the treadmill. The best of the year. Here goes:

10. SSM A kind of a Detroit supergroup, featuring members of various motown indie bands including The Sights. Their debut album features psychedelic keyboards, space-age concept lyrics a la George Clinton, and the requisite two-minute garage rock songs. Well worth a listen.

9. Pipettes, "Pull Shapes" & Beyonce, "Irreplacable" Two of the catchiest pop singles of the year. The Pipettes pay homage to '60s girl groups and Beyonce offers the funniest break-up song you've heard in ages ("...everything you own is in a box to the left..."). Girl power in full effect.

8. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Gold Lion" Another great single from NYC punk outfit the YYYs. Female-fronted punk band in the tradition of The Slits and X-Ray Spex in the sense that YYYs combine an art rock aesthetic with rock-single simplicity. Like "Maps" a couple years ago, this YYYs track doesn't sound like anything else out there. A stand-out track from a band with a voice.

7. Yo La Tengo -- I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass One of their strongest records yet, thanks to an eclectic mix of pop ("Beanbag Chair") and fuzz ("Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind"). Smart, earnest lyrics and the guitar virtuosity of Ira Kaplan. Bonus points for putting on a great show in Ann Arbor a few months back. These guys are a couple decades into their career and keep releasing great rock and roll.

6. Arctic Monkeys, "I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor" Little Steven's radio show kept this single on heavy rotation last summer, and for good reason. Catchy dance number. Zero pretention. A perfect summer song.

5. Belle & Sebastian, "The Blues are Still Blue" & The Envelopes, "It Is the Law" Two of the best alt-rock songs of the past twelve months. Belle & Sebastian, a Scottish twee-pop collective, is one of my favorite bands and though their newest album is somewhat uneven, "The Blues are Still Blue," a glammy T.Rex-ish creation, is their best song since "Lazy Line Painter Jane" a decade ago. Like other bands on this list (B&S, Yo La Tengo, Hard Lessons), The Envelopes have a great male-female/shared-vocal dynamic. "It Is the Law" showcases the disparate elements (airy keyboards, dueling rock guitars, pretty vocals) that give the bands its odd oomph.

4. New York Dolls -- One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This A remarkable record. Not just a reunion souvenir but rather a re-invention of one of the greatest rock bands of all times. Could have been disappointing, as the 'Dolls are (in)famously without most of their founding members, including the great Johnny Thunders. But this album revisits the bluesy, raunchy sound the 'Dolls created in the early 70s and adds emotive lyrics that implicitly reflect the losses that the surviving 'Dolls have weathered. But those lyrics maintain the campy sense of humor of the band. Like their classic debut album, full of stand-out tracks. Give a listen to "Dance Like a Monkey" and "Dancing on the Lip of a Volcano." Bonus points for headlining a great show in Detroit with Chesterfield Kings and Supersuckers and The Charms--all bands they inspired.

3. Bob Dylan -- Modern Times Best full-length album of the year, hands down. With "Workingman's Blues #2," Dylan offers a compelling and agonistic "topical song," the genre in which he always denied working. "The buying power of the proletariat's gone down," he sings on that track and his voice makes it mean something. Speaking of politics, Dylan invokes Hurricane Katrina on the epic folksong "The Levee's Gonna Break," and makes the track at once timeless and dated. "Thunder on the Mountain" is great pop. In short, not a weak link of the whole disc.

2. The Coup, "My Favorite Mutiny" & Jay-Z with Ne-Yo, "Minority Report" Socially conscious hip hop is alive and well. The Coup, everybody's favorite Marxist rap outfit, doesn't sacrifice the funk on "Mutiny," which features guest vocals from Talib Kweli and other notables. Meanwhile, "Minority Report" rises above the rest of Jay-Z's "comeback" album, with its polemical samples of Hurricane Katrina news reports (including clips from an interview with a veteran: "I fought for my country and can't get a bottle of water") and Kanye West's "George Bush doesn't care about black people" line. Over an ominous backbeat, Jay Z muses: "The commander-in-chief just flew by...what if he ran out of jet fuel and just dropped? That'd be something to watch...he'd be just another bush." Jay-Z's most important song? Yep.

1. Hard Lessons -- Wise Up My favorite release of the year. A five-song E.P. from Detroit's own rockers The Hard Lessons, twenty-something former schoolteachers who decided to go professional. I saw them play around Detroit a few times this year and their live show is so high-energy, so unapologetically enthusiastic, that you expect them to disappoint on their recorded material. Not at all. The rave-ups are predictably great, but take a listen to the slower numbers like "It Bleeds," the disc's ballad. Twenty minutes of pure rock and roll. The next great band to come out of the motor city.


the levees

Spike Lee's four-act Hurricane Katrina documentary, "When the Levees Broke," is a work of anger and rage. Those raw emotions give the film a voice, a perspective that marks the film a product of one particular moment in time. The anger expressed by the documentary's talking heads - politicians, activists, relief workers, citizens of the gulf coast - dates the film. 2006. One year after Katrina.

Much the same way that Lee's "Do the Right Thing" drips with its historical context. New York. Late 1980s. References to Tawana Brawley, popular hip hop artists of the time, and so forth.

"When the Levees Broke" features exhaustive and heartbreaking footage of Katrina and its aftermath. Lee's camera work overwhelms and compels. At times sweeping shots of flood waters and devastation but mostly Lee emphasizes the human, introducing us to folks with unforgettable stories.

And while those stories stick with us, so too do the systemic failures that resulted in all of those deaths. Just over a year later and how easy it is to forget about the armed white militias keeping the displaced black New Orleans residents from crossing the bridges into their white parishes. A few months after the release of the reports and how easy it is to forget about the gross neglience of the Army Corps of Engineers. Easy to forget about Condoleeza Rice shoe shopping and taking in a showing of Spamalot and George W. Bush rolling out Iraq soundbites in southern California while the levees were giving way. We meet the Mississippi resident who tells Dick Cheney to go fuck himself at a press conference. Turns out the resident was trying to get to his home after the evacuation but was blocked by Cheney's motorcade. We see Barbara Bush touring a crowded, dirty, Houston arena full of displaced New Orleans residents and suggesting that they were poor anyway and were probably better off here.

And the documentary reminds us that forgetting is a luxury. We forget about the systemic failures and the root injustices that caused so many deaths because we have the luxury to move on. Not everyone has that luxury, and the human faces we meet are faces that remember. One Katrina survivor's respond to Barbara Bush: "I was poor. Everything I got I got it honest. You was rich. How did you get there?"


violent but not violent enough

So members of the Nuggets and Knicks decide to beat the hell out of one another on the basketball court. At Madison Square Garden. On national television. In front of millions.

Another act that normalizes and legitimizes violence. Violence as the logical next step when one becomes angry. Where is the opportunity for ethical development and ethical education among basketball stars who are groomed for celebrity from the age of thirteen? The values of competition, agressive masculinity, entitlement, and bling ever in the foreground.

My favorite media response to the incident? In today's Detroit News, columnist Chris McCosky deconstructs the fight and argues the key players weren't tough enough. "It was no brawl...just a bunch of fake tough guys yapping, slapping and running," Mccosky writes. In other words, they're sissies. As far as toughness, McCosky finds Carmelo Anthony et al to be "inept." The real "brawl," he says, was the infamous fight between the Pistons and Pacers in 2004. We do fights right in Detroit, err Auburn Hills.

Few of the young people who idolize NBA players will go professional and become millionaires but many of those young people will use violence as a response to anger or perceived disrespect.


aw shucks

Time Magazine Person of the Year: You. Well, I couldn't be more honored and I just want to thank all the little people who made this possible.

I love the gallery of headshots that Time has on its website, slide-showing us through images of a punk rock kid with a guitar, a dj (oh Time, how hip you are), a guy with rasta hair, a supermodel-type with a digital camera, and a knitting granny. If only one of the Flash experts over at Time had thought to morph the headshots, like that Michael Jackson video.

Cue the Patti Smith anthem (and ignore any irony Smith may have infused into the lyrics) because Time considers 2006 a real "People Have the Power" kind of year. Here's an optimistic snippet of Time's year-end wrap-up:
But look at 2006 through a different lens and you'll see another story, one that isn't about conflict or great men. It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.
Time frames its year-in-review as a rejection of history as a history of great men, as well as a rejection of the negative. Erase the ongoing and ever-worsening war in Iraq, the Israel-Lebanon conflict, the genocide in Darfur. 2006 is community, collaboration, the many wrestling power from the few. People have the power, so go buy an i-pod, a laptop, a digital camera, and some dj equipment and all the bad stuff will go away. We'll tell another story.

Time's consumerist ideology is no surprise, but its failure to contextualize blogs, wikipedia, i-movie, et al within global geopolitics is deeply troubling. In the face of do-it-yourself publishing, humanitarian crises continue. Web 2.0 has not slowed the progress of the war machine. There is power in storytelling (blogging) and self-representation (youtube-ing), but can that power serve a broader praxis? To what ends might "the people" utilize such technologies?


building bridges...to Windsor

Building Bridges: A Labour Studies Conference
University of Windsor,
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
February 2nd and 3rd, 2007

With sessions on the rhetoric of social movements, alternative media, and international coalition-building, this conference "across the river" from Detroit looks like an intriguing event, one I definitely plan to attend. The conference planners have also put various performances on the program, breaking up the standard "three-person panel" formula. Impressive work.



Over the weekend N. and I made 42 dozen cookies. Excessive? Maybe, but nothing can best the smells of baking as they fill a house. Our favorites are the mint-chocolate kisses, a chocolate dough wrapped around a mint hershey kiss and then rolled in powdered sugar. Butterscotch chips are a close second, especially while still warm. Today's the last day of the term so I made both groups of my students sampler plates of the cookies (I always bring food on the last day of class), plus plates for all sides of the family and for various upcoming holiday parties (tomorrow: one for the writing program and one for the service learning faculty group, thursday: the Gesu Peace&Justice group's soiree). See, 42 dozen isn't quite as excessive as it sounds.

My Grandma D. made huge amounts of Christmas cookies each year when I was a kid. Her front porch became a makeshift freezer as tupperware containers and department store boxes full of the treats covered the porch's glider. Fig bars, anisette bars, pizelles, biscotti, and of course what she called "cut-out cookies" (a plain Italian cookie dough cut into stars and Christmas trees and frosted with a simple sugar icing). How many hundreds of those did I eat during the '70s and '80s? How wide was my Grandma's smile watching us eat them? I can hear my Grandpa grumbling about not having a place to sit on his glider but I can also see him brewing his coffee--a thick concoction to which he added salt--on the stovetop percolator and then enjoying a cup with a biscotti and a Chesterfield.

Christmas Eve at her house: pasta in oil and garlic, fried calamari, cold baccala (cod), cold broccoli dressed with lemon juice and garlic, artichokes, squid (always a picture of someone, usually my dad, with tentacles coming out of his mouth) in red sauce, shrimp scampi, and salad. Then, of course, big plates of figs, fresh fruit, and her cookies, set out on a tablecloth dotted with spots of olive oil.

Back to the present. Absent at our place is the smell of the Chesterfields and the sludge-like coffee, but we've tried to capture some of the cookie scent for Christmas. And part of what makes a break from school, time with family and friends, and the pomp of the holiday's rituals at church such a joy is recalling that this is the time of the year that made Grandma D. the happiest.


not much of a reader

At one of today's press conferences, a reporter asked Bush the extent to which he'd consider the Baker-Hamilton report and its recomendations. From NPR:
"Some reports are issued and just gather dust," he said. "And truth of the matter is, a lot of reports in Washington are never read by anybody. To show you how important this one is, I read it, and our guest read it. The prime minister read -- read a report prepared by a commission. And this is important."
What? Does the fact that Bush READ the report instead of having his sycophantic staff give him the digested version prove anything? I suppose so. I suspect Tony Blair's people bristled at the "me and Tony read this one, folks, because it's important, see?" Comforting that our Commander-in-Chief is that guy who reads the first thirty pages of The Godfather each summer at the beach.

In related news, how disheartening is it to watch the media *suddenly* grant tacit persmission to criticize the Iraq situation? I mean, I'm glad that this shift in sentiment might mean that the U.S. starts to pull out of Iraq, thereby saving lives. But frustrating that just a few short months ago, such criticism still meant one was anti-American. This is especially true for the spineless Democrats (John Conyers and Dennis Kucinich are among the few exceptions) in congress, who campaigned last time around on their support of Bush's handling of Iraq and campaigned this time around on how Bush had completely screwed things up. Sigh.



I've taught a section of introductory creative writing just about every semester since I finished grad school in 2002 and I've only made minor changes to the syllabus over the years (kind of odd, given that I'm constantly overhauling my first-year comp syllabi). At both Miami University and UM-Dearborn, the course covers both short fiction and poetry and at both institutions I've used a fairly standard workshop model. The model has worked and I especially like the fact that students, from the very beginning, see everything they write as a piece-in-progress and see the rest of us as reader-coaches. But I'd like to change some things for next semester:

  • Short fiction first and poetry second. I've always started with poetry, thinking that free-verse in particular is a natural extension of early finding-your-voice activities. But I want to try starting with short stories since I've got a more rigorous sequence of exercises (character sketches and the like) for the fiction unit. I'm thinking this sequence, early in the term, will reinforce the value of thinking deliberately about craft.
  • Fletcher's Breathing In Breathing Out: Keeping a Writer's Notebook. We've used this book for several years down at the Ohio Writing Project and next term I'm going to see how undergrads respond. Fletcher uses a "writers at work" structure, talking about his own uses of generative writing, and also drawing on anecdotes from Naomi Shihab Nye and other writers who describe how and why they journal and the relationship between journaling and producing more finished pieces.
  • More published examples. Student work is the priority and I don't want that to change. But I do want to bring in more examples of the genres we're learning. For example, this semester we read Updike's "A&P" and Walker's "Everyday Use" while students worked on the short fiction sequence. My thinking has been that I don't want to over-emphasize consumption of published work at the expense of writing time. Useful but I'm thinking a few more examples might open up possibilities for students.
  • More accountability for feedback. I need to do more spot-checking of the written feedback students are giving to one another. Workshop participation counts and in the past I've always looked at spoken comments (again, we spend the vast majority of the term engaged in whole-class workshopping) as indicative of the quality of written commentary. But I know that some students are thorough and conscientious in their written responses while others slack off a bit. That's not fair and I want to do more policing, much as I hate to play that role.



Last week on the Phoenix->Detroit redeye, returning from Thanksgiving weekend, flight attendants informed those of us sitting in the first few rows of coach that a woman in the back of the plane had become ill. Minutes from landing, the crew decided to bring the sick passenger to the front of the plane so that paramedics could reach her as soon as we were on the ground. We readied an empty seat, stuffing magazines into the seat pocket and, in a few moments, one of the flight attendants led a trembling middle-aged woman to us. She had clearly wet herself and she clutched in her shaking hands a plastic grocery sack into which she had thrown up. Puffy eyes suggested she had been sobbing, but now she looked resigned, as if waiting for an inevitable crash.

The woman in the seat next to her asked her why she was going to Detroit. Awkward conversation made all the more awkward by the smells of terror and sickness. Through shaky lips the sick woman said she was on her way to Washington but that if we were to make it to Detroit, she'd never set foot on a plane again. End of awkward conversation. Through landing, that calmly-waiting-for-death look on her face didn't change and, once the first-classers had left us behind, paramedics did indeed rush onto the plane accompanied by armed guards (standard procedure, I suppose, for any type of flight disturbance).

The paramedics emphasized how safe we now were, held her hand, and explained that they were going to wheel the woman into Detroit Metro airport. Her face remained stoic. But then when the lead paramedic asked her what was wrong, she said something barely coherent--I think I heard the word "bronchitis"--and began sobbing. And when the paramedic had her in a wheelchair en route to the terminal, she began to vomit again. We followed her into the airport. The paramedic and sick woman turned one way and, following signs to baggage claim, we turned the other.


heartlands magazine

Firelands College in Sandusky, Ohio, publishes a regional literary magazine called Heartlands, which seeks submissions from writers and artists with various community and institutional ties. Larry Smith, the poet who edits Heartlands, manages to showcase high school and college students alongside active "academic poets" (MFA types), visual artists and photographers alongside fiction writers, teachers alongside psychologists and Vietnam vets and union organizers.

The publication has a strong sense of class consciousness which translates at times into political consciousness and at times into an implicit (almost "libertarian") sense that writers and artists (ought to) come from various lines of work. Heartlands, as the name suggests, is also regional in just about every sense of the word. Many of the writers come from Ohio and Michigan and/or take up the midwest as topoi. The magazine's website is not updated regularly but provides a sampling of the work.

I've got a poem in the latest issue and attended yesterday the issue's launch party down in Sandusky, Ohio. I read aloud some poetry at the party, which I rarely do and which tends to freak me out, but I cracked wise about being a transplanted Ohioan living in Michigan and *not* being a football fan and that broke the proverbial ice.

Anyway, the event was a joy. Some local folksingers did Ani DiFranco covers, poets read their work, a performance artist did an odd routine that involved members of the Bush administation doing touchdown dances, and, in a surreal twist, the manager of a local bird sanctuary brought some hawks and a bald eagle that lost its sight due to West Nile Virus.

Kudos to Larry at Heartlands (a mainstay at working-class studies conferences and a compelling poet in his own right) for keeping the regional arts alive and prospering.


Kramer, Borat, and Andy

I don't think it's completely cynical to believe that the Michael Richards incident is a humongously successful media stunt. Yet few pundits seem to be emphasizing this angle, preferring platitude (racism and lynching are wrong) and punny headlines (Kramer vs. Kramer) over analysis. Of course those platitudes are part of the stunt, continuations of the performance initiated by Richards himself.

The New York Times hints at the performative aspect of the Richards rant and subsequent feeding frenzy in a blog post about Richards' appearance on Jesse Jackson's show. The title of that blog post, speaking of punny headlines, is "Keeping Michael Richards' Career Alive." An obvious reference to Rev. Jackson's familiar "keep hope alive" refrain. A subtle reference, also, to the ridiculous suggestion that this incident will be the end of Richards' career. Duh...didn't his career pretty much end with the closing credits of the Seinfeld finale? And then begin again last week?

Interesting that this dust-up comes on the heels of the success of the film Borat, a film whose brand of guerilla cultural critique relies upon over-the-top racism and anti-semitism. As Dr. B suggests on her blog, Borat's critique may fly over the heads of white audience members. Describing the young whites in the theater where she saw Borat, Dr. B writes: "The timing of their laughter and their silence indicated that they clearly didn't get that the joke was on them and their racist ideology." Now, I found Borat to be an often hysterical (and always original) piece of work, but the ethical issue of reproducing and rehearsing racist tropes on such a public stage is--as Dr. B. suggests-- a significant concern.

The differences between the Borat film and the Richards incident are numerous, but consider the connections: Both are examples of comedians using a non-fiction genre (Borat as a "documentary" and Richards as a stand-up "routine") to provoke. Both operate in the tradition of Andy Kaufman. Kaufman's such an icon that I'm sure the comparison will raise some neckhairs. But consider the vitriolic, hateful things that Kaufman said about women and working-class folks during his wrestling "career." There's a twisted, twisty lineage from Kaufman's classist (calling working-class southerners "inbred hillbillys") and sexist-misogynist rants to Richards' racism.

Incidentally, both Kaufman and Richards have now used David Letterman's show as a (center)stage for blurring the lines between reality and performance. And of course another moment where Richards *seems* to have lost his temper in public was in 1981 on his live sketch comedy show Fridays when the show's guest host--Andy Kaufman--pretended to forget his lines and prompted an awkward, dead-air moment. Richards, looking out of control on live tv (sound familiar?), stormed onto the set with the cue cards and angrily threw them at Kaufman. Kaufman, in turn, dumped a pitcher of water on Richards and the two began to fight.

I don't offer these comparisons as an excuse for Richards. Nor am I arguing some kind of intentionality on the part of Michael Richards (although today's CNN updates say he's hired a team of publicists to handle his p.r.). My point is that we don't really have a critical-media-vocabulary for understanding these incidents. As a culture, our response leans toward empty platitude--again, the ubiquitous and absurdly obvious suggestion that lynching is wrong. Without such a vocabulary, Richards takes his place among the Mel Gibsons of the world, assuming his place in a narrative of career rennaisance and personal redemption. And, blithely, we watch.


photos from the SOA

From the top: Grandmothers for Peace; a street theater performance of a massacre scene; the clothing of the dead; crosses in the Fort Benning fence. See full set of photos here.


Thanksgiving Prayer

My friend and teacher Hugh Culik introduced me to Burroughs. Not literally, mind you, via the novels Naked Lunch and Junky. Burroughs' "Thanksgiving Prayer" is an apt start to the holiday season and its attendant commercialism.

school of the americas march

This morning at 6:00 a.m. I got back from Fort Benning. Over 20,000 protestors called for the School of the Americas to shut its doors. High school and college students, priests and nuns, families with small children, veterans and peace activists joined together to remember the tens of thousands who have been killed by graduates of the School of the Americas, a facility at Fort Benning, Georgia, run by the U.S. military where soldiers and paramilitary leaders from around the globe (especially Latin America) study psyschological operations and counter-insurgency techniques including interrogation and torture.

Manuel Noriega is a notable graduate of the school. So are the fascists who ousted democratically elected Salvador Allende from power in Chile. The army claims the school primarily trains foot soldiers in the war on drugs, but most of the paramilitants who attend the school are involved in squashing democratic movements that the U.S. military perceives to be "communist threats"--anachronistic fears of democratic socialist governments that gain wide support (from farmers and peasants as well as missionaries working in these countries) by offering housing and health care reforms in developing nations. For their part, the powerful militias fear these movements because they control nearly all the capital in these nations and don't want to lose their control over even a small amount of that capital.

The march commemorates the anniversary of the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper's child at a Jesuit University in El Salvador. The Jesuits had become vocal in their opposition to both the Salvadoran death squads and the U.S. military which was funding and training those squads. They were brutally martyred for speaking out. The U.N. concluded that nineteen of the twenty-seven soldiers who carried out the massacre were graduates of the SOA.

The protest consisted of a litany of the names of dead civilians (including many priests and nuns, who, not coincidentally, form one of the core constituents of the annual march), murdered in Latin America by SOA alums. We marchers carried white crosses with the names of "the disappeared" and responded with "presente" after each name was called, placing the crosses in the holes of the facility's fence. The litany is powerful, an aural commemoration of victims of fascism, victim of militarism run amock, victims of U.S. tax dollars. Seeing that barbed wire fence, drowning in tens of thousands of white crosses, is overwhelming. Many marchers became emotionally overcome at the fence.

Sixteen were arrested this year for acts of civil disobedience. Specifically, they crossed the fence onto "private property" (property owned and operated by our tax dollars). I saw the police leading the civil disobedients off to be processed while Fort Benning soldiers, watching the demonstration from inside the gate, laughed at them.

Our bus to the protest was an odd mixture of Detroiters--but a mixture that was reflective of the overall demographic make-up of the marchers. A group of us from Gesu church (the Jesuit-Catholic church I attend) joined a group of students from U of Detroit-Mercy, a group of Jesuit Volunteers Corps (a service corps made up of recent college graduates) stationed in Detroit, and groups from two local high schools. I have dozens and dozens of pictures. Stay tuned for photos on flickr.



List-making can be useful pedagogically. List-making is a form of mind-mapping, figuring out "where we are" in terms of our thinking, in terms of our social context. This weekend, I asked my honors students to blog a list of leisure-time activities that have been represented in our course readings (hanging out in bars arguing politics in Lindquist's book, for example). I hope the lists will inform our discussion next week of the extent to which there's such a thing as "working class culture." In the second-semester comp. course here at UMD, I've asked students to wander around their neighborhoods and make lists (also on blogs) of odd things they see. Geoffrey Sirc, in "Composition's Eye/Orpheus's Gaze/Cobain's Journals," talks about lists and other 'personal journal'-type genres as self-indulgent, banal, and extremely generative. But not just as pre-writing, as a legitimate form of discourse in and of itself.

Lists happen on blogs all the time, via memes, rants on what people did during the day, and tasks that folks plan to do. I do this sometimes. List of books I'm reading right now, for example. I do this in other realms, too. In 2004, I lost 100 pounds by writing down lists of everything I ate (and via other strategies too). At the end of the year, as I'm recuperating from finals week's usual grading frenzy, I like to read the ubiquitous end-of-year pop culture lists: 50 Best Records of the Year, etc.

At the campus rec. center yesterday, as I walked on the treadmill, I saw several people keeping lists of repetitions of exercises. I also listened to my i-pod. Here are the random songs that played, in list form:
  • I Can't Help Myself, The Four Tops
  • Heat Wave, Martha and the Vandellas
  • Addiction, Kanye West
  • When You Come, Crowded House
  • We're Going to Be Friends, White Stripes
  • When Ya Get Drafted, Dead Kennedys
  • One Love, Bob Marley
  • Endless Endless, Kraftwerk
  • Cosmic Slop, Funkadelic
  • European Son, Velvet Underground
  • Let's Buy a Bridge, Swell Maps
  • Watching the Clothes, The Pretenders
  • Pet Sounds, Beach Boys
  • White Tornado, REM
  • For No One, The Beatles
  • Blenheim Shots, Swell Maps
  • Kiss the Children, Gram Parsons
  • So Says I, The Shins
  • Catfight, The Gossip
  • Fame and Fortune, Mission of Burma
  • Help Me Make It through the Night, Kris Kristofferson
Lists construct identity, map our current situatedness, help us think, entertain, document lived experience, and serve practical ends. Ain't that reason to think through a pedagogy of lists?


new york dolls

Tomorrow night, a re-formed version (Dolls 2.0?) of the great 70s glam band New York Dolls is playing in Detroit. I was hesitant to get tickets. The Dolls hit their peak the year I was born and fifty-somethings banging around on stage in front of an audience of middle-aged record collectors may not be quite the epitome of "punk." Only two original members survive: flashy frontman David Johansen and rhythm guitarist Syl Sylvain and, technically, Sylvain's not even an original member.

On a related note, Dolls lead guitarist Johnny Thunders overdosed in 1991. Like Johnny Marr of The Smiths, Thunders defined not only his band's sound but also defined a genre (for Marr, the genre of guitar-driven britpop; for Thunders, a little genre called punk rock). Thunders, sadly a lifelong addict who defied odds living as long as he did, went on to lead Sid Vicious's back-up band (speaking of short-lived), and his own Heartbreakers (sadly, they made only one record). He played with miscelaneous Ramones and Sex Pistols and ex-Dolls, mostly motley and trans-atlantic groups of heroin-addled musicians who could have been even greater were it not for drugs. Even with such limitations, Thunders was a distinct voice and created a paradoxical guitar aesthetic that was at once screechy and staccato, bluesy and brash. His solo masterpiece "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" is one of the great rock and roll singles of all time, often covered (Guns n Roses, not to mention the current Dolls incarnation) and often included in Martin Scorcese movies. So Thunders' specter will inevitably haunt any Dolls show in 2006.

On the other hand, this is the opportunity to see David Johansen, in person, doing his awesome cover of Bo Didley's "Pills," that three-chord ode to "rock-and-roll nurses," whatever that means. My favorite song to play on the guitar (not coincidentally, the easiest song in the world to play on the guitar, next to "Roadrunner"). Plus, "Personality Crisis" and "Trash." And the band's new record (only the third Dolls studio album) is quite good: bluesy, fast, strange, and featuring a song called "Dance Like a Monkey." And fifty-somethings up on a stage, still cross-dressing, still singing the same songs they sung in 1973, may not exactly be "punk," but it's certainly campy and subversive. And that's what the Dolls are all about.

See you tomorrow at St. Andrew's Hall.

geographies of writing: identity and detroit

In Geographies of Writing, Nedra Reynolds describes writing and interacting with texts as spatial processes. We are "embodied travelers," situated in terms of physical geography (materially: where am I?) and internal geography (mind mapping: where am I in my thinking?). Awareness of place-moving through disorderly physical spaces (de Certeau's city) with our own practices (Bourdieu's habitus)-is material but also personal/corporeal. "A person's sense of place, while a result of many layered effects, is quite directly related to her body in space."

The spatial makes us aware of difference, identity. So why leap from the spatial to the rejection of identity? Awareness of space is personal (mind mapping). External context shapes (as opposed to negating) identity-which is unstable, full of paradox and irony, socially and spacially situated. Much of the literature on spatial rhetoric uses "post identity" theories, which I think neglects the possibility of understanding identity markers as intersections. Class: intersection of power, geography, occupation, cultural practices-"spatial markers," all. What is more material than foregrounding identity? Place becomes abstraction when we neglect person-in-place.

I've been thinking on these things as I revise an article for JAC (fortuitously, the 'revise and resubmit' letter came days after sending revisions to the piece on my great-grandpa's poetry back to Rhet Review)-an essay that uses intersectional analysis to look at the rhetoric of persons-in-place. The reader reports were positive and helpful and challenged me to justify more clearly why identity markers still matter. Reynolds' book is helping.

The piece uses several Detroit texts where spatially situated persons (Detroit rock-and-rollers) construct identities as intersections. One of Reynolds' central claims is the idea that awareness of space fosters an understanding of difference, "how people respond differently to places depending on race, class, gender, sexuality, or ability." Detroit's somewhat unique in the fact that geographical situatedness is key to what it means to be a "Detroiter." Most cities have the city-suburb binary, but Detroit's version of that component of urban life is mythic (national guard keeping "Detroiters" out of white Dearborn, Coleman Young's defiant stance toward burbs, 8-Mile "border" as icon). Detroiters are acutely aware of space in a way that I think is unique (NYC bridges and tunnels, I suppose). Detroiters' understanding of difference (embodied by class-conscious and race-conscious garage bands, e.g.) is by extension acute and complex.


current reading

I'm midway through the following:
  • Nedra Reynolds, Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. I'm late getting to this superb analysis of writing as a spatial process. Reynolds: "identities take root from particular sociogeographical intersections, reflecting where a person comes from and, to some extent, where she is allowed to go." I'm revising for jac an article on intersectionality and identity politics and Reynolds' book is helpful, to say the least, for moving from studies of 'place' to studying 'persons-in-a-place.' Rhetorics of place often critique (rightly) "identity" to the detriment, I believe, of the possibility of understanding intersections.
  • Julie Lindquist, A Place to Stand: Politics and Persuasion in a Working-Class Bar. I'm re-reading this because I'm teaching Lindquist's ethnography in my honors course, the first time using her book in an undergraduate class. We start discussing Place to Stand this evening and I'm hoping for great things, as Lindquist pulls together threads we've been weaving: the heterogeneity of working-class politics, politics as identity marker/the use of politics as euphemism for (too illusive) working-class identity.
  • Lesley Gill, The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas. In preparation for this coming weekend's trip down to the march on the SOA in Georgia, the Army's training facility for international military leaders and assassins. Sobering and disturbing reading.
  • Paul Loeb, The Soul of a Citizen. This is also a kind of a pre-protest reading for me. I never heard of Loeb's book but a colleague lent it to me last week after reading my 'Writing as Civic Engagement' course proposal (hopefully on the books next fall). Sometimes Loeb's guilty of a kind-of liberal move where he attempts to naturalize all his own civic commitments as common-sensical. That rhetorical move always bugs me, but, still, Loeb offers an engaging 'rhetoric' of community-building to combat disengagement from the political process.
  • Jeffrey Eugendies, Middlesex: A Novel. Cool Detroit novel that's taking me forever to read. (Not a reflection on the book but rather 1) my tendency to start a hundred things at once, and 2) my addiction to Ugly Betty, Lost, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.)


God's Gonna Cut You Down

Following his cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," another compelling b&w video of a Johnny Cash track.

Cash allowed the secular and spiritual to mingle, while at the same time allowing so many musical vocabularies (blues, country, rock) to mingle.

A parade of artists populate "God's Gonna Cut You Down"--from Chris Rock to Kris Kristofferson, Brian Wilson to Kanye West--and none of them seems unlikely.


so much happening

As always there are many things going on right now about which I should blog. Welcome change in Washington. At last the president has accepted Rummy's resignation. The democrats actually won a couple elections. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Sure, to some extent, but on the other hand when someone like Rick Santorum is soundly defeated, you've got to hope that progress is possible. When one of the key architects of pre-emptive war and state torture and secret tribunals and "you go into battle with what you've got and you don't ask questions" is fired, there's some hope to be had. Okay, I know that "fired" means access to a generous government pension and a six-figure stipend on the lecture circuit, but still.

Closer to home...Tuesdays and Thursdays, earlier in the semester, meant entire days of rarely interuppted writing time. In November, not so much. Meetings I can't miss. Student papers waiting for my comments. Today, a reader report to complete for one of the journals where I do peer reviews. Then, one of the contributors to the book needed for his tenure committee documentation of the book's peer review process, so that meant some photocopying and collating and mailing. Little things. I love them all, but lots of little things become, well, you know. Okay, enough complaining. I wrote all morning and had lunch with a friend, so I've got no gripes. Next week, off to the School of the Americas protest in Georgia. The week after, off to Arizona for Thanksgiving with old pals. Lots to be excited about.


the rhetoric of proposition 2

Here in Michigan, voters passed by a wide margin Prop 2, banning race and gender preferences in college admissions and public employment. Many civic and religious groups, including the Detroit's Archidiocese, opposed the proposition; the priest at my church voiced opposition from the pulpit and the church's peace and justice group, of which I'm a member, distributed literature after masses. Places of worship can support initiatives, propositions, and the like (but NOT candidates or parties) without jeopardizing their tax exempt status.

The groups opposing the ban represented an interesting cross-section. Not-surprising entities like labor unions, ACLU, anti-war groups. But also some surprises like chambers of commerce and CEOs. Many connected to higher ed in the state came out against the prop, including the state's college presidents and loads of student groups. Religious groups opposed to the prop also represented a diversity, encompassing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim groups in the state. This convergence was one of the instructive rhetorical components of the prop.

Another piece of the rhetoric: borrowing the language of the left. The framers called prop 2 a "civil rights initiative." "The Center for Equal Opportunity" became one of the key backers. The latter had been involved in opposing Title IX sports programs and is based in Virgnia. Despite creating an illusion of a grassroots movement, most of the backers were political groups and figures from outside the state, none more prominent than California's Ward Connerly, who funded the massive petition drive that got the prop on the ballot. One United Michigan alleges that some of these paid petitioners were trained to lie about the petition's contents.

Of course college admissions serves as one of the prime motivations for strong opinions regarding affirmative action and, here in Michigan, our flagship "public" institution (which admits fewer and fewer Michiganders and gets fewer and fewer state dollars) has competitive admissions policies for its law school and grad programs in particular, but also for undergrad admissions. Those in favor of affirmative action often reference legacy admissions (usually with a crack about George "Cs and Ds but I got into Yale" Bush) as a counter to the notion that colleges admit only on the basis of a single factor.

Rarely, however, do opposers reference "development admits," potential students flagged by elite schools as having potential to aid in "development" (i.e., fundraising). Duke and Brown both have gotten some attention (not much, though) for reserving spots for kids from wealthy families who have extremely low grades and test scores because of their potential to become generous alums after graduation. It's telling that the prospect of an African-American woman with a 3.7 instead of a 3.9 gpa going to law school in Ann Arbor raises outrage...but an industrialist's child who bombed the SATs and blew off eleventh and twelfth grades getting into an elite college is greeted with a big 'ho hum.'

Finally, I wonder how this outcome will affect discussions at department meetings regarding new faculty hires. At my previous institution, where I was involved in several searches, we routinely discussed strategies to increase recruitment of persons of color in the department. Such a conversation, if I understand the proposition, is now illegal at public colleges in Michigan.


what we talk about when we talk about vocational education

My honors students discussed Mike Rose's The Mind at Work tonight, especially two chapters on vocational educational programs. Rose suggests that the pervasive mind-body separation and hierarchy is a misleading way to understand work, since in fact much of the labor we usually call "working-class" involves a great deal of cognition. This calls into question the idea that vocational training should exclude academic and humanistic-liberal subjects. If mechanics, for example, requires high-order "mind work," ought mechanics classes in high school vo-tech programs come at the expense of physics, Spanish, and the like?

Students in the class described familiar high school experiences: twelth graders on the vo-tech track leaving for the afternoon for job training courses, etc. We worked to unpack the language we use to talk about vocational training, especially regarding issues of agency ("students need useful skills," "the community needs a trained workforce," "kids who don't want to go to college need lucrative know-how," etc.). Who benfits from the language of need? Whose "needs" do the familiar tropes of vo-tech learning obscure (e.g., industry that benefits by having public moneys pay to train its workers)? Good discussion, good group of students.


george bush as art

Steven Krause links to the video for Neil Young's song "Let's Impeach the President" and touts the clip's smart deconstruction of the cable news genre. Certainly the video also relies on culture jamming--a la Andy Warhol and Adbusters Magazine--the co-opting of icons from mass media to create an ironic piece of subversive art (spray-painting the words "eating meat" on a stop sign).

The other night I saw the faux documentary "Death of a President," in some ways a similar artistic artifact. Director Gabriel Range pieces together a "documentary" that looks at the 2007 assassination of George W. Bush. The audacious concept of the film overshadows the aesthetics, the affect, and the pathos, and the interesting-but-flat film chugs along on its one note. Still, the second and final act follows the investigation and that act's plot presents some surprises that I didn't see coming. Like Young's video, DoaP mashes up fiction and non-fiction, jamming icons. We see the real Bush delivering a real speech in Chicago. We see the real "President" Cheney (shudder) giving a real the eulogy--actually a clip of Ronald Reagan's funeral, according to all the reviews I've seen.

South Park offers an absurd and low-fi version of this brand of mash-up. So do Robert Smigel's "Saturday TV Funhouse" segments of Saturday Night Live, which use real audio soundbites dubbed over cartoon versions of politicians. Jimmy Kimmel's uproarious "Unnecessary Censorship" clips (Bush is a frequent target of the segments), where Kimmel pixelates celebs and politicians and beeps out their audio, make it seem like the famous are naked in public and/or saying wildly obscene things.

Culture jamming is thriving on the web, on television, in the world of music and film. George W. Bush may go down in history as one of the key figures in the mash-up revolution.


building a culture of learning with undergrads

Historian and activist Howard Zinn, whose work and whose life I admire a great deal, will speak in Detroit this Sunday and you can bet that I'll be there. I recall reading Zinn's "historical memoir," You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, a few years back and being struck by his description of teaching in the deep south during the civil rights movement, his home off campus full of undergrads making signs, getting ready for marches, eating food that he and his wife had prepared, and talking with Zinn about the historical significance of the social movement they were leading.

I wondered, as I read, the extent to which this was an outmoded image of higher education. Interaction that was meaningful, social, intellectual, outside the confines of the classroom. What a culture of learning Zinn constructed with his students. I remember my sophomore year of college going to a Christmas party at the home of Gloria Albrecht, my religious studies prof, eating cookies with Jesuits, talking with one of my English profs about Susan Faludi (Backlash had just come out and--thank goodness, I recall thinking--we had read excerpts in one of my classes that term, which meant I could talk about the book and sound halfway smart), being part of academic inquiry in a setting where you didn't have to raise your hand, where profs were relaxed, where there was good food.

Building this kind of culture is tough, but also worthwhile. In particular, it's a challenge on the commuter campus where I teach. I took my honors class to hear Barbara Ehrenreich speak in Detroit a few weeks ago, and I think we're going to attend the Rhetorics and Cultures conference at MSU this Spring (I'm hoping some of them get on the program!). I participate in community service events organized by the Student Activities office a few times a year. But, beyond that, locating feasible extra-curricular learning opportunities that are at once social, stimulating, and fun is hard.

Today a colleague mentioned to me that she used to invite students to her home at the end of the semester but that in recent years, students seem to have lost interest in such events. I don't want to dwell on the mythic and tired "instrumentalist students" mantra, but there *is* much truth in the perception that college is in large part a vocational pursuit. And evidence, anecdotal as well as substantial, abounds about the ever-increasing number of jobs that undergrads hold. And what of the *online* culture of learning that's thriving? I love the interactive opportunities of blogging et al, but wonder if such interaction is replacing something face-to-face that is valuable in and of itself. For now I'm looking for small-but-significant opportunities like that Ehrenreich lecture--which students enjoyed a great deal. Long-term, though, I'm looking for ways to build an ambitious culture of learning with meaningful and face-to-face faculty-student interaction. Hey, I figure I've got around thirty-five more years to spend kicking around on campus, tenure gods willing.


driving before light

How satisfying it is to cruise down the Southfield Freeway toward Dearborn before the sun rises. I'm up early, ready to accomplish something, prepared to be productive. This morning, I was on that freeway by 7:00 but, alas, so was the sun. I love dark mornings. Walking Hyatt around the silent block. Toggling between NPR, trashy morning talk shows, and a Gang of Four cd while eating cereal, nothing streaming through the windows but a streetlight or two. Most of all, driving through the dark.


teaching trauma

I just finished reading Shane Borrowman's Trauma and the Teaching of Writing and I'm struck by how underprepared compositionists are to deal with trauma. Okay, we're not therapists so there's a (sensible) line of reasoning that says dealing with trauma is beyond our scope and outside of our expertise. But as I made my way through Borrowman, I recalled Blitz and Hurlbert's Letters for the Living, a work that argues that teachers in general (and rhetoricians in particular) have an obligation to situate their work within the cultures of violence in which we work.

Sharing his 9/11 story, which consisted of "retreating" from what he saw as his duty to support his frightened students on the morning of September 11, Borrowman writes, "we teach through our own traumas, the individual traumas of our students, and the shared traumas of the nation." Among other things, writing is building a network of ideas and a network of multiple voices (voices of agreement, voices of dissent, etc.) and, in times of pain and war, in times of divisive public conversations, shouldn't the writing network that we teach provide means of responding to trauma?

After reading Borrowman, I went back and re-read Richard Miller's oft-cited CE article "The Nervous System." Miller articulates a version of trauma that negotiates the personal-academic divide in composition, concluding that "the lessons outlined above could be said to be basic to any composition classroom that conceives of revision not as the act of tidying up past transgressions, but as the ongoing process of entertaining alternatives." Engagement with trauma is more than engagement with the personal. More than engagement with critique. Writing through trauma is generative work, what Miller calls "entertainment," what Borrowman suggests is a discursive reflection on how national and personal traumas link.


new look

For the first time in the two-year history of this blog, I've changed the look a bit. With the new look comes a new commitment to blog on a more regular basis too. Enjoy.


non sequitur

This morning, as I was waking up, I recalled that when I was a kid my family called the trunk of a car the "way back." As in "The backseat's full of groceries so I put my bookbag in the way back." It occured to me this morning that I don't think I've ever heard anyone else use the phrase.

Unlike the region-specific/class-specific terms ("supper" for the meal you eat late in the day, "sweeper" for the machine you use to suck debris off the carpet, etc.) that got me odd looks when I went away to school, I think this is a family-specific term. But I could be wrong.


Levine at Wayne

From Metro Times:

Best way to connect with the Muse: See Philip Levine at Wayne State University, 313-577-2450, We’re not giving you much notice, admittedly, but one of the grand poets of Detroit, Philip Levine, makes a rare hometown appearance Thursday, Oct. 19, and Friday, Oct. 20. On Thursday, the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner talks about his writing and his Detroit roots (3 p.m. in the 10th floor conference room of the Maccabees Building at 5057 Woodward Ave., at Putnam). On Friday, as part of the Wayne State University Bernard Firestone Labor and Poets Arts Event at 7 p.m., he’s at Bernath Auditorium inside the David Adamany Undergraduate Library in the center of the WSU campus.

He’s a poet who’s imbibed his share of “isms” (anarchism, surrealism, etc.) yet exalts in the power of plain talk. The critic Harold Bloom asked whether any American poet since Whitman had written such “consistently magnificent” elegies. Levine once said it took him a long time to be able to write about Detroit because “I had to temper the violence I felt toward those who maimed and cheated me with a tenderness toward those who had touched and blessed me.”


class trip

Last night, students in my honors seminar and I took a field trip down to the main branch of the Detroit Public Library to hear Barbara Ehrenreich speak. A woefully small crowd turned out for the presentation, which received little to no advertising. I didn't hear a mention on the local NPR station. No feature in the Metro Times (our local alt-weekly). I mean, this is a NYTimes bestseller. Sigh.

Ehrenreich distinguishes herself as both rhetor and rhetorician, equally skilled at employing and analyzing rhetoric. She offered last night her familiar critique of want-ads, job fairs, and personality inventories, picking apart ways that these genres construct job seekers as inherently flawed/failed individuals.

One useful (especially useful for the honors class--in which we're studying working-class culture and rhetoric) distinction she made between hiring practices in working-class vs. professional-class fields is that working-class jobs use personality tests whose purposes are easy to de-construct ("is it okay to use illegal drugs at work?") as disciplinary tools. Everybody knows you're supposed to answer such a question with a resounding NO, she argues in Nickle and Dimed; the point of the question is to remind employees that they better not do drugs. Professional-class jobs use personality tests that are more opaque ("do you get bored at parties or do you always have a good time in social settings?"), seeking to locate workers who are cheerful, obedient, and outgoing.

One interesting moment at the presentation: Somebody in the crowd asked Ehrenreich what she thought of immigration policy and its effect on the problematic workplace cultures she deconstructs in Nickle and Dimed and Bait and Switch. She reponded, first, by emphasizing that immigration and outsourcing are two separate issues and, second, by talking a bit about outsourcing. As Wafa pointed out after the reading, Ehrenreich sometimes talks like a politician.

from my lips...

To Aaron Sorkin's ears? Maybe.

Just yesterday, I post about the imperative for religious and secular Americans to locate a shared discourse, and then Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the increasingly great Sorkin-penned Monday-night drama, takes up that very theme. Vanity Fair is doing a feature on the fictional sketch comedy show and the savvy reporter gets Harriet (the most interesting character on Studio 60: a devout born-again Christian who happens to star in an irreverent comedy show that frequently satires the power of the Christian right with sketches like 'Science Schmience") to open up about the paradox that is Harriet's identity.

What makes this story line so intriguing is that paradoxes like Harriet are everywhere, defying the reductive labels and challenging observers to go beyond soundbites to encapsulate their identities.


talking at cross purposes

Few conversations happening in the civic sphere find the conversants using the same language or sharing a common starting point. Labels like "liberal" and "conservative" reduce the conversants to simple caricatures and serve as a fait accompli for their eventual disagreement. Before the conversation starts, it's already over.

Enter the film "Jesus Camp," an engrossing new documentary about children who attend a camp run by evangelical Christians where they learn to fight the culture wars and engage in a savvy and partisan version of civic life. This is must-viewing for anyone who has read Sharon Crowley's Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism.

What fascinates me about this film is its reception. The, err, liberal media loves Jesus Camp, as evidenced by positive reviews in, err, elite publications like the New York Times. (See, you can't even analyze the trend without using the divisive buzz words.) The pentacostal pastors that run the camp--notably Becky Fischer, who becomes the film's central figure--ALSO love the film.

Klosterman and other cultural critics talk about the "Hey Ya!" moment a few years back when the ubiquitous Outkast song briefly appealed to soccer moms and critics and hip hop kids and rabbis and indie rock fans and the cranky guy in the apartment down the hall and your Aunt Sally and first graders and everybody else. The rare pop culture text consumed and enjoyed by diverse members of a fragmented culture.

Jesus Camp doesn't quite rise to the level of a "Hey Ya!" moment. For one thing, there were three people at the Maple Art Theatre's matinee yesterday and they were vocally anti-Becky Fischer. (To be fair, I joined the crowd of three in an audible gasp when the ministers rolled an actual-sized cardboard cutout of George W. Bush in front of the pulpit for what can only be described as a little old-fashioned idolatry.)

But here's a film about divisive and reductive red-state/blue-state mentalities that manages to appeal to a broad spectrum of the culture. One of the reasons for that appeal is the filmmakers' lack of intervention. I don't believe there's any such thing as objectivity, but directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady do the impossible in the post-Michael Moore age: they largely retreat from the foreground and document something that's interesting and surreal.

The aforementioned Becky Fischer comes off as genuine in her beliefs--beliefs that include notions like the constitution ought to amend the separation of church and state, beliefs like the idea that democracy's fatal (literally DEADLY) flaw is giving people who are "wrong" an equal voice. Only during a scene that showcases Fischer applying liberal doses of hairspray do the filmmakers seem to be poking fun. We see the children at the camp speaking in tongues, flailing, and sobbing during a gruesome sermon about abortion. We hear a sermon that calls Harry Potter an evil warlock. We see a little girl who feels it's her vocation to approach strangers at bowling alleys and adults in public parks to evangelize them (her father praises her for "obeying" after one such brush with what the secular world would surely deem "stranger danger"). We hear Fischer try to convince the young children to take action from a young age since--and this is damn near a direct quotation--our enemies teach their children to fast during Ramadan from the age of five.

But, again, what is interesting is that Fischer loves how the film turned out. Ted Haggard, a preacher and political operative who, according to the film, meets with President Bush once a week, appears in the film to be cynical and manipulative. He mentors an earnest little boy who wants to be a preacher, urging him to exploit his cuteness until he's 30. He speaks with hostility about "liberals" and "secularists" with hostility.

Not surprisingly, he's called for a boycott of the film, which is a shame because his call decreases the likelihood of "Jesus Camp" becoming a shared cultural moment, maybe even a moment for dialogue that goes beyond divisive labels.


lolita hernandez on peace and alliances

Detroit writer Lolita Hernandez visited my Comp 390 (Working-Class Cultures, Identities, and Rhetorics) course last night and spoke about her short story "Yes I Am A Virgin," her own transition from auto worker to fiction writer, the imperative to fight for social justice, and the possibility of workers and artists forming a worldwide collective. I've already heard from several students in the class who found the visit inspiring and I'm inclined to agree.

Hernandez suggested that the elite classes have no borders. The Saudi elite are essentially united with the U.S. elite, for example. No boundaries keep them from collaborating and consolidating their power. So why should workers abide borders and boundaries? Why shouldn't workers chip away at all that separates us, physically (fences and walls) and metaphorically and ideologically?

One point-of-view that Hernandez put forth was the notion that only the working class can combat war, torture, and the erosion of civil rights in the U.S. and abroad. The working class values collective action, for one thing, and also has the numbers (the "hidden majority") to band together. Further, Hernandez suggested, the working class is most invested in stopping these ills. Workers fight and die in the wars. Workers suffer when capitalists use war as a pretense for consolidating wealth. Workers can tell stories that counter both prevailing 'blame the worker' rhetoric (unions are to blame for high prices, etc.) and prevailing justifications for injustice (we must resort to extreme measures like torture to protect our own way of life).

I look forward to unpacking these ideas and linkages (especially the linkage between war and peace and the interests of the working class) in the coming weeks. The class seemed at once taken, intrigued, and discomforted by Hernandez's words. Much to discuss.


monday miscelaneous

  • Go Tigers!
  • The van is no more and I'm now tooling around motown in a shiny black pick-up truck.
  • Cranbrook Peace Foundation is bringing Howard Zinn to Detroit for a lecture at Cobo Hall. Info here.
  • Looking forward to the march on the School of the Americas next month. I couldn't be more excited to join the contingent that Gesu Peace and Justice is sending down to the annual protest. Despite the name change, the school continues to train torturers, international terrorists, assassins, and fascists.
  • Speaking of peace, please read Becky's compelling post here.
  • Prediction #1: mounting evidence that GOP leadership covered up Foley's pedophilia won't hurt the republicans a lick.
  • Prediction #2: no loud voices in the Foley conversation will challenge the media's subtle (and the GOP spin campaign's not-so-subtle) linking of 'preying on children' and 'being gay.' Say it loud everybody, regardless of how obvious: 1) most pedophiles prey on kids of the opposite sex; 2) pedophilia is not an expression of sexuality anyway, it's an expression of a criminal, violent pathology; and 3) the vast, vast, vast majority of gay people are not predators.
  • Did I mention "Go Tigers!" already?


FYHC, a new e-journal looking at composition's relationship to honors programming/curricula, looks interesting. I went to grad school with the journal's founder, a novelist who goes by the name McKenzie. We were new TAs together and were put in the same "small group," a collective of first-year TAs coming from the five or six separate grad programs sponsored by Arizona's English Department. As such, we got to know one another.

I was in the rhetoric program, but McKenzie was new to Arizona's MFA fiction program. He spoke in a provocative southern drawl but had spent the previous few years working on a novel in a Vermont cabin that had no electricity. He spoke frequently about 1) Jesus, 2) the years he spent working as a male model, and 3) his desire to teach students to avoid "purple prose."

The years in that Vermont cabin seemed to have affected McKenzie's attitude toward computer technologies--an attitude that leaned toward a Unabomber-esque loathing. He wished to handwrite his syllabus that first semester, but, if memory serves, eventually relented and paid some hungry grad student to type it for him. Due to a registrar screw-up, McKenzie's English 101 class was scheduled in a broom closet, so he took the class to the McDonald's that was adjacent to campus, ordered 25 Hi-C beverages, and held class in a booth there.

Standard MFA wackiness, I suppose, but I was surprised two year later, as I was prepping for comprehensive exams, when McKenzie finished the fiction degree and entered the rhetoric program. Though our program tended to draw on "retread" grad students from the University's masters programs (creative writing, ESL, etc.), McKenzie, a devotee of prose-as-craft, seemed like an odd fit for a program that emphasized theory and history.

I was even more surprised, even more years later, when (apparently) recovering luddite McKenzie started an electronic journal. Good going, McKenzie. The publication looks interesting, featuring articles by Victor Villanueva and Marvin Diogenes, another former Arizona MFA-turned-rhetorician. Check it out.


yo la tengo show in a.a.

Rare for me to drive out to Ann Arbor, that college town of college towns, that sea of blue baseball caps worn backwards. Walking the streets of Ann Arbor, the strange juxtaposition of bohemianism-for-sale (loook, hemp products) and upscale retail (look, $200 shoes) always strikes me. Plus I grow fearful that I'll hear people utter those two grating syllables "A Squared." Sorry, folks, but Detroit boasts more personality, more diversity, and better places to eat. But I digress.

After a delicious reuben at Zingerman's Deli (okay, there are a few places out there where you can get some good grub), my friend Kenny and I caught Yo La Tengo at the Michigan Theatre. Too many hipster bands are too cool to play a show that entertains. Not so, YLT. Last night, the band melted a few faces, cracked a few jokes, worked the crowd, ran through a satisfying set heavy on tracks from their new record, and indulged in two encores. They entertained.

Longer songs from I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (notably "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind") sounded especially good live, allowing for heavy doses of feedback and highlighting the lyrics-as-afterthought aesthetic of the tracks. The bouncy cheese of Beat Your Ass tracks "Beanbag Chair" and "Mr. Tough," featuring YLT leader/chief face shredder Ira Kaplan on keyboards, brought a 70s pop vibe to the middle of the set. I appreciated the set's inclusion of "Little Eyes," one of my favorite YLT songs, with drummer Georgia Hubley doing her Mo Tucker imitation while crooning esoteric lines like "you can only hurt the ones you love, not the ones you're thinking of."

And, of course, the band did its obligatory, feedback-drenched jam, with Ira doing a couple anomalous, Hendrix-style moves on his guitar--tossing around his ax, rubbing the neck against the amp, untuning several different guitars--all between verses of the Beach Boys' "Little Honda." How many indie rock bands have that much fun? During one of the encores, Ira went into the crowd and cracked wise with fans about the Tigers-Yankees series (expressing support for the Tigers, Ira said: "I'm a lifelong Yankee fan but I'll take pandering over loyalty any day"). The three band members rotated through instruments (everybody played guitar
at some point) and took requests from the crowd ("Center of Gravity"!). In short, they gave fans a show. Gracias, yo la tengo.


dying van, foolhardy dealers

At long last my 1985 mini-van finds itself taking its final breaths. Old enough to drink legally, the van doesn't merit the investment of money or resources anymore. Sad.

More than a little happy to do something to support the reeling auto industry here in Detroit, I went to look at new pick-up trucks yesterday, hoping to find something basic, something fuel efficient. "I'm interested in a Ranger," says I to a Ford dealer. He showed me several four-wheel-drive, extended-cab, big-ass-engine, versions of the Ranger, all in excess of $20,000. "How's about something basic, with a fuel-efficient engine?," I query. He rolls his eyes and says they don't even stock such models.

I try another Ford dealer and get basically the same. What? No V-8? You sure I can't show you an F-150? How dare you? And no attempts to contact other dealers, check the system, or locate something closer to what I'm looking for. I had marginally more responsive service at a Chevy dealership, but still the eye-rolls when I articulate a desire for fuel efficiency and absence of bells and whistles.

The auto industry reels. Factories close. The economy, especially here in the motor city, sings the post-globalization blues. I can't help but see these dealer practices as foolhardy. Obviously bigger vehicle equals bigger commission, but, given the state of Ford and its rivals these days, a potential new vehicle sale seems like something they ought to be pursuing a little more aggressively. And, related to all that, do a few weeks of cheap(er) gas prices completely negate the desire for something easy on the wallet?



The joys of indexing. Here's a challenge for which grad school didn't prepare me, a task that's time consuming and tedious, but also an interesting way to interact with a written product. I've spent the last month or so indexing the anthology. This entailed sitting at Caribou Coffee on many of my writing days with the manuscript and a big yellow legal pad, pouring over chapters and deciding what terms and concepts warranted an entry in the book's index, and then carefully tracking the appearances of those terms and concepts.

One complexity is how to handle a fundamental concept like 'working class.' I mean, the whole book revolves around this topic, so do you just toss out the term completely, or come up with sub-categories, or what? And how do you handle references to secondary sources? I mean if someone is using a Burkean lens to look at a phenomenon throughout her chapter, do you reference Burke throughout the chapter, or only when Burke's quoted, or only when Burke's mentioned, or only when Burke is discussed in some detail, and, if so, how much detail?

How did I do? Not sure. I'm happy with the index; indeed, I emailed it to the publisher the other day. It's accurate and, I believe, thorough, but it was a first for me, so, again, I just don't know. Some entries probably have too many references ('class consciousness,' 'gender,' 'ideology,' 'organized labor') and, hence, maybe needed sub-categories. Then again, some entries strike me as odd for a rhetoric book (Extreme Makeover, Notorious B.I.G., Steel Workers Organizing Council, White Trash, and Work Songs) and, as such, just make me excited that the thing's going to see the light of day in a few short months.

Details on Jim Daniels' Reading

Acclaimed poet and Detroit native Jim Daniels will give a poetry reading on Wednesday, October 11 at 7:30 in CASL 1030, U of M Dearborn. The event is free and open to the public. Spread the word about the reading and attend, dear readers, if you find yourself in Metro Detroit next Wednesday. A reception with food and beverage will follow.

Daniels directs the creative writing program at Carnegie Mellon University but grew up in the working-class suburbs of Detroit. Much of his poetry tackles the complexities of race and class here in the motor city. His early work in particular centers on the frustrations and dehumanization of industrial and post-industrial U.S. as well as the joys of working-class culture and family life. Daniels' narrator "Digger," a young assembly line worker in Detroit, is a vivid and familiar character. Here's a taste:


I press my nose to the screen
and wait for the dog.
Dark sky tonight--the moon
getting some time off too.

I think of the numbers.
How many cars America buys
determines whether I work
or not, whether I have money
or not. My dog jangles
as he trots around the corner
and the music of his chain hits
a warm spot. I crouch next to him.
Our breath steams the air.
He licks my face, glad to have me home.

Maybe I buy his friendship
with food. He is trained
to accept the chain, to wait patiently
while I hook and unhook it.

I do not miss the noise and sweat.
I may get called back soon,
or I may not. I let the dog
back into the house.
They have lists.
My bank account dwindles.
I hang the chain on its hook.
I search for more ways to save.

(from Jim Daniels' Punching Out)


yo la tengo

Yo La Tengo has a new record called I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass which is a very good title. The music on the record is pretty good in its own right.

The songs are diverse and borrow aesthetic elements from many genres. "Beanbag Chair" and "Mr. Tough," two highlights, both sound like 70s a.m. pop, incorporating horns and bouncy keyboards. "The Room Got Heavy" sounds a lot like its title: psychedelic and proggy. The opener, "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind," is drenched in feedback and--despite its nearly-eleven-minute running time--resembles garage, with its simple, endless-loop bassline and unadorned drumming.

Not the band's best work; some of the slower tracks, notably "Daphnia," slow things down a bit too much for my taste. But *remarkably good* when you consider the band's been at it for over twenty years.

They're playing in Ann Arbor on October 4th and the band tends to put on a mean live show. Sometimes Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live joins the band as a fourth member. And they move back and forth during shows between fuzzed-out electric rock and pop numbers, like listening to the Velvet Underground's second and third records on random play. And they made one of the best, or at least funniest, music videos ever. The video bears thematic resemblance to a certain Jack Black film but the video predates the film.

driving while muslim

This week's Metro Times picked up a story from the Nation about Dearborn's Arab-American and Muslim communities and their growing frustration with the war on terror. According to the article, the past few months have seen fifteen residents of Dearborn indicted on "often flimsy" terror-related charges. None of the charges stuck, according to the article. But the Israel-Lebanon conflict--moreso even than some fairly blatant civil rights violations--has been the primary source of this increased frustration, as many members of the community see U.S. foriegn policy as blindly supportive of Israel.

The piece also quotes several leaders from within the community criticizing U.S. intervention in Iraq and Bush's middle east doctrine regarding the war there. Maha Hussain, who initially supported Bush's invasion, said:
The Iraqi community put its trust in the administration at the intention level and the competence level. Only God knows what their intentions were, but in terms of competence, at every step, they made the wrong choice. Iraq is destroyed.
Sentiment not likely to change with two recent intelligence reports confirming--from within the Bush camp--that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a mistake and has expanded, diffused, and strengthed al-qa'ida by toppling a secular (albeit highly oppressive in its own right) regime and increasing the hatred of all things western there. [Incidentally, in the aftermath of the recent leak, two aspects of Bush's rhetoric are interesting: 1) his insistence that the information will just confuse "the American people," and 2) his sudden acknowledgment that issues are complex and require context. On the latter, I wonder what happened to the notion of 'it's a right and wrong, good-vs-evil issue, pure and simple.']

These crack-downs on the Arab-American community in Dearborn have clearly involved some highly unconstitutional practices, made possible by both public policy and a xenophobic national ethos. I see the sources of the frustration this article describes, and, politically, find myself in agreement with most of the sentiments being expressed.

Yet I also find myself wishing that some of the leaders the piece quotes hadn't been so trusting of Bush et al and hadn't stepped onto the proverbial slippery slope by allowing themselves to serve as photo-ops with the likes of Wolfowitz et al three years ago. And I also find myself wishing for a less equivocal, more unified, and louder call for PEACE from members and leaders of the community. One attendant at a Dearborn event calling itself a "peace march" during the first week of the Israel-Lebabon conflict told me that she attended hoping to join others in advocating for an end to the violence but that the event gave voice to many *advocating* more violence.

U.S. foriegn policy--my tax dollars--has hurt the Arab world and many of the people who call the Arab world home. But it becomes difficult at times to make that statement given some (and I stress "some") members of the community lending support to the neo-con machine in 2003 and Hezbollah in 2006 (links, according to the Metro Times piece, between Dearborn Arab-Americans and Hezbollah are only "trivial" so far...huh? "trivial"? that kind of euphemism doesn't help). I hope this is a moment where more and more players in this complex situation will work toward a just peace. Not "peace" as in "victory for my side." Peace. Period.


"a tale of class and trash"

The short indie film Dumpster will screen at UM-Dearborn on the afternoon of October 11. Written and produced by poet Jim Daniels, Dumpster revolves around the relationship between Jim, a maintenance worker at an elite university, and Francis, a privileged frat boy who has taken to hanging out in the dumpster behind the frathouse. A kind of Waiting for Godot with an emphasis on class conflict. If you are in the Detroit area, come partake. The film runs about sixty minutes and will screen continuously from Noon until 5:00 (University Center 1227), in anticipation of Jim's 7:30 reading that evening (CASL 1030).


klosterman on teaching

In his smart and smarmy new book A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas, Chuck Klosterman describes his meeting with Britney Spears. Klosterman, who writes for Spin, Esquire, and other magazines, attempts to convince Spears to discuss her own iconography, to analyze her own appeal, to reflect on her cultural significance. Spears won't bite. Perhaps she has no interest in such things, maybe she's intellectually incapable of meta...it isn't clear. But the point is, Klosterman wants analysis and Spears wants surface. Even regarding the easiest of Spears' cultural moments, they differ on how to talk. For Spears, "I'm a Slave 4U" is a ditty about how she gets lost in music. Her Catholic schoolgirl costume is an outfit. Klosterman wants to riff on how soft-porn Esquire covers impact careers of young women in the entertainment industry. Spears: "...it's the freaking cover of Esquire magazine! Why not? You get to look beautiful. It's not that deep."

And there it is. The moment of teacher-student conflict. "Analyze. Think critically. Deconstruct. Expand." "Why? It's not that deep."

Chuck Klosterman, one of my favorite writers, is always aware of the absurdity of his own subject matter, the absurdity of his own positioning as commentator. Yet he never hesitates to elevate the absurd--and the popular, the everyday, the cliche--to the highest of heights. He's a skilled rhetorical analyst, always searching for a funny but somehow useful shorthand for, say, outlining why Billy Joel is great but not cool, or coming up with a taxonomy for types of Lakers and Celtics fan, or listing what 20th century icons are "advanced" (Val Kilmer and Raymond Carver, for example). Rhetorical analysis as three-hour drunken dorm conversation.

I must confess that I want students to write like Chuck Klosterman, which is probably a by-product of obsessing over pop culture from the time I could talk, coming up through a graduate and TA-training program foregrounding neo-aristotelian rhetorical analysis, and using for years cultural studies readers in first-year comp courses (talk about cultural myths and you'll become a better writer--which itself has become a cultural myth!). A preferable objective would probably be wanting students to write themselves...only more effectively, with a larger arsenal of writerly choices, blah, blah, blah. But I know I'm not alone in having this kind of model writer in my head as I plan syllabi, comment on student papers, and lead discussion in class. Some teachers want their students to write like Noam Chomsky or Natalie Goldberg or a columnist at Wired or Anna Quindlen; for me, it's Klosterman.

I've heard that Britney Spears response over the years: "It's not that deep." In the Klosterman piece, Spears seems lost in soundbites, lost in her handlers, unaware of what she even thinks, as she subsistutes the p.r. answer for the honest answer. I'm not saying this mentality is the mentality of students. I wouldn't be so cavalier as to position teachers as somehow above this kind of mythic thinking (see again the aforementioned instance of teacher mythology; see also a thousand other examples of said thinking), but I would suggest that one useful thing we can do for students is to help them locate writers whose thinking resonates for them, whose thinking opens up new possibilities for them. Might not be Chomsky or Klosterman or whoever else we valorize, but there's a wonderful and productive process (discovery, reflection, critique, expression) that we've got the opportunity to model. Good way to earn a buck. Meantime, check out Klosterman's book.


studio 60

I eagerly anticipated last night's premier of the new Aaron Sorkin drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Sorkin writes about ambitious themes with shameless idealism, pretending postmodernism doesn't exist, eschewing cynicism and irony. His dialogue is part Mamet, part Altman, part Shakespeare.

I devoured the early seasons of Sorkin's West Wing. "Porn for liberals," critics cried, referring to the indulgent fantasy world of a progressive president--Martin Sheen essentially playing Martin Sheen but channeling a little JFK too (the show's opening credits even included Sheen posing in imitation of Kennedy, hand on his hip looking out the oval office window). Sheen's President Bartlet saved social security, negotiated peace between Israel and Palestine, put a far-left female feminist and a far-left-formerly-working-class Latino on the supreme court, and told off radio talk show demagogues and representatives of the religious right. True, it was an indulgent show, escapism during Patriot Act/Abu Ghraib/pre-emptive war years.

But it was more. I knew a lot of conservatives back in Ohio who loved the show, who admired the West Wing characters's intense work ethic, their comittment to public service, their civic engagement. Therein was the show's most effective appeal. You wanted to be willing to work twenty hours a day, to sacrifice social life and a six-figure income and even good health and hygiene to change the world. Not porn for liberals, fantasy for anyone willing to pretend the postmodern revolution never happened.

Along comes Studio 60, also a workplace drama (this time a television studio), also populated with a sprawling ensemble cast, also featuring a set of characters from an elite but familiar milieu (this time the universe of Hollywood players), also, at its core, about the tension between compromising with mainstream values and maintaining a righteous agenda. The action centers on a sketch comedy show that's lost its critical edge, a show that used to specialize in risky social satire and now caters "to twelve year boys, and not the smart ones either." A show that's sold out due to corporate pressure, an increasingly conservative FCC, a puritanical shift in the national ethos, and a desire for more and more ad revenue. One of the show's stars, played by DL Hughley, comes out to warm up the studio audience before the show goes live and asks how many have been watching the show since they were schoolkids.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. I remember watching Saturday Night Live when I was in elementary school. I remember my dad howling at skits, and laughing along even when I didn't get the joke. I recall my older brother coming home from Cleveland for the weekend, ordering pizza, and staying up for the show. The program at once felt counter-cultural, dangerous, smart, cool, a representation of youth culture. Even the sketches I didn't get, I loved. When The Clash appeared as musical guest, I was only about nine years old, but it was the confluence of all, in my small world, that was radical and great.

Studio 60 offers the same pacing and tone and ideological outlook as West Wing. It's a show about optimism. The way that West Wing suggested that politicians can change the world, so does Studio 60 suggest that pop culture can do the same. Two writers from the "old days" of the show (Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford) come back after an on-air meltdown a la Network (a producer played by Judd Hirsch interrupts an inane sketch and delivers, on live tv, a critique of the channel that just nixed a sketch called "Stupid Christians") results in a public relations nightmare for the fictional NBC. That monologue brilliantly de-constructs the profit motives behind the show's increasing mediocrity, setting the stage for what surely will become Studio 60's central conflict: the creative team vs. the network censors and executives. Righteousness vs. compromise.

If you think the state has nothing to offer in terms of progressive social change, you probably didn't like West Wing. Likewise, if you think pop culture has nothing new or critical to offer in terms of advancing the national discourse--no potential to provoke us or slap us around--you probably won't like Studio 60. But if the image of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones suiting up in camoflauge and taking the SNL stage with their guitars blazing means something to you, you might want to give the new program a chance.

Last night's premier is over at nbc.com, free of charge.


thursday misc.

  • I'm happy to report that I got my acceptance letter from the 4Cs. NYCity here we come--if only for a week, if the conference is still six months off. Lots and lots of noise in the rhet/comp blogosphere over the past two days, almost exclusively of folks saying they got on the program. Good work, bloggers. In the meantime, e-mails from various friends saying they did NOT get on the program--reminders that it's tough to get accepted at the Cs. Maybe blogging helps to polish the proposal-writing skills? Hmmm, a good study for someone to conduct. Our panel, "Labor of Love: Research as a Lived Process," consists of my UMD colleague Liz Rohan and Gesa Kirsch (a frequent collaborator of Liz's whom I've never met in person but whose work I've admired for a long time) talking about familial and personal-cum-ideological committments to scholarly work. I'll talk a bit about writing on my great-grandfather's poetry as a moment of Burkean identification.
  • Steven Climer, right here in the motor city, has started a research and resource portal, Basic Writing.org, which looks to be useful. Good going, Steven.
  • See blogroll to your right for links to new blogs maintained by students in my Honors Tutorial, 'Working-Class Cultures, Identities, and Rhetorics.' As term unfolds, those bloggers will reflect on issues of rhetoric and social class, discuss readings, and generally engage in critical discourse. We'll be meeting with some of the writers we study, including Detroit-bred poets Jim Daniels and Lolita Hernandez, heading down to the Detroit Public Library for a presentation by Barbara Ehrenreich, and conducting new action research. So stay tuned to those new sites, if such things interest you.
  • Tomorrow, off to Youngstown for the annual Apple Butter festival at my parents' house. In which big crowds gather to eat, drink, play, and, yes, stir a ginormous pot of homemade apple butter as it brews in an outdoor copper kettle. Perhaps some photos of said event next week.