e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


finals week grading: a score card

25 portfolios done. Whew...

6 seminar papers & 21 final drafts of term papers still to go. Bring 'em on!


violence on film

What do A History of Violence and Hostel have in common?

First and foremost, my impression of both films was shaped by the fact that I had just attended Michigan Pax Christi’s (a Catholic organization devoted to peace education and activism) statewide conference. Conference keynote speaker John Dear, a Jesuit priest, suggested in his address that no matter how counter-intuitive peace action may seem, we must continue to resist the culture of violence in which we live. Dear described a morning at his rural New Mexico home (he pastors several poor, rural churches there) several months ago when a local Army unit was preparing to deploy to Iraq by marching through the village chanting various military mantras (“sound off…one, two”—that kind of thing) all touting their ability to kill. Dear reported that he quickly threw on clothes, ran outside, stood in front of the unit, and asked them to refuse to kill. Later in his address, Dear discussed several versions of the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the meek…”) that translate the repeated line as “Stand up” instead of “Blessed are,” suggesting the pro-active nature of peace-making.

This was my personal context for viewing these two very, very different films and probably had everything to do with how I responded to them. History of Violence tells the story of a small-town diner owner who defends his cafĂ© from two brutal thugs intent on robbing and brutalizing his customers. The protagonist, played by Viggo Mortensen, becomes a local hero and gains attention from the press and also from shadowy figures who may or may not be from his past. Mortensen offers a disturbing embodiment of how violence changes him—and how violence may or may not have shaped him. His performance is amazing, moving in and out of his shifting identities: small-town good guy, justified vigilante, ruthless tough guy. Ashton Holmes gives an equally multi-faceted turn as the protagonist’s teen-aged son, bullied at school until his father’s actions inspire him to fight back. David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers, Dead Zone, Scanners) directs, so black humor provides something other than levity or comic relief—the jokes instead offer wry commentary on American attitudes toward justice, community, and crime.

I’ve written before about my life-long love affair with horror movies, so I won’t go into any apologies for dropping two bucks on a piece of pulp like Hostel. Let’s just say the movie takes its aesthetic cues from ultra-violent Asian horror films. Two college kids backpack through Europe, engaging in raucous behavior that goes beyond teen-slasher-film sex and moves headlong into the realm of the exploitative. They end up in Slovakia, for example, because they hear that many of the men there died in “the war” (don’t ask—nobody claimed the film was a history lesson) and that the women are poor. That equoation adds up to "great place to score." Charming guys. The NYTimes review accurately pointed out that, once the carnage begins, it’s hard to feel sorry for these dudes. Anyway, they end up at a horrific dungeon-of-sorts where rich men from the western world can pay to commit murder in any way they see fit. Part “Most Dangerous Game,” part Dateline NBC special on atrocities that go on every day in Eastern Europe and southeast Asia. As an Asia-ultraviolent-wannabe, Hostel suffers the limits of its own genre: weak acting and predictable plot trajectory. But, on another level, the film meditates on what happens when capitalism comes to town overnight—not to mention what happens when the violent, the depraved, are given a playground.

Two meditations on violence. One, a great film. One, a poor film. But both in their own way confront the culture in which we find ourselves living. Stand up, peace-makers.


Crowley Carnival, Post #1

I've never participated in a blog carnival, but, picking up on Jeff, Jenny, and Debbie, here goes...

Let me say that I find Sharon Crowley's Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism to be a smart analysis of political discourse at the current cultural moment. Let me raise some questions that aren't meant to be dismissive of Crowley's argument or the value therein. Rather, I just want to bounce my experiences and ideas up against hers.

1. Does Crowley set up a false binary between liberalism and fundamentalism? Both groups rely a great deal on emotional appeal to advance agendas. I walked away from the early chapters of Crowley not really buying the rationality she seems to ascribe to liberals. The value system of a "liberal"--equality, individuality, personal freedom, free market, etc, etc--consists of tropes and ideologies that rely on an affective mythology to maintain their hegemony. I'm thinking especially about individuality and personal freedom--think of the visual images, the pop culture artifacts, the narratives that western culture has drawn on to keep the viability of those notions afloat. There's lip service paid to the rational in particular venues (news media's claims of "objectivity", empirical research, the justice system), but, honestly, is there much more than lip service? If not, then the gulf between liberals and fundamentalists is about something other than types of appeals.

In some ways, fundamentalism relies upon a LESS AFFECTIVE mode of circulation of values/ideas/narratives. Crowley acknowledges that fundamentalists attempt to conform to "a set of beliefs derived from a fundamentalist reading of the Judeao-Christian religious tradition" (3). Okay, but liberals proceed from a fundamentalist reading of hegemonic documents of western political economy, no? Fundamentalists rely much, much more on "logos" ("I am the word...").

2. Couldn't one make the argument that polarization is quite healthy for the practice of democracy? Certainly I share Crowley's concern over how issues are handled reductively, how folks are arguing at cross purposes, how much of the culture lacks a rhetorical vocabulary. But I'm not always comfortable with the "crisis tone" that Crowley utilizes. The blogosphere. DIY news media. Podcasting. There's also evidence that the democracy is thriving.

Sometimes Crowley seems to waiver between claims that there's a lack of debate and claims that there's a lack of particular kinds of debate. There's a kind-of liberal fear in the book about agonistic discourse. Crowley worries about "acrimonious" exchanges, for instance, and I have to ask: why exactly? Like I said, there are significant limits to models of civic discourse that reduce issues to sound bites, to black/white arguments. But I'm not sure the acrimony is a bad thing. Acrimony feeds the affective. Polarization can be productive.

3. Where is Lazere's "Rules for Polemicists" and Graff's "Teaching the Conflicts"? At times, I get the sense Crowley is *grasping* for a response (pedagogical, discursive, etc) to the current political climate. It seems like an ommission not to take up Don Lazere's and Gerald Graff's schemas for responding to many of the same symptoms that Crowley diagnoses (the reductivity, the polarization, the absense of rhetorical paradigms of analysis/argument). I wanted Crowley to situate her conclusion within some of these other models. Not necessarily pedagogical ones (though, again, I think Lazere's in particular is extremely useful), but within other attempts to rhetorically engage with troubling political moments.

4. What does it mean to define "beliefs" as necessarily being "useful to the believer" (69)? Crowley discusses this brand of conjecture as serving the person who makes the conjecture...really? Aren't "beliefs"--especially those put forth by fundamentalists--often in service to SOMEBODY ELSE? These beliefs serve larger, structural systems more than individuals. The tv evangelist getting rich off checks from senior citizens. The fiscal conservatives whose economic interests are advanced by "values voters. The beliefs aren't useful (materially at least) for the "believer" in these instances.


Ok, those are just some starting points for me. More later. Now, I can go read others' posts in more detail...


Summer Plans

This afternoon I'll collect 25 portfolios from my creative writing students, this evening seven term papers from the master's students, and over the weekend 21 final drafts will trickle in from the first-year comp students. Tomorrow: three lengthy on-campus meetings, followed by setting up in the evening for Pax Christi Conference. Saturday at the conference: introduce a couple speakers, be a greeter, help serve lunch, take down/clean up afterward.

So, let me be the first to admit that talking about summer plans is probably premature, at least for the next five or six days. But I'm going to partake in such talk anyway...

1. Four weeks (mid-June to mid-July) teaching down in beautiful Oxford, Ohio, with the Ohio Writing Project--my third summer working with OWP. Leading the Writing Project workshop has been one of the best teaching experiences ever, so I'm flattered and thrilled they're having me back despite my leaving the buckeye state. And I'm staying in a Miami U. dorm, so I'm thinking late nights, cheap beer...the whole package!

2. Doing research on the Wayne State-Freshmen College initiative of 1934-1940. This will be the big scholarly project of the summer--and hopefully beyond. Wayne sponsored a "junior college" program in hopes of increasing educational access to the working poor during the worst years of the Depression. Little has been written about the initiative. Can't wait to dig in.

3. On the less-scholarly side of things (though there may be a paper in this, too), I'm going to try out the weekly Punk Rock Aerobics classes at the Belmont. Get your exercise, then hang out in a smoky bar and have a few beers. Makes sense, right?


The Rejection

Getting a rejection letter stings. What's wrong with my writing? What's wrong with ME? Then the p&t anxiety kicks in. Oh no, was I working on this for the last eight months for nothing? More than anything, though, that sting stems from a desire to not be working in a vacuum. To be working on something generative, something of interest and use to a readership, something that's in conversation with other things and other people.

Most of the publishing I've done has been somewhat specialized (open admissions learning, rhetorics of social class), so I've placed articles with journals whose readership is likewise specialized. I got a rejection letter today from one of the Big Journals in rhet/comp. Actually, an e-mail from the editor outlining some suggested ways to make a major shift in the essay's organization and focus, and urging a resubmit. But it wasn't just a "revise and resubmit"--it was more like a "change things big time and then try again!"

So I'm not sure whether to return to more familiar pastures (I'm proud of the work and think I can place it elsewhere), or embark on major revisions and try to reach a larger audience. I like that the field has niches, sub-genres, etc, etc., but I'm also mindful of the value of articulating implications that go beyond niche.

Oh, and I'm also eager to start several big summer projects, at least one of which would have to wait if I re-visit said article in global ways. I'm wondering how others have approached choices like this.


I've got the second best job

CNN and Money Magazine report on the 50 Best Jobs in America (sic):
1. Software Engineer
2. College Professor
3. Financial Adviser
4. Human Resources Manager
5. Physician's Assistant
6. Market Research Analyst
7. Computer IT analyst
8. Real Estate Appraiser
9. Pharmacist
10. Psychologist

Money grades occupations on four factors: Stress, Flexibility, Creativity, and Difficulty (which means difficulty in "breaking in"/actually getting a job. College Profs get a B for stress, A's for creativity and flexibility, and a C for difficulty. Of course the fine capitalists over at Money offer no critique of the over-reliance on exploited part-time labor, simply referring to the fact that the category includes "moonlighting adjuncts."

I'm interested in the categories, particularly the flexibility and creativity criteria, both of which are consistent with Michael Zweig's conception of social class as an indiciation of power and agency in the workplace. Zweig's thesis is that in the U.S., the majority of workers are "working class," due to this issue of agency. A line worker may make a boatload of money, but has little quantitative (mandatory overtime, etc.) or qualitative (routizined tasks, etc.) control. Money Magazine seems tuned in to the degree to which power/agency affect lifestyle, and "creativity" and "flexibility" both get at such issues.

The piece goes on:

What's cool Professors have near-total flexibility in their schedules. Creative
thinking is the coin of the realm. No dress code!

What's not The tick-tick-tick of the tenure clock; grading papers; salaries at the low end are indeed low.

Interesting representation of the job: "Yeeah, I can wear jeans. Boo, I have to grade all these papers." This could have been written by somedbody over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed!


ohio road trip

Just got back last night from a too-quick trip down I-75 to my former school, Miami U. Melissa F., a student in the 'research methods in rhetoric and comp' and 'rhetorics of social class' seminars I taught in Spring 04 and 05 respectively, sat for the oral portion of her comprehensive exams...and performed swimmingly, speaking with authority on ethnography, working-class culture, literacy, and other sundry topics, and I was damn proud to be a committee member. Good work, M.

I was somewhat blue last night, thinking about how much I miss working with PhD students and, then, approaching Detroit's cityscape just past dusk, leaving down river behind and entering the city proper--the hotel yorba, the tamales of mexican village on one side; the ambassador bridge, memories of Worst Job Ever, the river, and, beyond that, canada on the other side--and then minutes later seeing from the freeway the lights circling the fox theatre marquee, I remembered why I left ohio behind.

One year ago, "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" looping in my head, sage advice: find your place, go where you're happy, and other things will fall into line.' I made a good choice. Hello again, motown.


progress on article

Thanks to my good friend Luisa and also to members of my 'Investigating Academic Literacies' class for feedback on a very rough draft of article-in-progress. This a.m., over bagels and coffee ("Puerto Rico style") Luisa gave her usual, insightful suggestions on where to go next on the piece. And, I should add, I got to read her ongoing analysis of Latina Rhetorics. My grad class on Thursday also gave the draft a read--we're workshopping papers and, since it's such a small class, I'm taking part too.

I came home this afternoon and made lots of changes based on the feedback. Nice to be practicing what I preach in the classroom. Nice to have good readers around, too.


photo essays

For the past two terms, I've been having first-year students compose photo essays using blogger. We discuss visual rhetoric for a few weeks, using mostly Detroit-area photobloggers as examples, and students put together their own projects, revolving around issues of concern to their own neighborhoods. I like the process for a number of reasons:
  • student engagement during peer review process. on days when we use class time for peer review, students make substantive comments and really engage with each other's work, giving global commentary
  • moves beyond analysis/consumption/spectator mode. the fy comp program where i did my graduate work was so rooted in Rhetorical Analysis (notice the capitals!) that for a long time i neglected writing-as-doing, as *production*-of-primary-texts
  • opportunity to foreground the local
  • transitions nicely into sustained attention to whatever issue students choose, as they move to a more traditional argumentation project (on the same issue) at the end of the term

Here's a few random samples. Enjoy...

Industrial Wasteland

Legacy Initiative

Graden City Library

Belleville High School: A Diamond in the Rough?

Abandoning Homes, Perpeatuating Problems


dissin' the d

Et tu, onion.com? How can you play motown like that?

100 years old...

The age of the guy who cut my hair this morning. Okay, 99 years and 11 months. I go to the David Pressley beauty school in beauty-ful downtown Royal Oak and sign the requisite waiver that says that I won't sue regardless of what their students do to my head.

I usually get my hair cut there because of the low price and the great people-watching. Today one student two chairs down is graduating and the beauty school fills with balloons, flowers, and proud relatives chatting with the young, colorfully haired, beauticians-in-training. (Seeing the latter, I immediately flashback to May 2002, the night before my own graduation, when my parents, oddly, were hanging out with my dissertation committee at El Torero in Tucson...worlds were similarly colliding.)

The young woman cutting my hair frequently confers with her mentor who makes comments like "obviously this doesn't look good yet" and "that's not how we do this." My glasses are sitting on the counter nearby so, as is always the case when I get my hair cut, I have no clue what's happening. For whatever reasons, my hair is quite the challenge, so the mentor goes and gets...

Davis Pressley himself. He who is one month away from his one-hundredth birthday. A few years back David sold the beauty school he founded, but he still comes into the shop every day to cut some heads and teach the students who he clearly loves. David sports a very wide red necktie (I'm guessing he calls it a "necktie," not just "tie") with paisleys and I only understand about every third word he says.

Davis takes over the cutting and, man, is he moving quickly. Eventually he starts trimming my eyebrows and makes what I'm pretty sure is a crack about how, based on my facial hair features, I must be Italian. (Later, as he's brushing off my neck, he says he hopes no hairs fall in my spaghetti. So I'm pretty sure the earlier comment was indeed about my suspected ethnicity.) I smile.

He asks if I live in Royal Oak. I nod (bad idea when the scissors are close to the ears). He immediately begins to talk about how the population has gone down. He says what sounds like "The pale is doing its job" and gives quite the belly laugh. What? The pale? Is that some kind of racist... "Yeah, families only having one kid, or no kids," he offers. Ohhhh, the PILL is doing its job.

So a little commentary on birth control, the facial hair of my people, and the changing population of Royal Oak, PLUS a pretty decent hair cut. On my way out, I see the flyer advertising David's one-hundredth birthday party next month...a friar's club style roast.

I'm thinkin' about going...