e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


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)